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darkparadiseFrom convicts to mutineers to modern scandals, Robert Macklin taps the history of Norfolk Island.

Robert Macklin has successfully woven together the stories of the early settlement of New South Wales, the history of the penal colony on Norfolk Island and later developments there, and the saga of the Bounty mutineers. This is rich material tapped by other writers like Robert Hughes (The Fatal Shore), Caroline Alexander (The Bounty) and Trevor Lummis (Life and Death in Eden), but in bringing these narratives together Macklin has shone new light on each.

For example, I hadn’t known that the Reverend Samuel Marsden, of infamous memory, had employed both a left-handed and a right-handed flogger, the better to get good coverage of the victim’s back. At times Macklin writes with a flourish, which is no bad thing, reminiscent of Manning Clark. Of Marsden he says:

Successive governors had appointed him to the magistracy and he dispensed justice with scant regard to his Redeemer’s injunction to welcome sinners back to the fold.

The horrors inflicted on the Norfolk Island convicts are well documented in other books, but Macklin’s sharp eye has focussed on the difference between the way prisoners were fed and the diet of the military guards and administrators. While the convicts subsisted on cornmeal or weevilly bread and salt meat, Major Anderson described his lifestyle as ‘bounteous’. The privileged were able to farm (with convict labour) and buy provisions at a nominal cost.  Anderson continued:

‘… we made the best bacon that was ever known … the public dairy was near my house and every officer, soldier and free person on the island got a daily allowance of milk and butter. With all these advantages we lived most comfortably and almost for nothing.’

It’s worth noting that, at a later stage when missionaries were at work on Norfolk, an Archdeacon named John McEnroe was frequently in conflict with the island’s administrator, who might reasonably be termed the umpire.

Macklin’s account of the Bounty mutiny and its sad aftermath is selective but graphic. His description of Fletcher Christian’s mood swings rings true and he candidly characterises most of the mutineers as an unsavoury bunch. Matthew Quintal, in particular, the man who burnt the Bounty to the waterline once the mutineers had settled on Pitcairn Island, he describes, probably justifiably, as a ‘thug’.

The descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian wives were moved to Norfolk Island, no longer a jail after its chequered history, where most stayed, while others returned to Pitcairn. Over the decades they formed a clique amid the island’s other residents – administrators, farmers, fishermen – and asserted their rights to special treatment by officialdom, setting up tensions that remain unresolved.

Unhappily, a couple of long chapters, enlivened only by the killing of some missionaries, about the establishment of various Christian sects on Norfolk and other islands, are rather dull. Macklin is blunt in describing the main force, the Anglican Melanesian Mission, which set up a school for islander trainees on Norfolk (constantly bedevilled by homosexual scandals), as ‘50 years of imperial evangelical futility’.

Macklin’s research has been less scrupulous in this section. No ‘Kanaka slave trade’ ever existed. After an initial period of kidnapping and coercion, labour recruiting was conducted in the Solomons and New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) with the full understanding of the islanders. Although their treatment was rough, most returned to their homes with the trade goods and rifles they purchased with their wages of six pounds per annum, along with the prestige attached to their experience. (In 1968 I interviewed a number of very old former ‘Kanakas’ who had volunteered several times for work on distant colonial plantations.) Macklin also seems to be confused between the New Hebridean islands of Tanna and Erromango.

The account of squabbles about how Australian sovereignty over Norfolk was to be styled and organised I found of limited interest, but things picked up again with a detailed examination of the troubled events surrounding the murder of Janelle Patton. Macklin has done some solid investigative work of his own here and his account necessarily ends on a sad and inconclusive note.

Anyone interested in the early days of Australia and the history of beautiful Norfolk Island and the isolated rock that is Pitcairn, should read this book. As Macklin notes, there is evidence that Polynesians occupied both islands long before Europeans entered the Pacific. For reasons unknown they departed. Europeans stayed and, on balance, have been seriously, sometimes fatally, unkind to each other in both places ever since.

Robert Macklin Dark Paradise: Norfolk Island – Isolation, Savagery, Mystery and Murder Hachette Australia 2013 PB 352pp $35.00

You can buy this book from Booktopia here or from Abbey’s here.

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