The Oddity that is Norfolk Island - The Intrepid

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Oddity that is Norfolk Island

If you search “Norfolk Island” in Google, the first thing that appears is a small featureless map of the island. Besides the shape and name of the island, the map only reveals the name of the capital city, Kingston. Surrounded by blue, the island looks isolated. But, to judge Norfolk Island solely on its Google map would be a crime. Behind this small unassuming Pacific island is a rich and important history.


Located two hours east of Australia, Norfolk Island is a tiny self-governing Australian territory. (Although many islanders believe they are a sovereign territory.) As of July 2008, the population of the island was approximately 2,128. With no arable land, Norfolk’s meager economy relies almost entirely on tourism. While many people travel to Norfolk for its crystal blue waters and unspoiled beauty, the island also has a dark history as a penal colony.

The British first chose Norfolk as the site of a colony in 1788. At first, the colony was successful, and eventually grew in population to 1,100 in 1792. However, the military outpost at Kingston proved too expensive to maintain and the island was ill suited for agricultural produce. In 1814, the colony was abandoned.

While Norfolk’s remoteness originally made it an unsuitable location for a colony, its remoteness became an asset when it was refashioned as a penal colony for New South Wale’s worst criminals. Although, criminals had been shipped to Norfolk as early as 1788, free settlers joined them. When the colony reopened in 1825, it was strictly as a penal colony.

Norfolk is the prefect prison. Isolated, surrounded by water, and with the exception of a small area around Kingston, most of the island’s 32 km of coastline is sheer cliff. Conditions on the island were harsh and prisoners were treated with little regard for their lives. Few convicts survived their stay at Norfolk. Prisoners called it “hell in paradise.” Governor George Arthur, of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) commented, “When prisoners are sent to Norfolk Island, they should on no account be permitted to return. Transportation thither should be considered as the ultimate limit and a punishment short only of death.”

The second penal experiment ended in 1855 and the remaining convicts were moved to Van Diemen’s Land. In 1856, another group of “criminals” settled the island. These men and women were the descendants of the Tahitians and H.M.S. Bounty mutineers who had been previously living on the Pitcairn Islands. While 194 arrived in 1856, many of the families opted to return to Pitcairn in 1858.

In 1901, Norfolk Island officially became part of the Commonwealth of Australia and remains an Australian territory today. However, there is a small Norfolk independence movement that considers the territory sovereign, citing the fact that Queen Victoria ceded the island to the Pitcairns in 1856. These people resent Australia’s control and believe that “Norfolkers” have a right to complete autonomy.

In 2006, the Australian undertook a study to assess Norfolk’s self-governance. The study concluded that “that the governance and financial arrangements on Norfolk Island were unsustainable and that significant changes were needed.” However, the Australian government opted not to interfere with the status quo.

Like most small Pacific islands, the greatest threat to Norfolk’s future is not political, but rather demographic. While Norfolk may have a rich history, many of its younger inhabitants do not see a future for themselves on the island. As more of Norfolk's youth drift away, its unique culture will fade into history.

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