Thursday, 14 August 2014

Rebellion on Norfolk Island: Foveaux and rebellion in 1800

There had been attempted convict rebellions in 1789 and 1794 and this situation intensified with the arrival on the island in early November 1800 of a group of United Irish prisoners, several of whom had been implicated in conspiracies in Sydney in September and October. Although Foveaux was aware of the need for surveillance over the convicts, he believed that lenient treatment and the isolation of the island would discourage any attempts at escape. The United Irishmen were allowed free association with each other and with earlier arrivals. In particular, Farrell Cuffe, a school teacher and United Irishman from County Offaly struck up or possibly renewed a friendship with Peter McLean, a forty-year old political prisoner from County Cavan who had arrived with Joseph Foveaux, who King had appointed commandant of the Island, in July. The result was preparations for an armed escape. Convicts began making pikes and Cockerton Ross, an expiree, promised to give them 15 muskets. McLean was also in correspondence with Thomas Pyshe Palmer in Sydney who promised that a ship would come to take them away once the conspirators had seized the settlement. [1]

The tiny settlement on the south side of Norfolk Island – a view drawn by Edward Dayes based on a painting by William Chapman storekeeper and deputy commissary

The rebellion was originally planned for Christmas Day when McLean and sympathetic soldiers would open the barracks and the rebels would seize weapons and proceed to the guardhouse, magazine and gaol. The fraternisation of several of the soldiers with the Irish convicts had already caused some concern in the garrison but no action had been taken. However, preparations were so advanced that the plan was brought forward to the night of Saturday 13 December but was deferred for twenty-four hours following a meeting at which the rebels disagreed about whether the officers, their wives and children should be killed or not. In the interim, the conspiracy was betrayed to Foveaux by Henry Grady, a reluctant rebel who had been convicted for rape not sedition and Thomas Hodges. Foveaux acted decisively and with his civil and military officers agreed that capital punishment should be used, perhaps angered that his leniency had been abused or by the threat of violence to women and children.[2] McLean and John Houlahan (Wolloghan), aged 24 and from Munster, named as the chief organiser of the pike-making were arrested on the Sunday morning and hanged in the afternoon before the assembled convicts and soldiers. The four soldiers involved were ceremoniously drummed out of the NSW Corps and received 500 lashes each. Grady got a free pardon.  Although there were some questions about the legality of summary executions, King agreed with Foveaux’s actions and submitted a favourable report to London. [3]

Until severe asthma forced him to return first to Sydney in September 1803 and to London a year later, Foveaux concentrated his efforts on improving conditions on Norfolk Island, paying particular attention to public works, with results that earned high praise from both King and Lord Hobart, the Secretary of State. More questionable, however, was the dubious morality of allowing the sale of female convicts to settlers. Despite these advances, the future of Norfolk Island as a penal settlement, initially questioned by King as early as 1794, had already been decided before Foveaux left. It was too remote, too costly to maintain and the lack of a harbour made it difficult for shipping and, with the establishment of a settlement in VDL in 1803, there was now an alternative location for a penal settlement for difficult convicts. By 1803, Lord Hobart called for the removal of part of the Norfolk Island military establishment, settlers and convicts to VDL, due to its great expense and the difficulties of communication with Sydney. [4] Foveaux made his view clear to the Colonial Office that Norfolk Island should be abandoned in favour of VDL on his leave in England. [5]

John Houston, a naval lieutenant, was sent from Sydney to take over as Lieutenant-Governor and arrived at Norfolk Island on 13 February 1804 with Captain John Piper of the NSW Corps. Foveaux also returned to the island in February and continued with his plans for improvement but in July 1804 received a despatch from King ordering evacuation of the island. [6] Houston returned to Sydney and Piper became Lieutenant-Governor, a position he held until January 1810. [7] The duty of carrying out the frequently altered instructions fell to Piper and he appears to have exhibited both tact and organising ability. The evacuation was achieved more slowly than anticipated because of the reluctance of settlers to uproot themselves from the land they had struggled to tame and compensation claims for loss of stock. It was also delayed by King who insisted on the importance of the island for the whaling industry and probably his own personal attachment to it. [8] The first group of 159 left in February 1805 and comprised mainly convicts and their families and military personnel, only four settlers departing. [9] Between November 1807 and September 1808, five groups of 554 people left. Only about 200 remained, forming a small settlement until the remnants were removed in 1813. A small party led by a trusted emancipated convict William Hutchinson, which finally left on 15 February 1814, remained to slaughter stock and destroy all buildings so that there would be no incentive for anyone, especially from another European power, to visit or attempt to colonise it. [10]


[1] Earnshaw, John, ‘Palmer, Thomas Fyshe (1747-1802)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 312-313.

[2] HRNSW, Vol. 4, pp. 266-267, details the meeting

[3] King to Portland, 10 March 1801, HRNSW, Vol. 4, p. 319, 325,

[4] Hobart to King, 24 June 1803, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 157-159; this was not received by King until May 1804.

[5] See, Lieutenant-Governor Foveaux’s Observations concerning the Removal of the Settlement at Norfolk Island, 25 March 1805, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 581-585.

[6] King to Foveaux, 20 July 1804, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 403-406, detailed how the partial evacuation was to be managed.

[7] Barnard, Marjorie, ‘Piper, John (1773-1851)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 334-335.

[8] King to Sir Joseph Banks, 14 August 1804, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 447-448, expressed King’s belief in the importance of Norfolk Island and King to Camden, 30 April 1805, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 600-601, concerning the whalers.

[9] See King to Camden, 30 April 1805, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 600-601, on the first tranche of the removal.

[10] Le Roy, Paul Edwin, ‘Hutchinson, William (1772-1846)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 574-575.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Settling Norfolk Island

Convict resistance was widespread in NSW and then VDL in the decades following the unsuccessful rebellion in 1804. The major reason why there were no further large-scale rebellions on mainland Australia was that recalcitrant convicts were increasingly isolated in punishment settlements. The discovery of coal in NSW resulted in the development of Newcastle and its example was later following in VDL with the establishment of the prison settlement at Port Arthur. However, the most feared and infamous settlement was on Norfolk Island that lay about a thousand miles from both Australia and NZ and covers an area of just over thirteen square miles and was represented as all that was bad about the convict system. Bathurst’s 1824 proclamation stated that the ‘worst description’ of convicts from NSW and VDL would be sent to the Island. [1] Its isolation and the draconian nature of its administration, especially after 1825, made it one of the most brutal penal settlements of the nineteenth century and it was the location for the other major convict rebellion in 1834. [2] In 1840, Charles Dickens volunteered to write a cheap government-sanctioned narrative of Norfolk Island to ensure that the lower orders held it in sufficient dread. [3] Such a work was unnecessary since the Island was already a byword for criminality and perversity.

Sighted and named by Captain Cook in 1774, Norfolk Island was included as an auxiliary settlement in the British government’s plan for colonisation of NSW in 1786 and initially settled in March 1788. The decision to settle Norfolk Island, as well as the main settlement at Botany Bay, was based on its natural resources: tall, straight Norfolk Island pines and the NZ flax plant. [4] Cook had taken samples back to Britain and reported on their potential uses for the Royal Navy. Britain was heavily dependent on flax for sails and hemp for ropes largely imported from Russia through the Baltic Sea ports and also on timbers for mainmasts from New England. Relying on potentially erratic imports of these supplies posed a threat to Britain’s naval supremacy. Norfolk Island offered an alternative source and some historians, notably Geoffrey Blainey, have argued that this was a major reason for the founding of the convict settlement of NSW in 1788. The Universal Daily Register revealed the plan for a dual colonisation of Norfolk Island and Botany Bay:

The ships for Botany Bay are not to leave all the convicts there; some of them are to be taken to Norfolk Island, which is about eight hundred miles East of Botany Bay, and about four hundred miles short of New Zealand. [5]

The advantage of a non-Russian source of flax and hemp for naval supplies was referred to in Lloyd’s Evening Post:

It is undoubtedly the interest of Great-Britain to remain neutral in the present contest between the Russians and the Turks...Should England cease to render her services to the Empress of Russia, in a war against the Turks, there can be little of nothing to fear from her ill-will. England will speedily be enabled to draw from her colony of New South Wales, the staple of Russia, hemp and flax. [6]

Governor Arthur Phillip’s final instructions, given him in April 1787 less than three weeks before sailing, included the requirement to colonise Norfolk Island to prevent it falling into the hands of France, whose naval leaders were also showing interest in the Pacific. [7]

...as soon as Circumstances may admit of it...to prevent its being occupied by the Subjects of any other European Power. [8]

Phillip had chosen King as second lieutenant on HMS Sirius for the expedition to establish a convict settlement in NSW. King had served with Phillip before the First Fleet and was regarded as his protégé. Phillip certainly had a high opinion of King and consciously promoted his interests throughout the late 1780s and 1790s. Despite his lowly rank, soon after the settlement was established at Sydney Cove, King was selected to lead a small party of convicts and guards to set up a settlement at Norfolk Island. On 14 February 1788, he sailed for his new post with a party of twenty-three, including fifteen convicts. [9] On 6 March 1788, King and his party landed with difficulty, owing to the lack of a suitable harbour and set about building huts, clearing the land, planting crops and resisting the ravages of grubs, salt air and hurricanes. [10] More convicts were sent and these proved occasionally troublesome. Early in 1789, King prevented a mutiny when some of the convicts planned to take him and the other officers prisoner and escape on the next boat to arrive. [11] Despite the lack of a safe harbour, of lime and timbered land, there was plenty of fish, the stock flourished and the soil was good. It could maintain ‘at least one hundred families’, King told Phillip. Impressed by his work, the governor several times recommended his subordinate for naval promotion, but this would have raised difficulties because of King’s lack of seniority. To resolve the problem the Secretary of State announced in December 1789 that King would be appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island at a salary of £250. [12]

Sirius wreck on the reef at Norfolk Island 1790 NLA

Wreck of HMS Sirius on the reef at Norfolk Island 1790

Following the wreck of Sirius at Norfolk Island in March 1790, King left and returned to England to report on the difficulties facing the settlements in NSW. During his twenty months absence, the island was under the command of Lieutenant-Governor Robert Ross [13] but Ross was not an easy commandant and convicts, settlers, soldiers and officials had become discontented under his rule. [14] King found ‘discord and strife on every person’s countenance’ and was ‘pestered with complaints, bitter revilings, back-biting’. [15] Tools and skilled labour were both in short supply. Thefts were common and there was still no criminal court on the island, despite the representations he had made in London on the need for better judicial arrangements.[16] However, King’s guidance helped to improve conditions. The regulations he issued in 1792 encouraged the settlers, who were drawn from ex-marines and ex-convicts, and he was willing to listen to their advice on fixing wages and prices and other things. Unfortunately King had no success with growing the flax that so interested the British government. [17] The pine timber was found to be not durable enough for masts and this industry was also abandoned. By 1794, the island was self-sufficient in grain and had a surplus of swine that it could send to Sydney. Maize, wheat, potatoes, cabbage, timber, flax and fruit of all kinds grew well, the population grew to more than 1,100 and about a quarter of the island was cleared. Suffering from gout, King returned to England in October 1796, and after regaining his health, he resumed his naval career.

Between 1796 and 1800, Norfolk Island was ruled by Captain John Townson and then briefly by Captain Thomas Rowley. Townson spent six years on Norfolk Island between late 1791 and 1799 and received a twenty acre lease. [18] His administration was generally capable and he seems to have had a steadying influence on both convicts and settlers. When Townson left prematurely in November 1799, Rowley, as the senior officer, took charge of the settlement. He ordered liquor stills to be demolished to reduce the drunkenness on the island, and this move brought threats of prosecution from their owners. [19] King returned to NSW in early 1800 as Governor. [20] He appointed Major Joseph Foveaux as Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island in June 1800. [21]

Foveaux found the settlement quite run down, little maintenance having been carried out in the previous four years. Its population consisted of 519 men, 165 women and 269 children and had an unusually high ratio of free settlers to convicts: not including children, there were 308 free settlers and 272 convicts. Foveaux was unimpressed with his civil administration regarding the NSW Corps officers generally unfavourably. [22] He set about building up the community, particularly through public works and attempted to improve education. By 1800, Norfolk Island was a regular stop from the increasing number of whaling ships from the United States and Britain. Whale oil was much in demand, not least as a means of street lighting and by 1802 almost a hundred ships were involved in the Southern Ocean fishery. Whalers made lengthy voyages, often lasting two or three years and they found that wood and food were cheaper on Norfolk Island than in Sydney. This gave a welcome boost to the island’s economy. Whaling captains were often of assistance to Foveaux, selling tools and other goods needed on the island and carrying despatches to and from England. However, on occasions Foveaux complained that whalers overcharged for taking goods and passengers to Sydney and demanded urgent repairs that interfered with his plans for public works and farming. [23]


[1] Bathurst to Brisbane, 22 July 1824, HRA, Series I, Vol. 11, p. 322.

[2] See, Hoare, Merval, Norfolk Island; An outline of its history 1774-1968, fifth edition, (University of Queensland Press), 1999, Hazzard, Margaret, Punishment Short of Death: A History of the Penal Settlement at Norfolk Island, (Hyland House), 1984, Treadgold, M. L., Bounteous Bestowal: The economic history of Norfolk Island, (Australian National University), 1988, and O’Collins, Maev, An Uneasy Relationship: Norfolk Island and the Commonwealth of Australia, (ANU Press), 2002, pp. 1-19. Benton, Laura, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900, (Cambridge University Press), 2010, pp. 197-208, examines the uses made of extra-legal disciplinary systems.

[3] Dickens to Normanby, 3 July 1840, in Storey, Graham, Tillotson, Kathleen, and Easson, Angus, (eds.), The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 7, 1853-1855, (Oxford University Press), 1993, p. 818. The letter was referred to in the context of Hard Times, (Bradbury & Evans), 1854, p. 178, where Norfolk Island is briefly mentioned.

[4] See, Nobbs, R., (ed.), Norfolk Island and its First Settlement, 1788-1814, (Library of Australian History), 1988, and Donohoe, J. H., Norfolk Island, 1788-1813: the people and their families, (J. H. Donohoe), 1986.

[5] Universal Daily Register, 23 December 1786.

[6] Lloyd’s Evening Post, 5 October 1787.

[7] Dyer, Colin, The French Explorers and Sydney, (University of Queensland Press), 2009, draws on French observations of the British convict settlement in NSW.

[8] HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 84-91, HRA, Series I: Vol. 1, pp. 2-9.

[9] Crittenden, Victor, King of Norfolk Island: The Story of Philip Gidley King as Commandant and Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island, (Mulini Press), 1993. For King’s appointment and instructions see, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 136-138. Fidlon, P. G., and Ryan, R. J., (eds.), The Journal of Philip Gidley King: Lieutenant, R.N., 1787-1790, (Australian Documents Library), 1980, gives King’s view of his governance of Norfolk Island until 1790.

[10] Phillip to Sydney, 28 September 1788, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 185-187, provides analysis of the resources of Norfolk Island. See also, Phillip, Arthur, The voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay: with an account of the establishment of the colonies of Port Jackson & Norfolk Island, 3rd ed., (Printed for J. Stockdale), 1790. Ross to Phillip, 11 February 1791, gives a detailed discussion of problems encountered, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 434-450.

[11] Phillip to Sydney, 12 February 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 293-294. Since Phillip had corresponded with Sydney during 1789, it is difficult to explain why he left it a year before informing him of the mutiny.

[12] For King’s commission dated 28 January 1790, see, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 287-288.

[13] For Ross’ instruction dated 2 March 1790, see, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 314-316. See also his observations on the island in December 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 416-420, and the contrast with King’s observations in January 1791 when he was in London, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 428-431. See also, Macmillan, David S., ‘Ross, Robert (1740?-1794)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 397-398.

[14] Ross had introduced martial law almost as soon as he arrived at Norfolk Island because of the loss of the Sirius; see, Ross to Phillip, 22 March 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 319-320, and also the enclosures pp. 321-323, in which Ross laid down the standards that would now operate on the island. Phillip informed Grenville in a letter dated 14 July 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 357-358. Food shortages on Norfolk Island led Ross to introduce draconian measures to conserve supplies in proclamations on 7 August 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 390-393.

[15] King to Under Secretary Evan Nepean, 23 November 1791, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 562; see also King to Phillip, 29 December 1791, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 572-580.

[16] See Phillip to Dundas, 4 October 1791, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 655, on the inconveniences of the lack of a criminal court on Norfolk Island. Legislation was finally passed in London establishing a criminal court on Norfolk Island on 9 May 1794, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 235-236.

[17] King to Dundas, 19 November 1793, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 86-98, details the voyage to NZ to obtain Maori help with flax production. This failed and the natives returned to NZ, HRNSW, Vol. 2, p. 174.

[18] Austin, M., ‘Townson, John (1759?-1835)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 536-537.

[19] Fletcher, B. H., ‘Rowley, Thomas (1748?-1806)’, ADB, Vol. 2, p. 403.

[20] King arrived in NSW with the letter (Portland to Hunter, 5 November 1799, HRNSW, Vol. 3, pp. 733-738, HRA, Series I: Vol. 2, pp. 387-392, recalling Governor John Hunter was received on 16 April 1800, but he did not hand over the government to King until 28 September.

[21] See, King to Portland, 29 April 1800, HRNSW, vol. 4, p. 79, makes clear King’s decision and King to Foveaux, 26 June 1800, HRNSW, Vol. 4, pp. 96-108, details Foveaux’s appointment and instructions. See also, Fletcher, B. H., ‘Foveaux, Joseph (1767-1846)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 407-409, and Whitaker, Ann-Maree, Joseph Foveaux: power and patronage in early New South Wales, (University of New South Wales Press), 2000, pp. 55-80, for his years on Norfolk Island.

[22] State of the Settlement in Norfolk Island, 6 November 1800, HRNSW, Vol. 4, pp. 252-253.

[23] On the development of the South Sea whale-fishery, see, minutes of the Board of Trade, 4 December 1801, HRNSW, Vol. 4, p. 630. See also, Little, B., ‘Sealing and Whaling in Australia Before 1850’, Australian Economic History Review, Vol. 9, (1969), pp. 109-127.