Norfolk Island: Painful past in paradise

By Phoebe Falconer

Tourists have an easy time of navigating Norfolk Island, which is just  35 sq km, and some local knowledge will help them appreciate the significance of landmarks. Photo / Kerri Jackson
Tourists have an easy time of navigating Norfolk Island, which is just 35 sq km, and some local knowledge will help them appreciate the significance of landmarks. Photo / Kerri Jackson

No visit to Norfolk Island is complete without a good look at its history.

There are few places where you can pack so much action into a relatively short time, and even fewer have so many reminders of their history - family names, original buildings, unique dialect and early graves - still intact.

Norfolk Island is small, just 35sq km, so touring the island is easy. Car hire is straightforward (the only lesson required is how to wave to the locals), speed limits are low and there is little traffic.

But before setting out on a tour, a little local knowledge is sensible so that landmarks take their place on the island's historical map.

Although three settlement periods are often recounted, there were, in fact, four.

The first, in about 800AD, about the same time as Maori reached New Zealand, saw sea-faring Polynesians arrive on Norfolk Island. They stayed for about 200 years, and their legacy remains in the banana plants, rats and scattered artefacts such as adzes.

Little remains of their tenure, just a wide shallow dip in the ground near Emily Bay where most of the artefacts were found.

It was a good place for a settlement: Emily Bay is one of the few places where small boats can be launched from the beach. It is also an excellent swimming beach and glass-bottomed boat tours now run from here.

Then came the British. In 1774, Captain James Cook spotted the island and thought that the towering pine trees would make excellent spars for the British Navy, and the rampant flax could be used for rope-making. He thought wrong - not for the first time - but claimed the island for Britain and named it for his benefactress, the Duchess of Norfolk.

As it turned out, the trees had too many knotholes to make ship spars and no one knew the method for turning flax into cloth - not even the two Maori men kidnapped from New Zealand to teach the newcomers. They were men, after all, and flax-making was women's work.

There was little else on the island to support a community and the settlement faltered. Nothing remains of this short-lived occupancy apart from naming rights to various tourist ventures and accommodation options.

The third effort, known as the Colonial Settlement, began in 1788 as an outpost of New South Wales. This occupation of the island earned the honour of being the second British settlement in the Southern Hemisphere.

Also in 1788, HMS Bounty, captained by William Bligh, anchored famously at Matavai Bay in Tahiti. His second-in-command, Fletcher Christian, took exception to Bligh's leadership style and set him adrift in one of the ship's launches, with 18 crewman for support. The rest of the mutineers fled in the Bounty and, with as much good luck as good navigation, ended up on the tiny isle of Pitcairn.

With the nine mutineers - John Adams, William Brown, Fletcher Christian, William McCoy, Isaac Martin, John Mills, Matthew Quintal, John Williams and Edward Young - went 12 Tahitian women, six men and a baby.

The community endured, mainly thanks to the agricultural and survival skills of the women, and in time outgrew the island.

Meanwhile, back on Norfolk, the Colonial Settlement had closed, making way in 1825 for one of the harshest penal colonies in the world. An island paradise became a living hell for nearly 2000 prisoners, who were the hardest cases from the prisons in Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania.

Floggings, torture, hangings and bestiality were the norm, to the point where the men (and they were only men) broke rules deliberately so that they would receive the ultimate punishment - the only way out of the hell-hole.

Although the penal colony on Norfolk had three barracks, the biggest and best preserved by far is at Kingston, close to one of the two boat-launching wharves. The prison, guards' barracks, rudimentary hospital and commissary still stand, along with houses of varying degrees of grandeur. All are open to the public and provide an insight into the horror that was Norfolk Island.

The cemetery, home to many unsettled spirits, creates its own moving narrative of death and desperation. If you see only one place on Norfolk, let it be the cemetery.

In 1855 the Penal Settlement, in Kingston and elsewhere on the island, was disbanded and the few remaining wretches were shipped back to Van Diemen's Land.

Norfolk Island was granted to the Pitcairners by Queen Victoria, and in 1856 the entire population of Pitcairn Island was relocated, with three extra Englishmen: John Buffett, John Evans and George Hunn Nobbs.

These members of the Pitcairners' Settlement set about repopulating their new home immediately. The present community, of about 1800 permanent residents, comprises a majority of the descendants of the mutineers and their Polynesian partners, and names such as Christian, Young, Quintal and McCoy abound, both in business and in the island's roads.

The unique language and culture developed on Pitcairn (pronounced Pit-kern by the locals) persists on Nor-foke Ailen - not Norf'k, as we most commonly say it - and adds a unique touch to this extraordinary place.

The variety of tours and shows available on Norfolk Island are proof of the importance of its history, both to the locals and to the tourism industry.

Arthur Evans (the old names live on) leads twice-weekly tours of the historic sites, including the saltworks and the coastal area where huge blocks of rock were cut by convict hands for the construction of buildings.

Evans has an idiosyncratic view of the island's history but the tour is entertaining and informative, and the artefacts at his home are fascinating.

A stroll around the cemetery at Kingston offers a moving testimony to the hardships encountered in such an isolated place.

Young sailors, children, wives in childbirth and soldiers all found their resting place here.

The Historic Convict Tour of Kingston, by bus in the evening, includes re-enactments of the horrors of the penal colony, complete with drum rolls, screams and moans, shouting and the sound of gallows trapdoors thudding open. It's a charming tour, at first a little amateur and then gradually becomes more absorbing.

Other offerings include historic murder mystery dinners, a lantern-lit ghost tour, Mutiny on the Bounty theatre shows and, best of all, the Fletcher's Mutiny cyclorama.

This 360-degree artwork was the brain-child of islander Marie Bailey and took artists Tracey Yager and Sue Draper 16 months to paint. It opened in 2002 and illustrates the story of Fletcher Christian and the decisions that led to the communities on Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands.

The ground area of the cyclorama is strewn with boulders from local beaches and parts of the walkway are constructed to resemble ships' decks and wharf piers. Storyboards, maps and a soundtrack of sea shanties add to the experience.

It is said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Although the world has moved on, and financial imperatives on Norfolk Island demand change, there is little chance of its history being forgotten.


Getting there: Air New Zealand has direct flights between Norfolk Island and Auckland on Saturdays only.

Tours: Baunti (Bounty) Escapes, Norfolk Touring and the World of Norfolk Visitor Information Centre are all in Burnt Pine, the island's retail and business centre. The Cyclorama is in Queen Elizabeth Ave (easy to find, there aren't that many roads) and is open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday, and 10am to 3pm on Sunday.

Further information: See

Phoebe Falconer was the guest of Norfolk Island Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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