Royal commission into matters relating to norfolk island

The transference of the Pitcairners to Norfolk Island

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1.The transference of the Pitcairners to Norfolk Island

Over the years in Pitcairn’s Island, the number of the inhabitants increased to the point where difficulties were encountered in sustaining the population from the small Island’s limited natural resources. Its total perimeter was only about 4½ miles, its terrain rocky and ruggedly broken, and its water supply indifferent. The plight of the Pitcairners, in these crowded and relatively harsh conditions, was drawn to the attention of the religious organisations in England and moves were made to transfer the Pitcairn population to Tahiti, the home of their mothers where, it was thought, they would have more land and better natural resources for survival. These moves appear to have been made without the full knowledge of the Pitcairners themselves, but when advised of what purported to be the wishes transfer more from their deep-seated loyalty to the Crown than from any desire of their own.

All eighty-seven of them left Pitcairn’s and on 29 March 1831 reached their new Island home in Tahiti for what was to prove disastrous and tragic few months’ stay The strictly religious group were repelled by what they considered to be the licentiousness of Tahitian life and the intemperance which developed within their own family circles. Twelve died on Tahiti from illnesses and after repeated requests to be returned to Pitcairn’s the survivors were shipped home in September 1831.

From 1831 to 1841, they appear to have lived contentedly in their Island but thereafter a succession of difficulties assailed them. Their health suffered a distinct deterioration, and, although mortality was not abnormal (it was less than 2%), sickness - mainly influenza and fever, was so general and severe that they were greatly incapacitated and prevented from performing the few hours of labour in the fields which were necessary for the production of their food supplies. Weeds began to overrun the Island and worms infested their potatoes In 1845 a violent storm tore away a large part of the Island and swept it into the ocean and destroyed some of their fishing boats and vegetable patches Food shortages were suffered By 1850 information was reaching England indicating that although the Pitcairners admitted the probable immediate need to emigrate they dreaded the inevitable separation from their Island. Norfolk Island was mentioned as a suitable home for them by one Walter Brodie in his book Pitcairn’s Island and the Islanders published in London in 1851 following a visit by him to the Island in 1850. In 1852 a fund was raised in England by a Committee formed to assist the Islanders. On 30 November of that year their pastor was ordained in England as an Anglican clergyman and ‘chaplain of Pitcairn’s Island’. By 1853 drought and illness in the Island were such that a public meeting was convened there on 18 May to consider the suggestion of a removal The Islanders unanimously solicited ‘the aid of the British Government in transferring them to Norfolk Island or some other appropriate place’.

On 5 July 1854, they were advised that Norfolk Island would be available. In 1855, at a general meeting of the community, 153 out of the population of 187 indicated their readiness to emigrate to Norfolk. However, when they did embark in the Morayshire on 3 May 1856, under the supervision of Lieutenant Gregorie, all C193 by then) went aboard as one man, and Pitcairn’s Island became a deserted isle.

The voyage to Norfolk Island of about 4830 kilometres (3000 miles) was protracted by bad weather and took five weeks. A child was born en route so that eventually 194 Pitcairners were landed on Norfolk on Sunday, 8 June 1856. It was reported that despite fatigue, ‘amounting with many almost to exhaustion’, the usual Sabbath Day evening service was held, ‘an exemplary manifestation of habitual piety’.

Awaiting the new arrivals was Captain Denham of H,M.S. Herald who had gone to Norfolk with a party of sappers to survey the Island with a view to facilitating the granting of blocks of land. A little later, on 26 June 1856, Captain Fremantle arrived in H.M.S. Juno and, in a statement to the Pitcairners, set out the broad terms of their occupancy of the Island. The text, according to historian Mrs Merval Hoare, is contained in papers collected by Bishop George Selwyn and held in the Auckland Institute in New Zealand. It reads as follows:

To the Chief Magistrate of the Pitcairn Islanders now resident on Norfolk Island. All arrangements made by the community of Pitcairn Islanders as to the distribution of the land on Norfolk Island are to be subject to the approval of H.E. Sir W.T. Denison, Governor— General of N.S.W. The whole of the coast line including the jetties; and the roads now made thro’out the Island are to be reserved as public property. The following buildings are also to be retained as belonging to H.M. Government.

The Gaol

The Government House

The Chaplain’s House

Also 200 acres of cleared land at Longridge for a glebe and 500 acres elsewhere.

The Islanders however are not debarred from making any temporary use of the above mentioned grounds and buildings. They are to understand that they are not allotted as property to any individual.

This is communicated by direction of H.E. the Governor— General.

Stephen G. Fremantle
Captain of H.M.S. Juno,
Senior Officer in Australia.

Norfolk Island

25 June 1856

Some idea of the impressions of the Pitcairners upon arrival in their new home is conveyed by the following quotation from Mrs Hoare’s book Norfolk Island;

The Norfolk of 1856 must indeed have seemed strange, even luxurious, compared with Pitcairn’s. There, living conditions had been rugged and housing primitive though adequate. The precipitous slopes of Pitcairn’s had needed arduous cultivation. Norfolk Island, on the other hand, was a going concern; its buildings, roads, bridges, and cultivated areas were in first class order, as might be expected from a system under which the prisoners, subjected to tight discipline had yielded their utmost exertions The great stone buildings, some three stories high, no doubt loomed large and formidable to the newcomers. Clearly more to their liking were the weatherboard cottages, and huts and the one—storied dwellings some with six rooms others with three or four, and with kitchens detached. There were also carpenters’ and blacksmiths’ shops, barns and stables, two large boat-sheds, a windmill, and a watermill; and also artisans’ tools and agricultural implements. ‘A bounteous bestowal indeed’ commented Captain Denham. In June 1856 he summed up the situation:

I leave this community of 194 persons — provided with 45 500 lbs of biscuit, flour, maize and rice, with groceries in proportion and abundance of milk at their hand. Their live stock and fodder consists of 1300 sheep, 430 cattle, 22 horses, 10 Swine in sties, 16 domestic fowls, 16 000 lbs of hay, 5000 lbs of straw and a quantity of wild pigs and fowls. Lest however, the first crop should be retarded or fall short, I have submitted a list of supplies which the Governor—General will forward to these Islanders as an extent—in—aid.

Despite the undoubted advantages of Norfolk over Pitcairn’s, homesickness caused two defections, In December 1858, some seventeen people returned to Pitcairn’s and in 1863 another party of twenty-seven followed them. Fifty-eight of their descendants (and seven outsiders) continue to occupy Pitcairn’s Island to this day.

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