Norfolk Island was used as a penal settlement on two separate occasions. The first from March 1788 to February 1814, and the second from 1825 to 1853.
In 1787 Governor Phillip had been instructed to send a detachment to Norfolk Island as soon as circumstances permitted after arrival. On 12 February 1788 he appointed Philip Gidley King Superintendent and Commandant of the Island.
Justinian and Surprize standing into Sydney Bay, Norfolk Island, 23 August 1790
The convict ship Surprize arrived in Sydney with convicts in 1790. On 1st August 1790 the Surprize departed Port Jackson bound for Norfolk Island laden with provisions and 35 male and 150 female convicts, two superintendents and one deputy commissary.
Norfolk Island was used as an extension of New South Wales for some years however by 1812 was no longer necessary after penal settlements were established in Van Diemen's Land. The settlement was abandoned.
In 1824 it was decided to re-establish the island as a place of banishment for the worst re-offenders. On 6 June 1825 Major Turton, along with 34 troops, six women and children, and 57 convicts, reoccupied the Island.
Lieutenant Philip Gidley King 1788 - 1790 (arrived per Sirius in 1788)
Lieut-Gov Major Robert Ross 1790 - 1791 (arrived per Sirius/Scarborough) Philip Gidley King 1791 - 1796 (arrived per Gorgon)
Captain John Townson October 1796 - November 1799 (Arrived per Scarborough in 1790)
Captain Thomas Rowley November 1799 - July 1800 (arrived per Pitt in 1792)
Major Joseph Foveaux 1800 - 1804
John Piper 1804 - 1810 (arrived per Pitt in 1792)
Captain T.A. Crane April 1810 - February 1813
Richard Turton 6 June 1825 - April 1826 (arrived per Ann and Amelia in 1825)
Vance Young Donaldson 1826 - 1827 (arrived per Henry Porcher in 1825)
Thomas Edward Wright 1827 to 1828 (arrived per Boyne in 1826)
Robert Hunt 1828 - 1829 (arrived per Morley in 1828)
Joseph Wakefield February 1829 to 29 June 1829
Colonel James Thomas Morisset 1829 - (arrived per 1834 Harmony in 1827)
Foster Fyans 1834 (arrived on the Sovereign from Mauritius in 1833)
Major Joseph Anderson 1834 - 1839
Thomas Bunbury 1839 (arrived in VDL per Susan in November 1837)
Thomas Ryan 1840 (arrived on George the Third in 1835)
Alexander Maconochie - 17 March 1840 - 1844 (arrived per Nautilus in 1840)
Joseph Childs - 8 February 1844 - 5 August 1846
John Giles Price - 1846 - 1853
The colonial sloop Norfolk was built at Norfolk Island in 1798 when John Townson of the New South Corps was Lieutenant-Governor.
Extract from the Catholic Mission in Australasia
By William Bernard Ullathorne who visited the island in 1835:
Norfolk Island is 1,000 miles from Sydney. It is small, only about twenty - one miles in circumference, of volcanic origin, and one of the most beautiful spots in the universe. Rising abruptly on all sides but one from the sea, clustering columns of basalt spring out of the water, securing, at intervals, its endurance.with the strong architecture of God. That one side presents a low, sandy level, on which is placed that penal settlement, which is the horror of men. It is approachable only by boats, through a narrow bar in the reef of coral, which, visible here, invisibly circles the island.
Except the military guard, and the various officers and servants of government, none but the prisoners are permitted to reside on the island, nor, unless in case of great emergency, can any ship, but those of government showing the secret signals, be permitted to approach.
The island consists of a series of hills and vallies, curiously interfolded, the green ridges rising one above another, until they reach the shaggy sides and crowning summit of Mount Pitt, at the height of 3,000 feet above the level of the sea. The estab lishment consists of a capacious quadrangle of buildings for the prisoners, the military barracks, and a series of offices in two ranges. A little further beyond, on a green mound of nature's beautiful making, rises the mansion of the Commandant, with its barred windows, defensive cannon, and pacing sentry.
Straying some distance along a footpath, we come upon the cemetery, closed in on three sides by close, thick, mclancholy groves of the tear-dropping manchineal; whilst the fourth is open to the restless sea.
The graves are numerous aud recent - most of the tenants having reached, by an untimely end, the abode to which they now contribute their hapless remains and hapless story. I have myself witnessed fifteen descents into those houses of mortality - and in every one lies a hand of blood. Their lives were brief, and as agitated and restless as the waves which now break at their feet, and whose dying sound is their only requiem.
I have already observed, that such is the horror the convict of N. S. Wales entertains for this settlement, that we frequently hear the condemned, even from the gallows, thank God they are going to die, rather than to live at Norfolk Island.
The number of criminals at the settlement, in 1835, was 1200, of whom 450 were Catholic. Of late, this number has been augmented by nearly 200 annually. They are worked in heavy irons, and fed on salt meat and maize bread. Until lately, religion was utterly excluded from these miserable men. Their deep depravity had become a proverb even in N. S. Wales. So corrupt was their most ordinary language, as incessantly to present the imagination with the absent objects of the passions as though present - so perverse, that, in their dialect, evil was literally called good, and good, evil - the well-disposed man was branded wicked, whilst the leader in monstrous vice was styled virtuous. The human heart seemed inverted, and the very conscience reversed. So indifferent had even life become, that murders were committed in cold blood; the murderer afterwards declaring he had no ill-feeling against his victim, but that his sole object was to obtain his own release. Lots were even cast; the iman on whom it fell committed the deed, his comrades being witnesses, with the sole view of being taken, for a time, from the scenes of their daily miseries to appear in the court at Sydney, although, after the execution of their comrade, they knew they should be remanded to their former haunts of wretchedness.
So notorious is this fact, that it was made the ground of a legislative enactment, by whose power criminals are now tried by a special commission upon the island. This arrangement has, in a great measure, suspended such atrocities, though it has not altogether put an end to them. The life of these men was one of despair; their passions, severed from their usual objects, centred in one intense thirst for liberty, to be gained at whatever cost. Their faces were like those of demons. If a comrade was suspected of betraying their practices, he could no longer with safety sleep amongst them, but was separated to secure life.
In 1834, a conspiracy was formed by the prisoners to destroy the military and seize the island. They were defeated, and thirty-one of their number condemned to death. In 1835, I sailed to the island to prepare such of them as might be Catholic to meet their end. My unexpected appearance, late on the night of my arrival, came on then like a vision. I found them crowded in three cells, so small as barely to allow their lying down together - their upper garments thrown off for a little coolness. They had for six months been looking for their fate. I had to announce life to all but thirteen - to these, death. A few words of preparation, and then their fate. Those who were to live wept bitterly; whilst those doomed to die, without exception, dropped on their knees, and, with dry eyes, thanked God they were to be delivered from such a place. Who can describe our emotions ! I found only three of the condemned to be Catholic - four others wished me to take them also to my care. During the five days permitted for preparation, they manifested extraordinary fervour of repentance.
The morning come, they received on their knees the sentence as the will of God. Loosened from their chains, they fell down in the dust, and, in the warmth of their gratitude, kissed the very feet that had brought them peace.
Their death moved many of their comrades. On the two successive days of execution and burial, I preached, from the graves of the dead, to their former associates. During the week still allowed before the departure of the ship, twenty conversions followed, and one hundred and fifty general confessions. I left books behind me before departure, arranged a form of prayer for their use on Sunday, and obtained the appointment of one as reader, whose duty also it should be to teach those who were unable to read, at the intervals between labour and food.
At the close of 1836, my good Bishop permitted me again to visit Norfolk Island, a duty I had much at heart. I was received with great joy by my poor penitents, who, through all sorts of ridicule and persecution from their comrades, had persevered in their resolutions. I admitted them to the holy communion. Nearly sixty had learned to read their prayer books. The Commandant assured me that crime had considerably diminished, and that the Catholics were remarkably attentive to their duties of religion. Let me not forget how much of this was owing to the prudence and solicitude of the Commandant himself. I record the name of Major Anderson with unmingled satisfaction. His minute personal knowledge of the desperate men under his charge, and the discrimination with which he encourages the well disposed, whilst he strikes terror into the obstinate, has been attended with most salutary consequences. What was my delight to find that, for the fifteen months elapsed since my last visit, there was not one Catholic to be brought before the judge. During the fifteen days allowed me before our return, three hundred confessions, and twelve conversions, rewarded my labours. I saw these dreaded characters conse to the arms of religion like children. What may she not do with men when every hope from this world is departed, and nothing appears on their path but sufferings.
The penitents, now become the greater number of Catholics, begged to be locked up in separate wards from the rest, that they might say their morning and night prayers together. Except these two visits, no priest has been at Norfolk Island. Since my arrival in England, I have received a letter from one of these poor prisoners, who consoles me in these terms: Rev. SIR,-Aware that your insignia is “Non ignarus mali, miseris succurere disco, therefore I feel no hesitation in writing. I rejoice to have to inform you that of the many who received your instructions, there are none, I am aware of, returned to their former wickedness; but notwithstanding the many enemies they have to encounter, the many instruments employed by Satan to debar them from those duties due to their Creator, they have withstood * I have also to inform you that in addition to the number which seemed to be zealous heretofore, there are three times that number at present. They are all desirous to learn, to be instructed, and earnestly look for books; even those who have not attended you during that happy time you have been with us, want books. The wicked are constantly endeavouring to bring back to their former vice those in whom they perceive any conversion. We earnestly request you will not be long absent from us. The constant prayers of your most humble but unfortunate servant,
.Catholic Mission in Australasia
Notes and Links
1). Transactions at Norfolk Island February 1790 to February 1791 - Project Gutenberg
3). Aaron Price arrived in the colony as a convict on the Guildford in 1824. He became a member of the notorious bushranger gang known as Jacob's Irish Brigade. He was sent to Norfolk Island and eventually became an overseer of public works there. In 1846 he was involved in a riot, but on the side of the constables and military. He kept a diary while at Norfolk Island which can be found at State Library NSW