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Title: Norfolk Island
Author: John Arthur Barry
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1302451h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  May 2013
Most recent update: May 2013

This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore

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Where Three Cables Meet.

(Author of '"Steve Brown's Bunyip," ''Red Lion and Blue Star," "The Luck of the Native Born," "In the Great Deep" etc.)

Published in the Australian Town and Country Journal (NSW)
Wednesday, June 21, 1905

To those who have been there, the name alone of the island suddenly suggests many things. Among others, memories run to giant pine trees; of a period of enforced but total abstinence; of ruins; of a curious and gentle people; of red dust, and much of it; of an incalculable quantity of water, as compared with a mere fragment of land; of, in fact, many things. The average visitor, in place of indulging in thoughts of the historical Bounty and the mutineers, and closely examining into the authentic details of the story of Pitcairn as told by these islanders, who are not yet too proud to admit acquaintance with anything of the kind, is, it is to be feared, more and deeply occupied in attempting to solve the "drink problem."

Somehow, the vessels that make the island seem to have a habit of approaching it during the night. In which case, dropping anchor, they proceed to get their mails ready, and their hatches off, prepared to discharge any cargo they may be carrying for the residents. Repeated blasts from the steam whistle notify the islanders of the arrival of the vessel. These having no effect, rockets, or detonators, are sent up, which arouse the echoes from the hills, and send them resounding throughout the island. But its people are not going to turn out for a few letters and newspapers and a bit of cargo. Therefore, the steamer's people, realising this, presently turn in. One would imagine that long experience would be effective in teaching them what to expect. Nevertheless, the performance is religiously gone through with at each visit, During the morning, some time after breakfast the whale boats arrive, filled with placid natives, who, in reply to strong and vivid protests, and arguments in favour of hurry, merely smile depreciatingly, and promise amendment for the future.

But both sides know as well as possible that there will be no change. It is the Island of No Hurry, and motto of its people is "never do to day what you can put off till to-morrow; and not even then if it can be helped." Landing is effected by jumping on to a slippery step out of a dancing whale-boat, and a ducking is generally one of the accompaniments of the process. When you leave you, as often as not, jump into a whaleboat off a big stone at the other side of the island. You get ducked in both cases. Viewed from the Settlement Side, the scene in the foreground is somewhat imposing, owing to the tall and picturesque ruins of the old gaol, the convict and commissariat stores and quarters—grim, decaying, but all quick with half a century's story of woe unalterable, of solidified cruelty and misery, and human suffering. Everywhere are gently-rounded hills, some bare, some topped from base to summit with a trailing robe of lordly pines. Red roads, well made, run to and fro across the island in every direction. There was nothing for the convicts to do, except make roads or build causeways of imposing massiveness where a culvert or a bridle track would have served equally well. Gullies deep and long run down towards the sea from the interior; and in these grow bananas, and mangoes, and maize, and sweet potatoes. They are the paddocks of the island; the shoulders of the hills support the stock. To the right of the Settlement stands Government House, looking modern from a distance but actually as old almost as the Settlement itself. Fronting it is "Quality Row," with its fine, substantial stone cottages, each standing in its plot of ground, once occupied by officials of the System, now the homes of the islanders. Close to the shore is the graveyard where a lover of strange and old-world inscriptions might feast for a week or more.

Inland Mount Pitt towers to its 1000 or so feet; a graceful ascent, however, and one easily made on horseback. From its summit the whole island lies bare to the view, and not until then, perhaps, is it fully realised what a minute speck lies east upon the immensity of encompassing ocean. Everybody either rides or drives. If unable to do either, they lead a horse. The Melanesian Mission is the show place, as well as one of the beauty spots of Norfolk Island. And it is well worthy of its reputation. Nowhere in southern seas, or in many others, is there anything to equal it. Set in a gentle slope running in park-like stretches towards the steep cliffs that girdle the whole estate, the many and substantial buildings, and the numerous inhabitants, give it an air of intelligent and visible occupation and industry totally absent elsewhere. The church alone is a worthy monument to the energy and the liberality of its founders and beneficiaries. Stained glass windows and marble pavements, artistic seats inlaid with mother-of-pearl devices, skillfully worked by once savage hands—every accessory, in short, that such an edifice can require is to be found in the Mission Church. And when filled from end to end with its hundreds of dark worshippers, representatives of a score of far-off island groups, the scene is one of strange impressiveness. The Mission has its own hospital, its own farm (which boasts some pedigreed stock), its printing office, where the Scriptures, translated into the universal "mota," are set up, and printed and bound, to be presently distributed throughout the Western Pacific. The names of Selwyn and the martyred Patteson, founders and chiefs of the Mission, are, as might be expected, household words in the mouths of the clergy here—a modest, but strenuous company, abounding in much self-denial and mortification, both of the spirit and the flesh, with for the solitary aim of all endeavour, the redemption of those that sit in darkness. And if you have the good luck to see and talk with the present Bishop, Cecil Wilson, of Melanesia, you will learn very much of the hopes and aspirations of those engaged in the ceaseless labour of not only Christianising, but of civilising, the dark places, whose cheerful pioneers they are.

Scarcely less worthy of notice than the Mission itself, its people, its pupils, and its interests, is the grand and solemn avenue of great pines by which the approach to it is made. To whom among the old-time residents must be given the credit of planting these splendid trees is unknown; but here they are, entire with the exception of a few gaps at intervals, which anywhere else would have been long filled up; a unique and splendid memorial to the good taste of some bygone arboriculturist.

From the "Mission" to the "station" is a pleasant up-hill and down-hill drive along shady roads right across the island. Wooden buildings enclosing three sides of a square, in which is sunk an immense underground tank, denote the spot where three submarine cables meet. One arrives from New Zealand, another from Queensland; and yet another from Fiji. Night and day the machines click out their messages along the "All-Red" route. For the small sum of 3d per word you can talk for as long as you wish to Australasia; but, otherwise, you will hear nothing of the world's news as it passes through, from one continent to another. Battle, murder, and sudden death may be abroad among the natives, but no soul on Norfolk Island will be any the wiser of it; so far as the Pacific Cable Board's officials are concerned. And this matter by those among the islanders who care for what takes place outside their own small microcosm is looked upon as somewhat of a hardship. The staff here is large, as the station is an important repeating one. The plant, too, is, as may be imagined, most complete and effective in every detail. In such isolated positions nothing can be left to chance, and all mishaps have to be foreseen and provided against.

At places like Anson Bay, where we now are, and at Fanning Island, if possible lonelier still, life for the young men who serve the board must be reckoned as fairly monotonous. None the less, at Norfolk island, there are compensations in the way of lawn tennis, riding and driving, with perhaps a little flirting thrown in over afternoon teas, and later dances. It is true that you can neither ride nor drive very far in any one direction; but there are so many roads, that you can always keep going for an indefinite period, if you do not mind crossing your tracks time without number. As for the tea and tennis, both are excellent.

That the Island is beautiful under its every aspect few will be found to deny. Situated as it is on the borders of the tropics, the climate is one of the most equable in the world; while its pine trees vouch for its healthfulness. And yet few outsiders who, seduced by the charm of the place, assay to make their home in it seem to care to stay there after the novelty has worn off. Nor, truth to tell, are such attempts at permanent residence viewed very favourably by the islanders themselves. And perhaps this feeling is reasonable enough. There is no room to spare for strangers, and none too much for the present occupants—the rightful owners. Their enemies say that they are indolent and unambitious. But then it must be acknowledged, that they have no incentive to be otherwise. With the Commonwealth placing a prohibitive tax on all their produce, why, as they pertinently inquire of the impertinently inquisitive stranger, should they exert themselves more than suffices them to keep body and soul together? Far better men than they are have for lack of an object in their lives made far worse attempts at existence. As a community, the Islanders should be rather sympathised with and assisted in every way to work out their own salvation, in place of, as is too often the case, being scolded and reprehended.

After a long course of such treatment, a community, as well as an individual, is apt to become indifferent and careless, and the more especially so when unable to resent it. The Norfolkers are fast getting into the habit of thinking that the outside world is against them; that they have no standing or consideration attached to them; that they are, in fact, nobody's people, It is full time that somebody took the island in hand, and tried what kindly encouragement and assistance would bring about in place of neglect and something very much resembling contempt.

Whatever else they may be, these descendants of the waifs of British naval history possess in a very eminent degree the virtues of politeness and hospitality; and the temporary sojourner within their gates is made to at once feel at home among them by the exercise of a tact and kindliness as unexpected as it is welcome. One thing, too, at least, they are lucky in, and that is in having for the first time in their history an able and energetic Chief Magistrate, who is not of themselves. Captain Drake and his wife have the best interests of the islanders at heart, and it is sincerely to be hoped that much good will be the result of his firm, yet kindly, rule.

The future of this handful of people, isolated and cast almost absolutely upon their own resources, is difficult to forecast. As matters are at present, it appears none too bright, unless assistance of a very practical nature should come from some unexpected source. In a sense, they may be looked upon as wards of the British Government; but one great disability they labour under is that of divided control. When once this is removed, and it is finally settled where the sole responsibility lies, then the first important step will have been taken towards a better and more flourishing state of affairs.


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