One of the most charming places in all the world that I have visited is Australia’s Norfolk Island, a 13-square-mile droplet of land north of New Zealand and 930 miles northeast of Sydney. It combines Australia’s open hospitality with scenic beauty, excellent lodgings and dining, worry-free security. Through miscommunication before leaving Houston, I wasn’t told my rental
car would be waiting for me at the Norfolk airport. Friends from the flight transported my luggage and me to my hotel, a group of six suites in a low one-story building. My key was on the check-in pad, resting on a chair on the porch, with a note designating my room. The door of my suite was unlocked. Next morning, when I called to arrange to pick up the
car, I was told it had been left at the airport, driver door open and keys under the mat. When I left several days later, I was instructed to do the same, leave the keys under the mat and driver’s door open. Car doors, hotel doors open? I wondered in how many towns or cities a traveler would find that arrangement.
In 1788, England began sending shiploads of convicts to Australia, for incarceration. That same year, the British decided to colonize Norfolk Island to foil French plans and use the flagpole straight Norfolk pines for ship masts and its flax plants for ship sails. Six women and 17 men convicts were banished to Norfolk, beginning the first of two periods of Norfolk penal settlements, 1788-1814 and 1825-55. Though the English soon found the pines unsuitable for ship building and the flax plant took too long to turn into canvas for sails, Norfolk served only too well as a jail. Its shark-infested waters made it a natural prison; its isolation gave its commandants almost absolute power. One early commandant’s wife noted that in a 12-month period, 109 prisoners were shot
by sentries in self-defense, 63 bayoneted to death, a total of 600 lashes administered every day. One man received 2, 000 lashes over three years.
A year after the convicts were transferred to Van Damien’s Land (Tasmania), in 1855, Queen Victoria, responding to requests, moved the 193 inhabitants of Pitcairn Island 3, 700 miles westward to Norfolk. They were the descendants of the 26 mutineers who set Captain William Bligh and 18 loyal crew members of HMS Bounty adrift in an open launch, 23 feet long, six feet, nine inches wide, near Fiji on 3 May 1789. Nine of the mutineers, led by Master’s Mate, Fletcher Christian, with six Tahitian men and 12 women, sailed from Tahiti, looking for a refuge safe from British retribution. In December 1789, after a 7,800 mile search, they sighted the lonely, uninhabited island of Pitcairn, where they settled.
By accident or design, on 23 January 1790, the Bounty burned to the waterline. The fate of the mutineers was forever tied to Pitcairn. Christian took ashore the tenets of the Bible, and put them into daily practice, but he failed to allot a woman for each Polynesian man. At the end of the decade, though there were many children, only one Mutineer still lived, John Adams, and ten women. He greeted the first ship in 1808. The second one didn’t come until 1825. Adams died in 1829 at age 62. In those first ten bloody years, of the 16 dead, 15 had
met violent ends. And what of Captains Bligh? Controversy and conflict followed him like a leashed dog until his retirement. He died in 1817 at age 63. Mera Christian said it best: Bligh was a brilliant man himself, who simply didn’t know how to handle other men.
Eighteen years after their 1856 Norfolk arrival, 17 members of mutineer Edward Young’s family returned to Pitcairn. Five years later, a second party of 44 descendants went back to Pitcairn, including two Christian families and another Young family. On Norfolk, the Pitcairn resented the Australian rule and that 1/5th of the land was unavailable to them. In addition, they missed Pitcairn’s rocky cliffs and crashing surf. Though I have not visited Pitcairn, its difficult to understand their decision, except the home we’ve known often calls us back.
Today, Norfolk has no taxes on property or income, funding for the territorial government comes from tourism, airport departure tax and
sale of stamps, the last accounting for about a third of the annual budget. Norfolk hosts 30, 000 visitors a year. Isolated Pitcairn today is fighting for its life on overworked, unyielding soil, without electricity, a population same as 140 years ago, with less than a dozen able bodied men.