Norfolk Island is a self governed Australian Territory situated in the Pacific Ocean about 1500km. east of Brisbane. This volcanic outcrop, a tiny speck in the ocean, only 8km. x 5km. has a population of approximately 1,900. It has two smaller islands in the group, Phillip and Nepean Islands that are uninhabited.
Just another coral island with sandy beaches, palm trees and hula girls? - No, not at all!
Norfolk Island is a short, three hour flight from Melbourne. We flew by Norfolk Air who also have regular flights from Sydney, Brisbane and New Zealand. There are plans for some cruise ships to call at the island starting next year which will further increase accessibility to this lovely place.
Norfolk Island is very hilly and green and reminded us of England in many ways. It has few sandy beaches, the main ones being Slaughter Bay and Emily Bay, but most are only accessible if you are a mountain goat as the island coastline is mostly steep cliffs. The most prevalent tree on the island is the Norfolk Pine which gives the scenery a very unique look. As for hula girls, the island has an interesting story which connects it to the Polynesians of Tahiti, but more of that later.
The uninhabited island was discovered in 1774 by Captain James Cook and named after the Duchess of Norfolk. He reported that it had an abundance of flax plants (for making ropes and canvas) and pine trees (suitable for ships masts). It was also in a strategic position close to Australia and New Zealand (both claimed by England) and New Caledonia (claimed by the French), so after the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788, an assignment of 23 free settlers and convicts were immediately sent to Norfolk Island to settle and claim the island for England.
The little community thrived at first and, with the help of additional convict labour supplied much needed fresh produce to the settlement in Sydney, and by 1804 the population had increased to over a thousand people. The flax plants were prepared and woven into strong canvas and the pine trees were found to be excellent for building. However, there were problems involved with transport because of the lack of a safe harbour. Also, the island was only able to sustain about 2,000 people. As the settlement at Sydney Cove developed it was able to produce these items more economically and in 1814 the island was abandoned.
However, by 1825 the gaols of Sydney and Van Diemans Land (Hobart, Tasmania) were becoming overcrowded, and a place was needed to be the ultimate in punishment for the worst offenders, a place where men would pray for deliverance by death rather than continued endurance of brutal punishments! A settlement was re-established at Kingston at this time and Norfolk Island became known as "Hell in Paradise."
The town of Kingston is a very interesting part of the Island. Situated on lovely Slaughter and Emily Bays the buildings of Georgian architecture built by convict labour are now beautifully restored and are used for government offices and a museum. However, the gaol itself is a ruin (they don’t need it as there is very little crime on the island).
We did a guided tour of the buildings, and the remains of the gaol, together with the attached cemetery and were regaled with stories of gruesome murders, floggings etc.
We also attended a "Sound and Light Show" which re-enacted some of these stories by floodlight and it was quite eerie to see convicts and their guards appearing and disappearing among the ruins.
One particular story concerned a group of convicts who were building a bridge. They turned on their brutal overseer and murdered him, burying his body behind the stonework in the bridge. The men were tried and hung after his body was found because blood had begun to seep between the stone blocks. The bridge is of course called "Bloody Bridge."
However, at the time the first settlement was taking place, an event occurred in another part of the Pacific that was to have far reaching effects on tiny Norfolk Island and its culture.
Captain William Bligh was sent from England in the "HMS Bounty" to collect breadfruit plants from the island of Tahiti and take them to the West Indies where they were to be cultivated to feed the slaves there. Although he was a brilliant seaman and navigator he was also a perfectionist, quick tempered, egotistical, pig-headed and had little idea how to handle men.
During the months at sea he bullied and rode the men unmercifully, alienating most of the crew and, in particular, Fletcher Christian his young Acting Lieutenant. They stayed for a number of months on Tahiti collecting the plants, and during this time many of the men formed relationships with the island women.
When they finally set sail westwards heading for the Indies the unreasonable treatment began again and off the island of Tofua, Christian, supported by 18 men mutinied and set Bligh and 18 men loyal to him adrift in an open boat.
The mutineers sailed back to Tahiti where some remained, together with 4 who had been loyal to Bligh but were unable to fit in the boat. Fletcher Christian and 8 others, plus 6 male and 11 female Tahitians set sail to find somewhere safe to settle as mutiny was punishable by death. They eventually settled on Pitcairn Island, stripped the "Bounty", sank her and set up a community.
Bligh sailed westwards with his men, and, despite suffering great hardship, by extraordinary seamanship sailed some 6,000km. through the Fiji islands, and across the top of Australia eventually landing in Timor where they managed to get a ship sailing for England. Although his reputation was seriously tarnished by the episode, in 1805 he was appointed Governor of the settlement in New South Wales, with disastrous results – but that is another story!
The convict settlement at Kingston was disbanded in the 1850’s and about this time the people of Pitcairn Island (mainly descendents of the Bounty mutineers and their women) had outgrown their small island and needed to relocate. Queen Victoria offered them Norfolk Island and, in 1856, 194 new settlers arrived. The current phone book has whole pages devoted to Adams, Buffet, Christian, Evans, McCoy, Nobbs, Quintal and Young being descendents of the original mutineers. They still speak among themselves a patois which is a mixture of old English and Tahitian.
There is a bronze statue of the "Bounty" at Burnt Pine which is a memorial to these early settlers.
The people are very proud of their convict and Tahitian heritage and much is made of it for the benefit of the tourists as tourism is their main source of income. In addition to the "Sound and Light Show" in the convict settlement, there is also a small outdoor theatre where they re-enact the ‘Bounty mutiny’, and a ‘theme night dinner’ which is great fun as you can dress up as a convict. Also a ‘progressive dinner’ can be arranged with each course being held in a different residence so you can meet the locals.
There is also a great variety of outdoor activities available on the island including: golf, swimming, surfing, diving (there is the remains of a sailing ship "HMS Sirius" on the reef), fishing, horseback riding and bush walking.
The village of Burnt Pine is the commercial centre of the island consisting of a supermarket and a number of specialty shops which are full of things imported from all over the world, such as shoes and leather goods from Italy and fine china from England. It is all at very reasonable prices especially for Australians, as, although it is an Australian territory their taxes are lower than on the mainland.
We stayed at the All Seasons Colonial Hotel, one of the best on the island. Set in lush tropical gardens it is very comfortable and its restaurant, "Annabelle’s", has great food, live entertainment most evenings and a very friendly staff.
We hired a car to explore the island as there are many scenic views and beauty spots that are only accessible by private transport. The roads are very narrow (like English country lanes) and animals have "right of way". We often found ourselves navigating around chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and cows – that keep the roadsides neat and are affectionately referred to as "the four legged lawnmowers".
They do not see the need for house numbers on the island as, with such a small population, everybody knows everybody and where they live. Generally a simple sign suffices such as "Pete’s place", and in one section the houses are all named by their roofs – such as: "Red Roof", or "Blue Roof" and even "Rented Roof" and "Leaky Roof"!
Well worth a visit is the chapel of St. Barnabas, dedicated in 1880, it is a charming building of local stone with internal decorations of walnut and Norfolk pine.
This unusual building has beautiful stained glass windows designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and a famous rose window.
The pews are decorated with pearl-shell inlays depicting the nativity scene and were hand carved by Solomon Islanders. It is rightly considered one of the most beautiful old buildings in the South Pacific.
There is no industry on the island, everything from sewing needles to motor vehicles is imported. Most things are imported from New Zealand and Australia and every 2-3 weeks a ship arrives and waits offshore until the wind and tide is right. There is no safe harbour on the island and only two small jetties to choose from depending on the weather. When the decision is made to unload the whole island gears up. Every crate, box and package has to be laboriously winched off the ship and into waiting small open boats which ferry everything across to the jetty where it is winched up and loaded onto every available form of transport.
For bigger items, two or more small boats are lashed together and the item balanced across. Even cars and trucks are brought onto the island this way. The whole project is done in 1 -2 days, very efficiently and with very few mishaps. It is fascinating to watch and is a popular experience for those tourists fortunate enough to have their visit coincide with the arrival of the ship.
We were sorry to leave this delightful island and hope to return there at some future time.
Article and Photos by Heather and Barry Minton
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Last Updated on November 03, 2009 by M. Maxine George editor.
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