Thursday, 21 August 2014

‘Hell in Paradise’

The ways in which Norfolk Island was regarded in the nineteenth century have led to stories to be told that do not correspond to its reality. The Norfolk Island legend has several defining characteristics that include assumptions that the prisoners were universally brutalised and had no hope, that commandants and their subordinates were sadists, sexual violence was widespread, and that ‘unnatural crimes’–Victorian shorthand for homosexuality–were rampant.

During Norfolk Island’s second settlement between 1825 and 1855, it was indeed the ‘Hell of the Pacific’, a place dominated by death and despair. [1] In 1824, the Governor of NSW, Sir Thomas Brisbane, [2] received a directive from Lord Bathurst, the Colonial Secretary that Norfolk Island was again to be turned into a penitentiary. [3] Its remoteness, seen previously as a disadvantage, was now viewed as an asset for the detention of those ‘twice-convicted’, men who had committed further crimes since arriving in NSW and VDL. Brisbane decided that it was the best place to send the worst felons ‘forever to be excluded from all hope of return’. Norfolk Island would be ‘the nec plus ultra of Convict degradation’.[4]

His successor, Governor Ralph Darling, [5] was even more severe than Brisbane, and made it clear in 1827 that he wished that ‘every man should be worked in irons that the example may deter others from the commission of crime’ [6] and that ‘My object was to hold out [Norfolk Island] as a place of the extremest punishment short of death’. [7] Governor George Arthur, in VDL, also believed that ‘when prisoners are sent to Norfolk Island, they should on no account be permitted to return. Transportation thither should be considered as the ultimate limit and a punishment short only of death’. Sir Richard Bourke instructed Major Joseph Anderson, the notorious Commandant of Norfolk Island from 1834 to 1839, to keep prisoners working manually in irons even though it was expensive and inefficient, as the penal settlement was considered a place of punishment. He deliberately warned him against implementing any more efficient methods of production, such as mills that were not ‘urged by the labour of convicts’. [8] Despite the reliance on manual labour, prisoners on Norfolk Island were cheaper to keep than chained convicts in NSW and the existence of the place at all was considered by many in Britain to be part of the ‘moral cost’ of the transportation system. Convicts so feared Norfolk Island that Elliott one of the prisoners declared that he would rather hang than be sent there. [9] The Norfolk Island penal settlement was not primarily for the reformation of convicts.

Conditions for convicts, many of them Irish Catholics, were unrelentingly brutal. A large percentage of the convicts were sentenced to remain in heavy chains for the terms of their natural lives and most convicts were chained during the day. Convicts were used primarily as farm labourers or in building much of what today is Kingston. Stone was quarried for building from Nepean Island, a rock close to shore and coral rubble was rendered with lime and sand. Norfolk Pine was used for joinery and roofs and floors were made from thin stone slabs. Flogging was common, sometimes up to 500 strokes. Dumb-cells were constructed to exclude light and sound in which some lost their sanity. Solitary confinement, increased workloads and decreased rations were also common forms of punishment. Michael Burns, for instance, suffered a total of 2,210 lashes and almost two years in confinement, much of it in solitary with at least six months of those two years on a diet of bread and water. His crimes were insolence, suspected robbery and neglect of work, striking a fellow prisoner, bushranging, singing a song, calling for a doctor, attempted escape and inability to work caused by his punishments.[10] Thomas Bunbury, briefly commandant in 1839 after the brief mutiny by the 80th Regiment on the island, [11] wrote that he could not understand why ‘a villain who has been guilty of every enormity, should feel shame at having his back scratched with the cat-o-nine-tails when he felt none for his atrocious crimes’ and that ‘if a man is too sick to work he is too sick to eat’. [12]

Such was the harshness of both hard labour and punishment that for some death was preferable to continued torment though contemporary evidence for this is limited. When Father William Ullathorne, Vicar general of Sydney, visited Norfolk Island to comfort those due for execution after the 1834 rebellion, he found it ‘the most heartrending scene that I ever witnessed’. Having the duty of informing the prisoners as to who was reprieved and who was to die, he was shocked to record as ‘a literal fact that each man who heard his reprieve wept bitterly, and that each man who heard of his condemnation to death went down on his knees with dry eyes, and thanked God.’ [13] John Frederick Mortlock, who wrote about his own treatment at various settlements around Australia and arrived on Norfolk Island in 1845, explained:

…instead of awakening moral responsibility, it [injudicious severity] strengthens the Devil, and makes men more difficult to manage–more likely to be dangerous when restored to society. [14]

There is evidence that some men committed capital offences with ‘suicidal intent’ so that they would be executed. For instance, William Westwood, one of the leaders of the 1846 riot suggested in a conversation with Stipendiary Magistrate Samuel Barrow that he ‘became careless and reckless of life’ and that ‘the death I am going to suffer could be preferable to Norfolk Island.’ [15] However, an attempted escape from gaol suggests that his claims should be treated with some scepticism. These incidents were embellished into stories of ‘suicide lotteries’ by some contemporary writers. John West, for instance, argued that men at Macquarie Harbour ‘gambled for life’. [16] The Norfolk Island suicide lottery myth relies on an extremely limited number of sources and despite the continued currency of these tales, the suicide rate on the Island was extremely low with only three recorded attempted suicides, a consequence Causer argues ‘that convicts were averse to suicide for explicitly religious reasons’. [17]


[1] See, Nobbs, R., (ed.), Norfolk Island and its Second Settlement, 1825-1855, (Library of Australian History), 1991.

[2] Heydon, J. D., ‘Brisbane, Sir Thomas Makdougall (1773-1860)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 151-155, and Brisbane, Sir Thomas Makdougall, Reminiscences of General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, (T. Constable), 1860, pp. 43-60.

[3] Bathurst to Brisbane, 22 July 1824, HRA, Series I: Vol. 11, pp. 321-322, acknowledged by Brisbane, 21 May 1825.

[4] Brisbane to Under-Secretary Horton, 24 March 1825, HRA, Series I: Vol. 11, p. 553.

[5] ‘Sir Ralph Darling (1772-1858), ADB, Vol. 1, 1966, pp. 282-286, and ibid, Fletcher, Brian, Ralph Darling: A Governor Maligned, provide biographical material.

[6] Darling to Under-Secretary Hay, 10 February 1827, HRA, Series I: Vol. 13, p. 106.

[7] Cit, ibid, Hazzard, Margaret, Punishment Short of Death, p. 111.

[8] See, Bourke to Stanley, 15 January 1834, HRA, Series I: Vol. 17, pp. 319-320, 327-328.

[9] R. v. Jones, Giles and Elliot: report of execution, Australian, 13 September 1833. For other declarations of preference for death over transportation to Norfolk Island, see R v Gough, Watson and Muir, 1827, Therry, R., Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Residence in New South Wales and Victoria: with a supplementary chapter on transportation and the ticket-of-leave system, (Sampson Low, Son, and Co.), 1863, pp. 19, 24, and R v Pegg, 1831, who preferred death to 14 years’ transportation.

[10] Cook, Thomas, The exile’s lamentations or biographical sketch of Thomas Cook who was convicted at the Assizes held at Shrewsbury in March 1831 for ‘writing threatening letters’ and sentenced 14 yrs transportation and re-convicted for forgery and sentenced to Norfolk Island for life, 1840, reprinted, (Library of Australian History), 1978, p. 48.

[11] Sargent, Clem, ‘The British Garrison in Australia 1788-1841: the mutiny of the 80th Regiment on Norfolk Island’, Sabretache, Vol. 59, (3), (2005), pp. 5-22, is essential on this neglected rebellion.

[12] Bunbury, Thomas, Reminiscences of a Veteran: being personal and military adventures in Portugal, Spain, France, Malta, New South Wales, Norfolk Island, New Zealand, Andaman Islands, and India, 3 Vols. (C.J. Skeet), 1861, reprinted (N & M Press), 2009, cit. ibid, Hazzard, Margaret, Punishment Short of Death, p. 152

[13] Cit, Birt, Henry Norbert, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, 2 Vols. (Herbert & Daniel), Vol. 1, 1911, p. 178, and Butler, Edward Cuthbert, The life & times of Bishop Ullathorne, 1806-1889, 2 Vols. (Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, Ltd.), 1926, Vol. 1, p. 94.

[14] Mortlock, J. F., Experiences of a convict transported for twenty one years: an autobiographical memoir, (Richard Barrett, Printers), 1864, p. 67.

[15] Barrow to Comptroller-General of Convicts 2 November 1846, cit, Causer, Tim, ‘Norfolk Island’s ‘suicide lotteries’: myth and reality’, unpublished paper, p. 5. http://www.academia.edu/1109987/Norfolk_Islands_suicide_lotteries_myth_and_reality

[16] Ibid, West, John, The History of Tasmania, p. 397.

[17] Causer, Tim, ‘Norfolk Island’s ‘suicide lotteries’: myth and reality’, unpublished paper, pp. 5-6.

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