A trip to Norfolk Island

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I had been looking forward to a visit to Norfolk Island ever since my girlfriend moved there for work in April. Because of my work commitments it was six months before I could visit and it seemed like forever waiting for that to eventuate. But here I was finally flying in an Air New Zealand jet two hours east of Brisbane into the South Pacific. Through a break in the clouds the tiny island – 35 sq km wide – hove into view, the only landmass on the 2000km submarine Norfolk Ridge that links New Zealand with New Caledonia. It looked beautifully green to my eyes and it seemed awfully lonely out there.

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There are three islands in the group. As well as Norfolk Island there are the smaller Nepean Island (foreground) and larger Phillip Island (background). Norfolk is the only inhabited island. Access by sea is difficult to all three islands due to surf conditions and the cliffs that surround the islands. Norfolk has had at least three human migrations, the earliest and least known the Polynesian population that lived here c800-1200. British settlers had hints of this settlement but it wasn’t until 1974 that archeologists found 26 pieces of obsidian in Emily Bay, which testing revealed came mostly from the Kermadec Islands near New Zealand. They disappeared for unknown reasons and the most lasting heritage was the Polynesian rat which survived to modern times on the predator-free island.

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The highest part of the island is 319m Mt Bates in Norfolk Island national park. It was among the first sights of those aboard HMS Resolution captained by James Cook in his second voyage of discovery in 1774. Cook came ashore at what is now Captain Cook Lookout (below) to confirm it was an uninhabited island which he claimed for Britain.

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Cook was interested in the beautiful pine trees named for the island (which he named for the Duchess of Norfolk). “The chief produce of the island is Spruce Pines which grow here in abundance, from two to three feet diameter and upwards,” Cook wrote. “It is of a different sort to those in New Caledonia and also to those in New Zealand and for Masts, Yards (etcetera) superior to both.” Norfolk’s pines and flax were crucial elements in Britain’s ongoing interest in the island as its Navy depended on Russian imports.

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When Britain sent convicts to Cook’s other Australian discovery at New South Wales 14 years later, Norfolk was a critical part of the plan. Admiralty’s orders to First Fleet commander Arthur Phillip was to “send a small establishment (to Norfolk) and prevent it being occupied by any other European power”. Within a month of landing in Sydney Cove he appointed Philip Gidley King governor of the island and ordered him to sail with a convoy of 22 (including 15 convicts) to begin a second British settlement in the Pacific. After failing to find suitable landfall on the north of the island they came ashore on March 6, 1788 at “Sidney Bay” (now Kingston) on the south side.

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For the first few weeks the new settlers cleared land, sowed seeds and cut timber. King’s men initially planted crops close to the beach but later pushed back to the more fertile soil of sheltered Arthur’s Vale. They fought rats, parrots, caterpillars and worms for enjoyment of the crops but gradually built up a working supply of food. The flax plants proved unsuitable for Navy use.

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East of the settlement lay the island’s only sheltered bay with a lone pine and a sandy beach. King saw several turtles in the bay and named it Turtle Bay. It was later renamed Emily Bay and today provides safe swimming and wonderful snorkeling in the coral reefs. King’s lone pine remains majestic guarding the bay.

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While Norfolk thrived, the food situation in early Sydney was desperate and in 1790 Phillip sent 183 convicts and a consignment of marines to the island. First Fleet flagship HMS Sirius approached Kingston on March 19 but in heavy surf crashed upon the reefs and was wrecked. Remarkably no one was killed and they managed to get most of the provisions to shore. It was a terrible blow to the island and to the safety of the Sydney colony itself and on hearing the news Phillip contemplated ending both settlements. It took the arrival of the Second Fleet later that year to save the colony. A plaque at Slaughter Bay marks the spot of the sinking and a nearby museum hosts one of Sirius’s six anchors.

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The first British settlement lasted 26 years. Despite its early flourishing, Britain was concerned about the expense of upkeep, its distance from Sydney and the lack of a safe anchorage. Over five years it moved convicts to Van Diemen’s Land and the final convicts were removed in 1814. The buildings were destroyed to prevent further use and a dozen dogs were left behind to eat what stock remained.

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The island was quiet for 11 years before the British found another use for it. It would become the home for the doubly damned – the worst prisoners in Sydney and Hobart. The new settlers used the crumbling walls of the first settlement to rebuild according to the instructions of colonial secretary Lord Bathurst: “my object was to hold out that Settlement as a place of the extremest punishment short of death”. He was aided by a succession of sadistic commanders who treated their prisoners with contempt far from Sydney’s gaze.

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Beyond hope of redemption, the convicts mutinied many times without success. In 1826 50 convicts bound their overseers, robbed the stores and put three boats to Phillip Island where they were eventually re-captured. In 1834 a hundred convicts rose up against the guards, aiming to take charge of a boat and sail to freedom. They were overcome by the military garrison and the rising was crushed in hours. Authorities convicted 29 men and 13 were hanged. Nine including William McCulloch are buried in Kingston Cemetery.

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As well as a formidable jail, the British built a fine military barracks and a commisariat store. In 1840 a new style of commandant arrived in Alexander Maconochie determined to treat prisoners as humans. He installed the mark system to give points and incentives for good behaviour. While he was welcomed on the island, authorities in Sydney had doubts about his leniency and he was replaced by yet another martinet in 1844. The island continued with vicious commanders until Britain announced its intention to end the convict establishment in the 1850s. The island faced a new future as home for the Pitcairn islanders.

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The Pitcairners arrived at Kingston pier in 1856 just as the final prisoners were removed. The new arrivals were the descendants of the Bounty Mutiny in 1789. HMS Bounty under Captain William Bligh was taking its breadfruit cargo from Tahiti to the West Indies when mutineers led by Fletcher Christian took command. They released Bligh and fellow officers who made a remarkable escape on a longboat 6500km to Kupang in West Timor (unaware of the new Norfolk colony a third of the distance away). The mutineers went to Tahiti and picked up natives who eventually joined some of the mutineers on a trip to remote Pitcairn Island. Sexual troubles caused foment which led to most of the men being killed but the women survived and raised families which became a peaceful settlement over the next 70 years. By the 1850s they were outgrowing their island but their exemplory Victorian morality had many supporters in England who suggested they move to Norfolk.

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Though some returned to Pitcairn in the years that followed, the majority settled on Norfolk, taking many of the military homes in Kingston’s Quality Row. They believed Victoria granted them ownership of the island, something the British always disputed but they survived on rudimentary farming and whaling. When an inquiry report in 1905 was dissatisfied with the level of cultivation on the island they suggested commonwealth control and the withdrawal of privileges including the use of Quality Row cottages. The Pitcairners burned the cottages in protest but gradually fanned out across the island.

ni15By then Pitcairners shared their island with newer arrivals. British missionaries long coveted the pagan souls of the South Pacific. John Coleridge Patteson was the first Anglican bishop of Melanesia in 1861. His mission ship sailed across the region landing in Norfolk in 1864. Two years later New South Wales governor Sir John Young gave permission for a training school and bishop’s headquarters with a grant of 40 hectares on the west of the island. The station was established on St Barnabas Day,  and the saint gave his name to the mission. By 1899 it held 210 Melanesian scholars and a large staff of missionaries. The Pitcairners were not consulted and led separate lives to the mission, though it employed some and provided a market for produce.

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In 1902 the Pacific Cable Board opened a station at Anson Bay (pictured above) and Norfolk became an important link in the Pacific cable system. The cable linked Vancouver to Fanning Island (now Tabuaeran, Kiribati), and Fiji to Norfolk where it divided to Southport in Queensland and Auckland. It provided employment and its communication facility accelerated Norfolk’s inclusion in the outside world.

ni17That inclusion was turbocharged by the Second World War and the need for an airstrip. In 1942 Australian and American engineers selected a spot at Longridge. They cut down the Avenue of Pines which existed since penal days and completed the airport by 1943. Though the island was outside the theatre of battle, the new airport became an important link with South Pacific islands and hosted 2000 servicemen at its peak. After the war, it enabled the new industry of tourism.

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Today over 40 percent of the island’s GDP is generated by tourism. Most tourists arrive by air, but the cruise market is increasingly important. Pictured is P&O’s Pacific Explorer moored off Cascade on the north side of the island to allow 1600 passengers day tour access on the Sunday I was there.

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A third temporary groyne access has been created on the eastern side at Ball Bay. This allows Boral to tow equipment in from Brisbane to redo the airport runway. The barges contain asphalt to repair and resurface the runway and materials and trucks to support an on-site mobile batch plant.  A tug tows the barges from Australia in rough seas to deliver the cargo and the groyne (built from local rocks) will be dismantled at the end of the project.

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Though the airport project is run by the Norfolk Island Regional Council, it has increased the grievances of the Pitcairners against the Australian government. After years of mismanagement Canberra decided to remove the local government. On 17 June 2015, the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly was abolished, with the territory run by an Administrator and an advisory council. A new Regional Council was elected and most Commonwealth laws including taxation, social security, immigration, customs and health were extended to Norfolk Island. Islanders held a referendum in 2015 where 68 percent voted for a say in their own future, but were ignored by Canberra. Aggrieved Pitcairners set up a “tent embassy” at Quality Row. Embassy occupier Duncan Sanderson says many islanders are struggling with mortgages alongside the new requirements to pay Australian income tax. They pay land duties on previously untaxed ancestral properties and some are ineligible for previous pensions under Norfolk’s own welfare system.

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Pitcairners believe they are not Australian, and they were granted the island by Queen Victoria in 1856. Houses often have the Norfolk flag flying prominently with the union flag (the Australian flag is conspicuously missing). Pitcairners consider themselves the island’s “indigenous people” and have appealed to the UN. In Norfolk’s main town Burnt Pine, the theme is continued by a Centre for Democracy and a “field of democracy” display.  Each sign of green hands is signed by an Islander who collectively “are imploring the world to unite and join their crusade for continued custodial rights.”

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While I appreciate the romance of this David v Goliath battle, I don’t believe Norfolk Island can sustain itself without outside help. Instead of constantly having a chip on their shoulders about their place in the world, Pitcairners – who now make up less than half the population – would be better served improving their Council and making the most of natural advantages. They have a gorgeous geography (such as the coast off the 100 Acres Reserve pictured above) which are not fully exploited and they have a rich colonial history which because it mostly happened before 1856, they have ignored. Norfolk Island is a beautiful and unique place. But its people need to lose their sense of entitlement and work for democracy from the ground up. Demanding a 4G telecommunications service would be a good place to start.

The tragedy of Afghanistan’s war lurching toward defeat

CaptureIt is hard to believe people are now adults that weren’t born when the September 11 tragedy struck,  claiming 3000 lives in 2001. Memories of the day are so fresh in everyone’s minds old enough to remember, and it seems hard to believe 18 years has passed.

While the four terrorist incidents happened in the United States it was a tragedy of global consequence not least because more than 90 countries lost citizens in the attacks. It also led to the war in Afghanistan, a conflict that remains unresolved to this day, with Australian forces still in the country as they have been since 2001.

Chris Masters has written one of the few books that looks deeply into that involvement. No Front Line is a massive 600 page book (a story that resists abbreviation, as Masters notes) that looks into the role played by Australian Special Forces from 2001 to the book’s publication in 2017.

It is a story he says, Australians have been largely disconnected from despite the glorification of the Anzac legend through all the 100 year anniversaries of the First World War.

Australian governments have always justified involvement in Afghanistan by stressing that national security is greatly enhanced by denying al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups a haven, and that this is best done by helping to build a more secure and democratic Afghanistan.

That future seems as far away as ever, with the Afghan government – although elected – maintaining only a tenuous grip on the capital Kabul and outlying area while the Taliban forces, displaced in 2001, remain de facto rulers of much of the country. It is wild ancient country but the Toyota Hilux, cellular phones and the internet connect it with the 21st century.

The first Australian contingent in 2001 was 1 Squadron Special Air Service Regiment who arrived via Perth, Diego Garcia and Kuwait three months after 9/11 to find the Taliban rule had collapsed. While the Americans controlled the air, the Australians were “ground truthers” getting to know the lay of the land. Their role was to long-range patrols to “disrupt and degrade” remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda elements but there was an immediate sense the enemy was not routed but merely regrouping.

The Allies bombed the Tora Bora Caves into submission but Osama Bin Laden escaped into Pakistan and so did many of his and the Taliban’s fighters. Australia’s first casualty was a corporal who stood on a land mine in January 2002 blowing off his foot though he survived the blast.  Australia’s first battle death since Vietnam soon followed – Sgt Andy Russell killed when his Land Rover also hit a mine.

While the focus moved toward nation building with peacekeepers arriving from 18 countries, the Australians moved to Bagram in the North-east to help remove the large remaining stronghold. Here a force of Arab, Uzbek, Chechen and Taliban fighters offered the stiffest resistance yet before being pushed by superior firepower and survivors again slipped away to Pakistan.

Attention was moving to Iraq and Australia already stretched with peacekeeping missions in Timor Leste and the Solomons the end of the 2002 Afghan mission seemed like a natural end. In 2003 SASR was assigned to Iraq while major combat operations ended in Afghanistan and a stream of refugees returned. NATO took over the military role in Kabul but could not establish a force further than 60km from the capital.

Meanwhile Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar were regrouping in Pakistan and a training facility in Quetta prepared new soldiers for the war against the infidel. Inside Afghanistan the main tactic was intimidation against cooperation with the new government. It was effective enough to send all NGOs out of Kandahar by end 2003. The Taliban also began a bombing campaign in Kabul targeting foreign military.  NATO estimated they needed 80,000 troops to secure the south but due to Iraq they only had a fraction of that number.

Violence escalated in 2005 with 19 US Navy Seals killed in an ambush in Kunar province. America pressurised Australia to return and agreed to support the Dutch contingent in Tarin Kowt, capital of the dangerous Uruzgan province in the south. Their mission was to transition “the war off terror to nation building” but new president Hamid Karzai told Denense Minister Robert Hill Uruzgan was challenging.

Special Forces arrived ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections, which the Taliban was determined to intimidate into failure. The Australians were to conduct long-range patrols as a show of force. While the election passed without incident but the patrols were subject to ambush. 2 Squadron was involved in a six-hour battle in the Khod Valley and they returned to base to find Minister Hill there who realised the nation-building project was “not far advanced”.

The political rhetoric was to characterise the mission as counter-terrorism though no Al Qaeda fighters had been encountered since 2002. The enemy was more nebulous, sometimes called Taliban, sometimes the Mujahideen and others anti-coalition militants.

On patrol the biggest danger was Improvised Explosive Devices which could be placed in culverts under the road and detonated from a distance. In towns suicide bombers and “green on blue” attacks were also dangers. The Special Forces based was named Camp Russell in honour of the soldier who died in 2002 and there they had to mostly sit out the bitterly cold winter.  The danger was increasing with the UN and NGOs departing in 2006 and only two of Uruzgan’s six districts considered safe.

Contact became more frequent. Australia suffered two deaths in quick succession, Pvt Luke Worsley to a rocket-propelled grenade and Sgt Darren through a round in the stomach. One American officer considered the cost of the war. “Considering the (Australian Javelin shoulder-fired weapon) each cost up to $100,000, I used to think we could go down there instead and buy every fighting age male”.

In 2006 the Coalition launched Operation Mountain Thrust, the biggest set-piece since 2001. The third rotation of Australian Special Forces landed in Tarin Kowt and were almost immediately in the fight in the nearby Chora Valley menaced by Taliban forces. In three months they cleared the valley only to be withdrawn and the area was quickly overrun again. This pattern would be repeated over again. Despite its firepower, the Australians were not a holding force so it was easy for the Taliban to take over the battle space aided by the local Ghilzai population who either supported the insurgency by choice or by intimidation.

A new rotation in 2007 was also sent to help the Dutch patrol the Chora Valley and ran into heavy Taliban firepower including mortars, rockets, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. IEDs made using palm oil containers, fertiliser and battery packs were increasingly used to trip vehicles whose movements were tracked on the bush telegraph. Battles lasted days on end, though very little of this was reported in media.

Although over 60,000 international troops were in Afghanistan in 2007, they all responded to their own leaders meaning there was no coherent plan across all campaigns. Or as Masters put it, the same war was being fought again and again. That year the second Australian soldier died. Trooper David Pearce killed when an IED took out his light armoured vehicle. A third, Matt Locke when a patrol was ambushed in a field.

The death toll rose rapidly in the years that followed as the Taliban confidence – and firepower – increased. Back at home the prime minister of the day and the opposition leader would solemnly attend the funerals as the bipartisan support for involvement continued. The battles that caused the deaths remains mostly outside the public eye.

Afghans were dying in greater numbers still. As one analyst put it “we can kill 20,000 and there are 300,000 in the madrassas in Pakistan being prepared”. The foreigners were increasingly seen as the occupiers rather than allies. In 2009 the new Obama administration called for a “stronger, smarter” strategy in Afghanistan. There was a troop surge and a counter insurgency strategy of “clear, hold and build” but it was undermined by Obama’s parallel announcement of a drawdown in 2011. The Taliban were elated, they could simply wait the enemy out. It was expressed in their saying “they have the watches, we have the time”.

The war dragged on into the 2010s with little or no change in the overall dynamic. The Australians pulled out of Uruzgan in 2013 leaving the field to the Taliban. When surge didn’t work it was followed by drawdown and when that didn’t work either there was another surge. No wonder Trump’s election promise in 2016 to pull America out of the middle east (including Afghanistan) was so electorally popular at home. The war was bewildering.

America is now negotiating directly with the Taliban in an effort to extricate itself from the conflict. American magazine Foreign Policy says after 18 years of war, thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars squandered, the United States has accomplished precisely nothing.

It says the Kabul government is irredeemably corrupt, the Taliban had sanctuary and support in Pakistan and the claim that it was necessary to deny al Qaeda a “safe haven” was increasingly dubious, especially once Osama bin Laden was dead and that terrorist group had spread to many other countries.

“Trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style democracy was an act of extraordinary hubris, and all the more so when U.S. leaders told themselves they could do it quickly,” Foreign Policy said.

If the US does finally withdraw so most likely will the 300 ADF personnel deployed there. It is sad news especially for Afghan women who face a return to second class citizens under a renewed Taliban government. But maybe it will give a country tortured by 40 years of war a chance to live and breathe.