1, 2, 3 History: Norfolk Island’s inconvenient history

Some thoughts on writing KAVHA’s history, originally presented at the KAVHA Public Research Centre, No 9 Quality Row, Kingston on Friday 15th April 2011, for National Heritage Week 2011

 Bruce Baskerville explores the ways in which histories of the Kingston & Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) have been written and used, with a focus on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd Settlements method (‘1, 2, 3 history’) of organising history, and whether it is time to look at writing history in different ways.


I grew up on the Abrolhos Islands off the coast of Western Australia.  My father was a crayfisherman.  The islands are wind-blown low lying rocky outcrops surrounded by numerous coral cays and reefs, perfect crayfish habitat but very dangerous for shipping.  The name Abrolhos comes from a Portuguese phrase meaning ‘keep you eyes open’.

Typical scene of fishermen's jetties and rocky coast, Big Pigeon Island, Wallabi Group, Abrolhos Islands

Typical scene of fishermen’s jetties and rocky coast, Big Pigeon Island, Wallabi Group, Abrolhos Islands

The island are littered with shipwrecks, and it was just a short ride from Big Pigeon Island, where our camp was, to the site of the Batavia shipwreck, a Dutch East Indiaman wrecked in 1629 just as a mutiny was about the break out.  The little island where the survivors straggled ashore was known as Batavia’s Graveyard, not just because of the shipwreck but because of the subsequent insane and gory massacre that took place.  When Dad was at a loose end we would all pile into the boat and go over to the now more prosaically named Beacon Island to see ‘what the museum are up to’.  There were always artefacts undergoing conservation work or being packed up to be sent to Fremantle.  At other times we would go over to West Wallabi Island in the dinghy and play in the ruins of ‘the Fort’, to where some of the survivors had escaped the bloody regime on Batavia’s Graveyard.  At over 350 years old, the little fort is the oldest European structure in Australia, and as a boy I often day dreamt about the struggles it once witnessed.  The Batavia shipwreck site is now listed on the National Heritage List (NHL).

'The Fort' on West Wallabi Island, after heavy rain, built by survivors of the Batavia shipwreck and massacres in 1629, the oldest European-built structure in Australia.

‘The Fort’ on West Wallabi Island, after heavy rain, built by survivors of the Batavia shipwreck and massacres in 1629, the oldest European-built structure in Australia.

There is a close connection between the Abrolhos and Norfolk.  In 1822 Captain Philip Parker King, born here in Kingston in 1791, was in charge of a surveying expedition circumnavigating the continent.  He visited the Abrolhos, and the Wallabi group in particular, noting the many dangerous rocks and channels.  In fact, his mastheadman had mistaken the islands for a cloud shadow[1].  The next day he visited the adjacent mainland, and named Mt Fairfax and Moresby’s Flat-Topped Ranges after Commander Fairfax Moresby, a man who would later play an important role in the Pitcairner’s emigration to Norfolk.  PP King was the first Australian-born Admiral in the Royal Navy, and a speaker at last year’s history conference nominated him as the Norfolk Islander who has made the greatest contribution to Australian history.

Phillip Parker King, c1816.  Image State Library NSW

Phillip Parker King, c1816. Image State Library NSW

Today I work in another NHL site by the sea, but now in the Pacific rather than the Indian Ocean.  I wonder now was it Batavia’s Graveyard that stimulated my interest in history?  Or perhaps it was my great-grandfather Harrison, the son of a convict, who was completely blind but always had an endless supply of stories about the ‘olden days’.  Who can ever really know, other than that somewhere in that long-ago almost forgotten boyhood I was bitten by the history bug, and have remained well and truly bitten ever since.

National Heritage List (NHL) Values

KAVHA’s National Heritage List statement of significance is infused with history.  It is not listed specifically for its ‘history’ as such, but historical values permeate the statement of significance.

Criterion A “Events and processes” refer to its landscapes shaped by convict and Pitcairner settlement, the role of penal systems and changes in penal philosophy, its role in the development of NSW and VDL, an example of a place of severe punishment and in fuelling the anti-transportation movement.  Criterion B “Rarity” refers to a “distinctive Polynesian/European community” and the Norf’k language.  Criterion C “Research” is about the museum collections, archaeology, and documentary archives.  Criterion D “Principal characteristics of a class of places” covers the architectural styles, the ruins, and the ‘town plan’ of Kingston.  Criterion G “Social value” covers traditional practices such as the continuing use of the cemetery as well as sporting and recreational activities across the site, and Criterion H “Significant people” lists associations with Philip Gidley King and Alexander Maconnochie.

The word ‘history’ rarely appears in the statement of significance, but all of these values are shaped by historical processes.  They span the Polynesian, convict and Pitcairner periods without distinguishing between them: they all contribute to KAVHA’s national heritage values.

The ways KAVHA’s history has been written

Historiography is the study of historians and the ways they write history.  It is about the history of the ways history has been written.  It is a history of writing history, and the study of the changing interpretation of historical events in the works of individual historians.

Any student enrolling in history at university will be introduced to historiography in the first year, and be able to enrol in ever-more detailed study of this subject as they progress through their course.

Some people find this idea quite confronting, that history is a product created by historians rather than a set of concrete scientific facts that can be discovered.  This is a huge area of debate among historians, and there are many contending schools of thought[2].  In a very general sense, there is a basic division between those who regard history writing as an art that is conveyed by story telling, and those who regard history as a science based upon statistical analysis.  In reality, there is probably no historian who belongs exclusively in one camp or the other, as all rely upon some sort of verifiable research for their information, and use some sort of story telling to make their research available to readers.

I gravitate towards the end of the ‘history is art’ part of the spectrum, to the view that narrative and story telling are central to the historians work, but that story must be drawn from and seek to explain good verifiable research.  There is no doubt in my mind that, after looking at many of the histories written about Norfolk Island, telling a good story has been upper-most in the mind of many of Norfolk’s historians or history writers.

Histories come in many forms.  There is the conventional ‘history book’, as well as in more recent times films, radio, television, videos, DVDs and so on.  Histories also come in the form of pamphlets and brochures, catalogues and guides, museum exhibitions, public artworks, websites and so on.  A heritage historian will also say that the landscape and everything in it is a history text, if you know how to read it like a book.

I have analysed 43 written histories for this paper (I know there are more, but I think that’s a representative sample), published between 1860 and 2009.  Some of them you will know, such as Lady Belcher’s The Mutineers of the Bounty, and their descendants in Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands, published in New York in 1870, or the several editions and revisions of Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island published in Queensland between 1969 and 2003.  Others are relatively unknown, such as Florence Coombes’ School-days in Norfolk Island, published in London in 1909.  Others again may not be usually considered as ‘history’, such as Alice Buffett’s Speak Norfolk Today: an encyclopedia of the Norfolk Island language, published on Norfolk in 1999 and Sue Draper and Tracey Yager’s Fletcher’s Mutiny Cyclorama exhibition booklet published on island in 2004.  The least known, but possibly the most radical, is Professor Raymond Nobbs’ unpublished Historical Review written in 1992 for the first KAVHA Interpretation Plan.

Overall, these publications can be talked about in several ways.

Chronologically, five predate 1914 when Norfolk Island became an Australian territory. Eleven pre-date 1979 when Norfolk achieved self-government.  The great majority (76%) have been published since 1980.  Eleven have been published since 2000 – the same quantity in the last decade as in the whole of the period before self-government.

Where have they been published?  All of the pre-1914 books were published in London, California or New York, by missionary or religiously-oriented publishers.  The pattern doesn’t really change up to the Second World War.  The first publication here on island was Britts’ The Commandants: the tyrants who ruled Norfolk Island in 1980, although the first printing of a history book on Norfolk seems to be Beryl Nobbs-Palmer’s Dictionary of Norfolk Words and Usage in 1986.  The publication details in locally published and/or printed books since 1980 don’t follow a consistent format, but I’m guessing from these details that it is in the mid-1980s that the technology and materials for printing and binding books first became available on Norfolk?

With the majority of Norfolk’s history books published since 1980, it is useful to ask whether they all tell the same story or are there particular approaches or themes that predominate.  The question is easier to ask than answer.  Based upon the content of each book, I have divided the authors into four groups: Norfolkists, Australianists, Localists and Academics.

Norfolkists tend to focus on the distinctiveness of Norfolk, especially its Pitcairner culture, and its separateness from Australia.  Australianists tend to focus on Norfolk’s connections with Australia.  Localists tend to focus on details of Norfolk’s history, often in small or discrete periods (e.g. Norfolk language, the cemetery).  They are most like local historians in mainland communities.  Academics, like the localists, have tended to focus on discrete events and studied them in their own right (e.g. the Sirius shipwreck).

The output of these groups is not even: Norfolkists account for 36% of Norfolk’s history books, Localists for 33%, Academics for 20% and the Australianists for 11%.  The ‘contest’ for readers, so to speak, is not between Norfolkists and Australianists, but between Norfolkists and Localists.  This suggests that Norfolk’s version of the history wars is being waged between two different versions of Norfolk Island history, rather then between pro-Norfolk or pro-Australia histories as might be generally supposed.

The Norfolkist histories dominated the early 1980s to the early 1990s, but have very gradually been superseded by the Localist histories in the late 1990s and late 2000s.  This trend is illustrated by looking at three key historical events.  The Bicentennial in 1988 resulted in four histories being published: one Norfolkist, one Australianist, one Localist and one Academic.  A decade later and the Centenary of Federation in 2001 saw two Localist and two Academic histories.  A half-decade later and the Sesquicentenary of the Pitcairner migration in 2006 saw two Norfolkist histories.  Apart from another Norfolkist history in 2008, the decade was dominated by Localist and Academic histories, in contrast to the Norfolkist 1980s and early 1990s.

This gradual change also reflects a change in who publishes the history books.  The Norfolkist histories tend to have been published and printed by commercial off-island publishing houses, whereas the Localist histories tend to have been self-published by their writers and printed on-island.

Coming back to the National Heritage List, it could be expected that the Australianist histories would have featured more prominently.  Why is it that, in fact, they are the smallest group of written histories?  Why do they all take a single basic form: a guide to Government House?  One of the Academic histories, Maeve O’Collins’ An Uneasy Relationship, looks at the evolution of the federal administration on the island between 1914 and the 1930s.  The Australianist histories, generally speaking, look at political power, and how it is displayed and acted out.  There is very little writing about the role of the Norfolk Island-born in Australian history, or vice versa.  Philip Parker King is emblematic of this situation, but just to mention the men and women who served during two world wars, or the aviatrix Bonnie Quintal, merely hints at a wealth of unexplored histories.

I believe there is one history book that is the key to understanding history writing on Norfolk, and that is Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island: an outline of its history 1774-1968.

First edition of Merval Hoare's Norfolk Island, published in 1968

First edition of Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island, published in 1968

The book is divided into four sections, each covering the a distinct period between 1774 and 1945, with a fourth period ‘The Postwar Years’ covering 1946 to the present day.  Mrs Hoare is the first writer to use the terms ‘First Penal Settlement’, ‘Second Penal Settlement’ and ‘Third Settlement: The Pitcairn Islanders’ to label the sequence of periods covered by the book.  Others had used the terms before, but usually vaguely and often only to distinguish between two convict periods.  No previous history book was organised according to this 1, 2, 3 structure.

Presumably Mrs Hoare had read many of the earlier histories, and had become accustomed to these usages.  Perhaps the idea helped her arrive at a convenient structure for her book.  Her book is notable for its time.  It was comprehensive in its coverage, it was easily readable and accessible in paperback form, and it was contemporary, bringing history right up to the present day.  Mrs Hoare had been a student at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, and brought a scholarly rigour to her research that contrasts with earlier publications.  She sought to tell a whole or complete story of Norfolk Island, which again contrasted with earlier writers.  And, with a retail price of just $3.95, it was bound to be influential.  That influence can be seen in many subsequent histories.

Both the Norfolkist and Australianist historians adopted Mrs Hoare’s first, second, third settlements structure.  An early example is a journal article by R. Nixon Dalkin published in 1971 called ‘Norfolk Island – the First Settlement 1788-1814’[3].  This structure shapes all the versions of Government House guidebooks, and also the writings of Professor Raymond Nobbs, most notably his history trilogy of First Settlement in 1988, Second Settlement in 1991 and Third Settlement in 2006.  The leading Australianists and Norfolkists both use this approach.  The Localist and Academic historians, in contrast, have not paid so much attention to this “1, 2, 3 History”.

The ways that 1, 2, 3 History has been used

The PHA (NSW) held its silver anniversary conference, Islands of History, last year here on Norfolk Island[4].  One of the speakers was Babette Smith, author of Australia’s Birthstain and several other books.  Babette’s conference paper was titled The Handover: a glimpse of men and management in the penal colonies.

Babette Smith in Kingston, April 2011.  Photo Robin Nisbet

Babette Smith in Kingston, April 2011. Photo Robin Nisbet

It is the conclusion to Babette’s paper that has captured my attention:

The end of the Norfolk Island penal colony and the arrival of the Pitcairn Islanders have traditionally been treated as two separate stories. In this they are a metaphor for the disjunction in Australian history between the first half of the nineteenth century and the second. It is a gap that has allowed distortion about the convict era to flourish and so prevented Australians from achieving a realistic and profound understanding of our own society.[5]

Several issues leap out at me: the idea of two separate histories, the idea of Norfolk Island as a part of Australian history, the idea that our understandings of the convict era are distorted.  But for now, I’d just like to explore that first idea of separate histories.

This idea of separate histories is represented here on Norfolk by two forms: the periodisation of 1st, 2nd and 3rd settlements, and what might be called the ‘1855 or 1856 Disjunction’.

In 1938, the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr. Howard Mowll, in a radio broadcast to the island from St. Andrew’s Church of England in suburban Summer Hill, repeated what seems by then to have been the accepted version of the island’s history:

In 1826, convicts found guilty of additional crimes while serving sentences in New South Wales were transported there.  Like animals they lived and like animals they died.  In 1855 the second settlement was evacuated from the island and a year later the Pitcairn Islanders settled there.”[6]

You will note he said that the penal station, which he identified as the ‘second settlement’, was closed in 1855 and a year later the Pitcairners arrived in 1856.

A reading of the documents from the period reveals a different story to that given by Dr Mowll.  On 7th May 1855 the Lady Franklin and the mission boat Southern Cross left for Hobart with a large group of convicts and soldiers, leaving behind a small party of officials and convicts to maintain the island until the Pitcairners arrived.  Over a year later, they did arrive on the Morayshire, and on 8th June were greeted on the pier.  For another 2½ weeks the Pitcairners and the convicts lived together as the island was gradually handed-over to the newcomers.  On 26th June 1856 the convicts and officials sailed for Hobart on the Morayshire.  Perhaps this had been a brief, but uneasy and sullen time that the Pitcairners had not wanted to recall in their histories?  Well, what did they say about it at the time?

A seaman who attended the funeral of the infant Phiebe Addams on 15th June wrote “Every body on the island was present, and the scene was very affecting and nearly all the Europeans present were in tears[7].  The Pitcairner’s leader, Reverend George Hunn Nobbs, wrote in his journal with some empathy after burying the baby, that …we committed the mortal remains to its parent earth in that graveyard, where stands the record of many whose crimes banished them from country and friends...”[8]  Reverend Nobbs asked Governor Sir William Denison if one of the convicts, William Fields, could stay with them, but Denison refused the request[9].  Lt Howard of HMS Herald wrote in his journal that “The convicts behaved very well in the fortnight they were with the natives, teaching them to manage the stock and to plough, work the mills, drive bullocks etc. and considering the strange things horses, ploughs etc. are to people who never saw them before, they learnt a good deal.”[10]  John Buffett wrote in his journal that ‘We were treated with great kindness by the Constables and prisoners.’[11]

So, not only did the Pitcairners and the convicts live together, learning skills and making friends, but they actually seemed to enjoy their time together.  Their actual experience wasn’t one of separation and dislike, but of sharing and socialising, and formally and informally transmitting a knowledge about the island that continues to be reflected in, for example, the survival of many of the convict era place names to this day.

The Morayshire, as depicted in a large mosaic panel telling a story of Norfolk's history located in the Norfolk Airport Terminal.

The Morayshire, as depicted in a large mosaic panel telling a story of Norfolk’s history located in the Norfolk Airport Terminal.

Perhaps Dr Mowll just made a slip of the tongue with his dates?  An easy thing to do, but I think not.  It is an enduring view, repeated in many other written histories since then, that the convicts left in 1855 and the Pitcairners arrived in 1856.  It emphasizes separation and difference, and stresses a lack of continuity and commonality.  It was most recently restated this month in the preamble to the governance reform document agreed between the Federal and Territory governments.[12].

The 1855 or 1856 Disjunction is important because it shows that trying to set up separate, self-contained periods is fraught and not really achievable, even when the events that mark either side of that boundary between the periods appear at first glance to be so clear.

Dr Howard Mowll, Archbishop of Sydney 1933-1958

Dr Howard Mowll, Archbishop of Sydney 1933-1958

Dr Mowll also referred in his radio broadcast to the ‘second settlement’.  This division of Norfolk’s history is usually expressed as 1st (1788-1814), 2nd (1825-1855/56) and 3rd (1856- present) Settlements.  The break between the 1st and 2nd settlements has been strongly enforced by the heritage histories of Kingston written from the 1970s onwards.  Government House is a prime example.  The original house was built in 1804 and burnt out in 1814, then ‘renovated’ (the word used at the time) between 1826-28 and occupied in 1829 by Commandant James Morriset and his family.  The State Rooms, the kitchens and the cellars all survive from 1804, with 1820s Norfolk Island Pine joinery, but every written history dates this building to 1828 or 29.  It has been labeled in the Government House guidebooks as the 4th Government House, preceded by the 1st (1788-1792), 2nd (1792-1804), both behind the pier, and the 3rd (1804-1814) houses.  For me, the house dates from 1804 and it is time to accept that and tell its larger story.  Trying to shoehorn it into the ‘2nd Settlement’ period is only useful for maintaining this periodisation, and actually serves to obscure its earlier history just because it is, quite frankly, an inconvenient history.

These attempts to impose tidy chronological periods on Norfolk’s history, with each period distinct and hermetically sealed from each other are, I believe unsustainable.

History is messy and untidy, as revealed by the attempts to deal with the island’s Polynesian history.  Polynesian artefacts have been recovered on the island for many years.  Lieutenant Governor Phillip Gidley King noted in 1788 evidence of earlier Polynesian settlement in the form of banana groves and buried canoes, and the two Maori men, Tuki and Huru, who he brought here in 1793 recognized many of the objects that littered the landscape[13].  During the 1990s extensive archaeological excavation revealed evidence of a substantial Polynesian village behind Emily Bay.  Some writers have tried to re-label the periods as 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th, others have thought to collapse the two convict periods into one period to preserve the 1, 2, 3 arrangement, but neither approach has really caught on.  To add to the confusion, information was given to me last year by Dr Tim Causer, a London-based speaker at the Islands of History conference, who has found instructions to ship captains from the period between 1814 and 1825, when the island was supposed to be ‘abandoned’, to avoid the pirates based on Norfolk Island![14]  Merval Hoare wrote in the final paragraph of the First Settlement section in her Norfolk Island that “The crews of casual ships calling during the next eleven years found an empty island, quiet except for the bird song…”  So, she writes that ships called in – what for, who were they?  Perhaps we should now be talking of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th settlements?

Dr Tim Causer in Kingston, April 2011.  Photo Robin Nisbet

Dr Tim Causer in Kingston, April 2011. Photo Robin Nisbet

The 1, 2, 3 method of organising history

Breaking up the past into periods or blocks of time, and giving them names or labels, is called periodisation.  This is a way of trying to set out a framework for understand the past, such as the Tudor Dynasty or the Jurassic period.  History is a long continuum, or perhaps cycle, and in that large scale all systems of periodisation are arbitrary, often overlapping, and continually being challenged and changed.  However, periodisation is useful because it provides a tool for describing and analyzing small chunks of the past, and interpreting that past on a human scale.

Just talking about a method of periodisation makes us think about it, and whether it helps us answer the questions we might be asking.  Periodisation as such can be a useful tool for understanding the past, provided that it does not become rigid and set in stone, and used to obscure or prevent historians from researching and writing about the past in other ways.

The NHL Statement of Significance refers to the 1, 2, 3 periods, but not in a rigid way.  Historical events and processes are described to illustrate the significance of the site, but we don’t end up with anything like the first settlement being significant against one criterion and the third against another.

As I have argued, the importance of the 1855 or 1856 Disjunction is that it clearly illustrates a major problem with the 1, 2, 3 method: just when does each period begin and end.  It may be easier to consider the whole of the 1850s as a decade of change across Australasia.

As is alluded to in the Babette Smith quote, the 1850s is an important period in Australasian history.  In Victoria and New South Wales, the gold rushes of the early 1850s have the iconic role of terminating the convict era and issuing in a new era that is supposed to be the foundation of contemporary Australia. Norfolk of course lacks a gold rush period, but its place is taken by the departure of the convicts and the arrival of the Pitcairners in 1856.  In Western Australia, it is the end of the free enterprise Swan River Colony in 1850 and the arrival of the imperial convict establishment.  In New Zealand settler self-government from 1852 and the Maori King movement between 1853 and 1858 mark the period.  New Caledonia became a French penal colony in 1852.  Clearly, the 1850s was a momentous decade all across Australasia, but whether it is a distinct ‘period’ should still be regarded with a critical eye.

the 1850s began with a new colony being created by separating the Port Phillip District from New South Wales, heralding the beginning of a momentous decade of change throughout Australasia.  Image My Place

The 1850s.  Image My Place

The apparently neat periodisation of 1st, 2nd and 3rd settlements that has been used in writing Norfolk’s history by Norfolkists and Australianists actually masks a richer, wilder, more fluid and interwoven history.  How is the Polynesian period to be accounted for – do we even know if there was only one period of Polynesian settlement?  Perhaps there were more than one?  Once the periods are questioned, other questions arise.  Are the convict periods really one or two?  Does the Pitcairner period end when the majority of Pitcairn descendants are born on Norfolk rather then Pitcairn?  And so on.  Are these 1, 2, 3 periods still helping us understand the past in the early 21st century?

After I read Babette Smith’s book Australia’s Birthstain I came to different questions about the convict past and especially the invention and imposition of the convict stain.  Did the 1850s really mark the end of convictism in eastern Australia, and its commencement in Western Australia and New Caledonia, or does it mark another phase in the same story.  As transportation ended the convicts did not simply disappear.  Instead, they became the skeletons in the community closet, the measure of shameful ancestry and doubtful national characteristics, romanticized as innocent hanky-stealers or disparaged as useless dregs of the Old World.  It is a painful story than can be lost, unable to be confronted and at least some of the distortions revealed and despatched, if the past is divided into separate and unconnected periods.

Babette Smith argues that the separation of convict and Pitcairner history on Norfolk is a metaphor for a distortion in Australian history that separates the convict era from everything that follows.  The 1855 or 1856 Disjunction, and 1, 2, 3 history, are both markers of this distortion.  It is also reflected in the obscuring and even denial of earlier, non-second settlement, dating of buildings and structures such as Government House, and the ambiguity shown towards the Polynesian period.

Mainland reviewers of Norfolk histories, although few and far between, have also remarked upon these distortions.  A reviewer of Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island (1977 edition) wrote last year that

There are surely not many places on earth where a local history can be divided up so neatly into self-contained epochs, with virtually no strands between each era. Norfolk Island was uninhabited until the Polynesian diaspora around 1100 until approximately 1400.  Interestingly, Hoare’s book does not address this phase at all, … Over half of this book is devoted to the third settlement, which is after all, the longest phase of white settlement on the island.   At times I found myself wishing that the author would draw breath and move away from the narrative a little.  For example – how did Norfolk Island intersect with the passing Pacific traffic? What was the nature of the contact between Sydney and Norfolk Island in the first and second settlements?  There are obviously sensitivities that she is tip-toeing around: the eviction of the Pitcairn/Norfolk Islanders from the abandoned Crown buildings at Kingston; the reports about homosexuality that expedited the closure of the second settlement. … I read the second edition of this book, which has an additional chapter added onto what had clearly been the conclusion.  There has since been a third edition which has no doubt added an extra chapter again.  That’s the problem with this approach- it tends to result in more farewells than Melba, or perhaps the third book of the Lord of the Rings.[15] 

Another reviewer, and biographer of Major Foveaux (the first resident of Government House), after reading Peter Clarke’s Hell and Paradise became quite irritated and wrote:

Those who have read Robert Hughes’s Fatal Shore, which I described at the Australian Identities Conference in Dublin as ‘a fine novel loosely based on history’, will recognize the name of the monster of Norfolk Island.  Riddled with emotional adjectives, Hughes’s bestseller contrives to link disconnected events, misrepresent the routine as exceptional (and the exceptional as routine), and in the case of Foveaux, create a monster worthy of Dr Frankenstein. … Hughes is matched if not outdone by Peter Clarke’s elaborate coffee table book entitled Hell and Paradise: the Norfolk-Bounty-Pitcairn Saga.  This includes a verbatim transcript of a curious passage entitled ‘Recollections by a Commandant’s Wife’, which appeared in John McMahon’s 1913 work Fragments of the Early History of Australia from 1788 to 1812.  You will also find it quoted as fact in the Norfolk Island cabaret show ‘Trial of The Fifteen’. … Now the acceptance by McMahon and later Clarke of this as a factual document, relating to Foveaux, presents us with a number of problems … [The passage is] actually an extract from an 1859 novel by George John Lang … originally published as a series of short stories in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words.  Dickens was obsessed with Botany Bay, and had an important role in shaping perceptions of the colony through his entirely fictitious accounts.  Much as with modern film or television depictions, fantasy became reality.[16]

Cover of Hughes' The Fatal Shore, with Bradley's 1790 illustration of the wreck of HMS Sirius off Kingston on the cover (and yes, it is meant to be upside down).

Cover of Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, with Bradley’s 1790 illustration of the wreck of HMS Sirius off Kingston on the cover.

Periodisation is not the only culprit at play here, but 1, 2, 3 History encourages the periods to be pitched against each other.  Third is better than first, which better than second, and so on, as shown by a 2008 publication which reads “[the] 6 June 1825 – a settlement date that is not celebrated on Norfolk Island…[17]

This has been taken on board by others, as illustrated by these two quotes.  A New Norfolk tourist website in Tasmania writes on their history page that:

Over the next two years more than half the island’s population were evacuated and by 1814 the settlement on Norfolk Island was abandoned, and all buildings were destroyed to discourage unauthorised occupation of the Island.   Norfolk Island was to remain uninhabited for the next 11 years, until the second settlement, but that is someone else’s story….. [18]

The Society of Pitcairn Descendants take a slightly different tack on their website:

During the first and second occupations of Norfolk Island, the island was part of the colonies of New South Wales, and later Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). However, in 1856, the Pitcairners having arrived on Norfolk Island, Queen Victoria ordered that it be a separate colony of the British Crown.[19]

The Tasmanians (that is, ‘first settlement descendants’) separate themselves from the other settlements.  The Pitcairners (that is, ‘third settlement descendants’) also separate themselves from the other settlements.  Both groups rather unwittingly assume a use of the 1, 2, 3 method.  They have both accepted, perhaps innocently, the method without question, and developed a view of the past that maintains a certain status quo and is unwelcoming of any attempt to explore what the settlements, or the people of these settlements, might have in common, such as this place Kingston that they have both shaped and been shaped by.

There is some irony in that it is the ‘second settlement’ history, apparently so reviled and unworthy of commemoration, that is the focus of the site’s World Heritage values.

If 1, 2, 3, history is no longer a sustainable method for really understanding Norfolk’s history, then what alternatives are available?

Is it time to write KAVHA’s history in different ways?

I said before that possibly the most radical of Norfolk’s recent histories is Professor Raymond Nobbs’ unpublished Historical Review written in 1992 for the first KAVHA Interpretation Plan.  It may seem that I am contradicting myself, having identified Professor Nobbs as a leading exponent of 1, 2, 3 history.  However, his unpublished history features another aspect of Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island that tends to get lost in the 1, 2, 3 method.  While Mrs Hoare presents the first and second settlements in a rather monotone way (in that they are only about the convict experience), her treatment of the third settlement is broken up into a number of chapters covering events such as whaling, education, and laws & administration, or places such as the Melanesian Mission and the Cable Station, or phases such as turn of the century and World War Two.  She allows for a more diverse history during the third settlement, and uses themes and places to tell those stories.

Professor Nobbs attempted to take this a stage further.  His 1992 work was structured around a set of 12 themes such as the natural environment, penology, the early Pitcairners, the sea and religion & education.  He rather summarily dismisses the Polynesians by assigning them to a preliminary discussion on ‘brief encounters and visitors to Norfolk Island’.

In an inversion of Mrs Hoare’s approach to the third settlement, Professor Nobbs then subdivides each of the themes into first, second and third settlement histories.  The opportunity for using a thematic history of, say, the sea to explore the many ways people have travelled to and from the island and lived from its marine resources between 1100 and the present day was not taken, and so to the potential move beyond a periodic history was not entirely realised.

Professor Raymond Nobbs.  Photo Odyssey

Professor Raymond Nobbs. Photo Odyssey

However, Nobbs in a brief discussion on why Kingston is the focus for Norfolk’s history, stated that in writing any history of Norfolk Island “…certain essential points must be born in mind.”  These are:

  1. All time periods need to be covered beginning with volcanic activity that created the island 3 million years ago,
  2. The whole island should be covered,
  3. There is scope for local histories to be developed, especially around the Mission Lands, Anson Bay, Cascade and the National Park,
  4. All sources, including archaeology, should be used,
  5. Need to understand why the surviving structures in Kingston are mostly those associated with authority,
  6. Be aware of the wider context of British and Australian history, and
  7. There is a need to overcome an undue emphasis on the second settlement.

These ‘essential points’, combined with a thematic approach, set out an agenda for historical research and site interpretation that, had it been explored in the early 1990s, may have lead to a different historiography to that I have explored today.

By the time the final version of the KAVHA interpretation plan was prepared in 1995, the 12 themes had been reduced to four storylines: Natural & Built Environment, The Penal Environment, Island Life and Industrial & Commercial Activity.  Unfortunately, the final plan was never adopted, and this work has instead been left to gather dust.  It is perhaps ironic that nearly 20 years later the KAVHA interpretation plan currently being prepared, by a very different method of analysing the several statements of significance for the site, arrived at a set of storylines for telling the stories of the place across time that are not dissimilar: Island & Sea, Voyaging, Hell & Paradise and Living Traditions.  These storylines, however, are not subdivided into first, second and third settlement periods.  Instead, it is proposed to explore these stories through biographies and events.  I think that the 18 Days in June 1856 is a prime candidate for exploring these themes.

Which, of course, leads us back to KAVHA’s statement of significance for its entry on the National Heritage List.

Professor Nobbs, in his unpublished Historical Review, commented on the role of Kingston in Norfolk Island history:

Kingston with Arthur’s Vale is indeed the appropriate area from which much of Norfolk Island’s past can be told and on which much of its history should focus.  So much either actually occurred here, or was the place from which many events emanated, thus determining the activity on the rest of the island.

Moreover, nothing else on this scale provides such tangible evidence of the past, and nothing else so excites a feeling for the history of the island.  All three settlements had their origins here, and anyone passing through Norfolk normally disembarked here.[20]

Nevertheless, he cautioned against putting all the history eggs in one basket.  Some parts of Norfolk’s history could be better told in other places, such as St Barnabas and Cascade.  Other districts on the island should not have their own local history obscured by regarding Kingston’s history as being the same things as Norfolk’s history.  Or, to put in another way, denying that there are other local histories or indeed other ‘whole of Norfolk’ histories centred on, say, Burnt Pine or Steele’s Point or Longridge, will not increase Kingston’s significance.

The ruins of the Longridge Agricultural Station, while part of the mid-19th century convict system, also signal the possibilities for exploring local histories on Norfolk Island in their own right.

The ruins at Longridge symbolise the possibilities for exploring local histories on Norfolk Island in their own right.

The Localist historians and researchers have been quietly working in this very area of research.  Examples include Gil Hitches The Pacific War, which contains a history of early Burnt Pine, Robert Tofts’ Whaling Days which looks at a single industry from the 1790s to the 1960s without needing to use a 1, 2, 3 structure, Helen Sampson’s Over the Horizon which reveals a distinctive Polynesian history for Emily and Cemetery Bays, and the two cemetery histories by R. Nixon Dalkin and Shane Quintal that provide Kingston’s east end with its own special character.

These histories have all avoided the 1, 2, 3 method, showing that it can be done.  At the local level, inclusive histories have been and are being written.  Perhaps what is needed now is a local history of Kingston & Arthur’s Vale that can draw out its several hundred years of human activities.  A thematic approach would help to rescue the town from bearing the burden of telling all of Norfolk’s history.

The convicts and the Pitcairners did share this place, especially Kingston and presumably at least Longridge and Cascade as well, even if only for 18 days, and they enjoyed and learnt from that time together.

Norfolk Island was once central to writing about Australian history, but over the last three or four decades it has simply vanished from the gaze of Australian historians (with the regrettable exception of Robert Hughes’ Fatal Shore, still echoing Dr Mowll’s fanciful view of ‘like animals they lived, and like animals they died’)[21].  My hypothesis is that the rise of 1, 2, 3 history, while potentially giving everyone their own segregated ‘patch’ of the past to write about, has actually deterred historians from considering the inclusion of Norfolk Island in a bigger history.  Instead, they have avoided an apparently exclusive history, possibly in some cases by a sensitivity to what they perceive to be the cultural mores of a ‘foreign’ society.  For example, is the historical knowledge that women on Norfolk had the vote between 1856 and 1897 adequately explained by saying “we did it first”, or could that story be explored to see whether it influenced the gaining of votes by women in New Zealand in 1893, South Australia in 1894, Western Australia in 1899, and eventually New South Wales and the Commonwealth in 1902?  I earlier referred to Philip Parker King, the armed forces and Bonnie Quintal as islanders influential on a national scale.  This is a hypothesis to be further explored.

KAVHA’s NHL statement of significance provides a set of values that can be tested using a thematic approach to history and story telling.  Doing this in a way that avoids the 1, 2, 3 method is the challenge.  It provides us with a research agenda for the future.

History writing in Norfolk and the rest of Australia has given us a distorted view of the past that now needs to be challenged if history is to be a part of, as Babbette Smith says, “achieving a realistic and profound understanding of our own society”.  And, I would add, the possibility of Kingston being the site of a new and inclusive way forward.

[1] Captain Phillip P. King RN, Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coats of Australia performed between the years 1818 and 1822, Vol. II, John Murray, London 1827: Chapter 4 passim, especially entries for 17th and 18th January 1822.

[2] For a recent example, and good summary of these debates, see Ann Curthoys and John Docker, Is History Fiction?, UNSW Press, Sydney 2006/2010.

[3] Dalkin, R. Nixon, ‘Norfolk Island – the First Settlement 1788-1814’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 57, Part 3, September 1971

[4] “Islands of History”, 25th Anniversary Conference of the Professional Historians’ Association (NSW), Governer’s Lodge, Norfolk Island, 18-25 July 2010

[5] Babette Smith, The Handover: a glimpse of men and management in the penal colonies, unpub MSS, paper presented at ‘Islands of History’ Conference.

[6]‘Norfolk Island: Progress Over 150 Years’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7th March 1938: 8

[7] Quoted in Shane Quintal, The Pitcairn Islanders of Town Cemetery Norfolk Island, the author, Norfolk Island 2008: 15

[8] Quoted in Raymond Nobbs, George Hunn Nobbs 1799-1884: Chaplain on Pitcairn and Norfolk Island, The Pitcairn Descendants Society, Norfolk Island 1984: 53

[9] Quoted in Nobbs: 64, 75

[10] Quoted in Quintal, op.cit: 10.

[11] Quoted in Smith., op. cit.

[12] Norfolk Island Roadmap, printed paper, dated 2nd March 2011, tabled in Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly, 9th March 2011

[13] Helen Sampson, Over the Horizon: the Polynesian settlement on Norfolk Island, the author, Norfolk Island 2005: 1

[14] pers. Comm., July 2010

[15] The Resident Judge of Port Phillip, review posted 17th November 2010, at http://residentjudge.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/norfolk-island-an-outline-of-its-history-1774-1977-by-merval-hoare/ accessed 11th April 2011.

[16] Whitaker, Anne-Maree, ‘From Norfolk Island to Foveaux Strait: Joseph Foveaux’s role in the Expansion of Whaling and Sealing in Early Nineteenth Century Australasia’, The Great Circle, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2004: 51-59

[17] Hubber, Brian, A Place of Angels and Eagles: the story of Norfolk Island, Norfolk Island Museums, Kingston 2008: 16

[18] ‘New Norfolk, Capital of the Derwent Valley’, History page, http://www.newnorfolk.org/sites/History_of_New_Norfolk1.shtml, accessed 11th April 2011.

[19] ‘Norfolk Island: The Website’, Government page, http://www.pitcairners.org/government.html, accessed 11th April 2011

[20] Nobbs, op. cit.: 2

[21] for example, articles about Norfolk Island history published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society increased then declined from 3 before the centenary of the Pitcairner migration in 1956, to 4 between 1956 and 1969, then none since, despite the foundation of the Norfolk Island Historical Society in 1964 and its continuing affiliation with the Royal Australian Historical Society.


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