From Prison To Paradise: A Brief History Of Norfolk Island

By: Robert Thomson

Over 1600 kilometers from Sydney, Norfolk Island is a small bit of paradise tucked away in the South Pacific. From the time Captain John Cook first set foot on its shores, Norfolk Island has been a revolving door of unique circumstance and settlement. With its abundance of clean beaches, crystal-clear waters and pine-scented hills, in recent years this island has provided an idyllic escape for generations of tourists, yet life on the island has not always been so blissful. Over the years Norfolk Island has seen a string of settlements and has been home to both expatriated criminals as well as wandering cultures trying to discover their own personal paradise.

Recent excavations have revealed that the first to settle on Norfolk Island were East Polynesian seafarers from New Zealand, who survived several generations only to inexplicably disappear. To this day, their fate remains a mystery, but they left behind tools and other remnants of their existence to mark their one-time presence on Norfolk. Many hundreds of years later, Norfolk Island was officially "discovered" by Captain James Cook in 1774 on his second voyage to the South Pacific. Awed by the tall straight trees and rich vegetation, Cook declared the island paradise and promptly named it after the Duchess of Norfolk, wife of Edward Howard. The island was greedily eyed for colonization by a British Empire engaged in the American Revolutionary War and therefore hungry for flax plants and timber to bolster the Royal Navy. Eventually, it was designated for settlement as a penal colony, where the convicts could be put to work processing natural resources.

The first convicts arrived on the island in 1788. Thus unfolded an interesting period in the history of the island, peppered by increasing isolation due to the lack of a natural safe harbor and the constant threat of convict unrest. Slowly the settlement grew as more and more convicts were sent over from Sydney. Many chose to stay after they served their sentence and by 1792 the population had grown to over 1000. By the turn of the century, the king had decided to close Norfolk Island's penal colony due to its high cost and the difficulty in communicating with such a remote place. Over a span of eight years, prisoners, their military guards and finally settlers were relocated. In the end, a small party remained to slaughter any remaining stock and destroy buildings so that no one would be tempted to resettle there. Thus from February 1814 to June 1825, Norfolk Island stood empty and deserted.

In 1824 a second British penal colony was established, ushering in perhaps the grimmest period in Norfolk Island's history. This colony was designated for the most vicious criminals, and as a result it became one of the harshest penal settlements of its time. Over the years, horror stories leaked out about this particular brand of hell, citing not only the scarcity and poor quality of food and inadequate housing conditions, but atrocities centered around brutal discipline practices, incessant floggings, inhumane torture and corrupt overseers. Reports slowly made their way back to the British government, and reform was attempted, but discipline continued to be severely inhumane. Eventually the place was deemed incapable of reform and was thus closed in 1855.

Norfolk only sat deserted for a year this time before the next group of settlers harkened her shores. The year 1856 saw the arrive of the Pitcairn people, descendants of the Bounty Mutineers and their Tahitian wives who had originally resettled in the Pitcairn Island but eventually found the land to be too small for their growing population. You can imagine the Pitcairners' astonishment upon arriving on Norfolk, as they were greeted by massive stone buildings, horses and cattle the likes of which they had never seen, and abundant gardens filled with English flowers, fruits and vegetables. As they settled into their new surroundings, they gradually established a subsistence farming culture that was eventually supplemented by a growing whaling industry on the island. The Pitcairn culture has since flourished on Norfolk Island, despite the intrusion of a WW II airstrip, retaining its language and much of its original flavor.

Whether you sit perched on a rock by the shore of Sydney Bay or are surrounded by a sea of pines in Norfolk Island National Park, it's strange to imagine the twists and turns this island's history have taken. But as is reflected in Norfolk's natural beauty and stunning vistas, the final chapter in the story is truly fitting. For it was on Norfolk Island that the Pitcairn culture finally found its paradise.

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