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Where the Fairy Tern is Winging: Convicts, Mutiny and Executions: A Guest Post by Jim McIntosh

Editor’s Note:

Brutal rule by an oligarchy is never as far off as we might think. It is something that has happened far too often throughout history and it is a danger the supposedly democratized “Western world” is dangerously close to falling back into at the moment.  Too few people hold too much power and control too much of the economy. The victim is blamed, feeding your children becomes a crime, the prisons overflow.

We don’t have to look too far into the past for a stark reminder of what happens when economic democracy is up-ended.

Norfolk Island, a self-governing external territory of Australia, lies less than 2 hours flying time Northwest of Auckland, New Zealand. My friend Jim McIntosh recently visited.  ~ ~ ~


Norfolk Island

Much of history’s accounts, and popular literature, perpetuate the myth that Norfolk Island’s penal settlements were for the worst type of convict: the recidivist dregs, or the most hardened of prisoners from England’s penal colonies in Australia.

Recent analysis of actual convict records disproves this popular misconception. There’s humanity and respect that needs to be reconciled to those once imprisoned on Norfolk Island.

Most were shipped directly from England to Norfolk Island via Port Jackson (today’s Sydney) or Tasmania’s Port Arthur

Most incarcerated were first time property offenders, for what we would today consider minor offences such as breaking and entering, or stealing food to avoid starvation.

Only around a quarter were convicted of crimes of any violence.

With memories of the Scottish uprising in 1745 still somewhat fresh, rebellion in America a devastating loss and an example of what the masses could achieve, and unrest among the Continent’s poor, England’s aristocratic ruling class took extreme measures to ensure their continuing control over the common person. Sentences were disproportionately long and harsh: death or transportation for stealing a loaf of bread.

Overflowing jails, full floating hulks, and the loss of her American colonies set England seeking new solutions of where to send her potentially rebellious poor. The First Fleet’s 11 ships set sail for Australia’s Botany Bay carrying 789 convicts, including 193 convict’s wives and their 14 children. 2 ships continued on to Norfolk Island to found the First Penal Settlement there in 1778.

norfolk island

I had an hour to sit atop a small rise overlooking the old part of Kingston’s cemetery, which has burials from 1778 to the present within the fenced and consecrated ground.

Many visitors could miss the mound just outside the oldest part and close to the surf. Here is the mass grave of 13 convicts, who were denied burial in hallowed ground.

I was struck with the deep impression of the sheer unjustified harshness of the social conditions that bound these ordinary men to be caught in a system they had no voice in, the conditions of severe treatment that de-humanised them and drove them to futile mutiny resulting in their punishment of hanging, and the subsequent denial of simple Christian burial and headstone.

Above me the island’s fairy terns were flying. What thoughts filled the minds of an exhausted, brutalized convict in chains, as he looked up to see the Fairy Terns soaring above him?


Where the Fairy Tern is winging: Convicts, Mutiny and Execution


There’s a grave that lies unmarked beyond consecrated ground

Here we lie – the executed: relief we finally have found

Above, a Fairy Tern is winging; pines swaying stately fro

Gentle surf is singing where we sleep so long below.

When I was once a young lad, just barely seventeen

To feed my starving family I took the rich man’s bread

But the Peelers captured me, they beat me to my knees

The judge cast me down forever; hard labour is what he said.

And these rocks are crushing me

I’m desperate to be free

Where the Fairy Tern is winging

My soul longs there to be.

Our ship sailed out from Plymouth, I could bid not a fond farewell

Friends and family lost forever: on Norfolk now I dwell

Where rocks are sharp and crushing, these chains still have me bound

I have built my own stone prison and all these walls around.

And the cat is flailing me, cutting deep this worn body

But finally we have risen against this harsh brutality

Mutiny may prove futile: no one will weep for me

But I will seek my freedom where the Fairy Tern flies free.

Now I welcome this reprieve

Where the rope’s awaiting me

Soon, no chains will hold me captive

Where the Fairy Tern flies free.

~ ~ ~

The Fairy Tern spends its breeding season at Norfolk Island laying one egg and raising its chick on a horizontal branch of the stately, and rather grandiose Norfolk Pine. These dainty white sea birds soar above the coastline in great numbers.

norfolk island

Harsh brutalization drives desperate men to desperate ends!

I welcome death as a friend … I have been treated more like a beast than a man.” So spoke William Westwood, prior to execution for his part in the convict mutiny on 13th October, 1846. 13 convicts were denied burial in the cemetery grounds. Westwood’s words head the only marker to the mass grave.

History’s record of an earlier convict uprising show how brutal conditions were:

“Following a convict mutiny in 1834, Father William UllathorneVicar general of Sydney, visited Norfolk Island to comfort the mutineers due for execution. He found it “the most heartrending scene that I ever witnessed”. Having the duty of informing the prisoners as to who was reprieved and who was to die, he was shocked to record as “a literal fact that each man who heard his reprieve wept bitterly, and that each man who heard of his condemnation to death went down on his knees with dry eyes, and thanked God.” 

Wikipedia History of Norfolk Island


First Penal Settlement 1778-1814:

Discovered October 10th, 1774, and named by Captain Cook on his second round the world voyage, Norfolk Island was first settled as a penal colony in 1778. Britain needed timber for its huge fleet and the tall, straight growing and plentiful Norfolk Pine was described by Cook as most suitable for spars and masts. The island’s flax was also thought suitable for harvesting for ropes and sails, although attempts processing the leaves for fibre were never successful. And the knotty trees proved too weak – luckily for the species otherwise they could have been wiped out! In 1814 all buildings were destroyed, crops razed, livestock shot and all inhabitants removed to Port Arthur, Tasmania.  No need to keep convicts there if timber and fibre could not be harvested.

Second Penal Settlement 1825-1854:

This settlement designed at the time to be for the ‘severest of punishment short of death‘ for the worst repeat offenders from England’s prison colonies in New South Wales and Tasmania. In reality, England shipped mostly first time property offenders direct to Norfolk Island.

The World Heritage buildings, pictured above, were all built in this period by convicts under the most harsh of conditions.

It is this period to which the above poem refers.

norfolk island

This link History of Norfolk Island. gives an excellent reference for the island’s brutal penal settlement history. You’ll also read about the Bounty mutiny.

Norfolk Island is less than 2 hours flying time Northwest of Auckland, New Zealand. An external territory of Australia, it enjoys a measure of self-government.

Today, you’ll be welcomed, and hosted most graciously by islanders proud of their island’s history. These are not descendants of convicts, but are mainly descendants of the original mutineers on the Bounty, 28th April, 1789, and Tahitian men and women who sailed to Pitcairn Island to evade the wrath of the English government. After the closure in 1854 of the second penal settlement, all the descendants of the Bounty mutineers were granted Norfolk Island by Queen Victoria, and resettled there in 1856.


Jim McIntosh
Shoemaker & Travel Blogger

Twitter     –!/jimshu2000
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