We spent last week on Norfolk Island …

We spent last week on Norfolk Island.

J had arranged to go on a painting trip to the island, and it was only the cost of a second airfare for me to tag along, so why wouldn’t you, especially as Norfolk Island is not somewhere you get to go every day.

Getting there was fun – a couple of days before we were due to fly our NBN connection broke – I have my suspicions that the cable crew who had been working outside in the street that morning had something to do with it, but of course I can’t prove it.

And of course it was a Friday afternoon when it happened.

Nevertheless, I called our ISP. Needless to say they had a massive queue so I opted for a call back. Naturally when they called back it was when I was out at Mayday Hills listening to a presentation on the research work into the records of the old lunatic asylum in Beechworth.

The person I talked to at the isp was a fool – he clearly didn’t understand his telemetry, insisted that our ethernet cable was unplugged from the NBN box, which it was not, tried to tell me several other things which were wrong. Eventually he agreed that an engineer would call me at 0900 the next morning.

Well, the engineer didn’t call me. I waited to 1200 – the support centre is in Perth and I thought it was just possible they’d got the timezone wrong, but no, they didn’t call, so I lodged a second call, and went through the whole call back rigmarole.

This time I lucked out, I got someone who not only understood the problem but clearly realised that I understood the problem, so we only had to do the turning the NBN box on and off and ‘telling me what the blinking lights do’ part of the fault finding.

In this outsourced world the isp people don’t do infrastructure faults themselves, so they need to get NBN to accept its a fault and schedule an engineer, something that couldn’t happen to Monday, by which time we’d be on our way to the island.

So, I persuaded them to book the call on our behalf, rather than the NBN calling us to arrange a time, and gave them a guaranteed time when we would be available on our return.

This of course left us with a problem that we had no internet, so no online banking, and no way of checking in online – actually not quite true, as we did have our 4G travel modem, which let us do what we needed to do.

And we needn’t have worried about checkin. The flight to the island from the mainland was an AirNZ flight from Sydney and we had a connecting flight from Melbourne with Virgin.

Despite the fact we had Air New Zealand tickets, their website would not allow an online checkin as our first flight out was with Virgin, and Virgin wouldn’t let us check in as we had tickets issued by Air NZ – basically we needed to talk to a human being, and as the flight left at 0600 that meant being at the terminal at around 0430, which I can tell you is a truly ungodly hour to be walking around an airport terminal.

So, after a night in an airport hotel, there we were, explaining our problem to one of the people that Virgin employ to help people with the self checkin terminals. She didn’t quite get it initially and thought we’d come in from NZ and hadn’t checked our luggage through, but to be fair, once she realised that we were not stupid, demented or mad, and had a genuine problem she put us in the priority queue for the two open manned check in desks.

Anyway, we fixed that, and feeling slightly sleep deprived we boarded our first flight to Sydney.

In Sydney, we had the slightly odd experience of having to transfer to the international terminal – until recently Norfolk Island had been a self governing external terrritory, and because of a separate biosecurity regime, the flight was still handled as if it was an international flight, that and of course Air NZ flights all leave from the international terminal.

Norfolk Island airport was something else – it made Lahad Datu in wilds of Borneo look sophisticated – apparently they are due a new terminal, but for now it’s a tin shed with a single conveyor and you queue for immigration – yes you do fill out a landing card to say you’ve come from Australia to Australia – and providing the sniffer dogs are happy, one guy checks your passport, and the other takes your landing card and you walk out into the car park, and you’re on the island.

The island’s small, five miles by three, has a population of around 1600, and probably another two or three hundred tourists at any one time.

It’s minimal. No 4G, spotty internet, the supermarket is sparsely stocked between deliveries from the supply ship, there’s some local fruit and veg – the baananas are superb – but really what there is is what there is.

What you do get is somewhere very relaxed, peaceful, with clean air and a couple of good swimming beaches.

No snakes, possums or anything like that, nothing much in the way of nasty spiders. There’s history, with the Kingtson historic precinct which has a number of museums in the restored old convict settlement, the site of the oroginal polynesian settlement, where both Cook and one of the later officers spied an overgrown grove of banana trees and suspected that there must once have been people on the island.

The Polynesians were on the island for around 400 years, and then, for reasons unknown, abandoned their settlement around 1450, long before European voyagers reached the island, the first being Cook in 1774 on his second voyage to the Pacific.

Shortly after the first convict fleet reached Sydney, the decision was made to turn Norfolk Island with its rich volcanic soil into a second settlement and to act as a farm to supply Sydney, where agriculture was proving a bit of a struggle. That settlement lasted for around thirty years, before being abandoned as surplus to requirements, the livestock killed, and the houses pulled down in case the French decided to occupy the island, which sits around 400 miles south of New Caledonia half way between northern New South Wales and the northern tip of New Zealand.

About ten years later the settlement was reestablished as a hard regime prison for recalcitrant convicts, along the same lines of Port Arthur in Tasmania. Looking at the gravestones in the cemetery, its noticable how many from the second settlement period are for men from Ireland, some of whom I would guess were political prisoners.

Of course it’s not actually a true reflection of the numbers, or political allegiances of the prisoners, as only those whose family or friends subscribed a monument got a grave stone, the rest just got wooden markers which have long since rotted, but clearly there were some men from Ireland who died here that their contemporaries thought well enough of to organise what is often a substantial stone monument.

There are also some earlier monuments, some touchingly crude and simple from the first settlement, but most of the stones are from the second settlement.

What is also noticable is that the soldiers and officers who died were mostly in their twenties or early thirties – the convicts having a greater spread of ages, and of the women who died, many of them were in their twenties, suggesting that they may have died of the complications of childbirth and childbed fever.

Very few of the stones for soldiers and officials have names that you would describe as Scots, which is unusual for Empire period graveyards, although there was a Rankine from Stirling commemorated, and the convicts seem -on the basis of the stones – to have been mostly English or Irish.

The lack of Scots names strikes me as a little bit unusual given the numbers serving in the army and the navy in the late Georgian period at the end of the Napoloeonic wars.

Of the site itself, the prison buildings, the officers houses on Quality Row, the surgeon’s house, the hospital and the barracks all date from the Second settlement hard regime period and are all in a late Georgian style similar to barracks buildings of the same time in Ireland and Britain.

Some of the prison governors, such as Alexander Maconachie, after whome the Canberra jail is named tried to run a humane regime, but most of the governors were hard men, who ran a regime reminiscent of the worst excesses of Stalin’s Gulag.

However, all things come to an end and the prison was closed in the 1850’s and the prisoners dispersed, and the island abandoned apart from a small caretaking group. A few years later the population of Pitcairn was transferred to Norfolk on the Morayshire, the Pitcairners having become too numerous for their island.

Most of the Pitcairners stayed, a few went back to Pitcairn, and those that stayed formed the basis of today’s population, with their slightly eccentric version of English, which like Jamaican English, even though the accent is completely different, still preserves some usages of West Country English from a couple of hundred years ago, quite possibly due to the last man left alive after the internecine struggles among the Bounty mutineers was born in St Kitts in the Carribean.

The other main influence on the island was the Melanesian mission, an attempt by the Church of England to train native pastors to convert the inhabitants of Melanesia to Christianity.

Nothing is left of the Melanesian mission, although there is an ongoing archaeological dig on the mission site, save the mission church, which is now used by what is still the Church of England for their Sunday services.

The mission church is quite wonderful with stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, a little high Victorian church on the other side of the world. Betjeman would have loved it.

Down in Kingtson there are four museums. One the Sirius museum is focused on the wreck of HMS Sirius in the 1790’s a major disaster for the fledgling settlemet, and the artefacts recovered – mostly carronades and cannon balls with some ships fittings.

As he ship was only wrecked a few hundred metres offshore they managed to recover most of the contents at the time meaning that there actually isn’t really that much left from the wreck.

More interesting is the museum housed in the basement of the 1850’s New Commisariat building which has artefacts from the dig on the site of the Polynesian settlement, remains from the second settlement – the first one was so comprehensively stripped there’s little left behind, and a fine collection of mid Victorian transfer printed pottery from the early days of the Pitcairners on the island, including a stunning array of chamberpots.

There’s also a good collection of mid Victorian condiment and patent medicine bottles, including quite a few from America which ended up on Norfolk Island on the back of the whaling industry and the general pattern of Pacific trade in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Equally interesting is the pier museum which has has artefacts from the Bounty, including a couple of cannons salvaged by the Pitcairners in the 1840s, the Bounty ring used for solemnizing marriages, the Bible used to record births, deaths and marriages and a few other items, as well as upstairs a collection of implements from the nineteenth century whaling industry, and a collection of domestic pottery showing that the people on the island had a fairly rich material culture.

Also worth a visit is number 10 Quality Row – Jane Austen would have loved it – the house built by Mr Sellers the surveyor – and incidentally the architect of the Panopticon pentagonal jail inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s writings that forms part of the ruins inside of the New Gaol compound.

Number 10 is a fairly classic late Georgian 4 room bungalow, with a verandah, a drawing room, a study, a dining room, and of course a bedroom in the front of the house, and across the rear courtyard separated from the main house in case of fire, a kitchen, and the toilet – the nineteenth century privy being still in place.

The neighbouring house, number 9, is now the Research centre and is really a family history centre for those trying to trace records of family members, but with a museum pass you can go inside and look at the building which follows the same plan, more or less, as number 10.

The rear kitchen and toilet are not so well preserved, but perversely there’s some plasterwork in the kitchen showing the original colour scheme from when the house was built.

Most of the other buildings are in use by the Island’s administration, and closed to visitors, but you are free to wander round the ruins of the jail, as well as features such as the flaghouse, a converted early nineteenth century block of privies on the foreshore later used to store signal flags to communicate with supply ships standing offshore.

However, the Lions Club is in what was the Surgeon’s quarters, a wooden building roughly on the site of the first government house, and you can go inside for a couple of dollars donation. Inside there’s nothing left of the nineteenth century internals, but there is a large, if a little amateurishly presented display of old photographs from Norfolk Island including of the Pitcairners after they arrived in the 1850’s.

Historically, that’s about it for the island, but the places is most definitely atmospheric, especially as it was blowing a gale as it was for some of our time on the island, with spray breaking over the wharf and the foreshore buildings or standing among the pines above Cook’s supposed landing spot.

I say supposed as its on a steep headland with a rocky beach below. Personally given that they saw the abandoned banana groves near the polynesian settlement site at Emily bay, I suspect that even though they may have come close inshore there, they actually went ashore around there, or further along at Kingston, as the only real landing places are on the beaches opposite Nepean and Phillip islands, and even so they are pretty hazardous.

Whatever the story though, it’s still a wild and atmospheric place.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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