History - Four Layers

history of Norfolk Island

History - Four Layers

NIT kingston7SM


Norfolk Island is all that remains of numerous volcanoes produced by a massive lava surge three million years ago.  Over the following millennia, the rich volcanic soils nurtured the mighty araucaria (pine), tree-ferns, palms and various hardwoods and softwoods that became the nesting places for a remarkable variety of land birds and migratory sea birds.


By 800AD, Norfolk Island was a thickly forested sanctuary for birds, lizards and bats, surrounded by waters abundant with marine life.  Positioned as it was between New Caledonia and New Zealand, it was apparently the perfect stopping point for the great sea-faring voyagers of the era, the Polynesians.
Subsequent archeological studies have verified this.  Arte-facts have been carbon dated to a period between 800 and 1400 AD, which could indicate a long continuous settlement or a series of settlements.  Remains of houses, outdoor ovens and a marae were excavated in the dunes behind Emily Bay, the magnificent lagoon on the island’s south west corner. Kermadec obsidian arte-facts indicate that at least some of the settlers were possibly from there, perhaps traveling to New Zealand as part of the last great wave of the Polynesian diaspora.
Almost four hundred years after their mysterious disappearance, the first British settlers could still see the clues of Polynesian occupation through the presence of bananas, bamboo, flax and the Polynesian rat.  They also valued the fascinating arte-facts that washed up on the shore or were dug up in the fields.


When James Cook adjusted his telescope to focus on Norfolk Island, back in 1774, could he have envisaged how he would reshape the story of this tiny island?  Certainly he intended to make his mark on the place as he recommended to the Admiralty that it be used as a source of masts, spas and sails for the burgeoning British navy.
As a result, Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet to arrive in New South Wales, dispatched a party of twenty-two men and women under the command of young Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King to make a settlement on Norfolk Island, soon after they had pitched their tents at Botany Bay.  King’s task was to put the fifteen convicts under his command to work felling and milling the Norfolk Island pines and preparing the flax for the making of canvas.  But things didn’t work out as planned.
They discovered that the native pines, though excellent for all types of construction, were not suitable for battleship masts; and the flax was a mystery to the Irish linen weavers.
Nevertheless, the colonial outpost survived and prospered.  Its role transformed into one of feeding the penal settlement at Port Jackson, which it managed to do despite shipwrecks, droughts and insect plagues.  Later it became a substantial penal settlement in its own right, however, with the discovery of the fertile soils around the Nepean, Hunter and Hawkesbury Rivers, New South Wales no longer needed to rely on Norfolk Island’s produce and the settlement was closed in 1814.


Norfolk Island settled back into isolation, but its coastal forests had been felled; its bats extinct; and the winter migration of petrels abandoned forever. The cattle, goats and pigs left by the settlers wreaked further havoc as they foraged for food.
Then in 1825, human voices were heard again.  This time, the convicts were heavily chained and closely guarded.  These were the worst offenders and re-offenders from every jail in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, sent to suffer for their crimes on the worst penal settlement in the colony.  They were set to work rebuilding the roads, bridges and store houses destroyed and abandoned over a decade before.  The elegant Georgian buildings of heritage listed Kingston are the fruits of their backbreaking labour.  Punishments were frequent and harsh.
Conditions on Norfolk Island during this penal settlement became so unbearably brutal and inhumane that reports sent by concerned clergymen and government officers finally resulted in orders to close it.  By the end of 1855, most convicts had been removed and the fate of Norfolk Island once again hung in the balance.


In 1790, as the first British settlers on Norfolk Island were struggling to survive, the mutineers from the Bounty were making their home on Pitcairn Island.  The first five years were brutal as they fought amongst themselves and with the Polynesian men and women who had accompanied them.  But by 1800, a new and pious society had emerged and prospered until the population outgrew tiny Pitcairn.
It was this deeply religious people with their own language and legal, education and government systems, who took up residence on Norfolk Island in 1856. Some families were so overwhelmed with homesickness and disappointment that they returned to Pitcairn, but the majority remained.
By 1900, the Pitcairners’ settlement had more than justified Queen Victoria’s decision to grant them a new home on Norfolk Island.  Roads were voluntarily maintained on a rotational basis.  Orchards, farms and workshops were established; all children attended school and the church remained the spiritual and social hub of the community.  Life was hard, but the Norfolk Islanders were hard working and innovative; their rich cultural identity binding the small community.
Whaling was a vital source of income for the Islanders from 1856 onwards, in many ways underpinning their economic survival.  Several commercial crops flourished at different times, including: bananas, passionfruit, beans and kentia seeds, but all were subject to the fluctuations of market demand.
Norfolk’s way of life was permanently changed in 1942 when the allied airstrip was constructed to refuel aircraft during the Pacific campaign of World War II.  After the war, the airstrip was converted into a commercial airport which ushered in the new industry of tourism.
While many Islanders are still engaged intraditional agriculture and fishing jobs, the major source of employment is tourism.  Retail, tours, attractions, charters, entertainment festivals, sporting carnivals, accommodation properties and eateries are all focused on the visitors who come to Norfolk Island in their thousands each year.  With four distinct human settlements covering a span of 1200 years, Norfolk Island has many fascinating stories to tell.