History of Norfolk Island - First Penal Settlement

First Penal Settlement

Before the First Fleet sailed to found a convict settlement in New South Wales, Governor Arthur Phillip's final instructions, received less than three weeks before sailing, included the requirement to colonise Norfolk Island to prevent it falling into the hands of France, whose naval leaders were also showing interest in the Pacific.

Phillip’s instructions given him in April 1787 included an injunction to send a party to secure Norfolk Island “as soon as Circumstances may admit of it…. to prevent its being occupied by the Subjects of any other European Power”. This could only have been a reference to the expedition then in the Pacific commanded by Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse. The Daily Universal Register of 11 November 1786 had stated: "the Botany Bay scheme is laid aside, as there is a strong presumption that a squadron from Brest are now, or soon will be, in possession of the very spot we meant to occupy in New Holland". This may have been a reference to a report from the British Ambassador in Paris, who had believed that when La Pérouse’s expedition set out from Brest in August 1785 it had as one of its objectives the establishment of a settlement in New Zealand to forestall the British.

La Pérouse did attempt to visit Norfolk Island, but only to investigate, not to take possession. He had instructions to investigate any colonies the British may have established and learned of the intention to settle Botany Bay and Norfolk Island from despatches sent to him from Paris through St. Petersburg and by land across Siberia to Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka, where he received them on 26 September 1787, just four days before his departure from that port. His ships, the Boussole and Astrolabe, anchored off the northern side of the island on 13 January 1788, but at the time high seas were running that made it too dangerous for the two ships’ boats that were put out to attempt a landing: “It was obvious that I would have had to wait maybe for a very long time for a moment suitable for a landing and a visit to this island was not worth this sacrifice”, he recorded in his journal. Having noted that the island was still uninhabited, he was presumably the less inclined to risk a landing when there was no British settlement there to report on.

When the First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson in January 1788, Phillip ordered Lieutenant Philip Gidley King to lead a party of 15 convicts and seven free men, including surgeon Thomas Jamison (the future Principal Surgeon of New South Wales), to take control of the 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. A second village was started at Ball Bay, named after the captain of HMS Supply, Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball. On 8 January 1789, the first child was born, Norfolk King, the son of Philip Gidley King and a convict, Ann Inett. (Norfolk King went on to become the first British Naval officer born in Australia, and was a Lieutenant, commanding the schooner Ballahoo when an American privateer captured her.)

A “Letter from an Officer of Marines at New South Wales, 16 November 1788”, published in the London newspaper, The World, 15 May 1789, reported the glowing description of the island and its prospects by Philip Gidley King, but also drew attention to the fatal defect of the lack of a safe port: “The said Island lies near Port Jackson, and is nearly as large as the Isle of Wight. Lieutenant King, who was sent with a detachment of marines and some convicts, to settle there, gives the most flattering portrayal of it. The island is fully wooded. Its timber is in the opinion of everyone the most beautiful and finest in the world...they are most suitable for masts, yards, spars and such. The New Zealand flax-plant grows there in abundance. European grains and seeds also thrive wonderfully well on Norfolk Island. It only lacks a good port and suitable landing places, without which the island is of no use, but with them it would be of the greatest importance for Great Britain. How far these deficiencies can be improved by art and the hand of man, time must decide.”

An idealised vision of the new British settlement was given in the novel by Therese Forster, Abentheuer auf einer Reise nach Neu-Holland , published in the German women’s magazine, Flora for 1793 and 1794:

We went towards the centre of this small island where at the foot of a round hill a crystal-clear river rushes forth, dividing up further on into several arms. Towards North and West the hill is covered with the most beautiful ploughed fields all the way down to the sea. The sight of these great flax fields is one of the loveliest I ever beheld. The slender stalks, of the most beautiful green and reaching far above a man’s head, bent in the gentle breeze that blew from the sea. Their red blossoms, shining like rubies, danced in the green waves. The top of the hill and the whole of the south and east sides are covered with enormous pines whose dark green is enhanced by a pleasant foreground of cabbage palms and banana trees, and I also observed a low bush among them the fruit of which resembles our red currants but is much larger and hangs in purple and red clusters that help to give the whole a gay appearance. The dwellings of the colonists are strewn along the fringes of the forest and from my post I could see several of them. Simple houses surrounded by barns and stalls and the fields all enclosed with hedges give the region a youthful appearance the like of which is rarely found in Europe. And plants here bloom more luxuriantly and more perfectly with a natural vigour that knows no exhaustion and fears no poverty, a vigour that has disappeared from our continent.

It was soon found that the flax was difficult to prepare for manufacturing and no one had the necessary skills. An attempt was made to bring two Māori men to teach the skills of dressing and weaving flax, but this failed when it was discovered that weaving was considered women's work and the two men had little knowledge of it. The pine timber was found to be not resilient enough for masts and this industry was also abandoned.

More convicts were sent, and the island was seen as a farm, supplying Sydney with grain and vegetables during its early years of near-starvation. However, crops often failed due to the salty wind, rats, and caterpillars. The lack of a natural safe harbour hindered communication and the transport of supplies and produce.

Manning Clark observed that "at first the convicts behaved well, but as more arrived from Sydney Cove, they renewed their wicked practices". These included an attempted overthrow of King in January 1789 by convicts described by Margaret Hazzard as "incorrigible rogues who took his 'goodwill' for weakness". While some convicts responded well to the opportunities offered to become respectable, most remained "idle and miserable wretches" according to Clark, despite the climate and their isolation from previous haunts of crime.

The impending starvation at Sydney led to a great transplantation of convicts and marines to Norfolk Island in March 1790 on HMS Sirius. This attempt to relieve the pressure on Sydney turned to disaster when Sirius was wrecked and, although there was no loss of life, some stores were destroyed, and the ship's crew was marooned for ten months. This news was met in Sydney with "unspeakable consternation". Norfolk Island was now further cut off from Sydney which, with the arrival of the Second Fleet with its cargo of sick and abused convicts, had more pressing problems with which to contend.

In spite of this the settlement grew slowly as more convicts were sent from Sydney. Many convicts chose to remain as settlers on the expiry of their sentence, and the population grew to over 1,000 by 1792. Norfolk Island in 1793 was described by Josef Espinosa y Tello, an officer of the Spanish expedition led by Alessandro Malaspina that visited New South Wales.

The colony of Norfolk, settled shortly after that at Port Jackson, merits little attention both because of the small size of that island and because of the hilly nature of its terrain, and the particular circumstance of its lacking entirely an anchorage or a place where longboats can be drawn up with any security. Despite this, some 1,500 persons live there, and its fertile soil produces copiously all kinds of grains, although the difficulty of clearing the ground covered with trees and undergrowth retards the large harvests which the fertility of the land would yield without that obstacle. The pines are of a prodigious height, straight, thick and of the finest grain, and several have been felled of above 7 feet in diameter at the foot, six at 17 and five at 37 yards, having 147 feet of height in total and 120 to the first branches. The flax brought there from New Zealand bears a good aspect, but no great hopes are rested on its cultivation, and it seems that the second trials of this plant made in London have not achieved the happy outcome of the first.

Lieutenant governors of the first settlement:

  • 6 March 1788 – 24 March 1790: Lieutenant Philip Gidley King (1758–1808)
  • 24 March 1790–Nov 1791: Major Robert Ross (c.1740–1794)
  • 4 November 1791–Oct 1796: Lieutenant Philip Gidley King
  • October 1796–Nov 1799: Captain John Townson (1760–1835)
  • November 1799–Jul 1800: Captain Thomas Rowley (c.1748–1806)
  • 26 June 1800 – 9 September 1804: Major Joseph Foveaux (1765–1846)
  • 9 September 1804–January 1810: Lieutenant John Piper (1773–1851)
  • January 1810–15 February 1813: Lieutenant Thomas Crane (caretaker)
  • 15 February 1813 – 15 February 1814: Superintendent William Hutchinson

Norfolk Island was governed by a succession of short-term commandants for the next 11 years, starting with King's replacement, Robert Ross 1789-1790. When Joseph Foveaux arrived as Lieutenant Governor in 1800, he found the settlement quite run down, little maintenance having been carried out in the previous four years, and he set about building it up, particularly through public works and attempts to improve education.

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. By 1803, the Secretary of State, Lord Hobart, called for the removal of part of the Norfolk Island military establishment, settlers and convicts to Van Diemen's Land, due to its great expense and the difficulties of communication between Norfolk Island and Sydney. This was achieved more slowly than anticipated, due to reluctance of settlers to uproot themselves from the land they had struggled to tame, and compensation claims for loss of stock. It was also delayed by King's insistence on its value for providing refreshment to the whalers. The first group of 159 left in February 1805 and comprised mainly convicts and their families and military personnel, only four settlers departing. Between November 1807 and September 1808, five groups of 554 people departed. 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 another European power, to visit that place.

From 15 February 1814 to 6 June 1825 the island lay abandoned.

Read more about this topic:  History Of Norfolk Island

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