A few days after the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove, a scientific expedition under the command of the great French navigator Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, sailed into Botany Bay. La Pérouse met with Lieutenant Philip Gidley King and reported on his visit to Norfolk Island. La Pérouse did not actually land at Norfolk, describing the cliff-bound island as “a place for angels and eagles to reside in”.
The Governor Captain Arthur Phillip was worried – and for good reason. The arrival of La Pérouse was not a coincidence: he had been asked by the French King to report on the small but strategically important English settlement at Botany Bay. Phillip thought that the French might have had larger territorial ambitions in the Pacific and so he immediately decided to fast-track the settlement of Norfolk Island.
Of course, the British government had always intended to settle the small, unoccupied Pacific island, 1,500 kilometres to the east of Botany Bay. Captain Cook had discovered it in 1774 and reported favourably on its natural resources, especially the pine for ships’ masts and the flax for cordage and sailcloth. What’s more, the English were keen to get a toe-hold in the Pacific and Norfolk Island was strategically placed with this in mind. Indeed, in the first few years of settlement, the island became an important stop-over for English whaling ships, hunting in the southern oceans.
With all of this in mind, Governor Phillip ordered Philip Gidley King and some 22 men and women — convict and free — to sail to Norfolk Island and establish a settlement. King landed on the southern coast on 6 March 1788 — he was perhaps a little more intrepid than La Pérouse — and the rest, as they say, is history.
My personal voyage through the history of Norfolk Island began in 2006 when I was appointed Curator at the Norfolk Island Museum. As an historian I have always been an enthusiastic student of Australia’s convict history. It is an extraordinary notion — that a modern state could be built on the backs of the British Empire’s criminal classes — and yet that’s exactly what happened. You can see why I was so keen to come to the island and explore its convict history.
When I got to the island, however, I found so much more. In fact, there were two convict periods. The first from 1788 was similar to what was happening in Port Jackson, with land clearing and crop growing and lots of speculation and commercial activity. The second period from 1825 to 1855 was when the whole of Norfolk Island was turned into the most awful penitentiary, a place worse than death itself. But before all of this were the Polynesians, those remarkable navigators who, guided by the stars and currents and other sea signs, migrated throughout the Pacific. The furthest west the Polynesians reached was Norfolk Island and they settled here for some time, leaving an important archaeological site at Emily Bay.
Polynesians and convicts. Even by 1856 the island already had a complex history. And then came the Pitcairners, those hardy, pious descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers. The whole community of 194 souls arrived on 8 June 1856 by the Morayshire. They settled, they farmed, they whaled, and they prayed, and they are still here. Today, more than 40% of Norfolk Island’s population trace their ancestry back to the original Pitcairn migration.
I think we can all agree that Norfolk Island has a remarkable history, but you’re probably thinking, “Do we really need another book about it?” And you’d be right. One scholar has estimated that there are more than 8,000 books and articles about various aspects of the island’s history. 8,000! So, why do we need another one?
To tell you the truth, I didn’t ponder that question for long. Having worked in the Norfolk Island Museum for two years, I was sure that a concise, well-illustrated, and affordable history was highly desirable. The museum has its own bookshop, which sells all of the standard histories of the island, including Peter Clarke’s Hell and Paradise: The Norfolk, Bounty, Pitcairn saga (1986), Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island: a revised and enlarged history 1774–1981 (1999), and Raymond Nobbs’ Norfolk Island and its Third Settlement (2006). These are all excellent histories — authoritative, detailed, and well written — but I knew by observing visitors to the museum’s bookshop that many people wanted something a little easier to digest.
Norfolk Island has many layers of stories, laid down by all its residents and visitors — Polynesians, convicts and Pitcairners — a collection of the most extraordinary “angels and eagles”.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
A Place for Angels and Eagles is available from Norfolk Island Museum
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V1 Iss1, 2008. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.