First Penal Colony
Norfolk Island is located between Australia and New Zealand. It was first spotted by James Cook in 1774 and so was known to first convict fleets when they arrived in 1788. It was thought that it would be a particularly good staging post for ships due to the abundance of local flax for sails and pine for masts. It also had a far more temperate climate and geography that made it more suitable to growing crops and raising livestock. It also helped that it was uninhabited. It was to be named after the Duke of Norfolk and was only the second Pacific colony after a ship was sent out from New South Wales.

Lt. Phillip Gidley King with 22 people, including 9 male and 6 female convicts, was given the responsibility of creating the first penal colony on the island. It was hoped that it would act as a garden and provide the more barren Australian colony with food, ship building and construction materials. At first, these hopes seemed to be justified. A harsh justice system was imposed, but the materials on the island and the weather gave the fledgeling colony hope. Its one serious drawback was the lack of a suitable landing point for ships. It was extremely precarious for ships to come close to the island and the harsh winds and currents made it even worse. Disaster was to strike the islanders when the First Fleet's flagship 'Sirius' foundered on a coral reef taking its crew and cargo of supplies with it. The inmates and guards alike suffered terrible privations before a flock of petrels returned to the island to nest. This sudden influx of protein helped the colony survive.

As the mainland colony endured difficulties of its own, little thought and provision was provided to those on Norfolk Island. Order was only retained on the island by excessive use of the lash of the cat o'nine tails. The island gained a reputation as a savage penal colony where the rule of law was barely maintained through the use of absolute terror. Its future as a colony came into question from 1798 onwards when Lieutenant Flinders established that Van Diemen's land was an island and that it would prove a far larger and more economically viable alternative to Norfolk.

As Norfolk Island struggled to provide for itself let alone provide victuals for passing ships and the mainland colonies, it became clear that the experiment had failed. Eventually, the authorities on the mainland decided to abandon this island colony. In February 1814, the inhabitants were transported to Van Diemen's Land. To make sure that no foreign power should take advantage of the island, the buildings, constructed with such grinding labour, were burned or razed to the ground. A dozen dogs were left on the island with the express role of killing the remaining cattle and pigs. When starvation approached, it was expected, they would `turn and kill' one another. The island would remain unpopulated for the next decade.

Second Penal Colony
The first colony was supposed to act as a 'garden' for the mainland. The second colony had no such purpose. Its creation was to provide a destination for the most incorrigible of incorrigibles. Van Diemen's land was already supposed to be a destination for the hardcore convicts. Norfolk Island was to be a penal destination within a penal destination - those convicts who were reconvicted would be sent to yet another exile. In many ways, the reputation for harshness and discipline of Norfolk Island made it the perfect destination for 're-convicted incorrigibles'. It was now to be administered from Van Diemen's land.

The first of the new arrivals landed in 1825. Conditions were harsh from the very outset, especially as the convicts had to rebuild the entire infrastructure from scratch - but this time with packs of wild dogs to deal with as well. Discipline was not going to be allowed to collapse as it had in the first colony and so lashing and flogging became almost everyday norms. The only exception to the unrelenting brutality was the period from 1840 to 1844 when the treatment of prisoners improved dramatically under Captain Alexander Maconochie - a noted reformer. Unfortunately, he was dealing with the worst of the worst and even his enlightened reforms were not able to change the culture of brutality in such a short period of time.

Changes and reforms in British penal policies would ultimately lead to the demise of this second penal colony. The British ceased transporting convicts to New South Wales in 1840 and to Van Diemen's land in 1853. When stories seeped back about the brutality and harsh conditions meted out on Norfolk Island it would only be a matter of time before public outrage saw to its dismemberment. The convicts on Norfolk islandbegan to be shipped back to the mainland to see out their terms in prisons and formal institutes. The days of penal colonies had all but passed.

The Mutineers Arrive
One population of ne'er do well's was quickly transplanted by the descendent of more famous ne'er do wells. In 1856 as one ship left taking the remaining convicts left the island, another ship brought many of the descendents of the infamous 'Bounty' mutineers from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island. Everything about their new home astonished the Pitcairners: the massive stone buildings were veritable castles, the cattle and horses were the first they had ever seen, as were gardens of English flowers and exotic new fruits and vegetables. The lavatories were a mystery until their use was explained. A couple of years later, some of them returned to Pitcairn, but the majority stayed to eke out the living. With the rising popularity of Whaling, the island found itself a new niche resupplying the whaling ships that plied the Pacific Ocean. Agriculture provided a way of life until tourism supplanted the main income for the islanders.

In 1897 Britain conferred administrative status for the islands back to the governor of New South Wales, though the island remained a separate British colony. In 1901, Australia achieved dominion status. Norfolk Island was not assigned to Australia until 1913 with the Norfolk Island Act. Even then, it was assigned as a separate territory outside of the federal structure. This is a state of affairs to this day, although an assembly on the island was instituted from 1979.

An aeroplane landed on Norfolk in 1931, but it was not until World War Two that the strategic location of the island provided the impetus to build and maintain an airfield there. After the war ended, this airfield helped to encourage the nascent tourism industry on which the islands still depend to this day.

New South Wales' Flag
map of Norfolk Island
Map of Norfolk Island
1789 Map of Norfolk Island
1914 - 1962
Historical Norfolk Island
Images of Norfolk Island
National Archive Norfolk Island Images
Suggested Reading
Fatal Shore
by Robert Hughes
Across Great Divides - True Stories of Life at Sydney Cove
by Boyer, Susan Elizabeth
An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island
by John Hunter
Norfolk Island
by Captain Maconochie
Norfolk Island and its third settlement
by Raymond Nobbs
The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay; with an Account of the Establishment of the Colonies of Port Jackson & Norfolk Island
by Arthur Phillip
Norfolk Island: Outline of its History 1788 to 1884
by J. Spruson
A Voyage Around the World
by John Turnbull

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe