Australia: A Tale of Hell and Paradise

Norfolk Island is a remote island located in the Tasman Sea, mid-way between Australia and New Zealand and is named after Captain Cook’s patron, the Duke of Norfolk. Cook had discovered the island in 1774 during a voyage of discovery to the Pacific and Australia. The island has high cliffs and reefs and the landing was fraught with difficulty. Whilst the island was uninhabited, there was evidence that Polynesians had landed there in the past. The island would become a brutal penal colony but is today celebrated for its diverse wildlife.

Norfolk Island 1970-71, Birds 1c stamp
Norfolk Island 1970-71, Birds 1c
Norfolk Island 1970-71, Birds 25c stamp
Norfolk Island 1970-71, Birds 25c

Norfolk Island is approximately 5 miles by 3 miles (14 square miles) and is accompanied by two much smaller islands. The island is probably most noted as a former British penal colony. Murder and petty thieving often resulted in a period of hard labour served in Australia. If you were fortunate to survive the harsh conditions, it was possible to return to British shores as is evidenced by the monument on Plymouth Barbican in Devon, England which marks the place where former striking farm workers known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs returned from Australia.

Having colonised Norfolk Island, the British placed a group of marines in control under a succession of ruthless Governors. The early ‘settlers’ brought fruit trees and a wide range of vegetables with them to sustain the island. By 1790 the population had risen to 150 and this number increased to over 1,000 by the early 1800s.

The treatment of the convicts was so harsh that some inmates committed crimes knowing that the result would lead to hanging and a relief from a living hell as they saw it. On learning of the extremely harsh treatment, the British government decided to close its operations on Norfolk Island and transport all the residents to Australia which was completed in 1814. A dozen dogs and some cattle and pigs were left on the island with the expectation that the dogs would ultimately kill the farm animals for food – however, the dogs died and the farm animals multiplied.

By 1824, the penal gaols in New South Wales had become overcrowded and the British government once again turned to Norfolk Island as a place of incarceration. New strict controls were put in place but the governors and marines were no better than before. Following repeated incidents of murder and lynching, the island was abandoned again in 1854 … but not for long. As detailed in an earlier blog (Pitcairn Islands: Mutiny on the Bounty), the population of Pitcairn Island (many of whom were descendants of infamous mutiny on H.M.S. Bounty) were transported to Norfolk Island in 1855.

Norfolk Island 1958, 21st Anniversary of Sydney flight service 5c stamp
Norfolk Island 1958, 21st Anniv. of Sydney flight service 5c
Norfolk Island 1958, 21st Anniversary of Sydney flight service 7c stamp
Norfolk Island 1958, 21st Anniv. of Sydney flight service 7c

Norfolk Island has remained inhabited ever since. Today, the main source of income is tourism with most traveling to and from the island by aircraft. A small airport was constructed in 1942 principally as a World War II landing stage for aircraft in transit between Sydney in Australia, Auckland in new Zealand and the the Solomon Islands. The ability to settle on the island is now limited by the island’s council which enjoys partial self-government including an independent postal administration. Norfolk Island issued its first postage stamps in 1947 and many of the issues feature local wildlife including birds and butterflies. Norfolk Island is particularly noted for its pine trees that feature in the first set of postage stamps issued in 1947 (feature image).

Norfolk Island 1974 Royal Visit 7c stamp
Norfolk Island 1974 Royal Visit 7c
Norfolk Island 1974 Royal Visit 25c stamp
Norfolk Island 1974 Royal Visit 25c

As an aside, whilst walking in the Gorge du Verdon in the South of France in 2016, the author met a Australian couple and their teenage son – it the conversation that followed, it was revealed that the man was a wildlife artist whose work had included bird designs that had been used on Norfolk Island postage stamps!

To view postal issues of the Australia, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Published by billmandsphilatelycom

William (Bill) Matthews has been a philatelist for more than 60 years. He has a particular interest in the postal history of the British Commonwealth including most notably, the issues from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. However, he also has specialist interest in the postal history of Egypt, Norfolk Island, Papua New Guinea, Sarawak, Sudan and the Italian States as well as a fine collection of overprints.

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