The Second Settlement
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.
In 1824 the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane, received a directive from the British Secretary of State to the effect that Norfolk Island was to be turned into a penitentiary once again. Because of the island's inaccessibility, 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 ne plus ultra of Convict degradation", "a place of the extremest punishment short of Death."
For many death was welcomed. Conditions in the gaol were appalling; a large percentage of the convicts were sentenced to remain in heavy chains for the terms of their natural lives; most convicts were chained during the day. Agricultural labour was the most hated kind; chain gangs were forced to hoe from sunrise until sunset. One convict in a field gang raised his hoe and split the head of the convict in front of him - not through malice or revenge, but to be hanged, to be free of a life worse than death. Why not suicide? Simply because most of the convicts were Catholics - a fact testified to by the cemetery's headstones.
Punishments were varied for petty crimes during this second occupation. Lashings were common: sometimes up to 500 strokes. Dumb-cells were constructed to exclude light and sound; many men lost their sanity in them. Solitary confinement, increased workloads and decreased rations - sometimes bread and water - were also common forms of punishment. One documented case concerns a convict by the name of Micheal Burns who suffered a total of 2210 lashes and almost two years in confinement, much of it in solitary, three months of that in total darkness, and at least six months of those two years on a diet of bread and water only. Burns' crimes? Insolence, suspected robbery, neglect of work, striking a fellow prisoner, bushranging, singing a song, calling for a doctor, attempted escape, and inability to work due to the debility caused by his punishments
Convicts were also forced into hard labour as a form of punishment building much of what today is one of the world's chief glories of Georgian architecture - Kingston, Norfolk Island. Stone was quarried from Nepean Island, a rock close to shore, and coral rubble was rendered with lime and sand; thus most walls were formed, while Norfolk Pine was used for joinery and roofs. Floors were made from thin stone slabs.
During the late 1840s and early 1850s a number of influences led yet again to the abandonment of Norfolk Island. The cost of maintaining the penal settlement was growing; more than 1200 convicts were gaoled on the island, and Port Arthur in Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania) was viewed as a less costly alternative. Dr Robert Wilson, Catholic Bishop of Hobart, wrote a damning report on the practices he witnessed on a visit to Norfolk Island, and called for its abandonment. A number of days before his visit 34 men were flogged; the day after his arrival, another 14; and at the service he held on the island, 218 of the 270 men attending were in chains. Last but not of least importance Earl Grey back in the British Parliament saw Norfolk as a possible home for the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island - the descendants of the mutiny on the "Bounty" and their Tahitian-Polynesian wives.
By 1855 the island stood empty once more. Never again would it bear witness to penal cruelty and inhumanity. And shortly it would receive the people who still call Norfolk Island their homeland - and who fight for the right to govern themselves.