On islands

As an Australian, I live on an island continent.  But in a land where the horizon stretches as far as the eye can see across plains and mountains, it’s hard to remember that it is actually an island.  It’s only when you see our continent suspended in all that ocean on a map that you have a sense of its ‘girtness’ by the surrounding sea.  In fact, at the risk of sounding mawkish, I often feel a throb of love when I see Australia on a world map, so complete and self-contained.

I’ve been thinking about islands a lot while up at Norfolk Island last week.  It’s only small- 36 square kilometres- and has no safe harbour.  You can easily drive from one side of the island to the other and all around you is water, stretching on forever.   I found it to be breathtakingly beautiful and I wondered if even convicts sometimes looked up to the sky, or out to the ocean on a calm day and found any beauty in it at all.

Islands have long been used as places of exile, both in the past and today: St Helena, Robben Island, Christmas Island and Norfolk Island itself.  Of course the coastline and expanse of water provides its own form of imprisonment, but I think that there’s another aspect of exile at play.  For our own Christmas Island , there has been the ugly term “excision” to describe the deliberate, surgical cutting out of the island and beaches from the nation as a body, to ensure that anyone who lands there can have no access to the courts.

I think about Norfolk Island in the Second settlement phase  and the absolute power of the Commandants who could choose to use or abuse it, and the tenuousness of the links to British Justice.  Justices Dowling and Burton visited the island as Supreme Court judges, but only for brief stints, then returned to Sydney.  That, I think, is the ultimate exile: that you can suffer and die by the whim of others; that no-one need know, and there is no brake on the cruelty of the authorities should they exert themselves in that way.

It is a paradox to be exposed to the vast, limitless expanse of sky and ocean, and yet feel claustrophobic.


5 responses to “On islands

  1. Nice post Janine …

    I’ve just been to Hong Kong which comprises an island and some mainland, but after a week there I was thinking how claustrophobic it would be for me to live there. It’s so small and might as well all be an island given the difficulty of movement into China. I wondered what it would be like to live in such a small place all one’s life, a place that you could get to know very well by the time you were an adult. I can’t imagine not being able to get in the car and drive a few hours to some interesting place for a getaway. Made me realise how big an impact our home/place of birth or place of formative years has on us. It’s huge really. (BTW, I share your mawkishness – started when I was in my early 40s after our second posting OS – I really fell in love with Australia then).

    Oh, and the exile thing is interesting. I note that the Smithsonian article you link to mentioned Sado Island in Japan – there was in our son’s prefecture and is a fascinating place too.

  2. I have lived on Norfolk Island for 11 years. Previously living and working in Australia in the Northern Territory and in the centre of Aust at Uluru. These places are isolated and vast, the antithesis of Norfolk. Moving to Norfolk Island was something that I thought would be for a couple of years only, but your world shrinks. You adapt. And while it sometimes would be nice to jump in the car and go for a big long drive that quickly passes. Maybe its a form of institutionalization – in a good way. Familiarity with physical surroundings and with the people is comforting. The biggest downside that I perceive is that attitudes get somewhat frozen in time and change is resisted vigorously even when it is beneficial. The internet can open up the world for small places, but maybe for some its like being an eskimo, I mean why would you live in an ice house in sub-zero temperatures and eat all that blubber. I guess its what you know – all you know.

    • Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Eleven years! Do you think that you will stay there forever now? Has your sense of landscape changed since you’ve been there?

  3. Like Miles, we have moved to Norfolk Island – 5+ years ago and love it…
    Never feel isolated or claustrophobic – one can get on a plane several times a week if you really want too. I, for one have to go to Aussie twice a year & usually need to talk myself into enjoying it. Norfolk is safe, friendly, beautiful, unpolluted & very comforting knowing there is always some-one who will help you if you need it. Weather is mild in both winter & summer, a definite plus. As for the long drive – Anson Bay is about 15 minutes away & THAT is now too far!!! Hehehe!!! Love the place – come and join us!

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