A Brief History of Norfolk Island

Although it’s the biodiversity that brings me to some of the most remote islands of the planet, the inhabited islands always have as rich a cultural history, equally at risk in this modernised world of mobility. Norfolk Island is no exception. There have been four distinct settlement phases of Norfolk Island. The first phase was Polynesian settlement, around 1200AD, most likely from the Kermadec Islands of New Zealand, but inexplicably abandoned around 1500AD. The Polynesian rats samples collected on this trip will help add to the existing picture of Polynesian migration mapped from rat transportation. The second settlement was a European penal colony established in 1788, making Norfolk Island the first British island in the South Pacific. This colony was also abandoned in 1814 due to hardship, and the colony destroyed to discourage any subsequent occupation. The third settlement from 1825 was also a penal colony, but much more brutal than the previous, until British opinion turned on such punishment, and the colony was closed in 1855. Today the remains of this penal colony are a World Heritage listed cultural site.

World Heritage listed Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) showing the second penal colony (Photo by James Russell)

This leads us to the current and fourth settlement in 1856, when Queen Victoria gifted the island to descendants of the Bounty mutineers wishing to leave Pitcairn Island due to overcrowding. The new arrivals originally lived in the abandoned second penal colony before dividing the island in to 12 acre lots. With them they brought a unique culture from Pitcairn Island, particularly their indigenous language; a blend of Old English and Tahitian, now endangered, like much of the indigenous biodiversity on the island. Today the islanders retain their indigenous culture, while the community is an equally biogeographic blend of Norfolk Islanders, Australians and New Zealanders. The economy relies on tourism, and to that end I found it an exceptional destination. However, at this time the island is in the process of being transferred to a territory of Australia, shepherding a movement towards a sort of fifth settlement phase.

Traditional Norfolk Island longboat
Traditional Norfolk Island longboat and Phillip Island in background (Photo by James Russell)

Touring Norfolk Island it reminds me a lot of Fernando de Noronha on the other side of the planet, where I visited earlier this year. The similarities go down to the details of ancient penal colonies, military occupation, sheltered tidal rock pools and threatened biodiversity. Across the world the plight of islands is remarkably consistent.

View Photos From the Expedition

Read All Posts by James Russell


Meet the Author
Conservation biologist Dr. James Russell works throughout the world on remote islands and other sites to provide conservation solutions by applying a combination of scientific methods. Follow James on National Geographic voices for regular updates on his own work or other exciting developments in island conservation.