Penal Colonies

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Norfolk Island
Penal Establishment

Convict Ruins, Norfolk Island Penal Establishment

Norfolk Island is a small volcanic island 8 kilometres by 5 kilometres, lying in the Pacific Ocean about 1,600 kilometres east-north-east of Sydney and some 1,056 kilometres from Auckland. The average elevation is nearly 107 metres, with two peaks rising to slightly over 305 metres. A little to the south are two smaller islands—Nepean, a limestone islet approximately 4 hectares in extent and rising to 32 metres, and Philip, a volcanic island 2 kilometres long and reaching 280 metres in height. These three islands are the only uncovered areas of submarine elevation running from New Zealand to New Caledonia, known today as the Norfolk Ridge.

It was first spotted by James Cook in 1774 and so was known to the first convict fleets when they arrived in 1788. Before the sailing of the first British fleet to establish the continent’s first territory, British Governor Arthur Phillip was specifically instructed to colonize its Eastern Norfolk Island to prevent the land from falling into the hands of the French, who were also showing interest in the Pacific. When the fleet arrived at mainland Port Jackson in January of 1788, Phillip ordered Lieutenant Philip Gidley King to lead a party of fifteen convicts and seven free men to establish the island and prepare for its commercial development.

Lt. King, with 22 people—9 male and 6 female convicts—was given the responsibility of creating the first penal colony on the island. It was hoped that it would act as a garden and provide the more barren Australian colony with food, ship building and construction materials. At first, these hopes seemed to be justified. A harsh justice system was imposed, but the materials on the island and the weather gave the fledgling colony hope. Its one serious drawback was the lack of a suitable landing point for ships. It was extremely precarious for ships to come close to the island and the harsh winds and currents made it even worse. Disaster was to strike the islanders when the First Fleet's flagship, Sirius, foundered on a coral reef, taking its crew and cargo of supplies with it. The inmates and guards alike suffered terrible privations before a flock of petrels returned to the island to nest. This sudden influx of protein helped the colony survive.

It was soon discovered that the flax found throughout Norfolk Island was difficult to prepare for manufacturing and required native skills. Two Maori men, indigenous to New Zealand, were brought to the island to teach the colonists how to prepare and later weave the flax. The plan, however, would fail as weaving was the work of native women and the two men had little knowledge of it. The colonists also abandoned Norfolk Island’s potential pine timber industry as the wood was not resilient enough to craft masts.

In March of 1790, with Sydney facing a widespread famine, a great number of convicts and marines were transported to Norfolk Island via HMS Sirius to increase the island’s productivity. The attempt to relieve Sydney’s situation later turned to disaster when the ship was wrecked and most stores were destroyed. The entire crew was marooned for ten months. This news was met in Sydney with great concern as Norfolk Island was now further cut off from the mainland.

Norfolk Island was home to more than 2,000 convicts living "crowded together in bug-ridden cells and dormitories, fed in a shed, which could hold about half their number, the rest eating outside proximate to a stinking communal privy, their food lifted to their mouths by their fingers, since knives and forks were prohibited, lacking sufficient water regularly to wash themselves or their drab clothes, and compelled to try to clean themselves without paper after defecation."

Only a handful of convicts left any written record of such conditions, their descriptions of living and working conditions, food and housing, and, in particular, the punishments given for seemingly trivial offenses are unremittingly horrifying, describing a settlement devoid of all human decency, under the iron rule of the tyrannical, autocratic commandants.

Order was only retained on the island by excessive use of the lash of the cat o' nine tails. The island gained a reputation as a savage penal colony where the rule of law was barely maintained through the use of absolute terror. Its future as a colony came into question from 1798 onwards when Lieutenant Flinders established that Van Diemen's land was an island and that it would prove a far larger and more economically viable alternative to Norfolk.

Regardless, more convicts arrived and the island was used as a farm to supply Sydney with cereal, grain, and vegetables. However the majority of crops did not survive the overseas transportation due to salty winds, rats and caterpillars. Sydney also lacked a natural safe harbor, which proved to hinder communication and the transport of supplies between the island and the mainland.

As Norfolk Island struggled to provide for itself, let alone provide victuals for passing ships and the mainland colonies, it became clear that the experiment had failed. Eventually, the authorities on the mainland decided to abandon this island colony.

As early as 1794, British officials suggested the island’s closure as a penal settlement as it had proved too remote and difficult for shipments, and far too costly to maintain. By 1803, the British Secretary of State called for the dismantling of the Norfolk Island military establishment, and exported settlers and convicts to Southern Van Diemen's Land. In February of 1805 the first group, comprised mainly of convicts, their families and military personnel, departed from Norfolk Island. By 1808, fewer than 200 settlers remained. In February 1814, the inhabitants were transported to Van Diemen's Land.

To ensure that no foreign power should take advantage of the island, all societal remnants were removed in 1813 by a small party instructed to slaughter livestock and destroy all buildings, thereby leaving little incentive for another European power to colonize the island the buildings, constructed with such grinding labour. A dozen dogs were left on the island with the express role of killing the remaining cattle and pigs. When starvation approached, it was expected, they would 'turn and kill' one another. The island would remain unpopulated for the next decade.

In 1824, the British government instructed the Governor of New South Wales, Thomas Brisbane, to occupy Norfolk Island as a place to send the worst of convict settlers. Its remoteness, seen previously as a disadvantage, was now viewed as an asset for the detention of men who had committed further crimes since arriving in New South Wales. Governor General George Arthur of Van Diemen's Land believed that prisoners sent to Norfolk Island “should on no account be permitted to return” and the reformation of convicts was dismissed as an objective of the Norfolk Island penal settlement.

The first colony was supposed to act as a 'garden' for the mainland. The second colony had no such purpose. Its creation was to provide a destination for the most incorrigible of incorrigibles. Van Diemen's land was already supposed to be a destination for the hardcore convicts. Norfolk Island was to be a penal destination within a penal destination—those convicts who were reconvicted would be sent to yet another exile. In many ways, the reputation for harshness and discipline of Norfolk Island made it the perfect destination for 're-convicted incorrigibles'. It was now to be administered from Van Diemen's land.

The first of the new arrivals landed in 1825. Conditions were harsh from the very outset, especially as the convicts had to rebuild the entire infrastructure from scratch—but this time with packs of wild dogs to deal with as well. Discipline was not going to be allowed to collapse as it had in the first colony and so lashing and flogging became almost everyday norms. The only exception to the unrelenting brutality was the period from 1840 to 1844 when the treatment of prisoners improved dramatically under Captain Alexander Maconochie, a noted reformer. Unfortunately, he was dealing with the worst of the worst and even his enlightened reforms were not able to change the culture of brutality in such a short period of time.

In 1846, a report of magistrate Robert Pringle Stuart exposed Norfolk Island’s scarcity and poor quality of food, inadequacy of housing, horrors of torture and incessant flogging, insubordination of convicts, and corruption of overseers. Bishop Robert Willson later visited Norfolk Island and reported similar findings to the House of Lords in England, who came to realize the enormity of atrocities perpetrated under the British flag and attempted to remedy the evils. Rumors of resumed atrocities brought Willson back in 1852 and produced a further damning report.

Changes and reforms in British penal policies would ultimately lead to the demise of this second penal colony on Norfolk Island. The British ceased transporting convicts to New South Wales in 1840 and to Van Diemen's land in 1853. When stories seeped back about the brutality and harsh conditions meted out on Norfolk Island it would only be a matter of time before public outrage saw to its dismemberment. The convicts on Norfolk Island began to be shipped back to the mainland to see out their terms in prisons and formal institutes. The days of penal colonies had all but passed.

In 1855, the convict settlement was closed, not from a recognition of its brutality but because of the high costs to resupply it. The island lay uninhabited until 1865 and then became the home of the children and grandchildren of the Bounty mutineers, when the English government moved them from Pitcairn Island.

One population of ne'er do well's was quickly transplanted by the descendent of more famous ne'er do wells. In 1856 as one ship left, taking the remaining convicts off the island, another ship brought many of the descendents of the infamous Bounty mutineers from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island. Everything about their new home astonished the Pitcairners: the massive stone buildings were veritable castles, the cattle and horses were the first they had ever seen, as were gardens of English flowers and exotic new fruits and vegetables. The lavatories were a mystery until their use was explained. A couple of years later, some of them returned to Pitcairn, but the majority stayed to eke out a living. With the rising popularity of whaling, the island found itself a new niche resupplying the whaling ships that plied the Pacific Ocean.


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