Today is Foundation Day on Norfolk Island marking the day in 1788 when a detachment of convicts and free men from the First Fleet landed to start a colony. Norfolk Island is a small island in the Pacific Ocean located between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia, 1,412 km (877 mi) directly east of mainland Australia’s Evans Head. The island is part of the Commonwealth of Australia, but it enjoys a large degree of self-governance. Together with two neighboring islands, it forms one of Australia’s external territories. It has 2,300 people living on 35 km2. Its capital is Kingston.
Norfolk Island was first settled by East Polynesian seafarers either from the Kermadec Islands north of New Zealand or from the North Island of New Zealand. They arrived in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, and survived for several generations before disappearing.
The first European known to have sighted the island was Captain James Cook, in 1774, on his second voyage to the South Pacific on HMS Resolution. He named it after Mary Howard, Duchess of Norfolk (c. 1712 – 1773).
Sir John Call argued the advantages of Norfolk Island in that it was uninhabited and that flax grew there. In 1786 the British government included Norfolk Island as an auxiliary settlement, as proposed by John Call, in its plan for colonization of New South Wales. The decision to settle Norfolk Island was taken due to Empress Catherine II of Russia’s decision to restrict sales of hemp. Practically all the hemp and flax required by the Royal Navy for cordage and sailcloth was imported from Russia.
When the First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson in January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip ordered Lieutenant Philip Gidley King to lead a party of 15 convicts and seven free men to take control of Norfolk Island and prepare for its commercial development. They arrived on 6 March 1788. During the first year of the settlement, which was also called “Sydney” like its parent, more convicts and soldiers were sent to the island from New South Wales.
As early as 1794, Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales Francis Grose suggested its closure as a penal settlement, as it was too remote and difficult for shipping and too costly to maintain. The first group of people left in February 1805, and by 1808 only about 200 remained, forming a small settlement until the remnants were removed in 1813. A small party remained to slaughter stock and destroy all buildings, so that there would be no inducement for anyone, especially from other European powers, to visit and lay claim to the island. From 15 February 1814 to 6 June 1825 the island was abandoned.
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 description of convicts”. Its remoteness, previously seen as a disadvantage, was now viewed as an asset for the detention of recalcitrant male prisoners. The convicts detained have long been assumed to be a hard core of recidivists, or ‘doubly-convicted capital respites’ – that is, men transported to Australia who committed fresh colonial crimes for which they were sentenced to death, and were spared the gallows on condition of life at Norfolk Island. However, a recent study has demonstrated, utilizing a database of 6,458 Norfolk Island convicts, that the reality was somewhat different: more than half were detained at Norfolk Island without ever receiving a colonial conviction, and only 15% had been reprieved from a death sentence. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of convicts sent to Norfolk Island had committed non-violent property sentences, and the average length of detention was three years.
The second penal settlement began to be wound down by the British government after 1847, and the last convicts were removed to Tasmania in May 1855. The island was abandoned because transportation from the United Kingdom to Australia had ceased in 1853, to be replaced by penal servitude in the UK. Hence the convict population was gradually dwindling and Norfolk Island could not be sustained.
On 8 June 1856, the next settlement began on Norfolk Island. These were the descendants of Tahitians and the HMS Bounty mutineers, including those of Fletcher Christian. They resettled from the Pitcairn Islands, which had become too small for their growing population. They left Pitcairn Islands on 3 May 1856 and arrived with 194 persons on 8 June. The Pitcairners occupied many of the buildings remaining from the penal settlements, and gradually established traditional farming and whaling industries on the island. Although some families decided to return to Pitcairn in 1858 and 1863, the island’s population continued to grow. They accepted additional settlers, who often arrived with whaling fleets.
In 1867, the headquarters of the Melanesian Mission of the Church of England was established on the island. In 1920 the Mission was relocated from Norfolk Island to the Solomon Islands to be closer to the population of focus.
After the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, Norfolk Island was placed under the authority of the new Commonwealth government to be administered as an external territory. During World War II, the island became a key airbase and refueling depot between Australia and New Zealand, and New Zealand and the Solomon Islands. Since Norfolk Island fell within New Zealand’s area of responsibility it was garrisoned by a New Zealand Army unit known as N Force at a large Army camp which had the capacity to house a 1,500 strong force. N Force relieved a company of the Second Australian Imperial Force. The island proved too remote to come under attack during the war and N Force left the island in February 1944.
In 1979, Norfolk was granted limited self-government by Australia, under which the island elects a government that runs most of the island’s affairs. As such, residents of Norfolk Island are not represented in the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia, making them the only group of residents of an Australian state or territory not represented there. In 2006, a formal review process took place, in which the Australian government considered revising this model of government. The review was completed on 20 December 2006, when it was decided that there would be no changes.
Financial problems caused primarily by a reduction in tourism led to Norfolk Island’s administration appealing to the Australian federal government for assistance in 2010. In return, the islanders were to pay income tax for the first time but would be eligible for greater welfare benefits. However, by May 2013 agreement had not been reached and islanders started to leave to find work and welfare. One serious problem is that the island has no hospital facilities for major health problems, so that as islanders age they are forced to leave and live on the mainland. In consequence the island’s population is slowly declining.
Most food on Norfolk Island is generic Western. But there are indigenous dishes that are still popular. These come from the cuisine of Pitcairn which ultimately originates in Tahiti. This fact has created a few anomalies. For example, many Norfolk Island dishes incorporate coconut even though the coconut does not grow on the island. Yet coconut is an essential ingredient in Tahitian cooking, as is true throughout Polynesia. A classic Norfolk Island dish is Pilhi. Pilhi can be made in numerous ways, but, in essence is a dish of mashed fruit plus other ingredients which are then spread in a baking dish and baked until golden.
Pilhi Kumera with Yam and Coconut
8 cups grated sweet potato
2 cups grated yam
1 cup desiccated coconut
2 cups hot water
In a large basin, pour hot water on to the coconut and let sit for 30 minutes or more. Add the grated sweet potato and yam and mix thoroughly.
Grease a medium sized baking dish well and pour in the mixture. Smooth the top. Bake in a 350°F/175°C oven for about 1 hour or until the top is golden brown.
Remove from oven, cover the top of the baking dish with a clean cloth and leave until cold.
Slice into blocks.