Royal commission into matters relating to norfolk island


The History of Norfolk Island

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2.The History of Norfolk Island


Having thus briefly described the origin of the Pitcairners and their transfer to Norfolk, one should direct attention now to Norfolk Island itself a completely different history.

The Island and the two adjacent, much smaller Islands, Nepean and Philip, were discovered by Captain Cook on 10 October 1774. The group is situated 1676 kilometres (1042 miles) east—north—east of Sydney at latitude 29002 south3 and longitude l67°57’ east. Norfolk is about 8 kilometres (5 miles) long and 5 kilometres (3 miles) wide and has a total area of 3455 hectares (8528 acres). It is a remnant of past volcanic activity jutting out of the sea from a submarine ridge which stretches in an arc from New Caledonia to New Zealand. The average elevation of the Island is about 110 metres (350 feet) and two peaks (Mt Pitt and Mt Bates) rise to slightly over 305 metres (1000 feet). The coastline of some 32 kilometres (20 miles) is mainly one of precipitous cliffs, except for a small section on the south side.

Nepean is a coral sandstone islet approximately 4 hectares (10 acres) in extent and rising to 32 metres (105 feet) lying about 0.8 kilometres (½ mile) to the south of Norfolk. Philip is a volcanic Island approximately 258 hectares (640 acres) in area and reaching 280 metres (920 feet) in height. It is about 5.6 kilometers (3 ½ miles) south of Norfolk. Both Islands are on the continental shelf of Norfolk Island; they lack water and are uninhibited.

When discovered Norfolk was also uninhabited although evidence of earlier occupation probably by Polynesians was subsequently unearthed. The Island was densely wooded, chiefly by the native Norfolk Island pine and white oak, cabbage palm and flax. Cook reported that the pine and flax (New Zealand hemp) might provide spars, masts and canvas for the navy. In addition, the British Government thought it desirable to occupy the Island (as an associated convict settlement with that in New South Wales) to prevent the French from acquiring it. This is evidenced by the initial instruction of King George III dated 25 April 1787, to Captain Arthur Phillip:

Norfolk Island … being represented as a spot which may hereafter become useful, you are, as soon as circumstances will admit of it, to send a small establishment thither to secure the same to us, and prevent it being occupied by the subjects of any other European power

Accordingly, on 6 March 1788, Lieutenant Philip Gidley King and twenty-two others landed at Kingston on the south side and took possession of the Island in the name of King George III. The twenty-two comprised seven free persons and fifteen convicts made up of nine men and six women.

The small settlement was beset with difficulties. Clearing of the rain forest by hand was heavy, laborious work. Rats and parrots ate seed and nipped off young shoots of crops Worms and caterpillars riddled their cabbage patches and hawks carried off their chickens. Torrential rain and gale force winds flattened their corn and unroofed their shacks. One vessel H M S Sirius bringing much needed supplies was wrecked on 19 March 1790 on the Kingston reef, a victim of the absence of a safe harbour in the Island. At one stage the survival of the settlement depended upon occasional hauls of fish and catching seabirds and collecting their eggs. In spite of these troubles, by 1804 the population consisting of both free settlers and convicts, had reached 1100. However, the Island’s disadvantages were receiving prominence; its very small exports (chiefly grain and salt pork), its lack of a Safe anchorage and harbour and the difficulties in maintaining communication with it, all tended to make its continued administrative expenses unjustifiable, and, from 1806 onwards, the population was steadily withdrawn and transferred to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). It is recorded that although by 1810 over a quarter of the Island had been cleared, withdrawal of the population was still continuing and by 1814 had been completed by the brig Kangaroo removing the last settlers; Norfolk was abandoned.

In 1824, instructions were issued to reoccupy the Island so that the worst of convicts in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land could be sent to it. Norfolk became, in consequence, a convict settlement for the second time when Captain Turton with a party of fifty-one convicts and soldiers, and six women and six children, landed there on 6 June 1825. Governor Arthur wrote:4

When prisoners are sent to Norfolk Island, they should on no account be permitted to return. Transportation thither should be considered as the ultimate limit and a punishment short only of death.

The subsequent barbarity of that ‘ocean hell’ over the ensuing thirty years has been well chronicled elsewhere and, apart from two quotations by way of illustration need not be developed here. One Commandant, Major J. Anderson, is reported to have dealt out 1500 lashes to five men in one day;5 again, a passage from Atlee Hunt’s Report of March 1914 reads:

the beauty, fertility and charm of the Island served but to sharpen the contrast with the characters of its human occupants, oppressors, and Oppressed, and the name of Norfolk Island ... became associated in men’s minds with all that was vilest, with cruel torture, brutal methods, debased criminals suffering humanity

During this period, however the Island was significantly developed; roads, buildings and wharf facilities were constructed, crops of various kinds were planted and farm stock built up

Up to 1844 control of the Island had been vested in the Colony of New South Wales, but in that year control passed to Van Diemen’s Land and remained there until the abandonment of the second convict settlement In 1847 the British Government decided to close the Norfolk prison because of its unsavoury character but it was not until May 1855 that the Island’s days as a convict settlement actually ceased. Only a small party was left as caretakers.

So much for the two separate threads of the histories of the Pitcairners and Norfolk Island up to 1855. They became interwoven with the arrival in Norfolk in 1856 of the Pitcairners The caretakers left immediately and the third settlement of the Island commenced

The Pitcairner occupation of Norfolk Island was destined to suffer several dilutions In spite of the clear original intent that the Island be reserved as a home for the former Pitcairn’s population,6 this policy was departed from first by the Pitcairners themselves and then by officialdom and in fact with the passage of time, was allowed to lapse altogether

On Governor Denison’s second visit to the Island in 1859 he discovered (to his great displeasure) that some Pitcairners had already sold land to non—Pitcairners and he immediately issued regulations in an attempt to stop this practice His effort failed for by 1885 land in the Island had been acquired by grant or purchase by twenty—five new settlers who with few exceptions, appear to have been admitted by the Pitcairners themselves contrary to their own original desire.7

The official departure consisted of granting permission for the establishment in the Island of the Melanesian Mission Station in 1866. This proposal was originally rejected by Governor Denison and the Pitcairners alike. The Rev. G.H. Nobbs, the Island’s pastor, with a fine disregard for the undisputedly Polynesian antecedents of his own flock, wrote to Admiral Moresby and said:

I trust yourself and our other influential friends will countenance my opposing so very undesirable an addition to our social circle as a hundred or two of heathens strong with the odour of unmitigated depravity.8

However, in 1866, the then Governor of New South Wales (and of Norfolk Island), Sir John Young, withdrew his own earlier objections and, under instructions from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, granted the Mission sufficient land to establish a training school and headquarters for the Bishop of Melanesia. The Mission was given a free grant of 99 acres, plus 933 acres, paid for at the rate of £2 an acre. By 1899, the Mission had 210 Melanesian scholars, its own church (St Barnabas’ Chapel still considered an architectural gem and one of the most beautiful little churches south of the equator), homes for the missionaries and pupils, workshops, a printing house and a store. As a matter of incidental interest, the quality of farming carried out by the Mission was far superior to the agricultural efforts of the Pitcairners.

Although the Mission Station was wound up after World War I (their last church services were held in 1920), its entry to Norfolk really was the wedge which split apart and into fragments the original policy of reserving Norfolk for the Pitcairners.

Thereafter, no genuine attempt to refashion such a policy could be said to have been made Migrants came and went under ordinances such as the 1922 Immigration Restrictions Ordinance, in which no reference whatever was made to the original intention of preserving Norfolk for the Pitcairners and their descendants.

However before too harsh a condemnation is made of what Rev C H Nobbs described as a breach of faith it should be borne in mind that ill effects from too close inbreeding amongst the Pitcairners had been a subject for comment over the years. The admission of new blood to the Island was very probably considered a badly needed change, and, indeed, could well have been the motivating factor behind the decision to drop quietly the original intent Nonetheless in spite of this very necessary modification of policy one cannot escape the background impli­cations of the original promises — Norfolk Island basically was to be a new homeland for the Pitcairners.

Notwithstanding these dilutions the Island’s population remained predominantly comprised of Pitcairners until the early l960’s when what has sometimes been referred to as the fourth settlement of Norfolk Island began.

The period between the establishment of the Melanesian Mission and the early l960’s was notable for the fluctuations in numbers of the population. They broadly coincided with the varying fortunes of business ventures chiefly based on agricultural and fishing products.

Two clearly significant factors in the fourth settlement were first the construction of an airfield in the Island during the war years of 1942—43 which improved its accessibility tremendously and paved the way for tourism the Island’s only viable industry and second the upsurge of interest around the world from the early l960’s in the Island’s tax—free status and in its potential for tax avoidance schemes

Principally, as a result of the influx of new settlers, the proportion of Pitcairners in the Island has greatly diminished. Of a total of 859 persons on the electoral roll at 30 June 1976, Pitcairn descendants number only 323. Their non—Pitcairner spouses number 130, the remainder (406) are not related to them in any way.

It deserves emphasising at this stage of the Report, in order to facilitate a full understanding of the subject, that complete integration of the Pitcairner and non—Pitcairner elements in the population cannot be said to have been achieved, Likewise, whole hearted acceptance by the Island population of either its present status as part of the Commonwealth of Australia or the manner in which Australia administers the Island cannot be said to exist.



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