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British Colonial Settlement 1788-1814

On 10 October 1774, Captain James Cook RN sighted Norfolk Island and claimed it for the British Crown. Cook named the island in honour of Mary Howard, Duchess of Norfolk. On instructions from Governor Arthur Phillip, Lt Philip Gidley King was sent to take possession of Norfolk Island just six weeks after the First Fleet had landed in Australia.

The HMS Supply arrived on Norfolk in March 1788 to begin a British Colony, which would secure possession of the island and its resources and support the larger settlement in Port Jackson. The island proved fertile and an agricultural settlement was set up using convict labour. The colony’s only links to the outside world were HMS Sirius and HMS Supply. However, on 19 March 1790, the HMS Sirius was wrecked on the reef during bad weather.

While those on board had already been brought ashore, the increased population meant starvation was a real possibility. It seemed only providence—an act of divine intervention—could save them. The arrival of over 200,000 migratory Mount Pitt birds on Norfolk Island as food was shortest provided a solution. The birds were quickly caught, eaten and christened the ‘bird of providence’. Mount Pitt birds were eventually driven to extinction on the island.

By the early 1800s many convicts with expired sentences and discharged marines chose to stay on the island, take up land grants, have families and establish themselves. However, the viability of the settlement was continually questioned. With no safe harbour, the ability to safely land ships was always an issue. Norfolk Pines had been found to be unsuitable for use as masts, the Norfolk Island flax was unfamiliar to the people brought to work it and produced only small quantities of useable cloth.

By the early 1800s, the larger colony of Port Jackson was successfully established. Van Diemen’s Land had begun to be colonised and the decision was made to send convicts there, instead of Norfolk. Between 1807 and 1813, Norfolk Island’s population was transferred to Van Diemen’s Land, with convicts integrated into the new colony’s prison system. Free settlers and settlers from sentences expired were also removed. In 1814, the buildings were demolished and burned, livestock killed and one of the smallest, most remote colonies in the British Empire was abandoned.

Bird of Providence, or Mount Pitt Bird, Norfolk Island — John Hunter, 1790. Source: National Library of Australia (Bib ID: 2686859)

Bird of Providence, or Mount Pitt Bird, Norfolk Island — John Hunter, 1790.

Source: National Library of Australia (Bib ID: 2686859)