Convict Settlement: the abridged version of Norfolk Island’s history

Not only are free transfers offered by almost every hotel on the island, but many also offer a free orientation tour, and we join ours on the morning of the second day. John Christian, our driver and guide, can trace his family history (and still retains the surname) from those on the Bounty. He is a walking (driving?) encyclopedia of the island’s history.

The orientation takes in the key sights of the island – the main town (where we stop to enjoy the local market), the main viewpoints (hard to choose which one is the more stunning) and the beautiful St Barnabas chapel, where we heard about the mission history (and were shown the stain glassed windows which are apparently the only ones in the world to depict the saints without facial hair).

There was a drive past Emily Bay – the most beautiful beach on the island, which could easily rival any stretch of sand in the Pacific. Then there’s Slaughter Bay, which is also stunning, and a great place for snorkelling (although I may suggest to Rose that they think about changing the name if they want to continue attracting tourists), as well as the World Heritage Area of Kingston – where both the first and second settlements based themselves and is now a mix of classic Georgian buildings, all fantastically restored.

The shells of buildings, which are nothing more than four walls, as well as the massive area of mostly rubble, surrounded by  a very imposing wall, which was once the prison; but whose stone has since been used to build many of the houses found on the island today. We’re dropped in town for lunch before delving deeper into the history of the island on the Convict Settlement Tour that afternoon.

It’s impossible to understand why Norfolk Island is the place it is today, without an understanding of the events that have happened on this tiny spot of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The afternoon tour deals with this in depth, and shows us many of the sites where major events took place, ending in the graveyard where eventually the convicts (the good ones at least) were buried and given headstones, which now leads to a fascinating walk that ties together all the stories we’d heard about those that now lay beneath our feet.

The abridged version of Norfolk Island History

(Apologies to anyone who may be offended by the simplicity following here – but I’m on a limited word count – any errors are purely my own and while I could blame my own inattentiveness, I’ll say it’s down to the fact it was a bumpy ride as I was trying to make notes).

1200 -1400s Polynesian islanders were probably the first to settle the island, but after several generations they disappeared.

1774 Captain Cook sighted the island and thought the tall pines would be great for making masts and the flax plants would be good material for sail cloth (he was wrong on both counts – while he was a great explorer, he was not a great botanist).

1788 – 1814 The British opened a penal colony on Norfolk – while the officers enjoyed sea views, many of the prisoners endured conditions so harsh it’s a wonder they survived (well, many didn’t).  Due to the remoteness of the colony, it was decided to abandon the island.

1789 The Mutiny on the Bounty occurred when Fletcher Christian decided he couldn’t handle the Captain (Bligh) any longer (a message for leaders everywhere that you can only push your men so far). The mutineers took the Bounty (Bligh and those loyal to him were sent to sea in little more than a row boat, but somehow survived a long and arduous journey to find land). The Mutineers found Pitcairn Island and settled there for just over 60 years. We’ll come back to them in a moment…

1824 – 1847 The British decided to reopen a penal colony as a place to send the very worst of the convicts. It was eventually closed down as the government decided they could implement even harsher conditions if they opened up Tasmania as a penal colony (they were quite successful in that respect).

1856 The British Government decided that Norfolk should be opened up again and chose the Pitcairn Islanders as the perfect inhabitants as they were used to roughing it on a small island.

The population slowly grew until it finally became the perfect place to take a few days to relax and enjoy hearing about the struggles of those that lived here in the past. Visitors tend to do this while enjoy a slice of cake and afternoon tea, wondering how on earth people managed before such comforts. None of us managed to come up with an answer to that one.

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Words & images by Matt Scott, product manager at Holidays of Australia & the World.

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