Norfolk Island—From Penal Colony to Tourist Paradise
By Awake! correspondent in New Zealand
THE majority of those arriving on Norfolk Island’s shores over 150 years ago came under compulsion—as convicts. It was a penal colony for criminals brought over from Australia and had a reputation for being one of the harshest penal establishments in British history. Today, over 20,000 tourists a year visit this island paradise.
But where is Norfolk Island? How did the transition from penal colony to tourist haven come about? What unusual events have shaped the island’s history? What attraction does Norfolk hold for visitors today?
Anticipation for my visit was enhanced by a prior study of the island’s colorful history. I learned that it was in 1774 that the renowned English explorer Captain James Cook, sailing in the southwestern extremities of the vast Pacific Ocean, discovered, not the “Great Southern Continent” he was searching for, but a tiny three-by-five mile [5 by 8 km] volcanic outcrop, part of a ridge extending hundreds of miles [hundreds of km] south to New Zealand. Cook named the island after the Duke of Norfolk.
“Isle of Mis’ry”
The book Norfolk—An Island and Its People states: “Norfolk has had a very diverse history. One thing is certain, like storm clouds on the horizon, when humans entered this scene, turmoil was not long in following.”
The seeds of turmoil were sown some 14 years after Cook’s discovery when Lieutenant Philip King settled the island in order to secure it for the British Crown, his second objective being, ominously, to establish a penal colony that would ease overcrowding in British jails.
Although abandoned in 1814 as too costly, the prison was reestablished in 1825 and hosted a variety of criminals, some dangerous, some political, and many others who were transported from their distant homelands and jailed for the most trivial of misdemeanors. Thus, what could have remained a peaceful Pacific paradise was transformed into the “Isle of Mis’ry” for 30 years, until abandoned again in 1854.
Why “Isle of Mis’ry”? I learned from the book Discovering Norfolk Island that “conditions varied from one [prison] Commandant to the next. A kind and liberal regime was frequently followed by one of extreme harshness and repression. The history of the period is full of stories of murder, uprisings, escapes frustrated, occasionally successful, with executions and floggings in retribution. Major Thomas Bunbury, the Commandant in 1839, though he ordered 300 lashes each for five men who seized a boat to escape, also instituted a system of rewards for well-behaved prisoners.”
Convict labor built the penal settlement, including its cells, the soldiers’ barracks, and other structures, which, to varying degrees, still stand today and contribute to the island’s unique history. I was able to walk amid these walls and buildings that have been described as some of the finest Georgian architecture in the Southern Hemisphere. It took me back 150 years, and in my imagination I could hear the plaintive cries of the prison’s victims.
Norfolk Island and the Mutiny
A stroll through Norfolk’s cemetery provided further insight into the island’s unusual history. I was struck by the frequent occurrence on the tombstones of the surname Christian. Often during my visit, I heard local residents say, “I’m a Christian,” not with reference to their religious affiliation but, rather, having in mind their ancestry.
Few have not heard of a ship called Bounty and of the mutiny that occurred on it. It has been the subject of countless books and at least three movies. Equally well-known are the principal antagonists, Captain Bligh and his young acting lieutenant, Fletcher Christian. It was in April 1789, after leaving Tahiti, that Bligh along with 18 of his loyal officers was set adrift in a small boat by Christian and his fellow mutineers. After seven terrible weeks at sea and what has been described as one of the most remarkable navigational feats in nautical history, Bligh and his companions landed on Timor, now part of Indonesia, nearly 4,000 miles [6,400 km] west of their point of abandonment. Bligh later returned to England to tell his story, and three mutineers were brought to justice and hanged.
Meanwhile, after returning to Tahiti on the Bounty, Fletcher, 8 fellow mutineers, and 19 Tahitians, including both men and women, sailed away to escape reprisals. In 1790 they reached remote Pitcairn Island, 1,350 miles [2,200 km] southeast of Tahiti.
For the mutineers it could be said that Pitcairn Island proved to be a retribution of sorts. Island life was harsh. Jealousies led to violence and death. Yet, despite these problems and accompanying difficulties in eking out a living, the “colony” survived, not imagining that in 1856 their descendants would be given the opportunity to settle Norfolk Island, some 4,300 miles [7,000 km] to the west.
Pitcairn to Norfolk
June 8, 1990, on Norfolk Island dawned cold and wet. However, the weather did not deter hundreds of the island’s residents, colorfully dressed in mid-19th-century garb, from gathering at the wharf to celebrate the annual Bounty Day. As an interested observer, I witnessed seamen battling wind and wave as they reenacted the landing that occurred 134 years earlier, in 1856.
By that year, 67 years had passed since the mutiny. Then 193 Pitcairn Islanders were resettled to a new home on Norfolk Island. Some later returned, and thus Pitcairn remains inhabited today.
Rather than reflecting the image of fierce, rebellious mutineers, Norfolk’s new settlers —a hardy people of European and Tahitian stock—had developed into a close-knit, religious, and friendly community. Farming and fishing were the principal means of livelihood. Their Pitcairn experience had equipped them well for their continued life of isolation and self-reliance. Even minimum contact with the outside world by means of passing ships was made difficult due to a lack of any deepwater port.
An Airport and Change
As was true of so many of the South Pacific’s island nations, World War II effected change for Norfolk, the most significant of which was construction of an airport. With the airport came frequent contact with the outside world and what is now the island’s main source of revenue, tourism.
Before I and my fellow passengers disembarked at the Norfolk airport, a local representative of the Government Tourist Bureau informed us that because livestock roamed the roads, “we ask that you drive with caution. The animals have the right of way.” Indeed, visitors, who come mainly from Australia and New Zealand, are attracted by the simple, unsophisticated life-style. Appealing, too, are the natural beauty, the duty-free shopping, and the unique history associated with the early penal colonies and the later mutiny on the Bounty.
Although islanders acknowledge their dependence on the tourist trade, the current growth of tourism is a troublesome concern to some of Norfolk’s longtime inhabitants who look back nostalgically to the former days of greater self-reliance. When I asked one resident if she longed for the former days, she replied: “Yes! Oh, yes! Most assuredly! Everyone had more time to be genuinely concerned about others. People shared their produce. Now everything is money oriented.”
That is the greeting I received one morning while engaged in the house-to-house ministry. “Watawieh yuu” (What a way you) translates “Hello; how are you?” While English is commonly spoken on Norfolk Island, the immigrants of 1856 brought with them a delightful language of their own, a mixture of old English and Tahitian, developed during their sojourn on Pitcairn. Much more than a Pidgin English, “Pitcairn,” or “Norfolk,” is a complex language in its own right and is spoken with a pleasing lilt.
I checked out further examples in the publication Speak Norfolk Today. “Twelw salan goe d’ miiting” means “Twelve people went to the meeting.” “Es gud dieh, el duu f’ gu fishen” equates with “It is a fine day, just right for going fishing.”
“Do Come and Have a Look”
One tourist brochure says of Norfolk: “The friendliest, most idyllic, historic, beautiful, relaxing, safe, tempting, unspoilt, sporting, unique holiday address in the world.” A local resident proudly told me: “I think we are as close to paradise conditions as possible for the present system of things, and I wouldn’t want to leave it for anywhere else.”
Though located in the South Seas, it’s countryside is typical of temperate lands. There are green, gently rolling hills with many beautiful trees, shrubs, and flowers. From every vantage point, I could see the vast Pacific Ocean. Houses, uncrowded, are in lovely garden settings. Crime is virtually nonexistent. People continue to be hardworking, with minimal government aid being required. The self-reliant, adaptable attitude lives on. And even on this tiny island, Jehovah’s Witnesses preach their message of good news.
This unique island’s hospitable people may say to you, “Yorlye cum look orn”—”Do come and have a look.” It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to accept the invitation.
[Map/Picture on page 15]
From every vantage point, the vast Pacific Ocean is visible
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[Pictures on page 16]
Administration buildings and prison walls; Philip Island in the distance
A typical symmetrical Norfolk pine