Norfolk Island is all that remains of numerous volcanoes produced by a massive lava surge three million years ago. Over the following millennia, rich volcanic soils nurtured the mighty araucaria (pine), tree ferns, palms, hardwoods and softwoods that became the nesting places for a remarkable variety of land birds and migratory seabirds.
First Human Contact
By AD 800, Norfolk Island was a thickly forested sanctuary for birds, lizards and bats, surrounded by waters teeming with marine life. Situated between New Caledonia and New Zealand, it became the perfect rest stop for the great sea-faring voyagers of the era, the Polynesians. It’s estimated that the Polynesians occupied Norfolk Island on a continual or seasonal basis for 600 years before they mysteriously moved on around AD 1400. Today, the excavated remains of Polynesian houses, outdoor ovens and a marae can be explored in the dunes behind Emily Bay.
The British Arrive
Captain James Cook levelled his telescope on Norfolk Island in 1774 and after recommending to the British Admiralty that the island’s pines and flax be used as a source of masts, spas and sails, he changed the course of our tiny island forever. Fourteen years later, Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet, dispatched a party of 22 men and women under the command of Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King to build a settlement on Norfolk Island. King put the 15 convicts to work felling and milling the Norfolk Island pines and preparing the flax for the making of canvas; however, things didn’t work out as planned. They soon discovered that the native pines, though excellent for construction, were not suitable for battleship masts, and the flax was a mystery to the Irish linen weavers.
Nevertheless, the colonial outpost survived and prospered. Its role transformed into one of feeding the penal settlement at Port Jackson, which it managed to do despite shipwrecks, droughts and insect plagues. With the discovery of the fertile soils around the Nepean, Hunter and Hawkesbury rivers, New South Wales no longer needed to rely on Norfolk Island’s produce and the settlement was closed in 1814.
Hell in the Pacific
Norfolk Island settled back into isolation, but its coastal forests had been felled, its bats became extinct and the nesting grounds of its migrating petrels abandoned. The cattle, goats and pigs left by the settlers wreaked further environmental havoc. Then in 1825, human voices were heard again. This time, the convicts were heavily chained and closely guarded. These were the worst offenders and re-offenders from every jail in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, sent to suffer in the most infamous and feared penal settlement in the colony. They were set to work rebuilding the roads, bridges and store houses destroyed and abandoned over a decade before. The elegant Georgian buildings of heritage-listed Kingston are the fruits of their backbreaking labour. Conditions on Norfolk Island during this penal settlement became so unbearably brutal and inhumane that reports sent by concerned clergymen and government officers finally resulted in orders to close it. By the end of 1855, most convicts had been removed and the fate of Norfolk Island once again hung in the balance.
A New Beginning
In 1790, as the first British settlers on Norfolk Island were struggling to survive, 6,000km to the east the mutineers from the Bounty were busy making their home on Pitcairn Island. The first five years on Pitcairn were brutal as they fought amongst themselves and with the Polynesian men and women who had accompanied them.
To learn more about Norfolk Island’s history, visit our Kingston UNESCO World Heritage Site page.
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