Colonising a Small Island in the Middle of Nowhere


The story of the birth of Australia is well known. We know the story of the English Navigator James Cook and his discovery of the east coast of what was eventually named Australia. We admire his navigation skills, his personal bravery and his ability to sail huge oceans without the need for much of a personal or domestic life. We know the story of the First Fleet in 1788 and its long perilous voyage from England to start a penal colony as far away from England as was inhumanly possible. Perhaps we don’t understand as well the British class system that chose to jail its citizens for social offenses in appalling conditions rather than address the root causes of the ‘criminality’ of the working classes. When the independent minded American colonists decided they didn’t need any more English or Irish convicts, somewhere even further away was apparently needed as a repository for their social outcasts.

What is less well known is the story of Norfolk Island that was an offshoot of the plan for the penal colony in Sydney. In 1788 the planners of the colony had not thought through the long term need to feed the convicts in their care so it was decided that this small island 1500 kilometres away from the closest section of the coast of Australia would be a good place to start a farm that could provide food for the new colony. The distance from farm to plate wasn’t considered a huge issue. The map to the right gives a stark view of where both Sydney and Norfolk Island were in the context of the vast Pacific Ocean.

  1. The arrival of the first humans

English convicts weren’t the first human beings to arrive on Norfolk. Perhaps 6 hundred years before English convicts and soldiers arrived, Polynesian people discovered the Island and stayed for long enough to leave the signs of their village. The only site of Polynesian habitation has been discovered at the back of Emily Bay. The image below shows markers for particular sections of the archaeological site with Government house through the trees in the background. It is just not because of the archaeological evidence of a Polynesian village that we know of this visitation of humans to Norfolk; the presence of banana and flax plants on the island when Europeans arrived was another indicator. Banana plants don’t grow from seeds that can be washed thousands of miles by the ocean, actual sections of the plants have to be sown and cultivated. Another ‘gift’ that the Polynesians brought in their boat/s that the island didn’t welcome was their rat (Rattus Exulans) that is still a pest on the island today. It made short work over the years of the local geckos, skinks and centipedes. The curious metal cymbals around palm trees on the island today are just one sign of the need to protect financial crops of the current residents from the Polynesian rat.

2. The Sinking of the Sirius

Norfolk Island had been discovered in 1774 by Captain Cook so when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney, Norfolk Island was apparently a priority to claim for England so 22 convicts and free men were taken to the island to start a second settlement in March 1788. In 1790 the First Fleet’s lead ship, the Sirius was bringing food and other supplies to the small colony on Norfolk but on a typical Norfolk day, the sea outside the reef turned nasty and forced the Sirius on to the same reef that surfers today ride the waves over. All the passengers were rescued and some of the stores but most of what Sirius was carrying ended up in the sea. This left a now enlarged community (now 297, mostly convicts) to survive on what they could extract from the environment. Behind the beach at Slaughter Bay today is a plaque pointing out to the reef where the submerged remnants of the Sirius wreck still lie.

The well known painting of the Sirius hitting the reef at Norfolk was painted by a midshipman who was part of the crew of the ship. In the background can be seen the sister ship of Sirius successfully escaping back to deep water after unloading its stores.

The original group sent to start a farm on Norfolk had not been very successful in their efforts so the sudden influx of large numbers of mouths to feed put a strain both on the community and Norfolk’s environment. The saddest affair of this situation was the destruction of a population of seabirds that visited Norfolk for a few months of the year. Captain John Hunter explains… “In the month of April we found that Mount Pitt…was, during the night, crowded with birds…as soon as it is dark, they hover in vast flocks over the ground where their nests (burrows) are. Our people…light small fires, which attract the attention of the birds, and they drop down out of the air as fast as the people can take them up and kill them.” The species of Petrel, called by the locals the “Bird of Providence” became extinct on Norfolk Island.

3. The Norfolk Island Kaka

The curiously named ‘Bird of Providence’ wasn’t the only bird that was driven to extinction by the arrival of convict settlements on Norfolk. The Kaka was a large parrot that evolved on the island with few predators. Having no fear, they were another easy target for settlers looking for food. The last surviving Kaka wasn’t even on his home territory when he died; he’d been taken to London as a display item.

The island’s large Green Parrot was another beautiful species that has only just survived the transformation of the Island’s environment. Habitat loss led to only 30 green parrots left in the wild in the 1980s. Conservation efforts by National Park Rangers has meant there is a recovery in this species population to over 200 birds. The image on the right is a model of the Green Parrot from the Botanic Gardens Display Centre.

4. The Arrival of Pigs, Goats and Rabbits

These animals were delivered to Norfolk as part of an intended food chain for the early settlements on Norfolk as well as hunting targets for the supervising officers. The pigs and goats didn’t survive in the wild but the rabbit went about its business of eating anything in sight. The devastation of the environment by these feral animals was the same as it was in the continent of Australia’s rural area. Being a small island, this was an advantage when it came to be understood in the 1980’s that this pest had to go. Myxomatosis was introduced to the island and the rabbits that survived that poison were finished by trapping and shooting by 1988.

5. The Phillip Island Glory Pea

It’s not often one gets saddened by the fate of a Pea. This account from the Botanic Gardens on Norfolk covers the story. “The Glory Pea was the sole species of the genus found on Philip Island. Taken to Europe, the promise of showy flowers made it popular with exotic plant enthusiasts. However in a twist of fate, it was difficult to grow and fell out of use. Back on the island, eaten by feral animals, it became Philip Island’s first recorded plant extinction.” Phillip Island can be seen just off the south coast of Norfolk in the image below.

APPENDIX 1: A Puzzling Question

Who first discovered the east coast of Australia many thousands of years after the original, indigenous inhabitants?

As a former history teacher, I was fascinated by one of the plaques at the archaeological site of the Polynesian village behind Emily Bay. There was significant information about the site for visitors on notice boards in front of the area. The extract from one of these notice boards shown on the right struck me as a very interesting addition to the discussion about who discovered the East Coast of Australia long after the original arrivals came to the continent around 65000 years ago. We know that our history books tell us that the east coast of Australia was discovered by James Cook when he sailed into Botany Bay on 29th April 1770. He wrote in his diary on 22 August 1770 “I now once more hoisted English colours and in the name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole east coast from…” Whether just by visiting the shores of a continent means you can claim it (First in, best dressed argument), is a moot point. However, there is another claim for being the first group to arrive from elsewhere to encounter the east coast of this continent.

In 2002, Gavin Menzies published a best-seller called 1421: The Year China discovered Australia. His book proposes that a Chinese Junk fleet circumnavigated the world and landed on NSW’s south coast and left behind evidence of their landfall in the form of a wrecked ship and possibly a fort that they built inland from Eden to while away their repair time here. This evidence has convinced very few in the history business so it is not raised by many to change the historical date of when Australia’s east coast was discovered.

However here on Norfolk Island I read this curious story of evidence of a landfall by Polynesian sailors from Norfolk Island on the north coast of NSW, well before the arrival of Captain Cook. Whilst there is not any evidence of a shipwreck or a ruined fort, the ‘basalt adze’ evidence is something that archaeologists and historians can analyze and test closely. Such experts have determined that it was made on Norfolk Island from basalt that is unique to Norfolk; the key question remains is how it was transported to Northern NSW and perhaps whether it was used in a flag raising or spear throwing ceremony to claim this ‘new’ land for Polynesians in general.

In the Australian Archaeology magazine (#79 December 2014) the following explanation is given about the discovery of the adze.

In 1928 the recently constituted Anthropological Sociey of NSW made a field trip to Dark Point…170 kms northeast of Sydney. The expedition’s purpose was to collect Aboriginal artifacts from an extensive midden. Among the artefacts found was a quadrangular-sectioned, asymmetrically beveled adze, which was eventually presented to the Australian Museum.”

The adze was kept in the Museum until the 1970s/80s when its composition was analysed, compared with the basalt of Norfolk Island and its origin confirmed.

The article in Australian Archaeology mentioned earlier also discusses the key question of how the adze from Norfolk Island made its way to the middle of a midden at Dark Point NSW. Did it arrive after 1788 through travelers to Norfolk bringing back the adze as a souvenir from NI and depositing or burying it in a midden north of Port Stephens NSW? The article suggests this is unlikely and proposes the possibility of a more controversial explanation…

The alternative explanation is an original Polynesian deposition. The short-lived Polynesian settlement of Norfolk Island occurred about 1300 CE (800-600 years ago)…at a time when there was a good deal of Polynesian voyaging in much of the Pacific, so it is not inconceivable that a canoe equipped with Polynesian material culture arrived either at Dark Point or Broughton Island. Of its possible cargo, only two kinds of material are likely to survive to the present: basalt and obsidian…We can speculate about the several possible fates of the voyagers. A date of around 1300 CE is also about the most recent that can be expected for such an event, since there is reason to believe that long-distance Polynesian voyaging was severely curtailed or ceased about this time, although accidental drift voyages could have occurred at any time.” (P.135 Australian Archaeology No.79)

Whilst the possibility of a discovery of Australia by Polynesian voyagers at the start of the 14th century based on one stone adze is not going to set the world of Australian history on fire. However it is a story I would have loved to have known about back when I was teaching history to a class with Polynesian students involved. I would have loved to have written a heading on the chalkboard one history lesson pronouncing “Bros the first to discover Australia! (only 65 thousand years after indigenous people!)” Imagine the tumult and discussion that would have promoted!


A Norfolk Island basalt adze from coastal New South Wales” by Peter White, Christian Reepmeyer and Geoffrey Clark in Australian Archaeology Number 79 December 2014.

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