December 2018 – January 2019

The Nation Reviewed

A Norfolk Island mutiny

By Jeff Sparrow
Australia’s remote territory is agitating for autonomy

“Du We Giw Up, We Gwen Win!”

The sign hangs outside Duncan Sanderson’s ramshackle tent embassy in Norfolk Island’s World Heritage–listed Kingston district, alongside many other proclamations of defiance, most of them in Standard English.

“Norfolk Island under siege,” reads one.

“Our future, our choice,” announces another.

But it’s that first slogan, presented in the Norf’k patois, that conveys Sanderson’s protest most effectively to the passing tourists, precisely because of their struggle to comprehend it.

From 1979, Norfolk Island, measuring 35 square kilometres and located around 1500 kilometres east of Sydney, exercised something like independence. As Australia’s only non-mainland self-governing territory, it chose its own legislative assembly, selected by the island’s 1700 inhabitants according to a distinctive voting system in which political parties played little part. Though Canberra retained ultimate sovereignty (by signing off on all laws, for instance), the islanders funded their own services from a locally implemented GST and the profits from government monopolies. As a result, they paid no income tax.

The island’s fortunes waned after the 2008 global financial crisis, which hit the tourism industry hard. In 2015 Australia abolished the legislative assembly in a bid to normalise Norfolk’s status, and this is what Sanderson is fighting.

“The Commonwealth is coming over,” he growls, “and showing us that running a place from a thousand miles away just doesn’t work.”

Many residents on the island convey their sentiment by hoisting green-and-white flags adorned with the Norfolk pine. In the main settlement of Burnt Pine, the Centre for Democracy occupies a prominent shopfront, its windows displaying posters from the Norfolk Island People for Democracy. Elsewhere, a vacant lot is home to hundreds of signs showing green handprints and the slogan “hands up for democracy”.

But Sanderson, more or less retired, has made the struggle against Australia a full-time occupation. He erected his tent on April 27, 2016 alongside the Georgian building where the legislative assembly once met, and has spent most days since under the awning surrounded by leaflets, posters, visitors’ messages and all the other detritus of activism.

A bearded, weather-beaten patriarch, he argues his case to travellers, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, while his wife, Mollie, silently produces cake and cups of tea.

“We had a referendum in 2015 in which 68 per cent voted for a say in their own future,” he says. “But since then that figure has grown to probably 80 per cent.”

What he calls “the takeover” has left many islanders struggling with their mortgages alongside the new requirements to pay Australian income tax. They must now pay land duties on previously untaxed ancestral properties; some find themselves ineligible for pensions they’d received under Norfolk’s own welfare system.

Sanderson is also aghast at the Commonwealth administrator referring to locals as “Australians living on Norfolk Island” rather than “Norfolk Islanders”. For, as a nearby sticker explains, “Australian history is not Norfolk History” – and the ruins of the old convict settlement a few hundred metres from the tent embassy underscore the point.

Arthur Phillip dispatched colonists to Norfolk Island as soon as the First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson. The British coveted its flax and timber, but they also knew, as Sir John Call from the Royal Society had argued in 1784, that “This Island has an Advantage … by not being inhabited, so that no injury can be done by possessing it to the rest of Mankind.”

Yet today’s islanders trace their origins neither to the settlement of 1788 nor to the second penal colony established in 1824, but to a decision to use Norfolk – empty after convict transportation ended – as a home for the descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

In 1789, Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian and about half of the 40-man crew overpowered Commanding Lieutenant William Bligh and seized the ship, which had just travelled to Tahiti in search of breadfruit. The British government set about hunting down the mutineers, eventually hanging from the yardarm three of the men recaptured in Tahiti.

But nothing was heard of the rest of Christian’s party until 1808, when American whalers discovered the Bounty’s John Adams living in a community on isolated and minuscule Pitcairn Island. By then, the mood in Britain had changed. No one much cared about Adams’ inconsistent accounts of his shipmates’ fate (they all died, including Christian it seems, in violent squabbles over the women they’d kidnapped from Tahiti). Instead, Adams’ apparent religiosity facilitated a narrative of piety and British pluck triumphing over paganism and isolation. So much so that, in 1856, when the Pitcairners outgrew their tiny home, Queen Victoria offered to relocate all 194 of them to Norfolk.

The Norf’k patois of Sanderson’s sign reflects that peculiar heritage. He says that 15 or 20 years ago the island’s kindergarten employed an English teacher “because none of the children could speak it. They all went to school speaking Norf’k.”

The syntax and lexicon of Norf’k offer an almost archaeological glimpse into conditions on Pitcairn after the mutiny: many verbs come from an 18th-century naval vocabulary, and the Polynesian-derived terms for food reflect the domestic role of the Tahitians. In her Dictionary of Norfolk Words and Usages, Beryl Nobbs Palmer translates “I gwen hewh out aye han line, I bet de oony thing I gwen cetch es boohi” as “I’m going to fish with the hand line, I’ll bet all I’ll catch are sea eels!”

Sanderson clings to the local identity. He disputes the Australian government’s claims that the legislative assembly couldn’t adequately provide for its citizens, and that many residents possessed no connection whatsoever to a romanticised Pitcairn heritage and simply wanted to access Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. He says the islanders required only a relatively small loan to cover the post-GFC drop in the tourism on which the local economy was almost entirely dependant; the crisis narrative was simply used to justify the conditions attached by Canberra.

To make matters worse, for the purposes of federal voting Norfolk citizens were enrolled in the ACT electorate of Bean.

“Oh, we have so much in common with Canberra voters,” growls Sanderson sarcastically. “They’ve got Lake Burley Griffin and we’ve got Lake Pacific.”

In his tent – and elsewhere on the island – Union Jacks fly alongside the Norfolk Island flags, indicative of a belief that Britain promised a home to the Pitcairners, and Australia took it away.

In 2016, Pauline Hanson began championing the islanders’ cause, presumably envisaging them as white Empire loyalists and tax rebels, oppressed by the bureaucrats in Canberra.

Yet Norfolk Island history unsettles any simplistic notions of ethnic identity. The locals might, with equal justice, be considered Tahitians, descended from the women taken as wives by European men. The island’s Council of Elders (representing descendants of the eight original Pitcairn families) mimics similar organisations throughout the Pacific Islands; the Kingston tent embassy recalls the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. And an older generation of islanders still remembers teachers caning them for speaking Norf’k, an experience common to many linguistic minorities.

Sanderson is awaiting rulings from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, where the barrister Geoffrey Robertson has been putting Norfolk Island’s case for “free association” with Australia – a self-governing status enjoyed by, for instance, the Cook Islands in relation to New Zealand.

What will Sanderson do if that’s unsuccessful or if Australia simply ignores the result?

He shrugs and repeats his slogan, this time in English.

“If we don’t give up,” he says, “we will win.”

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Melbourne editor, writer and broadcaster. His latest book is Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre.


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