Queen Victoria came to the throne of England in 1937, just months after her 18th birthday. She ruled for over 63 years, during a period of enormous growth and development, and at a time when the British Empire extended to over a quarter of the world’s population. Wherever you travel in the world, you will see her name commemorated in landmarks, streets, parks, buildings and the like. Even here on Norfolk Island, her name is revered, because this great British Queen played a very special role in the history of the people of the island.
One of the smallest places in Queen Victoria’s ‘empire’ was undoubtedly Pitcairn Island, a remote and tiny rock in the Pacific Ocean. The Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives had made Pitcairn Island their home in 1789, during the reign of Victoria’s grandfather George III. For many years, they had remained isolated, with no contact with the outside world. When they were finally discovered in 1808, Victoria’s uncle, George IV, was on the throne. By this time, the little community had embraced a strong religious faith, and had turned their backs on the violence and lawlessness of the past. The people of England, from the Sovereign down, took a strong interest in the people of Pitcairn and bore them a great deal of goodwill.
Ships travelling the Pacific via South America regularly visited the Pitcairn Islanders. It should be remembered that, at this time, a Ship’s Captain actually represented government authority, and these men not only did whatever they could to assist and advise the Pitcairn Islanders, but also conveyed news, letters and requests between Pitcairn and Britain.
It was Captain Elliot, of The Fly, who, in 1838, helped the little community to draw up a list of laws by which they could be governed. The Captain would have brought them news of the young Queen Victoria who had come to the throne just months before, and from that time on, the people of the island always sought news of their young Sovereign when ships visited. The people of Pitcairn always regarded themselves as British subjects, and flew the Union Jack. Although their exact legal and constitutional position may not have been clear at this time, they were, without doubt, the Queen’s loyal and grateful subjects. Her title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ particularly appealed to them, as they also regarded themselves as full members of the Church of England.
George Hunn Nobbs had arrived on Pitcairn Island in 1828, and over the years had taken on a leadership role there. He became the island’s teacher and doctor, and also their pastor and spiritual advisor. Nobbs felt he would like to have some official ecclesiastical authority from the Church of England, and it was arranged that he would travel to England to be ordained. His visit took place between 1852 and 1853, and he was widely welcomed wherever he travelled, by authorities and ordinary people whose imaginations had been captured by the inspiring story of the Pitcairn people.
During his visit to England, Nobbs took the opportunity to consult with the British Government about the need for the Pitcairn people to find a new home. The island was becoming too small for the community, which by then numbered 190. Towards the end of his visit, George Hunn Nobbs (now Reverend) had an audience with Queen Victoria herself and Prince Albert at their home in Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight. Later, Nobbs wrote about his embarrassment at the fact that when the Queen had held out her hand, he had perhaps grabbed it a little too eagerly and warmly. Such was his delight and affection, he may have forgotten the protocols. In any case, the Queen presented him with a large lithograph reproduction of a painting of her and the Prince and their young family. This picture is still in a private home on Norfolk Island today.
How did the Queen herself feel about these small outposts of her empire? Although the Queen was a constitutional monarch, and did not exert any real power, we know that she took a great interest in politics right from the start of her reign, and would often consult with, and give advice to her ministers. There is no doubt that she encouraged the actions of her successive governments to exercise a beneficial oversight over all her subjects. As a monarch who was known for upholding values of integrity and honour, she believed that the Pitcairn and Norfolk communities, who had adopted strong religious and moral values after the Mutiny, were deserving of any assistance that her government could give.
It was with a feeling of gratitude to the Queen herself that 194 people made the journey from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island in 1856. They were to occupy the island as their new home, along with the infrastructure of the abandoned penal colony. Initially, each family drew lots for the Kingston houses, and were later given land grants of around 50 acres (20 hectares). Further grants were given when the offspring of the original settlers married. The new Norfolk Islanders were proud to see that Victoria’s name appeared on the grant deeds. They regarded their new island home and their individual grants of land as gracious gifts from Queen Victoria herself. They were soon to realise that the Crown was a more complex entity than just a benevolent Queen, but continued to hold their monarch in high personal regard. This sentiment is still strong in many island families today.
When two groups of islanders found they could not settle on Norfolk Island, and returned to Pitcairn, they were concerned that Her Majesty would think they were displaying a lack of gratitude in turning their backs on Norfolk Island. They took great pains to see that they themselves bore the cost of the voyage, and that it did not come from the public pocket. We know, however, that Queen Victoria continued to support those on Pitcairn, and in 1880 personally gifted them a church organ.
Over the ensuing years, both the Norfolk Island people and the community that had re-established itself on Pitcairn, maintained their strong feelings of patriotism to Britain and devotion to the Queen. They took the opportunity to toast and salute their monarch whenever they could, and the occasions of the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees were causes for great celebration.
On Norfolk Island, when the 50th anniversary of Victoria’s reign was approaching, the elders of the island looked for a suitable project to mark the occasion. It was decided to encourage people to subscribe to a Queen Victoria Scholarship Trust Fund, for both Junior and Senior school students. This was a fitting enterprise, because Victoria had ruled over an era when educational opportunities had opened up enormously for both boys and girls. The scholarship awards continue to this day, and still carry great prestige.
Because Queen Victoria’s era was a time of great expansion in travel, technology, commerce and industry, it was inevitable that the Bounty descendants would not continue to experience the same isolation as they had previously. Particularly on Norfolk Island, the little community began to see the changes that were taking place in the world, and they benefitted not only from the new technologies, but also from the improved humanitarian values that were making life better for people.
When news of Queen Victoria’s death reached the island in 1901, there was great sadness. She had ruled for 63 years and seven months. Few members of the community could recall any other monarch presiding over them. It was a difficult time for Norfolk Island’s people. They had recently lost the right to elect their own magistrates, and their local laws had been repealed. Preparations were being made to eventually hand control of Norfolk Island over to the newly established Commonwealth of Australia. The relationship of the Norfolk Islanders with their Queen for over 60 years had underpinned the stable foundations of the community. Although their loyalty to the ruling monarch would remain, they had lost a familiar symbol that gave them comfort and protection.
Memorials to the late Queen were established all over the world, and it seemed surprising that the Norfolk Islanders did not build one. In 2009, Miss Marie Bailey decided to correct this situation. On the land in Queen Elizabeth Avenue that was granted by Queen Victoria to her grandmother Emily Bailey, on her marriage to George Bailey in 1875, Marie has established ‘Queen Victoria’s Garden.’ The gardens contain many plantings, including exotic specimens from all corners of the former British Empire. There is a gazebo where a marble bust of the Queen sits on a table, surrounded by pictorial and written material relating to Queen Victoria and Norfolk Island.
Shortly before the completion of the project, Marie obtained a copy of a letter, originally written and signed in 1901 by a number of the island elders, to the authorities in England, requesting permission and assistance to erect a memorial to Queen Victoria on Norfolk Island. The text of this petition reveals the strength of the feelings of gratitude and debt in the hearts of the Norfolk Island people to the great Queen. The letter reads in part:
June 11th 1901
To His Most Gracious Majesty King Edward VII
We the undersigned former inhabitants of Pitcairn Island and who left that island with our families hope that Your Most Gracious Majesty will not think us presumptuous in humbly addressing you It has been one of our most highly valued and greatest privileges to correspond with our great and beloved Queen Victoria whom death has taken from us…
… By the death of our great and beloved Queen Victoria we have lost a friend in need, a loving mother, a watchful protectress, and a beloved Sovereign.
She in our time of need granted us Norfolk Island when Pitcairn Island was getting too small for our community and we were in consequence beginning to be in straightened circumstances
She always watched over us in Pitcairn and Norfolk Island as only a loving Mother can. In prosperity and adversity our interests have been respected and protected…
Although a small and insignificant community when on Pitcairn Island, yet the men-of-war of our Sovereign frequently visited us supplying us with many necessaries of life. They also assisted the authorities to preserve law and order, and helping in many ways to advance our community.
Her death has left an aching void in our hearts…”.
The writers go on to request the King to arrange for a suitable statue of the late Queen to be sent to Norfolk Island as part of a memorial.
“We think that a life size bronze statue of Her Majesty Queen Victoria at the age of 37 years, which was her age when we came to Norfolk Island, is the most suitable memorial…”
The letter is signed by eleven Norfolk men, who describe themselves as “Your Most Gracious Majesty’s faithful and loyal subjects.”
It is not known if a response was ever received, or indeed, if the letter was ever sent.
In the early part of the 20th century, ‘Empire Day’ was celebrated throughout the whole of the British Empire (later the British Commonwealth), and the day chosen was May 24th, which had been Victoria’s birthday. There was a special emphasis on participation by children, and a half-holiday was given on the day. Nowhere was it celebrated with greater enthusiasm or patriotism than here on Norfolk Island, and many of the island’s older people will tell you about the special treats and festivities of those days. Children would wear red, white and blue ribbons, wave flags, and sing songs like Rule Britannia. and God Save the Queen (or King.). The latter is still the National Anthem on Norfolk Island, a tradition that many Norfolk Islanders say they wish to continue out of their gratitude and respect for the Monarchy, and Queen Victoria in particular.
In the second half of the 20th century, the Empire Day became known as Commonwealth Day. The Official Queen’s Birthday was marked by a public holiday in June, while Commonwealth Day is now celebrated in March. Norfolk Island is still proud to be part of that Commonwealth, along with over 50 other countries which used to be colonies of Britain, but which are now self-governing. Norfolkers have been proud to represent Norfolk Island at the Commonwealth Games over many years. Members of the island’s government have always participated in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
The present Queen Elizabeth is the head of this great organisation, which has brought stability, sharing of ideas, and many benefits to the people and the governments who belong. A Royal Visit in 1974 was greeted with great enthusiasm by a very loyal Norfolk community. Along with Norfolk Island, most Commonwealth countries would look back on the time of Queen Victoria’s rule with a degree of nostalgia, as a time when there was great economic and scientific progress, and the establishment of good democratic government. The fact that so many former territories and colonies have chosen to stay in the Commonwealth is a tribute to a monarch who ruled her subjects with great wisdom and honour.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 05 Issue 02, 2015. 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.