A return to Norfolk Island

I’m just back from my third visit to Norfolk Island and the remote Pacific outpost continues to enchant. I wrote in detail about my first trip there in October 2019 and then about a boat trip to Phillip Island when I came back for Christmas a couple of months later. Since then we have all lived through an eventful era and there were many times in 2020 that I thought my November trip would not happen. As it turned out due to changed COVID conditions, Air New Zealand had to extend my visit from seven to 13 days and it gave me all the more time to appreciate Norfolk’s many charms including the view from Queen Elizabeth Lookout over the only golf course in a world heritage area, and the outlying islands of Nepean and Phillip (furtherest away).

The golf course is part of the Kingston and Arthur Vale World Heritage Area and the view slightly west from the same location show the beautiful buildings of convict-era Kingston at Slaughter Bay. This was where the British first landed on March 6, 1788, barely six weeks after landing in Sydney, making Norfolk Island Australia’s second oldest colonial settlement by a considerable margin.

It was also just 14 years after Captain James Cook first sighted the island on his second voyage of discovery in 1774. Cook landed at Dunstable Bay on the north side of the island and a party made their way to the highest point at Mount Pitt. Cook thought the wonderful Norfolk pines would make ideal masts for ships while the New Zealand flax plant growing freely would also make good sailcloth, both of which Britain had to import from Russia. This knowledge made the admiralty order First Fleet commander Arthur Phillip send a contingent to Norfolk in 1788.

But when Phillip’s protege, Philip Gidley King, landed on the island with his new mini-colony, he found signs they were not the first humans here. In 1793 he wrote to naturalist and Cook’s former sailing companion Sir Joseph Banks that he found a banana tree and canoe “when I first landed a feasible proof of the Island being formerly inhabited”. There were also stone tools and the Polynesian rat which survived in Norfolk’s rich undergrowth. The Polynesians had brought flax to the island arriving by ocean-going canoes. Today an archaeological site behind Emily Bay shows the Polynesian settlement site buried in the sand-dunes. This was once a small village which existed from a thousand to 650 years ago. They arrived by ocean-going canoes and Emily Bay was an attractive site with canoe access, a protective reef, flat land close to the shore and plenty of fresh water and fish. The reason for their disappearance is not known.

Emily Bay remains an attractive spot for modern visitors for much the same reasons as the Polynesians. A magnificent lone pine guards the eastern approach to the bay, as it has done since King’s time and the reef is home to abundant coral and many colourful fish.

The British were unsuccessful in using either the pines or the flax for naval hardware but the island settled into a penal colony providing a foodbasket for starving Sydney with the fruit of its rich soil. By the early 19th century, the colonists concentrated on Sydney and Tasmania and the need for Norfolk Island, far away from any shipping lanes, dissipated. The settlement closed down in 1814 and the buildings were destroyed. Norfolk’s surviving convict heritage is from the second British settlement which restarted in 1824 as a deliberately harsh punishment site for the “doubly damned”, the worst among the convicted.

Norfolk’s reputation of terror comes from this period with a succession of cruel tyrants in charge of the island including James Morriset, Foster “Flogger” Fyans and Joseph Childs. Their abysmal treatment of prisoners and liberal use of the lash led to a number of failed rebellions including the “Cooking Pot” uprising of 1846 when convict William “Jackey Jackey” Westwood led a spontaneous riot against Childs’ inhumane regime. Fellow inmate Martin Cash wrote Westwood had been “flogged, goaded and tantalised until he was reduced to a lunatic and a savage”. The riot was sparked by the sudden removal of convict billies and kettles which the prisoners had made. Angry prisoners armed with staves and bludgeons stormed the barracks stores to retrieve the kettles. It took 20 minutes for soldiers with fixed bayonets and muskets to restore order though four men, including Irish free overseer Stephen Smith died. “Jacky killed Smith with a single blow of the cudgel on which the gang again returned to the lumber yard”, wrote Cash. Westwood spattered the brains of a watchman and killed a constable with an axe. Though he killed three of the four, Westwood was just one of 12 prisoners hanged on October 13 for the mutiny. Childs ordered them buried in a mass grave outside the cemetery known as Murderers Mound.

While the British influence on Norfolk Island is unmistakable, there is a surprising American angle among the colonial facades. From the early 1800s onwards, Norfolk was regularly visited by whaling ships and later residents took to whaling themselves as a means of occupation. The United States dominated the industry and American visitors were commonplace, adding to the island’s prosperity through trade. They also left behind the tradition of Thanksgiving Day celebrated on the third Wednesday in November each year. The scene below is on Thanksgiving Eve when locals and visitors gather in the grounds of the old Kingston Jail for the Taste of Norfolk Festival.

By the 1850s Britain was tiring of its Australian transportation experiment, particularly after the Victorian gold rush made the antipodes less a deterrent. In 1847, Secretary of State to the Colonies Sir William Denison informed the Governor of New South Wales the penal settlement on Norfolk Island would close. By October 1854 only 119 convicts remained on the island and the last convicts left a year later. In 1856 a new set of colonisers came. They were the descendants of Bounty Mutiny which took place in 1789, a year after as the First Fleet’s arrival in Australia. Today you can find many mentions of the Bounty in Norfolk Island as well as its chief mutineer Fletcher Christian, though the Bounty’s commander William Bligh is less prominent. Surprisingly neither Christian nor Bligh, nor the Bounty ever visited the island. While Bligh made a remarkable escape via longboat 3000km to Timor, Christian led his mutineers and their Tahitian wives to the even more remote island of Pitcairn. In 1856 almost 200 Pitcairners left their island to begin a new life at Kingston pier.

The new arrivals took the big houses on Military Row (later renamed Quality Row) and spread out across the island grazing and growing crops as below at Arthur’s Vale. But many preferred the life of whaling and the island drifted in penury until the 20th century when Australia made more concerted efforts to increase its governance.

In the late 19th century the British allowed more settlers onto the island at the Melanesian Mission at St Barnabas Church. From 1865 the mission farm became profitable and the island became a benevolent church dictatorship surviving on free labour, “field hands for the Lord”. The Mota language, adopted from the New Hebrides mission, was a lingua franca for education and worship. English church rituals were transplanted but the increased reliance on English staff stymied an independent indigenous church.

The Mission has long ceased but Pitcairners demands continue to this day. After losing self government status in 2015, Norfolk Island has been reduced to a regional council. A recent audit report showed the parlous state of the council’s finances. Council’s operating result before capital items deteriorated in 2019/20 to a deficit of $1.8 million while revenue dropped by $1.7 million for 2019/20, primarily due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism. Council’s percentage of outstanding rates and charges of 18% for 2019/20 did not meet the industry benchmark of less than 10% and is forecast to significantly worsen in 2020/21.

Norfolk Island is almost entirely dependent on its tourist income which suffered dramatically during the first few months of the pandemic. The island had only one confirmed Covid case and gradually reopened borders first with Queensland and then NSW. Visitors enjoy the wonderful scenery and the unique wildlife such as the beautiful Norfolk Island green parrot. The green parrot was a common forest bird before 1788 but after extensive clearing of trees and introduction of feral predators, fewer than 50 individuals remained by the 1970s. Though land clearing ceased, competition for nesting sites with introduced species such as rosellas and common starlings is fierce, and predation from rats and cats remains a threat. The population is responding well to recovery activities and we saw several birds in the National Park. Parks Australia is trying to establish them outside the national park through predator-proof nest sites, restoring habitat and controlling rats, cats and rosellas. There is also a trial translocation of parrots to Phillip Island to further secure the species’ range.

Norfolk Island is also home to migratory seabirds such as the bar-tailed godwit. These are remarkable long distance fliers with the aerodynamic build of a “jet fighter”. Recently a godwit was tracked flying more than 12,000km from Alaska to New Zealand, setting a new world record for avian non-stop flight. Norfolk Island is an important stop on their flyway between Siberia and New Zealand.

Even if you haven’t the energy of a godwit, you can still enjoy the beauty and serenity of Norfolk Island. This small slice of paradise has entranced humans for 800 years or more and is likely to cast its spell for many a generation yet.

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