Norfolk Island

Continuing Our Tasmanian Story – from Botany Bay and Port Jackson

Norfolk Island connections

In November 1805 the Sydney arrived at Sullivan’s Cove in Van Diemen’s Land, carrying sheep and cattle and the first of many settlers from Norfolk Island. Over the next eight years, as the first settlement on Norfolk Island was wound down, its population was relocated to Van Diemen’s land. Among these ‘third time exiles’ were some of my ancestors and their close relatives and associates. But first, let’s go back to 1788 and the first settlement there.


George Raper, Principal Settlement on Norfolk Island, 1790 (National Library of Australia)

Establishing the first settlement

The first European settlers sent to Norfolk Island arrived with the First Fleet to Botany Bay. Nathaniel Lucas and Olivia Gascoigne, while not direct ancestors, are of interest because a number of their descendants connect with my family. Having sailed half way around the world, they barely saw Port Jackson or Botany Bay before they were embarked aboard the armed tender, Supply, under the command of Lieutenant Philip King, setting sail, on or about 17 February 1788, for Norfolk Island.[i] Arriving two weeks later, the twenty-four people on board, including eight convict men and six women, had to wait a further five days before the seas were sufficiently calm to land.

On landing they found a thickly forested island. Commandant Philip Gidley King described the island as:

… six miles long and four broad, and estimated it to contain 11 000 acres. The ground was everywhere covered with an almost impervious forest, through which he forced his way with great difficulty. The principal tree was the pine which grew everywhere. These great trees were often 140 to 200 feet high, 30 feet round at the base, and 80 feet to the first branch. The roots sometimes ran two feet above the ground, twisted in all directions. In this forest grew a sort of sapplejack as thick as a man’s leg, hanging in festoons from tree to tree, and forming a network which was well nigh impenetrable. … there was not a yard square of clear ground on the whole island. The soil was deep and rich, but not a blade of grass grew anywhere. Pigeons and parrots were in great numbers; the pigeons so tame that they could be knocked over with a stick … To conquer the virgin forest King had only 12 men, and one of these an old man of 72, another a boy of 15.[ii]

… To add to the Commandant’s troubles, all his people were ill with scurvy, from their salt diet, and his first attention was given to obtaining fresh provisions. At first they got turtle, but these were soon scared away. The fish supply was precarious as fishing was only possible in calm weather. Their chief resource was the pigeons, and the birds which abounded on Mount Pitt gave them many a good meal. [iii]

The population continued to grow as more convicts and free settlers arrived from New South Wales. By January 1790 there were 79 male and 33 female convicts and 32 free settlers on the island. In the months to follow they were joined by my ancestors:

  • Stephen Martin (5xG Grandfather; First Fleet convict; arrived NI March 1790)
  • Elizabeth Holligan (Child with William Saltmarsh; First Fleet convict; arrived NI March 1790)
  • Mary Butler (5xG Grandmother; Second Fleet convict; arrived NI August 1790)
  • William Saltmarsh (First spouse of Mary Butler; First Fleet convict; arrived NI August 1790)
  • Hannah Pealing (5xG Grandmother; Second Fleet convict; arrived NI August 1790)
  • James Jordan (5xG Grandfather; to NSW by Queen 1791; arrived NI August 1792)
  • William Coventry (4xG Grandfather; to NSW by Atlas 1802; arrived NI probably 1803)

Wilson Lowry, View of Sydney on the South Side of Norfolk Island, 1798 (National Library of Australia)

At some point James Davey left the fledgling settlement at Hobart Town for the convict settlement on Norfolk Island. This seems rather unusual given that the authorities were already planning for the settlement’s demise. Nevertheless, James appears as resident on Norfolk Island in the 1811 muster. The muster says that he had five acres under cultivation and that he owned six swine.

King’s departure

Lieutenant-Governor King remained on the island for nine years. He had worked hard to make a success of the settlement, but there was a general decline after his departure in 1796. However, the early settlers had, in the main, settled down to a relatively comfortable life. The climate was favourable compared with the fog and cold of England; the land was productive; fresh meat and produce had become plentiful after the early years of near starvation.[iv]

By 1804 the British Government had become convinced that the settlement at Norfolk Island would never be a success. It had decided to establish a settlement at Port Dalrymple in northern Van Diemen’s Land in order to defeat any designs the French may have had on the island and decided to move the Norfolk Islanders there.

In the meantime, before despatches arrived from England, King, then Governor of New South Wales, arranged for Colonel Patterson to establish a settlement at Port Dalrymple. Patterson wrote to Major Foveaux on Norfolk Island, inviting any settlers who wished to go, to remove to Port Dalrymple. Few wanted to go, despite the promise of substantial land grants, free assigned servants and two year’s rations.

Nevertheless, in 1807, the first of the Norfolk Islanders arrived in Van Diemen’s Land, followed by more than six hundred more a year later. To compensate for the land they gave up, the settlers were offered two acres for every acre of cleared land they had owned on Norfolk Island, and one acre for every acre of waste or unimproved land that they had left behind. Buildings were to be established, free of charge and equal to the value of those they left; they were to be clothed and provided with rations for two years and to be given the labour of four convicts for the first nine months in Van Diemen’s Land and two for a further fifteen months.[v] Not surprisingly, the government was unable to fulfill these promises, resulting in much anger and disappointment for those who felt betrayed. Some evacuees received more generous land grants than their holdings on Norfolk Island warranted, while others received far less than was promised.[vi]



[i] Graeme Broxham, ‘Abandoning the first settlement of Norfolk Island: A maritime perspective’, Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Vol. 59, No. 2, Aug 2012, p121

[ii] James Backhouse, ‘Early Tasmania’, Papers Read before the Royal Society of Tasmania During the years 1888 to 1889, Tasmania: John Vail, Government Printer, 1902, p148

[iii] James Backhouse, ‘Early Tasmania’, p148

[iv] Isabella Mead, ‘Settlement of the Norfolk Islanders at Norfolk Plains’, Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Vol. 12, No. 2, November 1964, p59

[v] K R Von Stieglitz, Longford Past and Present, with notes on Perth, Pateena and Illawarra, Tasmania, 1947, p6

[vi] Sharon Morgan, Land Settlement in Early Tasmania, Creating an Antipodean England, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p15



One thought on “Norfolk Island

  1. I have always felt a connection to Norfolk Island. I wonder is this why, although it doesn’t really fit in with the little I know.

    Lorraine McNeair


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