Mar 062014


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.

Jan 262014


Today is Australia Day, the official national day of Australia.  26 January marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British Ships at Sydney Cove, New South Wales, and raising of the flag of Great Britain at that site by Governor Arthur Phillip (see 13 May). In contemporary Australia, celebrations are marked by community and family events, reflections on Australian history, official community awards, and citizenship ceremonies welcoming new immigrants into the Australian community.


The meaning and significance of Australia Day have evolved over time. Unofficially, or historically, the date has also been variously named “Anniversary Day,” “Invasion Day,” “Foundation Day,” and “ANA (Australian Natives’ Association) Day.” 26 January 1788 marked the proclamation of British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia (then known as New Holland), rather than the simple arrival of the First Fleet, which had arrived in several stages at Botany Bay based on advice from Captain Cook. Finding the location unsuitable for a colony, the fleet moved as a unit to Sydney Cove where they claimed the land.


The First Fleet encountered indigenous Australians when they landed at Botany Bay. The Cadigal people of the Botany Bay area witnessed the Fleet arrive. When the fleet moved to Sydney Cove they encountered the Eora people, including the Bidjigal clan. A number of the First Fleet journals record encounters with Aboriginal people. Although the official policy of the British Government was to establish friendly relations with Aboriginal people and governor Arthur Phillip ordered that the Aboriginal people should be well treated, it was not long before conflict began. The colonists did not understand Aboriginal society and its relationship with the land, and the Aboriginal people did not understand the British practices of farming and land ownership. Furthermore, the colonists did not sign treaties with the original inhabitants of the land. Between 1790 and 1810, Pemulwuy of the Bidjigal clan led the local people in a series of attacks against the British colonizers.

At the time, Australia was the only continent in the world where the indigenous peoples were exclusively foragers (hunter/gatherers) with no domesticated plants or animals.  Foragers worldwide (even to this day) have no intrinsic interest in land ownership. They are often seasonally nomadic, following resources as the seasons change.  They do have notions of land rights (for hunting, water, etc), but not of ownership.  So when the British settlers claimed the land as their own and excluded the aboriginal people from land they had rights over – and because no treaties were signed – conflict was inevitable.  There was an inherent arrogance and ignorance on the part of the British in assuming that because the aborigines did not have a legal system that they could recognize, treaties were unnecessary.  To this day indigenous peoples are contesting the legality of seizure of their land without treaty, with some measure of success (see Mabo Day, 3 June).

Although it was not known as Australia Day until over a century later, records of celebrations on 26 January date back to 1808, with the first official celebration of the formation of New South Wales held in 1818. On New Year’s Day 1901, the British colonies of Australia formed a Federation, marking the birth of modern Australia. But there was no national day of unity and celebration following Federation. It was not until 1935 that all Australian states and territories had adopted use of the term “Australia Day” to mark the date, and not until 1994 that the date was consistently marked by a public holiday on that day by all states and territories.

In contemporary Australia, the holiday is formally celebrated by the presentation of the Australian of the Year Awards on Australia Day Eve, announcement of the Australia Day Honours list, and speeches from the Governor-General and Prime Minister. It is an official public holiday in every state and territory of Australia, unless it falls on a weekend in which case the following Monday is a public holiday instead. The day is celebrated in large and small communities and cities around the nation with community festivals, concerts, and citizenship ceremonies. Australia Day has become the biggest annual civic event in Australia.


For some Australians, particularly indigenous Australians, Australia Day has become a symbol for adverse effects of British settlement on Australia’s indigenous people. The celebrations in 1938 were accompanied by an Aboriginal Day of Mourning. A large gathering of Aboriginal people in Sydney in 1988 led an “Invasion Day” commemoration marking the loss of indigenous culture. The anniversary is also known as “Survival Day” and marked by events such as the Survival Day concert first held in Sydney in 1992, celebrating the fact that the indigenous people and cultures have not been completely wiped out.

In response, official celebrations have tried to include indigenous people, holding ceremonies such as the Woggan-ma-gule ceremony, which was held in Sydney in 2006 and honored the past and celebrated the present; it involved indigenous Australians in tandem with the Governor of New South Wales.

“Invasion Day” has been widely used to describe the alternative indigenous observance of Australia Day. Although some indigenous Australians celebrate Australia Day, Invasion Day protests occur almost every year. In January 1988, various indigenous people of Australia made a concerted effort to promote an awareness among other Australians of their presence, their needs and their desire that there should be communication, reconciliation and co-operation over the land rights issues. To this end, during January they set up a highly visible Tent Embassy at a shore side location at a point called Mrs Macquarie’s Chair adjacent to the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. The embassy, consisting of several large marquees and smaller tents, was manned by a group of Aboriginal people from Eveleigh Street, Redfern, and was organized with the co-operation of the local council’s department of parks and gardens. It became a gathering place for Aboriginal people from all over Sydney. One of the aims of the embassy was to be seen by the many thousands of Sydneysiders whom the organizers claimed did not know, and rarely even saw, any Aboriginal people.


There is no truly Australian cuisine to speak of although there are a few iconic dishes.  The pavlova, named for the prima ballerina Anna Pavlova in honor of a visit in the 1920’s, is perhaps the most well known Australian dish (although New Zealand claims to be the birthplace).  It is a meringue pie shell filled with fresh fruit and topped with cream. Never could get enough of it.


Lamingtons are also more or less universal.  They are cubes of cake coated in chocolate and rolled in coconut. Very popular for picnics and church suppers.


In South Australia the state dish is a pie floater (usually just called a “floater”), which has also found a place in Sydney and a few other spots.  This is a meat pie floating in pea soup and doused with ketchup.  They are commonly bought from pie carts in the streets of Adelaide, although I gather these are rapidly dying out.

That pretty much sums up Australian “cuisine” – and I guarantee you’ll see many pavlovas and lamingtons at Australia Day parties (usually barbecues).  There is, however, a less common tradition which in some ways I think of as being more truly Aussie, and which unites both Euro-Australians and Aborigines: bush tucker.  “Bush” is Australian for “open country,” and “tucker” is “food.” So, bush tucker is food you cook out in the open, possibly made of hunted or foraged ingredients. Obviously this is the way Aborigines cooked for millennia, but the methods have been adopted by Europeans living in the open.  When I was in the Boy Scouts in South Australia one of the chief principles of camping was learning how to cook bush tucker – essentially using an open fire as the sole cooking method, and producing certain standard foods.  Chief of these is the damper – a bread cooked in hot coals.  Europeans use a heavy camp oven of cast iron; Aborigines cook the damper directly in the coals without utensils.




4 cups self-raising flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups milk
butter, for greasing
extra flour


Sift the flour and salt into a bowl and make a well in the middle.

Pour in the milk and mix.

Grease a camp oven and dust with flour.

Place the dough in the camp oven.

Cut a cross in the top surface of dough.

Bake in the hot ashes of a camp fire for about thirty minutes. You can test the damper by pressing on the top.  It should be springy when it is done.


There is a variant known as a twist which I had to produce one summer in Boy Scout camp as part of my test for the cook’s badge (yup, at 12 years old I was an aspiring cook).  You take the damper dough and roll it into a rope which you then wrap around a green stick and slowly grill over hot coals.

For more on bush tucker I strongly recommend this website.  It has a good listing and descriptions of indigenous edible plants and animals, such as witchetty grubs, yabbies, bloodwood apples, and honey ants that are staples of bush tucker and have been so for centuries.

May 132013


On this date in 1787 the First Fleet left Portsmouth to establish a new colony in Australia.   The fleet was made up of 11 ships under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip who was to be governor of the new colony. Apart from establishing Britain’s claim on Australia, the settlement was to be the first of a series of penal colonies designed to relieve pressure on jails in England.  These penal colonies were notorious hell holes and form an important part of Australia’s founding history.  The fleet consisted of 11 ships – 2 Royal Navy armed escorts, 6 convict transports, and 3 supply ships. It is not fully established, but it is estimated that  around 1,420 people embarked at Portsmouth, made up naval officers and crew, marines (some with wives and children), free settlers, and male and female convicts (some with children).  The journey took 252 days and the route was via Tenerife and Rio de Janeiro to the Cape of Good Hope, then to the east coast of Australia. This was one of the greatest sea voyages of all time.  The journey was over 15,000 miles, and although 48 people died, every ship arrived safely.  They headed for Botany Bay but finding it inhospitable, despite Captain Cook’s glowing reports, moved north to Port Jackson which Phillip renamed Sydney Cove, the current site of the city of Sydney.

In the days before refrigeration and canning, feeding people on ships on long journeys was a challenge.  The main staple was heavily salted beef which had to be soaked, and then stewed a long time to soften it and make it palatable.  It was usually accompanied by pea soup flavored with the fat rendered out of the beef.   Classic recipes for split pea and ham soup are a dime a dozen, so I have included here a more exotic pea soup from Egypt. Yellow splits give it a nice earthy flavor.

Egyptian Split Pea Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup zucchini, chopped
1/2 cup red pepper, chopped
1 cup split peas (green or yellow)
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons brown sugar
5 cups chicken stock
2 slices lemons
1 cup fresh tomato puree
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
sour cream


Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot on medium high heat.

Sauté the onions, garlic, zucchini and red pepper for about 5 minutes or until slightly softened.

Add the ginger, cumin, coriander, and brown sugar and sauté for another minute.

Add the lemon slices, stock, tomatoes, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours or until the peas are tender.

If the soup is too thick for your tastes at this point, add more stock.

Remove the pot from the heat and discard the lemon slices.

Add the fresh cilantro and puree the soup in a blender or food processor.

Add more seasonings if necessary.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream.

Serves 6