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.

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