Watawieh, Welkam tu Norf’k Ailen – history of settlement

Did you know that Norfolk Island has its own language? Watawieh yorlyl means ‘how are you all?’. Norfolk language is a mixture of old country English and 18th century Tahitian, St Kitt’s Creole and some words introduced by American whalers. It reflects Norfolk Island’s diverse history and inhabitation from early Polynesian to two separate convict settlements and the relocation of the Pitcairn Islanders. We were going there to learn about its natural resources, one of the first tour groups after a 2 year COVID hiatus. But to appreciate Norfolk Island, it is important to know something of its history.

View of two islands with Norfolk Island pine trees in the foreground
Kingston, Norfolk Island

Life on Norfolk can be described by the term ‘Ai gat a hili’ – ‘I’m feeling laid back.’ It’s a beautiful sub tropical island at the same latitude as Evans Head on the NSW North Coast and sits on the volcanic shelf which runs between New Caledonia and New Zealand. The flora and fauna of Norfolk have originated from the submerged continent of Zealandia. The island is the remnant of a basaltic volcano which explains its steep coastline and its rich soil. There are no landing piers and deliveries of everything from food to vehicles must be ferried from cargo ships by tender and lifted off by crane. Flights are often diverted to New Zealand or New Caledonia if the weather is bad. Needless to say, the island is difficult to access and this marks its checkered history.

North coastline where Captain Cook landed in 1774

A quick tour of the island took us to Mt Pitt whose lookout to the south show Nepean and Phillip Islands. The names of places have decidedly 18th century English currency; Norfolk named after the Duchess of Norfolk whom James Cook sat next to on the eve of his second voyage to the Pacific; Nepean, the Under Secretary of State who financed the First Fleet in 1787; Phillip the first Governor of NSW and Pitt, the Prime Minister of England at the time the first penal settlement occurred on Norfolk.

View to Phillip Island from Mt Pitt

Almost as soon as the First Fleet arrived in Sydney, Governor Phillip sent ships to explore the nearby islands for food sources, as well as pine trees for ship masts and flax for linen. The first settlement on Norfolk occurred in 1788 and remained until 1814, the convicts sent to grow food for the increasingly desperate Sydney colony in the early 1790’s. It was followed by a second penal settlement from 1825-1855. This settlement was followed by the Pitcairners in 1856, whose descendants remain a force to this day, including flying the Pitcairn flag outside the Bounty Museum.

Pitcairn Island, Norfolk Island and Australian flags

We heard various versions of the Pitcairn settlement from our numerous guides over the week. Opposite our hotel the Guava Gallery displayed work of local artisans but also the Norfolk Island Cyclorama, a wonderful immersive experience of the 1787 journey of the Bounty to Tahiti to collect breadfruit and the famous mutiny against the Captain, William Bligh. The artwork by Tracey Yeagar provided the visuals while the commentary and sound effects gave us an insight into sea journeys of that time.

Fletcher Christian, famously profiled by Marlon Brando in the film Mutiny on the Bounty, was Captain Bligh’s mate and chosen companion. Forty four men sailed on the Bounty in 1787 to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti for cultivation in England. The crew spent 5 months in Tahiti where marine discipline deteriorated, the tropical ambience obviously loosening 18th century morals. On the return journey, the irascible Bligh, found it increasingly difficult to maintain control of his crew and fell out with his mate.

The mutiny led by Christian sent Bligh and 18 of his crew off on the high seas in a 23 foot longboat with limited supplies but a compass and quadrant and no charts. Incredibly Bligh managed to sail to Koepang in Timor with the loss of one life. Christian and the rest of the crew meanwhile returned to Tahiti with its beautiful women and eventually 9 mutineers, with their Tahitian wives settled on Pitcairn Island. Fearful of retaliation by the British Crown for their mutiny, they burnt the Bounty. Pitcairn, another volcanic tip in the Pacific Ocean, was sometimes visited by American whalers but its steep cliffs and limited water supply made it difficult for sustaining life and in 1856, the Pitcairners petitioned Queen Victoria to relocate 194 of the mutineer descendants to Norfolk Island. On arrival, they were each granted 50 acres of land to settle and farm.

Norfolk Island then became an anomaly, stuck out in the Pacific Ocean as a British territory, until it came under the Australian Commonwealth in 1901. The island was administered by a local council independent of Australia and became a well known tax haven. Since 2016, it has been administered as part of the Australian Capital Territory and has the same health and education benefits as the rest of Australia. Residents must now vote in Australian elections and pay tax. There is a fierce democracy movement against this, with over 68% of the population opposed and wishing to be reunited with Britain. In the centre of town, named Burnt Pine, is a demonstration of this protest by Island Elders.

Hands for democracy

We heard various versions of this history as we were transported around the island to visit historical sites, the national park, botanical gardens and the wonderful 100 Acres. We were told that tourism is now the only industry and thus were treated to wonderful hospitality, met fascinating local characters and were certainly feeling as if we ‘gat a hili’. For more detail of our experiences, explore Watawieh, Welkam tu Norf’k Ailen – Botanica tour.

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