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An Irishman’s Diary on dark deeds on the penal colony of Norfolk Island

Irish got it worse than others on notorious island

A gravestone in the cemetery of the brutal penal colony on Norfolk Island. Photograph: Lawrence Bartlett/AFP/Getty Images

When Robert Macklin finished his biography of former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, he was exhausted and went to Norfolk Island (an Australia territory, but located closer to New Zealand) for a break.

He discovered a place haunted by its history and full of shadows, whose idyllic facade barely concealed darkness, death and horror, a great deal of which involved Irish prisoners. One local said to Macklin, “I have to tell you, Satan lives here.”

The experience led to another book, Dark Paradise (Hachette).

There were two penal settlements on Norfolk, from 1788 to 1813, and from 1824 to 1847. It was supposed to hold the worst of the worst – people who had been transported to Australia and were then sent to Norfolk for further crimes. The exception was the Irish, most of whom were sent directly from Ireland.

Political prisoners

Whatever difficulties Norfolk Island had in its early years, Macklin (whose ancestors came from Bandon, Co Cork, during the Famine) writes that: “Nothing had prepared them for their first taste of the empire’s colonial sadists, the execrable Joseph Foveaux.”

Lieut-Governor Foveaux was a man with a “sadistic lust to humiliate and inflict untold agony on the men and women under his control ... He started the island on the road to torture and terror. But he wasn’t the worst of them.”

Foveaux later had a street named after him in Sydney’s Surry Hills area. It is doubtful that many of the thousands was walk up this street on the way to the football stadium or cricket ground on match days know anything about his history.

Place of terror

It is no surprise the Irish got it worse than others.

The most shocking element was a policy that held if foreign sails were seen on the horizon, then any Irish on the island should be gathered into a wooden stockade. If the ship landed, the stockade was to be set alight.

They believed that if foreign forces came onto the island the Irish would support them in attacking the British.

One notorious way of controlling rebel spirits in the settlement was the lash.

Laurence Frayne, a Dubliner who was sent to New South Wales in 1826, and then to Norfolk when the colony tired of his repeated escape attempts, was given 300 lashes for calling lieutenant-governor James Thomas Morisset a “bastard”.

He got 100 lashes, then when it scabbed over, he got another 100 and then another when that scabbed over.

‘Soaked in blood’

The most damning indictment of the abject cruelty of conditions on Norfolk is that some prisoners were bitterly disappointed not to be hanged.

After one mutiny 15 prisoners were tried for treason or murder and all sentenced to death. There was an appeal and a Catholic priest and an Anglican minister went to Norfolk to witness the hanging and to tell a select few they had been reprieved.

The priest was astonished to discover that those he told they were to hang were joyous and those who had to remain wept and fell to the ground.

‘Lottery’

To get around the dilemma they devised a plan where four convicts would draw straws and one would be murdered, one would be the murderer and two would act as witnesses at the trial so as to ensure conviction.

The victim would escape life without fear of going to hell, the murderer would be executed and also escape life, and the witnesses would have to testify at a trial in either Sydney or Hobart. Just getting off the island was a holiday for them and would possibly present an opportunity to escape.

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