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.

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