Norfolk Island
A tiny fist of volcanic rock
Aa Aa Aa

Hundreds of years before Captain James Cook named a tiny fist of volcanic rock as Norfolk Island during his second Pacific voyage, the island was visited by—and became home to—Polynesian Islanders, who are thought to have originated from New Zealand or the Kermadec Islands. Though they appear to have abandoned Norfolk Island during the fifteenth century, various artefacts as well as floral and faunal evidence are testament to this prehistoric settlement.

European settlement of Norfolk Island began on 6 March 1788 when the British flag was raised by Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, but the decision to claim the Island was made well before the First Fleet set sail from Portsmouth. Governor Arthur Phillip of New South Wales’ instructions stated that he was, “as soon as circumstances will admit of it, to send a small establishment” to Norfolk Island to secure it for Britain. This was on account of its potential strategic significance, as well as it being a possible source of much-needed flax and timber for the Royal Navy. It soon became clear, however, neither of these materials native to Norfolk Island were suitable for shipbuilding.

The history of the first European settlement at Norfolk Island (1788 to 1814), which was not a penal settlement, is rather neglected and is often subsumed, mistakenly, into that of the notorious second European settlement (1825 to 1855). For instance, the so-called Recollections of 13 years Residence in Norfolk Island and Van Dieman’s land [sic], supposedly written in 1823 by the Island’s former gaoler, Robert Jones, is often cited as evidence of the brutality of the first settlement. However, research has shown this document to be at best entirely unreliable and at worst fraudulent: the historical Jones died in 1818, the document describes people who were not at Norfolk Island during the first settlement, and features paintings and descriptions of buildings not begun until the late 1820s and 1830s. In reality, the two settlements were very different. The history of the first is deeply intertwined with that of the mainland colony, and there was a significant degree of mutual dependency for several years. During the early period of settlement in Sydney, when food was scarce and widespread starvation a real danger, Norfolk Island was a source of much-needed supplies. However, maintaining the Island was expensive, owing to its isolation and the absence of a safe place of anchorage. The most well-known example of this danger was the wrecking of HMS Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet, at Norfolk Island on 19 March 1790. The loss of the Sirius was a devastating blow to New South Wales, as it left the colony, precariously, with a single supply ship.

Australia Norfolk Island 1

The dangerous waters around Norfolk Island forced ships to anchor a distance out, while goods and people were brought ashore in whaleboats either at Kingston in the south of the Island, or Cascade in the north. Crossing Slaughter Bay at Kingston was (and is) dangerous owing to the treacherous reef and frequent, powerful swells. A good number of lives were lost during the colonial period. They included convict Patrick Conaghan, whose body was never found after he was swept overboard on 29 March 1831, free coxswain James Emery who drowned in 1833 while piloting a whaleboat, while Captain John Charles Best and a Corporal McLoughlin of the 50th Regiment, and Superintendent of Agriculture John McLean, were all lost on 13 February 1840.

The establishment at Norfolk Island was gradually reduced from 1805 onwards—despite the reluctance of settlers to relocate to New Norfolk in Van Diemen’s Land—until it was finally abandoned in 1814. The Island was then thought to have lain silent until 1825, though it may not have been so entirely abandoned: the colonial authorities in Sydney and Hobart Town issued warnings to sailors that pirates may have used it as a base of operations.

“To Make a Hell of That Which Might Else be a Heaven”: Norfolk Island’s “Second Settlement”

Just over a decade after having been resettled in 1825, Norfolk Island had become the most notorious penal station in the English-speaking world. In 1840 Charles Dickens even offered to write a short novel about it, to ensure that the lower orders held it in sufficient dread. Norfolk Island’s reputation still casts a very long and dark shadow over the history of convict Australia. But how did this come to pass?

During the mid-to-late 1810s—particularly following demobilisation at the end of the Napoleonic Wars—concern grew in Britain over an apparently rocketing crime rate, and the efficacy (or otherwise) of transportation as a deterrent against crime. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Bathurst, commissioned John Thomas Bigge in 1819 to examine ways of “improving” the convict system. Among Bigge’s many recommendations was that convicts should undergo a multi-stage disciplinary system. The well-behaved would progress towards emancipation, whereas the recalcitrant would experience a series of increasingly restrictive punishments, including chain and road gangs, and remote penal stations. Norfolk Island was one such place, an officially-established “place of the extremest punishment, Short of Death” according to Governor Ralph Darling of New South Wales, where allegedly incorrigible male convicts could be sent to the very fringe of the fringe of the Empire.

On 6 June 1825, Captain Richard Turton of the 40th Regiment, with a detachment of 34 troops and 57 convicts, struggled ashore to begin work on the new settlement. The penal station was under the administrative control of the New South Wales government until September 1844, when it became the responsibility of the Van Diemen’s Land administration until it was closed in 1855. The settlement was progressively wound down from 1846 onwards, though after years of demonization former Norfolk Island men faced a great deal of hostility from colonists in Van Diemen’s Land, particularly at the height of the anti-transportation campaign when rather hysterical claims about the “unnatural” sexual tendencies of Norfolk Island convicts were abroad. For instance, Dr Mathias Gaunt complained of Norfolk Island men being “sent down like a pestilence” upon Van Diemen’s Land, while Robert Pitcairn warned that it was irresponsible to bring these convicts to a “community comprehending of more than 12,000 young children”, as though ex-Norfolk Island convicts would embark upon some kind of sexual rampage the moment they arrived in the colony. (The proportion of former Norfolk Island men who were subsequently convicted in the higher courts of Van Diemen’s Land, for any crime, was in fact relatively low). In an attempt to assuage such community fears, it appears the Port Arthur’s infamous Model Prison was conceived of in the first instance as a place of safe detention of former Norfolk Island prisoners.

Following the abandonment of the penal station, on 8 June 1856 the Pitcairn Islanders—descendants of Tahitian women and the Bounty mutineers—arrived to make Norfolk Island their new home.

Norfolk Island 2

“The Worst Types of Sub-human Beings”: The convicts of the Second Settlement

According to Robert Hughes, Norfolk Island was a “place of perverted values where evil was reckoned to be good and where the unbelievable became the norm”, while Frank Clune concluded that the Island was a “miasma of sin, [where] horror and vice beyond sane imaginings grew like poisonous fungus on a dungheap”. These are merely two of the innumerable examples of the Norfolk Island “legend”, first established by imperial administrators in the 1820s, and perpetuated until the present day. The legend forms the dominant mode of writing about the history of Norfolk Island’s second settlement, which is represented as a veritable blood-soaked “hell-on-earth”, populated by sadistic penal officials and vicious convicts; perhaps the most well-known (and most often-repeated) account is that in The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes (1986), despite its many errors and misrepresentations. In reality, this brutal penal station was a far more complex place than sensationalist (and frequently inaccurate) histories suggest.

At the heart of the legend is the assumption that Norfolk Island’s prisoners were the “worst of the worst” or, as the popular writer Frank Clune described them in the mid-1950s: hard and incorrigible “old lags”, some of whom were criminal lunatics, others half-crazed, warped and perverted in mind and body, or mere brutes of low mentality, or rotten with every vice produced by the degraded instincts of the worst types of sub-human beings.

Clune’s claim was written when the “criminal class” myth of the origins of transported convicts was at its height, and is palpably untrue. Yet the alleged “deviancy” of Norfolk Island convicts became firmly embedded in the public consciousness, owing to the rhetoric surrounding the penal settlement’s establishment in 1825. Since Norfolk Island had been officially founded to imprison an imagined “worst” sub-stratum of convicts, men sent there were subsequently condemned as such, no matter their crimes, their behaviour while under detention, or the changing nature of the penal settlement.

Norfolk Island’s convicts have long been assumed to have been “all, or nearly all […] ‘capital respites’”, and that “all of them [were] doubly convicted”. That is, they were men who, after having been transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, committed further capital offences in the colonies but were spared the noose on condition of being sent to Norfolk Island for life. This erroneous stereotype fails to look beyond Earl Bathurst’s 1824 proclamation that Norfolk Island would receive the “worst description of convicts”.

Detailed analysis of the voluminous convict records paints a different and more complex picture. 6,458 convicts sent to Norfolk Island have thus far been identified, and can be divided into five sub-groups:

  • 2,590 men who were originally transported to New South Wales;
  • 1,270 men who were originally transported to Van Diemen’s Land;
  • 730 men transported directly to England and Ireland in 1840 for Superintendent Alexander Maconochie’s penal experiment, also known as the “Mark System”;
  • 1,703 men transported directly to Norfolk Island from Millbank Prison between 1844 and 1846, to undergo a period of probation before going to Van Diemen’s Land;
  • 165 men who had either originally come free to, or were born in, Australia.

(The number of men sent from New South Wales to Norfolk Island may increase by a small number: work is on-going to identify all of those sent to the penal settlement between 1825 and 1828, as the records for this period are not comprehensive. The number of men comprising the Maconochie sub-group, transported by the Mangles, Augusta Jessie, and Woodbridge, will be revised slightly downwards: a number of men by these ships, generally the ill and infirm, were left in Sydney rather than continuing to Norfolk Island, but have yet to be identified).

Although Norfolk Island’s prisoners have been caricatured as depraved criminals they appear, by comparison with other major samples of transportees, rather unexceptional. Though statistical analysis risks obscuring nuance and individual experience, it can still tell us a great deal about Norfolk Island’s prisoners. The briefest of summaries shows that:

  • 66% were English, 25% were Irish, and 5% were Scottish. Contrary to impressions given in the literature, Irish convicts were under-represented among Norfolk Island convicts, in comparison to the overall convict population of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.
  • Nine Aboriginal men were held at Norfolk Island, as were men from China, Mauritius, India, Africa, and the West Indies, as well as a number of non-British or Irish Europeans.
  • 72% of the men were aged between 20 and 34 years when sent to Norfolk Island.
  • The average length of detention was 3¼ years, though with great variations: Joseph Green was at Norfolk Island for barely four months, while poor Thomas Stacey spent 20 years there.
  • Nearly 55% of the men were either sent to Norfolk Island under their original sentence of transportation, or without having received a conviction in colonial higher courts (criminal or supreme courts, or quarter sessions). For instance, when Norfolk Island came under the aegis of Van Diemen’s Land in September 1844, convicts could be sent there by order of the Lieutenant-Governor without a conviction. William Cook, for instance, was ordered to complete his probation at Norfolk Island in April 1851 after ‘being concerned in communicating to the Editor of the [Hobart] Guardian’.
  • Just under 25% of the men were sent to Norfolk Island for explicitly violent offences, while 64% were sent for non-violent property offences.

Work

Work and punishment were deeply intertwined at Norfolk Island. Commandant Turton was told in 1825 that the penal settlement was intended “to provide a place of Security, Subsistence and hard labour for Convicts of the worst description”. The working pattern barely changed during the next 30 years: summer working hours were from the sunrise reveille bell until 8 in the morning, then 9:30 till noon, and from 2 until sunset. During the winter, the lunch break lasted an hour owing to the shorter working day. Saturday was a half-day, and Sunday was free for recreation, washing, and attendance at religious service. Task-work was in effect during the early years, during Alexander Maconochie’s penal experiment, and for a period under Commandant John Price.

The 1825 ration of 43/8 lbs of salt meat and 7 lbs of flour each day was not hugely nourishing, and was certainly less than the New South Wales convict ration of 1820, which consisted of 7 lbs of meat, 7lbs of flour, 1 lb of sugar, 3 lbs of maize, ¼ lb of tea, and ½ lb of salt. It is little wonder then that in the early years Norfolk Island convicts resorted to hunting the wild pigs descended from the surviving animals of the first settlement to supplement their meagre diet, especially when—for example—each sawyer was, in 1829, expected to cut 700 feet of timber per week. Fortunately, the ration later improved: in November 1844, for example, prisoners were allowed 7 lbs of beef, 10½ lbs of maize meal, 7 oz of sugar, 1¾ oz of soap, and 3½ oz of salt per day, supplemented with vegetables. Well-behaved convicts were also allowed small plots on which to grow produce for their own consumption.

There were often shortages and substitutions in the ration, leading to fairly regular complaints from prisoners about its quality. If these complaints went unaddressed they could have serious consequences: dissatisfaction over food was a major contributory factor to the 1846 riot. In the months leading up to this outbreak the convicts regularly protested about the bad quality of maize meal ration, 600 bushels of which were condemned as unfit for human consumption, and there was a ten-day period in which the men received no vegetables. On several occasions during early 1846, large numbers of the prisoners went on strike in protest.

The majority of the convicts at Norfolk Island worked in its two key industries: in the field, raising crops to sustain the settlement, or in constructing and maintaining the settlement’s buildings. There were also various inter-connected industries on Norfolk Island: wood-cutters provided timber for the charcoal burners, who in turn produced carbon for the blacksmiths. In the Lumber Yard were the shops of skilled craftsmen, including the carpenters, iron-mongers, shoemakers, and more. Men unfit to work through injury, blindness, or ill-health worked in the invalid or light gangs, and were put to undemanding work such as oakum-picking or the repair of slop clothing. The most unpleasant work was carried out by the Gaol Gang and the men made to work in punishment irons, who were put to labour such as working in the water to hack coral from the reef to make lime, or at turning the machinery of the Crank Mill to grind corn. Unfortunately, detailed analysis of the arrangement of work at Norfolk Island—apart from brief snapshots in time—is impossible, as most of these records have not survived.

The Norfolk Island labour regime was often inefficient, purely to satisfy the demands of the imperial and colonial authorities for punitive labour. For instance, Governor Richard Bourke dogmatically insisted that no ploughs or “Machinery not urged by [the convicts’ own] force” should be used in farming, despite Commandant James Morisset complaining that this proscription was “very detrimental to the progress of Agriculture on this Island”. For a period all ploughing was done by hand. Working bullocks were introduced later.

Punishment

The extent of punishment—particularly corporal punishment—at Norfolk Island has been greatly exaggerated; M.G. Britts, for instance, claimed that the “brutality and inhumanities” of the penal station were “hardly to be rivalled until the era of the concentration camps”, while Jan Morris described Norfolk Island as a place of “Auschwitzian horror”. Such hyperbolic comparisons are fundamentally misleading and inappropriate; comparing Norfolk Island, however brutal it was, to a place of genocide is astonishingly offensive. Moreover, such comparisons have the effect of reducing Norfolk Island’s past to little more than a gothic, nightmarish caricature, and trivialising the genuine suffering of the prisoners detained there. The exaggeration is all the more surprising as it is entirely unnecessary: aside from Macquarie Harbour and a period at Moreton Bay, Norfolk Island was colonial Australia’s most brutal penal station.

Before 1833 there was no provision by which to hold trials for capital offences committed at Norfolk Island. Penal settlement regulations stated that any such suspects, depositions, and witnesses should be forwarded to Sydney for trial. The men who murdered overseer Adam Oliver and Peter Fitzgerald during 1830, for example, were dealt with in this way. After several murders and attempted murders at Norfolk Island, in 1833 the law was altered to allow a commission consisting of a judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court, a prosecutor, defence barrister, and jury to carry out trials on the spot. Any executions were to made as “impressive and admonitious” as possible. The first such trials took place that year, when Matthew Connor and James Reynolds were found guilty of murdering convict constable Patrick Sullivan, and Thomas Reilly and William Bolton of killing Edward Doolan; all but Bolton were sentenced to death by Judge James Dowling, and were hanged at Norfolk Island. Subsequently, all those charged with capital offences committed at Norfolk Island were tried there, apart from eight men sent for trial in Sydney in 1842: Stephen Brennan had murdered Patrick Lynch by stabbing him through the heart after an argument, and seven others had attempted to seize the brig Governor Phillip, a bloody episode in which five prisoners were shot dead, two severely wounded, and Private Daniel Taylor drowned after being thrown overboard.

The infliction of summary punishment was strictly regulated and recorded. Convicts were liable for summary punishment if they broke the settlement’s rules, for instance by refusing to work, disobeying orders, fighting, absconding, verbally or physically abusing their overseer, and so forth. Overseers and other officials were forbidden from striking prisoners, on pain of dismissal. For summary offences, convicts would be brought before two magistrates —one of whom was usually the commandant—for a hearing and sentencing at the police office. The records of the hearings have not survived, but the sentences passed on the convicts were recorded in their conduct records.

Most commonly, summary offences were punished with either hard labour in chains or solitary confinement: between 1833 and 1855, sentences totalling the equivalent of 2,272 years of hard labour in chains, and 196 years of solitary confinement, were passed upon the prisoners of Norfolk Island. These totals are so vast that they are difficult to comprehend. The former soldier Henry Brown spent 449 days of his 4 years at Norfolk Island in solitary confinement, for offences including insolence, trafficking, possession of tobacco, destroying a Bible, and repeated disobedience of orders. James Ainsworth was made to wear irons for over a third of his 3,162 days at the Island, for a multitude of offences including being part of a group who battered their fellow prisoner William Skinner, disobeying orders, breaking a fence, telling a wilful falsehood, and for suspected sexual relations with another prisoner. During 1851, an astonishing 86% of the convict population at some point received sentences ordering them to wear irons. Overall, however, 36% of Norfolk Island convicts served their time without suffering any form of summary punishment, and a further 25% were punished only once; prolonged and repeated summary punishment was not the majority experience at Norfolk Island. This conclusion is, however, little consolation to those who suffered so much.

Flogging occurred far less frequently. In 1825 Commandant Turton was told that corporal punishment should be carried out at “some private spot where none are present but the necessary attendants”, to never occur without the presence of the commandant and medical officer, and that all punishments were to be minutely recorded and reported to Sydney in monthly returns. These rules were maintained for the next 30 years. Turton’s orders limited him to inflicting a maximum of 50 lashes per punishment, though for a period between the early 1830s and about 1844, floggings of up to 300 lashes were permitted. Floggings of 100, 200, and 300 lashes were, though, rare. The floggers were always convicts, and were, unsurprisingly, unpopular. There was no-one, suggested the convict Martin Cash, “as truly contemptable [sic] as the Flagellator […] I never knew a man with one redeeming quality that had filled that odious office. I found them to be cruel, cowardly, and treacherous”. One convict who filled this office – as well as that of executioner – at Norfolk Island during the mid-1840s was William Croft. He was so detested by Cash and his fellow prisoners that in August 1848, Commandant John Price was moved to warn the Comptroller-General of Convicts that Croft “may require protection” from other convicts.

Writings on Norfolk Island frequently exaggerate the extent of flogging. For instance, Margaret Hazzard suggested that around a million lashes were inflicted upon the prisoners, which would have been physically impossible. Such a claim is emblematic of how Norfolk Island’s history has been exaggerated and sensationalised. A day-by-day analysis of flogging shows that in total 136,440 lashes were ordered in 1829 and between 1833 and 1853 at Norfolk Island, a terrible enough figure which requires no embellishment. (Comprehensive punishment data is unavailable for the periods 1825 to 1828, and 1830 to 1832). The twelve-month period which saw the heaviest sentencing to flogging was between 1 December 1845 and 30 November 1846, when 16,432 lashes were ordered to be inflicted. At most, a quarter of Norfolk Island convicts were flogged, and the majority of those who endured it did so on one occasion. The data throws up some unexpected findings: under the reforming Superintendent, Alexander Maconochie—long thought to have largely done away with corporal punishment—the average number of lashes per flogging was greater than at any other time (102 during 1842), and he ordered a greater number of lashes in total in 1842 and 1843 than the notorious Commandant John Price did in either 1848, 1849, or 1850.

Graph

Sentences to flogging at Norfolk Island, 1829, and 1833 to 1853

Statistics cannot, of course, give any idea of the agonies of being tied to the flogging triangle and then being metronomically beaten with a cat-o’-nine-tails. This was a ferocious, invasive punishment, the infliction of which was made all the colder by the precision with which it was recorded. As the historians Ray Evans and Bill Thorpe concluded, flogging was “a calibrated process of administering pain”. Only three Norfolk Island convicts who wrote about their lives described being flogged, with the Irishman Laurence Frayne providing the most vivid account. Sprawled on the floor of his cell after enduring 200 lashes for disobedience and threatening an overseer, Frayne thought that even if he were “made emperor of all the universe no heart can conceive or can write or tongue can tell the poignant grief & the anguish of sort I have suffered both mental and otherwise”. Nor do statistics give any idea of the fear spread by corporal punishment: the sight of a scarred fellow-prisoner, their stories, and even the sound of the punishment itself all inspired dread. From the window of his room above the yard of the prisoners’ barracks, convict John Mortlock recalled how “the horrid sound of the ‘cats’ upon naked flesh […] tortured my ears”.

All of this gives the impression that Norfolk Island convicts were entirely helpless in the face of authority, but this was far from the case. The prisoners resisted authority in a variety of imaginative ways, ranging from the violent riots of 1826, 1834, and 1846, to attempts to escape from the Island, successful or otherwise. (Sixty-four convicts did manage to abscond from Norfolk Island, despite the supposed impossibility of doing so). Modes of convict resistance included refusal to work, doing a deliberately poor standard of work, mocking their superiors, feigning illness (and, in a few cases, madness) to avoid labour, and engagement in trafficking on the extensive black market. Outside of work hours, the convicts had time for recreation and education, which they made the most of. Reducing the history of the Norfolk Island penal settlement to a simple story of violence is a mistake, and does the convicts detained there a great disservice.

Heritage

Few visible signs of the Polynesian and first European settlements remain today, though the Norfolk Island Museum collections include artefacts from these periods excavated during archaeological projects. Likewise, little is left of the second European settlement outstations at Longridge and Cascade. The penal precinct at Kingston is rather more complete, though most of the convict-related buildings are to some degree ruins. Barely anything of the Prisoners’ Barracks and Lumber Yard, and little other than the outer walls and foundations of the New Gaol remain, as they were quarried for stone by the Pitcairn Islanders (with the Crown’s encouragement, and after having paid for the privilege of doing so). The handsome military and administrative buildings of Quality Row are extremely well preserved, and remain in use today.

Norfolk Island 3

Since August 2010, the Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) has had UNESCO World Heritage Status, as one of eleven listed Australian convict sites. The Norfolk Island Museum offers a comprehensive introduction to the Island’s many and interconnected histories, and visitors are free to walk among the ruins and explore the Kingston area for themselves.

Norfolk Island is a 2½ hour flight from Sydney, 2 hours and 20 minutes from Brisbane, and 90 minutes from Auckland.

Notes

Further Reading

Bruce Baskerville, “1,2,3 History: Norfolk Island’s Inconvenient History,” http://historymatrix.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/1-2-3-history-some-thoughts-on-writing-history-on-norfolk-island/

Tim Causer, “‘The Worst Types of Sub-human Beings’? The myth and reality of the convicts of the second penal settlement at Norfolk Island, 1825-55”, Islands of History (Sydney, 2011): 8-31.  Also downloadable from http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1331354/

Tim Causer, “Anti-transportation, ‘Unnatural Crime’, and the ‘Horrors’ of Norfolk Island”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 14 (2012): 230–40. Also downloadable from http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1362051/.

Raymond Nobbs (ed.), Norfolk Island and Its First Settlement (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1988).

Raymond Nobbs (ed.), Norfolk Island and Its Second Settlement (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1991).

Raymond Nobbs, Norfolk Island and Its Third Settlement (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 2006).

Primary Sources

Records relating to Norfolk Island’s convict past can be found at the following institutions: