Norfolk Island Penal Establishment

State Records Authority of New South Wales
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In Governor Phillip's Instructions on 25 April 1787, Norfolk Island was identified as being "a spot which may hereafter become useful, you are, as soon as circumstances will admit of it, to send a small establishment to secure the same for us, and prevent it being occupied by the subjects of any other European power". (1)

The first Norfolk Island Penal Establishment was a branch of the penal settlement in New South Wales from 1788 to 1814. (2) On 12 February 1788 Phillip Gidley King, second lieutenant of his Majesty's ship Sirius, was appointed Superintendent and Commandant of the settlement at Norfolk Island. (3) King sailed on 14 February in the ship Supply landing at Norfolk Island with convicts and supplies on 5 March 1788. (4)

Governor Phillip's stated in his Instructions to King that "the convicts being the servants of the Crown till the time for which they are sentenced is expired, there labour is to be for the public, and you are to take particular notice of the general good or bad behaviour, that they may hereafter be employed or rewarded according to their different merits". (5)

In March 1790 there were 200 convicts on Norfolk Island, by November 1791 the number had increased to 748 convicts. (6) During the 1790s the establishment at Norfolk Island was characterised by civil unrest due to conflicts between convicts and soldiers.

When King became Governor in 1800 he appointed Major Joseph Foveaux the commandant of Norfolk Island. It was under Foveaux regime the "military contempt for convicts would approach the level of mania". (7) Under Foveaux command the convicts on Norfolk Island suffered great cruelty. Foveaux himself described his methods as "vigorous if not exactly conformable to law". (8)

As well as being a penal establishment, one of the primary reasons for establishing the first settlement at Norfolk Island was economic. The Colonial Government had hoped to utilise the flax and pine trees on Norfolk Island. But by the early 1800's it was realised that the anticipated economic importance of Norfolk Island had not materialised. (9) By 1810 the population on Norfolk Island had decreased to 117. As a consequence, one of Governor Macquaries first actions when he arrived as Governor was to order the abandonment of the island. (10) The abandonment of the establishment commenced in 1813, and the island was finally left deserted in February 1814. (11)

After 1814 the Island was left unoccupied until 1825. In 1824 the Colonial Office decided to revive the penal settlement on Norfolk Island as a place of banishment for convicts who had re-offended in the colony. On the 6 June 1825 Major R Turton, with 34 troops, 6 women and children, and 57 convicts, reoccupied the island. In 1827 the women and children were withdrawn in line with Governor Darling's policy. In the same year Governor Darling described government policy regarding the settlement as "to hold out that Settlement as a place of extremist punishment, short of death". (12) For the next quarter of a century Norfolk Island was a penal settlement holding an average of 1500-2000 convicts of the lowest type and, in the main, administered with great severity. (13)

In 1829 when James Morisset was appointed commandant of the settlement, there were 211 convicts on the Island. (14) As a consequence of Morisset being a married man, Governor Darling reversed his decision about women being allowed on Norfolk Island. The establishment at Norfolk Island this time had no free settlers and no assignment system, the convicts worked only for the government. (15) By 1834 there were close to 700 convicts on the Island, and according to personal accounts of convicts on Norfolk Island it was a place where the punishment was harsh and their treatment verging on inhumane. There was an attempted rebellion by the convicts in January 1834, but it was ill-planned, badly co-ordinated, and failed. (16) The Supreme Court was adjourned on Norfolk Island and 29 convicts were convicted of mutiny. Of the 29 convicted, 22 were executed and the remainder received additional sentences to remain on the Island. (17) Morrisset returned to Sydney soon after this, and was replaced by Major Joseph Anderson in March 1834. He remained until February 1839. (18) Anderson command saw the continued harsh treatment of convicts.

In 1835 " An Act for the more effectual Administration of Justice at Norfolk Island" was passed. This Act allowed the Governor to institute a Court of Criminal Jurisdiction at Norfolk Island, and to grant the court full power and authority to trail and punish convicts on the Island who committed another offence. (19)

It was not until Alexander Maconochie was appointed as Commandant of Norfolk Island in 1840 that the convicts started to be treated more humanely. Machonochie held progressive views about the rehabilitation of convicts for which he had support in England. (20) One significant change with the appointment of Maconochie was that for the first time convicts were transported directly to Norfolk Island from England. Governor Gipps was instructed from England not to send second time offenders to Norfolk Island. (21) By 1843 the convict population was decreasing so rapidly that Governor Gipps doubted whether Norfolk Island could keep supporting itself. Second time offenders had ceased to be sent there in 1840, (22) and the transportation of convicts to New South Wales had all but ceased. This combined with waning support for Maconochie's progressive views on rehabilitating convicts saw him recalled to England in 1843. (23)

On 14 September 1844 the administrative control of Norfolk Island passed from New South Wales to Van Diemen's Land. (24)

Footnotes and References
(1) Historical Records of Australia (HRA), Series I. Vol. 1,  p.13.
(2) R.N. Dalkin, D. McCarthy, 'Norfolk Island', The Australian Encyclopaedia, 4th ed. Sydney, Grolier Society, 1983, Vol. 7, p.161.
(3) John Cobley, Sydney Cove, Vol. 1: 1788, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1962, p.71.
(4) Robert Hughes, The Fatal shore: a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, London, Collins Harvill, 1987, p.100; HRA Series 2 Vol. 1, p.20.
(5) Cobley, op. cit, p.72; HRA, Series I Vol. 1, pp.32-33.
(6) Hughes, op. cit., p.100.
(7) Ibid., p.113.
(8) Ibid., p.116.
(9) Ibid., p.119.
(10) Ibid., pp.119-120.
(11) loc. cit.
(12) The Australian Encyclopaedia, 4th ed., Vol. 7, p.162.
(13) loc. cit.
(14) loc. cit.
(15) loc. cit.
(16) Hughes, op. cit., p.462.
(17) HRA, Series I Vol. 17, p.638.
(18) Hughes, op. cit., p.476.
(19) NSW Government Gazette, 24 June 1835, p.427.
(20) Hughes, op. cit., pp.479-480.
(21) The Australian Encyclopaedia, 4th ed., p.162.
(22) Hughes, op. cit., p.513.
(23) Ibid., p.518.
(24) NSW Government Gazette, 14 September 1844, p.1142.
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