History of Norfolk Island

The Amazing History of Norfolk Island is varied and exciting. We start when the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in 1788, it fell to Lieutenant Philip Gridley King to select the handful of men and women who were to colonise Norfolk Island.

Captain Cook had previously reported that Norfolk Island was rich with flax and giant pines, which the British desperately needed for ship building.  Six women, nine male convicts, and eight free men were selected for the task.

A Norfolk Island view

A Norfolk Island view

These colonists sailed the thousand mile journey at 11am on the 29th of February, and spent the next 5 days sailing around the coast in search of a place to land.  The island was surrounded by cliffs as heigh as 300 feet, and it was difficult to find a suitable landing place for such a large party.

Eventually, at a spot they called Sydney Bay, they found a passage through the reef wide enough to allow larger ships to approach.

Step back in time

Step back in time

Commandant King was in charge of the new colony, and wasted no time in selecting a mistress – an ex-dressmaker named Ann Inett, who had been convicted for stealing clothes.  Two other couples also formed, and it wasn’t long before all three ladies were pregnant.  On the 8th of January 1789, Ann Initt gave birth to the settlement’s first child, who was given the name “Norfolk”.

The settlement had only been going a few months when a road was constructed from Sydney Bay (Kingston) to Anson Bay, and work began on clearing ground for farming and felling trees for construction.  The food crops were very promising, and much more productive than the land around Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour).

The H.M.S Bounty

Meanwhile, a thousand leagues away, the H.M.S Bounty was anchored in Matavai Bay, Tahiti. Under the command of William Bligh, the Bounty was on a mission to collect breadfruit plants and transport them to the West Indies.  It was hoped that breadfruit could become a cheap source of food for slaves.  Bligh was seen by many as a great captain, astronomer, navigator, scientist, and cartographer.  His crew found him spiteful and foul tempered.

Contrary to popular belief, Bligh was not a harsh man by the standards of the day.  In a time when sentences of 300 lashes were common, he rarely ordered more than a dozen or two. His flaw was poor people skills, and he treated his suboordinates as fools – quick to criticise and find fault, and impossible to please.

Mutiny on the Bounty

The act of collecting the breadfruit plants took many weeks, during which time the crew lived in Tahiti – an island paradise, where they were treated as royalty by the locals.  Discipline had eroded, and the crew was reluctant to leave Tahiti.  They set sail on April 4, 1789 – and on April 28, the crew mutineed.  Bligh was woken from his bed, forced on deck, and eventually set adrift with 18 of his crew in the 23 foot dinghy.

It took Bligh seven starving weeks to travel to Timor.  He returned to Britain and reported the mutiny on 15 March 1790.  King George III dispatched H.M.S Pandora under the command of Captain Edward Edwards to capture the mutineers.  Edwards was a hard man, and made Bligh look like a saint.

Meanwhile, the mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian returned to Tahiti where they collected thir wives, and took on supplies.  They travelled 350 miles south to Toobouai, where they were attacked by natives.  They returned again to Tahiti, where sixteen of the crew landed.  The nine remaining crew, together with their wives, six polynesian men, and a baby, set sail once more in search of a haven.

Captain Edwards first action was to sail to Tahiti in search of the mutineers.  He had no trouble capturing those who had remained there.  On his ship’s quarter-deck he ordered the building of a large prison cell – dubbed Pandora’s Box. In this airless prison, measuring 18 by 11 feet, fourteen men were imprisoned for sixty days while Edwards searched for Christian and the other mutineers.  He was unsuccessful, as Christian had settled on the uncharted island of Pitcairn.  The Bounty was burned on 23 January 1790, to prevent the ship’s detection and another possible mutiny.

Life on Pitcairn was pleasant, and a number of children were born.  Christian led the community and followed a policy of fairness and moderation.  He wanted the Polynesians to have an equal say in community affairs – however, some of the other mutineers treated the Polynesians as servants and tried to deprive them of land.  This unfair treatment caused a tense relationship, and led to a revolt in 1793.  Four of the original mutineers, and Fletcher Christian himself, were killed in the fighting.

Christian was survived by his wife Maimiti and their son, Thursday October Christian.  The surviving men created a still, and their excessive drinking made life miserable for the women.  The women revolted several times, and even attempted to leave the island on a makeshift raft.  Eventually things got better, and the community began to flourish.  John Adams became the leader of the community in 1800.  Peace was restored at least – one man, nine Tahitan women, and dozens of children.  Adams was the last man standing.  He turned to religion, and set himself to the task of educating the four teenagers and nineteen children.  When the settlement was later discovered, 18 years after the mutiny, it was described as “the world’s most pious and perfect community”.

Back on Norfolk Island

Back on Norfolk Island, the popoulation had swollen to 150, and more colonists were on the way.  Following a shipwreck, the Island suddenly had hundreds of new mouths to feed, and began to face starvation.  The starving Islanders fed on migrating birds, which appeared unexpectedly. But life on the island was becoming harder – with so many new convicts to control, the commandants turned to the cat o’ nine tails.  The frequent lashes took a toll on colony morale, and hungry men began to steal.  This led to more punishment, and eventually the authorities decided to abort the colony.  In February 1814 the island was abandoned, and the people were transported to Van Diemen’s Land, now called Tasmania.

Before they left, the buildings were burned or razed.  A dozen dogs were left on the island to kill the remaining cattle and pigs, the idea being to leave nothing of value behind.

In 1825 it was decided that Norfolk Island would be the site of another colony.  The original settlement was intended to develop the resources of the island, exploiting the natural resources of flak and pine for ship building.  This second colony was intended to be a great prison, to house prisoners with no hope of rehabilation.  Sir Thomas Brisbane wrote, “I could wish it to be understood that the felon who is sent there is forever excluded from hope of return”.  It was to be a place of the severest punishment short of death.

Such a place is destined to see rebellion, and many occured.  Following one uprising, a priest wrote of the desperation.  Those rebels who were spared would weep bitterly that they must live.  Those condemned to die fell to their knees, and thanked god that they would be delivered from this horrid place.

By 1843 the population exceeded 2,000 souls, and any attempts at prison reform were defeated by distant authorities.  They wanted a place of punishment, without mercy.  Conditions became more and more hellish under the command of Commandant John Price, who ruled by terror, informers and the lash.  Many observers and clergy noted that he was out of control, and guilty of grave cruelty and abuse of power.  Finally in 1854 the colony was again abandomed, and the convicts transported to Port Authur in Van Diemen’s Land.

From Pitcairn to Norfolk Island

Back on Pitcairn, the settlers were finding their tiny island unable to support them.  They had around 200 mouths to feed, and only 88 acres of flat land on which to farm.  In 1855 the elders wrote to Queen Victoria, begging for help.  She offered them Norfolk Island as a new home.

In 1856, on the 3rd of May, the entire community of 194 people sailed for Norfolk Island.  After a 5 week journey they arrived at Norfolk Island. They were thrilled with their new home.  The massive stone buildings looked like castles, and the island was full of new sights.  The colonists had never seen cattle or horses, nor the exotic fruits and vegetables.

Over time, the colonists made their new island into a home. They worked the soil, and attempted to export the produce. For much of the 1900’s, they earned most of their income through whaling.

An airstrip was built on the island during World War II, which lead to Norfolk Island’s current status as a popular tourist destination.