Project Canterbury

Ten Years in Melanesia

By the Rev. Alfred Penny

London: W. Gardner, Darton & Co., 1888.

Chapter II. Norfolk Island

Description of Norfolk Island--Former Inhabitants--Ruing of Convict Prisons--Refractory Cells--Present Inhabitants their Employment--A Whaling Adventure--The Rev. C. H. Nobbs.

AS a rule, I think, much-praised scenery is disappointing, at any rate at first sight. But Norfolk Island is an exception. No description that I have read of this island exaggerates its loveliness. On shore the broad sweeps or grass land, broken here and there into valleys and undulations, give it a park-like appearance, while the clusters of Norfolk Island pines, their picturesque forms sharply defined in the yellow sunlight, with depths of restful shadows, seem to he the result of artistic cultivation rather than chance disposition.

Looking seaward the scene is not less fair: [12/13] bays with white, sandy beaches, and crested waves rocky chasms where the long swell dashes itself into foam; rocks and islets, fantastic in form and rich in colour; while burning with brilliance, as if it had drunk in every bright glow of sunset, Philip Island stands out of the many tints of blue and opal of the surrounding sea.

The position of Norfolk Island is Lat. 29° 3', S., Long. 167° 56', E.

This lovely spot was once used as a penal settlement for convicts of the worst type, whose characters were such as to disqualify them for the amenities of Botany Bay and Van Diemen's Land. It was the last home on earth for those who had been transported for the term of their natural lives.

Though the station has been abandoned for more than thirty years, yet the traces still remain of the use to which the island once was put, and the character of its inhabitants.

A huge, unsightly block of ruins, gaunt and roofless, stands hard by the pier. This a stone wall [13/14] surrounds, and is entered by a gateway garnished with chains and fetters. Here were the prisons. Beyond are the guard-houses, with the rusty iron cranks at which the convicts toiled away their time, and the tread-mill house, though the wheel has disappeared. A little way inland a broad, well-made road runs east and west, and along it stand the soldiers barracks, officers' quarters, and the well-built, comfortable houses of the military and civil officials belonging to the executive of the establishment; while on a commanding site, overlooking it all, is Government House, where the Commandant used to live.

But the saddest of all the memories of the convict days are, I think, suggested by the ruins of the punishment cells, in which the refractory prisoners were confined.

Fancy a block of apparently solid masonry, in shape like a large brick. On the outside a flight of stone steps, such as you sometimes see in an old farmyard leading up to a granary. Go up these steps and you will find yourself on the flat top of the building. Down one side runs a deep [14/15] narrow trench, like an area, into which slit-like apertures open. At regular intervals on the flat top trap-doors are placed, covered by stone slabs; lift up one of these and you look down through the only aperture save the window into one of these cells. A more dismal hole one could hardly imagine, damp and gloomy, as the scanty light struggles in through the narrow slit. Into these noisome dens the poor wretches told off for punishment were lowered and there confined. What wonder was it that murders were committed at Norfolk Island just to escape, by a death sentence, from that life which, was only a source of torture to the possessor!

The present inhabitants came from Pitcairn's Island. They were brought to Norfolk Island by the order of the Queen, and endowed with houses and lands when the convict settlement was abandoned, Pitcairn's Island having become too small for their rapidly increasing numbers.

No greater boon, one would suppose, could have been conferred upon these descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty, whose exemplary [15/16] conduct had brought them under the Sovereign's favourable notice; but strange to say, some few were dissatisfied with the change. Norfolk Island, small as it is, oppressed them with its vastness, with its roads (there was only a wheelbarrow track at Pitcairn), and especially with its stone houses, in which the echo of their voices was a novelty too startling for their nerves; and so this minority elected to return to their old home, much to the satisfaction, no doubt, of their more canny compatriots, whose share in the good things at Norfolk Island was thus appreciably increased.

These ci devant Pitcairners have received a very few immigrants, the privilege of membership being most jealously guarded, and conceded in a few cases only; but the increase in the population, the result of intermarriages, has been remarkably large.

The community principle is still in practice to a considerable extent. In the early days at Pitcairn this answered well enough, and it is a difficult matter to abolish it now, when almost everyone is [16/17] more or less nearly related to everyone else, but it bars the way to an improvement in the condition of the people, both morally and socially, which is greatly needed; because the Norfolkers of to-day, whatever else might have been said of them at Pitcairn's Island, may be divided into two classes: those who work and those who don't. If it were not for this community principle, the scripture rule would be carried out, and a man who has got work to do, and won't do it, not because he can't, but because he won't, would have to starve. Instead of this the industrious ones keep the lazy ones.

To show what can be done with the means at hand, there are many--I will not mention names--who are living in comfort, in well-built, pretty homes, their allotments stocked with every kind of produce which the soil will yield, owning a large number of horses and cattle: and, in keeping with this material prosperity, ordering their households well, and bringing up their children in the fear of God, some to carry on the cultivation of the soil, others to follow professions and trades [17/18] in the neighbouring colonies while on the other hand, there are others who would starve were it not for getting a dinner here and a supper there, because they wont work. If they did starve they would none of them be missed, but many of them have wives and little ones, and for them the case is hard.

Besides agriculture the Norfolkers have another branch of industry, viz., whaling. From July to November whales abound round Norfolk Island, to catch which two companies of whalers have been formed; the shareholders must be ready, either to man the boats or else provide a substitute, on the equitable adjustment of half profits. The value of these shares varies considerably with the season's yield of whale oil. I have heard of a share being worth £40, and at another time of only a trifling margin of profit to be divided after paying expenses. But even in prosperous times the whaling brings a very doubtful gain to those engaged in it, because each year a large proportion of the profits are forestalled.

Merchants in the colonies are confiding enough to send down large consignments of goods, which are eagerly snapped up, on the strength of the prospect of oil from whales then spouting some where between Norfolk Island and the South Pole. The result of this is that extravagance is fostered, and the zeal of the whalers is perceptibly diminished, so much of their work having the flavour of what sailors call "the dead horse" about it.

Whaling, as everyone knows, is a hazardous enterprise. With the Norfolkers, however, accidents are of rare occurrence still they do happen occasionally, as the following story will show.

One evening, just as the boatmen after long waiting were thinking that another blank day would be added to the record of the season, a shoal of whales was sighted close inshore. All was bustle in a moment. Two boats were launched and manned, and the rival crews gave way with a will to be first to get fast to a whale. A look-out was posted on the nearest high ground [19/20] to watch the boats and give the alarm in case of accident, but no one thought of danger, the whales were close in, and it was fondly expected that by sunset the whalers would return with their prize.

Isaac Christians boat was the first to get fast, and the whale took it straight out to sea. As the daylight began to fail, and the boat drew farther away, the look-out man thought he should have a better view from another point not far off, so he ran down one slope and up another, but when he gained his second vantage ground, the "fast boat" could nowhere be seen; in vain he looked, and others, Corning in answer to his signals, also strained their eyes to no purpose. Sometimes they thought they saw something where the boat might have been, but the rapidly deepening gloom soon made it impossible to distinguish an object at sea as small as that on which they were intent.

No time was lost in going to the rescue. Ten boats were quickly afloat, rowing and sailing in every direction where it seemed possible that [20/23] the current might have carried the whalers. But though the search was kept up with untiring energy all through the night, it was not till the morning that they found what they were seeking.

This was what happened in the few minutes that the look-out man was running from one hill to another.

After the first rush out to sea, the whale--a cow with her calf--stopped to blow, and came to the surface; the usual tactics were pursued, and the calf was speared, as the cow, whose maternal instincts are so strong that she will not leave her calf, may then as a rule be killed without difficulty. It was not, however, the case now. The whale made straight for the boat, and with one crash of her flukes smashed it up like a basket.

No blame attached to anyone, for the Norfolkers are skilful boatmen, and cool hands from long experience, but the mischief was done in less time than it would take to tell, much less to write, and the crew were in the water, their boat [23/24] with her planks like a bundle of staves which once were a cask, only holding together here and there by the ribs and thwarts.

Their position was most critical. It was impossible to swim to shore, as the accident happened three miles out to sea. This in itself was no great distance for such swimmers as the Norfolkers. Some years before a boat's crew under similar circumstances, with the current in their favour, swam in nearly seven miles; but now a strong ebb tide was sending them out to sea, and against this they could have done nothing. Their danger was two-fold: cold and exhaustion (for it was mid-winter), and the sharks. All that could be done they did: they lashed the oars across the boat to check her as much as possible from rolling over and over, as a water-logged boat will do on the smallest provocation, and each taking his stand round their frail life-raft, they trod the water slowly to keep their blood in circulation.

The other danger soon made itself apparent, as the sharks came in large numbers to feast off [24/25] the dead calf, coming at times to such close quarters, that one of the men told me afterwards he felt a shark graze against his body.

Who can tell the horrors of that night, as, cold and exhausted, the men clung to the waterlogged boat, which the rising wind and sea continually tossed and rolled; their position the while made worse by the alternations of hope and despair through which they passed, as they saw the lights, carried by the boats searching for them, approach and pass by, once so close that they could recognise the face of the man steering as he held his lantern above his head. One shout then and all might have been saved; but their voices were feeble and leeward, and at times only could they see or he seen as they rose on a wave. Through all that night those men never lost their faith and trust in God, and from time to time they prayed and sang hymns. "I am sure He sent His angel and stopped the mouths of the sharks," one of the men said to me, as he described the scene.

[26] With the cold of daybreak Isaac Christian died. His last prayer was that they would make his body fast to the boat so that the sharks night not devour it while his friends were still alive. This was done, and deliverance soon came. Fletcher Nobbs, whose boat passed close by in the night, again found himself almost alongside of them just as the day became light enough to make the surrounding sea visible. Friends were close at hand to save; friends on shore were looking eagerly for what they now saw in the grey light of the morning, waiting with intense interest as the boat came in, with the oft-repeated questions in their hearts and on their lips Are they all alive? are any lost are my dear ones safe? At last the boat came home, and the news was told sorrow for some, and joy for others.

Any reference, however slight, to our neighbours on Norfolk Island, would be incomplete without a mention of one who for many years was the central figure in the community. George Hunn Nobbs, a name known far and wide [26/27] (and those who knew him knew also why his name was so well known), lived for fifty-six years among these people not as a teacher in the first instance, when he landed at Pitcairn's Island after a hazardous voyage from Panama, but as gradually taking that place, and as he ably filled it, winning the love and confidence of the people, till he became the spiritual pastor and master of the community. No more striking testimony to his worth and power is there than the impress of his vigorous personality which he has left upon his work.

It was but yesterday, so to speak, that I joined the group of three generations gathered round his death-bed, and though we sorrowed for the loss of our old friend, and over the broken link between the past and present, it was not a sorrow without hope, for we knew how well the old man had borne the burden and heat of the day. And to-day his children stand out marked men in the Norfolk Island Community, as examples of what industry and well-doing can effect.

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