Norfolk Island: Sanctuary of timeless loyalty

By Paul Rush

Norfolk Island's annual commemoration of heritage is a soulful celebration, writes Paul Rush

Proud descendants of Bounty mutineers joyfully celebrate their history on Norfolk Island.
Proud descendants of Bounty mutineers joyfully celebrate their history on Norfolk Island.

I'm drawn to the festive gathering on Kingston Pier and soon find myself emotionally involved. It's an animated black and white portrait of Victorian conviviality and old-fashioned charm. Hundreds of proud descendants of the notorious Bounty mutineers are gathered here in traditional costumes to re-enact the arrival of 194 Pitcairn Islanders on June 8, 1856.

When the descendants outgrew their Pitcairn Island sanctuary, Queen Victoria granted them the newly vacated penal colony of Norfolk Island as a home. They brought with them a unique language, a sing-song mix of the mutineers' Old English and the Tahitian dialect. About one-third of the 1800 islanders still speak it.

A sea of woven hats and bonnets covers the pier as intimate family groups chat and children fidget, eager for the procession to get under way. Their dress consists of white shirts, black vests and breeches for the men, and long white skirts and blouses trimmed with lace for the women. Older folk favour black outfits.

There are subtle island touches too, such as strings of Tahitian pearls and finely woven baskets.

A landing party rows a boat alongside the pier to re-enact the first landing. Administrator the Hon Neil Pope and his wife, and the Hon David Buffett, represent the original receiving party on the boat ramp. These dignitaries will officiate at the evening's Bounty Ball and award prizes to couples who best perform the old-time waltzes.

In response to some unseen signal, the procession begins to move en masse, preceded by wreath-bearing island children. Four officials place wreaths at the foot of the cenotaph, one being the Hon Clare Christian, President of the Parliament of the Isle of Man who carries the name of the leader of the Bounty mutiny, Lieutenant Fletcher Christian.

The procession moves sedately along Quality Row beneath fine Georgian houses. At the cemetery gates the raw emotion of the congregation is palpable. A hymn rises on the still air: "In the sweet bye and bye, we shall meet on that beautiful shore." I sense the relevance of the hymn. The forebears of these folk must have deemed Norfolk's beautiful shore a paradise after the privations of overcrowded Pitcairn.

After the Pitcairn anthem Come ye Blessed is sung, families stream into the cemetery with the children carrying garlands of flowers to lay on their ancestor's graves. It's a beautiful, moving scene. The orderly rows of headstones are divided by green swathes of grass that slope down to a stately line of Norfolk Island pines bordering a great expanse of cobalt-blue sea.

A new sense of urgency and energy is apparent once the formal proceedings are completed. People surge across the green sweep of the golf course, striding confidently towards Government House, which dominates Kingston from its picturesque setting atop a tree-lined mound.

Here the families of Pitcairn descent enjoy tea and biscuits, and assemble for official photographs. I move among the throng, awed by the array of Victorian costumes and the overt display of filial loyalty and togetherness, spiced with harmless teasing and joking. This is truly a red-letter day for the families surnamed Christian, Quintal, Evans, McCoy, Buffett, Adams, Young and Nobbs.

It's a time-honoured ritual, which has been repeated every year since 1856. The noble-looking, well-dressed Nobbs family rejoice in the title "2013 Family of the Year".

What follows is a joyful celebration of life. Children release all their pent-up energy by rolling down the grassy slope below Government House. Then they race barefoot across the field, leap over a stream and make for their family's allotted place in the vast walled compound that once enclosed the main Kingston prison.

The Bounty Picnic in the grassy compound is the perfect get-together for family and friends. The children play games while their elders sit in the sun and reminisce of times gone by. I am privileged to join Glen Buffett's party and find a host of delectable treats among the bounty of island-style food, such as traditional pilhas, annas and mudda, made from bananas and root vegetables. The provision of food is very much an expression of love for family, community and pride in their island heritage.

And on Norfolk Island heritage is huge. In fact, it's so unusual and dramatic it reads more like fiction than reality - just one more reason to visit this charming place. Bounty Day is an outstanding model of how national days can be celebrated in warm-hearted communities.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air NZ offers a weekly service from Auckland.
Accommodation: Choose from 60 AAA-graded properties.
Getting around: Rental cars are $25 a day; bicycles can be hired.

Paul Rush travelled to Norfolk Island courtesy of Norfolk Island Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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