Sunday, 21 September 2014

Norfolk Island: A final flourish

There were minor disturbances in 1841, 1842 and 1843 but a more violent affair in 1846. [1] Joseph Childs, commandant from 1844 to 1846, proved to be no match for the hardened convicts largely because he had no experience of life in a penal settlement. [2] When Robert Pringle Stuart visited Norfolk Island, he reported that Childs was ‘a most amiable benevolent gentleman and honourable officer’ but that what was needed to avoid anarchy and insubordination was ‘an officer of experience in, or capacity for, government, judgement, energy, decision and firmness’. [3] Childs was recalled but, before he left, a group of convicts revolted in July 1846, murdering four officials. [4]

As was usual with new commandants, Childs had cracked down on discipline and removed some privileges that convicts had become accustomed to. On 1 July 1846, William Westwood, a convicted bushranger also known as ‘Jackey Jackey’ led a mutiny provoked by Childs’ decision the previous day to remove the prisoners’ tins and knives and other utensils used for cooking their food and that all food would in future be cooked for them. [5] He attacked and brutally killed two overseers, a guard who called out that he had seen it all and another guard who was asleep. In half an hour, the military restored order at the point of the bayonet and convicts who had joined the riot quickly returned to their cells. Sentenced to death with twelve others, Westwood was hanged on 13 October 1846 by Childs’ successor, John Price, who considered Childs responsible for the state of affairs that led to the revolt. [6] A contemporary report blamed the situation on Childs’ ‘utter imbecility’. [7] There was one last event of convict defiance when, in March 1853, some convicts seized a government launch and attempted to row to freedom. In July, news was received that the launch had reached the coast of NSW and some of the runaways had been captured.

From the mid-1840s, there was growing pressure to end transportation to VDL, something that was finally achieved in 1853. The cost of maintaining the penal settlement on Norfolk Island was growing and Port Arthur in VDL was seen as a less costly alternative. This combined with increasing criticism by magistrates and clergymen of the nature of penal rule on Norfolk Island led to the decision to abandon the island for a second time. [8] The process began in 1847 and was completed in May 1855 when the last convicts were moved to VDL. [9] There was a further factor that played a part in this decision. With some irony, in Britain, Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary, saw Norfolk as a possible home for the inhabitants of Pitcairn Islands, descendants of the mutineers from the Bounty and their Tahitian-Polynesian wives. [10]


[1] On the attempted escape on the Governor Phillip, see Gipps to Lord Stanley, 15 August 1842, HRA Series I: Vol. 22, pp. 200-201.

[2] Barry, John V., ‘Childs, Joseph (1787-1870)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 220-221.

[3] Ibid, Stuart, Robert Pringle, and Naylor, Thomas Beagley, Norfolk Island, 1846: the accounts of Robert Pringle Stuart and Thomas Beagley Naylor, p. 69.

[4] ‘Disturbances at Norfolk Island’, The Australian, 8 August 1846, provides an account of events.

[5] Rutledge, Martha, ‘Westwood, William [Jackey Jackey] (1820-1846)’, ADB, Supplementary Volume, pp. 404-405.

[6] The Australian, 14 November 1846.

[7] Rogers, Henry, (ed.), Essays, Selected from Contributions to the Edinburgh Review, 2 Vols. (Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans), 1850, Vol. 2, ‘Treatment of Criminals’, p. 506. The article was originally published in 1847.

[8] ‘Norfolk Island and Transportation’, The Australian, 18 February 1847, indicated that the ‘island establishment is to be immediately reduced to a very small scale’.

[9] Earl Grey to Sir Charles Fitzroy, 27 February 1847, HRA, Series I: Vol. 25, pp. 375-376.

[10] Murray, Thomas Boyles, Pitcairn, the island, the people, and the pastor: to which is added a short notice of the original settlement and present condition of Norfolk Island, (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge), 1857, pp. 363-428, provides a valuable contemporary account of this process. See also, Belcher, Lady, (Diana Joliffe), The Mutineers of the Bounty and Their Descendants in Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands, (Harmer & Brothers Publishers), 1871.

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