Sunday, 20 November 2011

Norfolk Island

George Guest and Mary Bateman both arrived at Norfolk Island as convicts in 1790 and left the island with their family to settle in Tasmania in 1805.

Norfolk Island is an island in the Pacific Ocean approximately 1,600 km north east-east of Sydney (latitude 29 degrees South and longitude 168 degrees East). It is midway between New Zealand and New Caledonia. It is a small island - 3,455 hectares - with approximately 30 kilometres of rugged coastline. The diameter of the island is around 7 kilometres.

In 1790 when our ancestors arrived there, Norfolk Island was a small isolated island with no natural and safe anchorage for vessels. When Lieutenant Philip Gidley King arrived to start a settlement on the island in 1788 he spent a week sailing around the island in HMS Supply looking for a safe place to land. They eventually landed at the south of the island at Sydney Bay (now the town of Kingston on Slaughter Bay) but two years later the HMS Sirius was wrecked in the same bay.

The first settlers lived in tents until wooden buildings could be erected. The settlement was to be self sufficient so a small area of land was cleared to grow English crops - potatoes, onions, turnips, spinach, cabbage, barley and wheat - but strong winds destroyed many of the plants and plagues of grubs and native rats enjoyed the wheat and barley. Fish became a major part of the convicts' diet. In 1790 there was a severe shortage of food but fortunately migratory flocks of petrels arrived on the island providing meat and eggs for the settlers alleviating the situation for a time.

Norfolk Island had been chosen for settlement as it was thought that the pine trees growing on the island would be suitable for masts and other timber projects. It was soon discovered that the wood was too knotty and brittle for ship building however it was fine for buildings required on the island. A saw pit was quickly constructed, double handed two metre saws were used to cut the timber and cradles at each end of the pit held the timber in place. It was also thought that a flax industry could be established on the island. However the local flax grown on the island was different to the European varieties the settlers were used to and although flax was produced it was a slow process. Flax was also used as thatch for the roofs of the first wooden buildings constructed on the island. The convicts were given land to cultivate for their own use at weekends. Grants of land were also given to pardoned convicts. George Guest acquired several properties on the island with a combined total of more than 200 acres of land used primarily for grazing sheep.

Keeping in touch with the mainland was difficult with the settlement having to rely on news from ships that occasionally called in to the island. Boat building on the island was not allowed as it was feared that convicts may try to escape. An exception was made in 1797 when Captain Townson ordered the building of a 25 ton longboat named the Norfolk. When the boat arrived in Sydney it was commandeered by Governor Hunter to be used by Bass and Flinders to circumnavigate Tasmania. This did not resolve the problems of communication and regular supplies of stores between Sydney and Norfolk Island.

Although the settlers were encouraged to be self sufficient and not dependant on government stores those who were still convicts often faced severe punishments for crimes committed when on the island. George Guest was punished by flogging for telling Major Ross a lie, neglect of duty and later for employing two convicts without permission. The settlers were not allowed to forget that this was a convict settlement.

A number of books have been written about Norfolk Island often providing a pictorial study of the island as well as recounting its history which included two convict settlements - the second being from 1825 to 1856 - and the arrival of the descendants of the mutineers on the ship the Bounty who left Pitcain Island for Norfolk Island in 1856. The island is now a tourist destination. Two titles are:
  • Loukakis, Angelo. Norfolk Island: an island and its people. Rigby 1984
  • Edgecombe, Jean. Norfolk Island - South Pacific: island of history and many delights. 1991
Histories of Norfolk Island include:
  • Hazzard, Margaret. Punishment short of death: a history of the Penal Settlement of Norfolk Island. Highland House, 1984
  • Hoare, Melville. Norfolk Island: a revised and enlarged history 1774-1998. 5th ed. Central Queensland University Press, 1999

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