Why am I reading a history of Norfolk Island? Because I’m here on a week’s holiday! But even if I were not, it’s a fascinating history.
Merval Hoare, the author of this book is herself a Norfolk Island inhabitant. I am not sure whether she herself is a Pitcairn descendant, but I note that in her acknowledgements, none of the major Pitcairn families are mentioned. Nonetheless, having now been here, it is not hard to discern the sensitivities and allegiances that arise in portraying Norfolk Island’s history.
There are surely not many places on earth where a local history can be divided up so neatly into self-contained epochs, with virtually no strands between each era. Norfolk Island was uninhabited until the Polynesian diaspora around 1100 until approximately 1400. Interestingly, Hoare’s book does not address this phase at all, beginning its narrative with Captain Cook’s discover y in 1774. For some reason, the Polynesians left and the island again fell silent.
What is known locally as the “first settlement” commenced in 1788, just 6 weeks after the British arrival at Port Jackson, when Norfolk Island was established as a parallel settlement to forestall French occupation, provide pine spars and flax sails for shipping, and furnish an alternative food source for the struggling Port Jackson settlement. Once Sydney (as it was by then known) had overcome its early food shortages and the Napoleonic Wars were drawing to a close (although, I note, only just!) it was no longer expedient to keep Norfolk Island as a parallel colony, and it was closed in 1814 and its settlers and convicts sent, in some cases very reluctantly, to Van Diemen’s land. The buildings were torched and the island left silent again, except for the barking of the dogs and the snuffling of the pigs left on the island.
The island remained uninhabited until , under the influence of new practices in prison administration, the “second settlement” began as a fully-fledged penitentiary. It was run as a place of secondary punishment: there were no women, brutality was widespread, and the island as a whole ran as a prison. Except for a brief respite under Alexander Maconochie, there was a succession of prison commandants of varying degrees of cruelty and despotism. With the uneasiness over transportation from the 1840s on, and the anxiety and repugnance over the inevitable and widespread homosexuality, the decision was made to close the second settlement in 1856. A few men were left as caretakers, but again the island fell silent, awaiting its next tranche of inhabitants.
They arrived soon after. They were the descendants of the Bounty mutineers who had outgrown the small Pitcairn Island that had been their home since 1790. In the first decade, the mutineers and their Tahitian companions had fallen out with each other and after a succession of murders, there was only one original Bounty mutineer left- John Adams. He descended into alcoholism, but one night had a vision and converted to Christianity. He became a devout student of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and his example extended throughout the Pitcairn Islanders who were transformed into a pious, God-fearing community. They brought their faith with them when they shifted as a group to Norfolk Island, although some returned to Pitcairn. The community on Norfolk Island today has at its core the descendants of this “third settlement”.
Over half of this book is devoted to the third settlement, which is after all, the longest phase of white settlement on the island. At times I found myself wishing that the author would draw breath and move away from the narrative a little. For example- how did Norfolk Island intersect with the passing Pacific traffic? What was the nature of the contact between Sydney and Norfolk Island in the first and second settlements? There are obviously sensitivities that she is tip-toeing around: the eviction of the Pitcairn/Norfolk Islanders from the abandoned Crown buildings at Kingston; the reports about homosexuality that expedited the closure of the second settlement.
At one stage the author herself slips modestly onto centre stage- good heavens! I would have made much more of this! For many years there had been debate over the content of a missing document which the Norfolk Islanders claimed had transferred ownership of the island to them. The document had disappeared very quickly considering its putative significance, but the author herself re-discovered it amongst the papers of Bishop George Selwyn, deposited at the Auckland Institute and Museum. What an intake of breath and internal whoop of joy that must have occasioned!! Her relative downplaying of her find is either modesty or circumspection- I don’t know which.
I read the second edition of this book, which has an additional chapter added onto what had clearly been the conclusion. There has since been a third edition which has no doubt added an extra chapter again. That’s the problem with this approach- it tends to result in more farewells than Melba, or perhaps the third book of the Lord of the Rings. Nonetheless, I feel that I’ve been given a good narrative skeleton of the history of the Island, which in its displays, tourist attractions and yes, in its very community vibe, delivers its own perspective on the island’s history.