Norfolk Island has an interesting history of seafarers, convicts and mutineers.
Archaeological evidence shows that the island was occupied by Polynesian seafarers between the 13th and 15th centuries. It is still unknown why this settlement ended.
The island’s European history began when Lieutenant James Cook visited in 1774 during his second voyage to the South Pacific and identified the towering Norfolk Island pines as being useful for ships masts and the local flax as good for sails.
The island was subsequently settled by the British in March 1788, just five weeks after the First Fleet arrived in Sydney. The settlers quickly found that both the Norfolk Island pines and the local flax plants were unsuitable for the purposes proposed by Cook. However, the island’s fertile soil and mild climate made it ideal for agriculture and farming, and Norfolk Island was often described as ‘Sydney’s food bowl’ in the early years of British settlement
Convicts and free settlers made Norfolk their home until 1814 when the island was abandoned due to its perilous landing sites, isolation, and the fact that the main settlement in Australia was now well established.
A second convict settlement in 1825 began a dark period in Norfolk’s history, with the island becoming infamous around the world for the harsh treatment prisoners received. Ambitious building works and large-scale clearing for agriculture began. But when convict transportation to New South Wales stopped in the early 1850s, the settlement was wound down, with only 11 people remaining by 1855.
On 8 June 1856, the island was handed over to the Pitcairn Islanders – descendants of the infamous Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives. The 196 new arrivals originally lived in the convict buildings of Kingston before moving to their own 50-acre land grants, where they built homes and farms. Generally self-sufficient, the Pitcairners grew what they required for their own needs.
Towards the turn of the 20th century, export industries such as lemon, passionfruit and banana farming were attempted. These industries, as well as forestry plantations and cattle pasture, saw even more large-scale clearing of the native forest. As a result, much of Norfolk Island has a pastoral landscape of rolling green hills instead of the original subtropical rainforest.
The descendants of the Pitcairn Islanders now make up about a half of the island’s population. The rest of the population is made up of Australian and New Zealand settlers and a small number of people from various parts of the world. The current population is about 1800, with between 400 and 800 visitors on the island at any time. [Parks Australia]
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