Norfolk Island is a place that triggers visions of isolated windswept coastlines and frothing Pacific Ocean tides. Stand beside a gravestone within its historic seaside cemetery and it will almost automatically trip your mind to hit play on a hardcore memory loop of the countless atrocities committed here – for Norfolk was once home to Australia’s most notorious convict colony.
The History of Norfolk Island
Throughout the early 1800’s Australia exiled criminals to the islands gaol where the majority of men lived out their inmate lives weighted by chains, forever banished to this otherworldly outlier post for the remainder of their days.
Nowadays this confronting gaol zone is a World Heritage listed site. Oddly or perhaps not (it’s all down to your personal predilection to supernatural phenomenons really) many locals believe that come evening one can often hear the ghostly screams of criminals from bygone eras echo throughout the Southern Hemispheres oldest penal settlement.
Uncomfortable truths of Australia’s harsh placement and treatment of its early criminals aside it’s interesting to explore the origins of Norfolk Island in order to gain an insight into why this tiny far flung island evolved to have its own distinct cultural identity.
Even today you will find members of the community that still speak their unique Norf’k language fluently. Heck, direct descendants of Bounty mutineers still reside here. Effectively the creole style language that developed here is a clunky yet melodic mix of Polynesian and old world English words.
Norfolk Island was settled by the Pitcairn Island people – a mix of both Polynesian and European characters. Why? Well, one needs to dig a little further back into British sailing history to understand how the Pitcairn folk ended up here but essentially when the HMAS Bounty crew (en route to Tahiti) rebelled against their commander William Bligh and violently took control of the ship they were positioned within what is nowadays known as the Tongan Island group.
Eventually, the leader of the mutineers, Fletcher Christian, and eight fellow mutineers along with six Polynesian men and twelve women (*the Polynesian companions were collected in Tahiti) set sail to look for a new home. The Bounty landed at the remote South Pacific outpost of Pitcairn Island where the ship was deliberately stripped, burned and sunk . Over time the population of Pitcairn expanded and was unable to adequately sustain their community due to scarcity of fresh food.
Pitcairnese elders decided to write to Queen Elizabeth to request assistance. Surprisingly, for the British throne was not well known for their generosity, the people of Pitcairn were offered a new home on Norfolk Island. The entire population departed Pitcairn and resettled Norfolk Island on June 8th, 1856.
A date still celebrated on the island today whereby the community gathers to watch a full re-enactment of the ship landing, followed by grand festivities, an annual event known as ‘Bounty Day’. Given the current population sits around 1748 inhabitants and I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire island attends the event!
Norfolk Island Adventures and Activities
Walking the streets of Norfolk jars one’s mind into a colonial time warp, aided by the heritage listed homes abound. Most don’t expect this kind of vista to present and although it doesn’t seem to match the sub-tropical climate whatsoever it works nonetheless. Passing by the aptly named Beefsteak Road makes total sense too once you realize it’s not uncommon to pass cows traversing freely on the outskirts of town.
In fact, it’s more often than not an open grazing situation for livestock on the island. Would you believe that fences here are meant to keep the cattle out and not in? It’s quirky yes, but it certainly adds to the islands relaxed charm. The Pitcairn term ‘In ar Fance’ (in a fence) is used on Norfolk to describe a vegetable and/or garden patch. How quaint indeed. The majority for local folk you encounter on your Norfolk journey here are overtly friendly – reflective of their tight knit community perhaps.
Interestingly the Norfolk Island phone book reads like a script of notorious English sailor surnames while further back a page directory of numbers is affectionately noted only by Norfolk residents nicknames. My good friend *Sarah, who splits her time between her home on the mainland (Australia) and her property on Norfolk, confides in me that everybody knows absolutely everything about everyone here. She doesn’t divulge this in a gossipy manner, more as a matter of fact. *Sarah says that asides from Norfolk’s outstanding beauty, the sense of friendship that weaves through the community is precisely what prompted her to buy a house here.
She suggests I head to Dino’s Restaurant for a sunset dinner, a place that vibrates with a fun atmosphere amid eclectic furnishings. It’s akin to a coy invitation to low key hedonism by way of top quality locally sourced produce feasts and live music beats.
Tip; take a table on the veranda (the restaurant is set in a rustic homestead) & enjoy delicious seafood dishes and equally enjoyable drinks. Win, win.
Avid ocean lover’s will be keen to get stuck into activities here such as; a fishing expedition and surfing (the waves are great but a touch inconsistent). There’s several gorgeous beaches abound & the sheltered shores of Emily Bay are popular. Here, mother nature has created a calm and enclosed reef system & made it delight to swim.
Seek and find other island attractions to while away the time including; museum and art galleries visits, a trip to Hilly Goat farm to sample handmade cheeses and even a brief bird-watching stint. Fact; Norfolk is home to the critically endangered Norfolk Green Parrot. A sub-tropical bird species endemic to the island. It’s been on the brink of extinction twice but still it survives. Ghost tours are definitely a thing on Norfolk too but I’m a sook and would likely give that a miss, besides many of the convict era buildings you spy on your travels will easily give you the creeps.
POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT OF NORFOLK ISLAND
On the final day of my Norfolk stay my mood has changed to match the landscape, it’s overcast, and I’ve begun ruminating on the current political climate of Norfolk Island. Best described as uneasy to say the least. Locals here aren’t particularly keen to discuss it with me and so I am forced (okay fine, I’m curious as heck) to source info from the interwebs and this is what I find; from 1979 to 2015 it was a self-governed island. Sure, it was still a British sovereign but acting under independent rule, interestingly it not so secretly served as tax haven for astute investors of all ilk’s.
Note: Norfolk’s status as a tax haven is no longer current because in 2016 (much to the chagrin of many local folk) the island was placed under Australian law. Essentially this momentous change happened because the majority vote were keen to have the financial support of the Australian government for various infrastructure projects such as new roads and a hospital upgrade. Yet, without confirmation from the community it safe to say the reasoning is debatable.
It doesn’t take me long to gather that since Norfolk Island is now subject to Australian legislature there is a viable argument in play that suggests Norfolk is better off returning to operations as a self-governed place in order to preserve it’s remarkable history and consequential cultural nuances. I muse on the islands future and its ability to retain its magnetically quirky attraction.
High profile international human rights barrister and senior QC Mr Geoffrey Robertson clearly aligns with my sentiment, for Mr Robertson (who has represented the likes of Julian Assange, Salman Rushdie and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre) recently took on the people of Norfolk Island’s ‘return to independence’ case all the way to the United Nations.
I reached out to Geoffrey for comment as I was researching this story and he was kind enough to call me from the Red Sea, of all places! Mr Robertson was more than willing to go on record with his thoughts pertaining to the political situation there and stated that;
“Norfolk Island wants to and must maintain its heritage, not only for tourists but for historians. They have their own language and their own traditions; they are indigenous people who came/we’re bought from Pitcairn to Norfolk Island and its seems to me that this is another wretched example of how Australia ignores its heritage by treating Norfolk Island as just another coastal town. By denying it the vote, it ignores the richness of its heritage. It must remain democratic and it should remain imaginative – which is why as matter of tourism and as a matter of government, Norfolk should be given back its autonomous status.
He continues on that it’s heritage status and distinct individuality are what makes it unique and I for one absolutely agree. A trip to Norfolk delivers visitors with a precise reminder of how beneficial living a simple island life can be. Yes, it’s a place of formidable beauty with a bloodied history but its also home to a unique community of people intent on preserving their cultural identity for eternity.
Please visit https://www.norfolkisland.com.au/ for all the best accomodation & up to date tour recommendations.