“The necessity of a vessel to keep up a more frequent intercourse with Norfolk Island, having been much felt by the want of various stores for the use of the inhabitants, occasioned Captain Townson, the commanding officer, to construct a small decked boat, sloop rigged” – An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales 1788 – 1801 – Lieutenant Colonel Collins
It is no surprise Lieutenant Colonel Collins of the Royal Marines, Late Judge-Advocate and Secretary to the Colony of New South Wales, as the First Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land, recorded interest in this boat.
Norfolk was the first decked, sloop rigged boat built on Norfolk Island and the first vessel to circumnavigate the island of Van Diemen’s Land.
By 1798 the settlers on Norfolk Island were a mix of ex-sailors, marines, convicts and free immigrants; life was industrious with the occupations of cultivator, carpenter, boat builder, shingle-maker, charcoal burner, stonemason, flax-worker, barber, tailor, shoemaker and butcher. The preceding ten years were mostly fruitful however the affects of drought, pests, isolation and politics were keenly felt by the island’s inhabitants.
Law and order structured by Governors, Military, Marines and the New South Wales Corps influenced life on the island socially and statistically. By 1795 the population was decreasing, soldiers of the New South Wales Corp were troublesome, the island was under military rule and there were constant confrontations between all inhabitants. Norfolk Island’s Governor King reported, “my health is much impaired, constant anxiety and uneasiness of mind has done more than a ten years’ continuance at sea”. Forced to quit the island and return to England, King was eventually replaced by Captain John Townson of the New South Wales Corps. Four years later King returned to New South Wales, succeeding Governorship from Captain Hunter, of HMS Sirius renown.
The commodity market between the New South Wales and Norfolk Island settlements favoured the Port Jackson (Sydney) merchants and the Government Store purchasing policy on the island favoured military officers farming with convict labour, thus resulting in settlers with plenty of produce but no market for trade desperately wanting for clothing, tools and other hardware.
Meanwhile, Governor Hunter in NSW was struggling with a lack of seagoing vessels, the Reliance was laid up for repairs and the First Fleet’s HMAT Supply had been retired and repurposed as a hulk on Sydney Harbour. Rather than a lengthy voyage to Norfolk Island, the remaining ship Francis was efficiently utilised to ferry cargo between Port Jackson and the productive Hawkesbury River Settlements.
The settlers became so disgruntled they formed the “Fraternal Society of Norfolk Island” to formally express their grievances directly to London attempting to bypass Governor Hunter. News of this Society eventually reached Hunter and expressing his displeasure, he directed the Society be disbanded threatening military action if it continued.
Captain John Townson was sympathetic to the island settlers’ grievances; he turned a blind eye on his predecessor’s hard line policy on bartering and allowed both excessive drinking and the local distillation of spirits. He was frustrated with the lack of communication between the settlements and wondered whether the ship Francis had wrecked. Townson and Hunter didn’t enjoy a good relationship, in fact Hunter had advocated abandoning the island settlement. In defiance of orders from the first Governor of NSW and the incumbent Governor Hunter to positively forbid the building of a boat, Townson took matters into his own hands and instructed the local carpenters to build a small ocean going sailing vessel.
Although the Norfolk Pine was not suitable for the tallest masts of large ships of the British Line, this timber was ideally suited to the building of smaller vessels. At the end of autumn 1798 Townson’s sixteen ton Norfolk Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) built sloop was ready to sail for Port Jackson.
Lieutenant Colonel Collins recorded, “she arrived on the 15th (June 1798); but through the want of a harbour at that island, a want that must ever be felt, they were obliged to launch her from the shore, and proceed immediately to sea, whether she was sufficiently tight or not. The consequence was, that she proved very leaky; but with two pumps, which they fortunately had fitted on board her, they were able to keep the water under. *A man upon the island had sufficient ingenuity to make a quadrant for navigating this vessel.”
Townson took every precaution to guard the boat whilst under construction for fear of seizure by the convicts; it was launched in secrecy and hastily for this reason. The Norfolk, as Governor Hunter named her, sailed into Port Jackson to his dismay, carrying letters from Townson requesting wheat, flour, clothing and tools to be sent as a matter of urgency. These letters also informed Hunter of the formation of the Fraternal Society of Norfolk Island. Hunter, awfully displeased, immediately despatched the now seaworthy Reliance to Norfolk with the requested stores and a Proclamation instructing the settlers of proper process for complaints or grievances, warning that military forces would intervene if they persisted. Hunter’s reprisal was to confiscate Townson’s sloop Norfolk and put it into government service. Townson remained on the island until 1800 when ill health compelled his return to England. He eventually retired in Tasmania.
The Reliance had sailed from England to Port Jackson in 1795 carrying surgeon and naturalist George Bass; navigator, hydrographer and scientist Mathew Flinders; and Governor John Hunter. Bass and Flinders continued their sailing partnership by way of voyaging through Norfolk Island to South Africa to purchase livestock for the Government and by exploration of areas now recognised as suburban Sydney.
Governor Hunter ordered the Norfolk sloop be fitted out for a voyage to prove the existence of a strait between the mainland and Van Diemen’s Land; Bass having previously deduced there was a separation of the land during an eleven week voyage in a whale boat in 1797. Captain Mathew Flinders and George Bass together with a crew of eight on board the Norfolk headed south under orders to pass through the strait and return by the south of Van Diemen’s land. Twelve weeks later, in January 1799, they sailed back into Port Jackson having accomplished the first circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land.
Captain Mathew Flinders wrote, “The voyage being now completed, it may not be amiss to take some further notice of the straits, which was the principal object of it; and it ought to be first observed that his Excellency the Governor name it Bass’s Strait, after my worthy friend and companion, as a just tribute to the extreme dangers and fatigues he had undergone in first entering it in the whaleboat”. Upon Flinders recommendation, Governor Hunter named the passage, ‘Bass Strait’.
Lieutenant Collins recorded, “The vessel that has the credit of having first circumnavigated Van Diemen’s land was built at Norfolk Island, on the fir of that country, which was found to answer extremely well. Being only five-and-twenty tons in burden, her comforts and accommodation must have been very inconsiderable”. In 1802, Collins was chosen to form a new settlement in Bass Strait and by the following year he’d settled at Hobart Town with the commission of Lieutenant Governor of the new colony of Van Diemen’s Land.
Bass moved on to make further discoveries and publish scientific works. Flinders sails the Norfolk on a voyage to complement Cook’s charts, was promoted to Commander and circumnavigated the continent becoming known as the man who gave Australia its name.
The next chapter in the story of the Norfolk is the story of her demise. In service as a government cargo ship transporting provisions and grain, she was bound for Port Jackson laden with bushels of wheat from the Hawkesbury River Settlement when seized by a gang of fifteen convicts.
This piratical seizure was reported to Governor Hunter who issued a general order on the 9th of October 1800, wherein he stated, “On this occasion the Governor finds it necessary to fore warn any convicts from attempting such a scheme in future, as nothing but inevitable destruction awaits those who have seized the Norfolk”.
Planning to travel through the Dutch settlements in the Moluccas then onto China, the convicts sailed north and ran into a storm, seeking shelter in the Hunter River the runaways only succeeded in wrecking her onshore at a place infamously called ‘Pirate Point’ until 1862 when it became known as Stockton.
Nine of the pirates stole another small boat and made for the open sea, the others preferring to take their chances in the bush among the Aboriginal people. Governor Hunter immediately despatched an armed cutter apprehending the nine, all were found guilty and sentenced to death. Two were executed, the others being reprieved and sentenced to seven years transportation on Norfolk Island.
It is thought the six who ‘went bush’ crossed to the southern shore setting up camp and subsisting on fish and meat provided by friendly Aborigines. After several months, three of the men decided to make their way back to Port Jackson to surrender. Two were captured and the other died. The remaining three were never heard of again.
The sloop Norfolk being the first vessel to circumnavigate Tasmania was historically immortalised in Australian history, then venerated more recently by two Norfolk replicas.
In Tasmania, the Derwent Valley farmer Richard Davis, assisted by a team of volunteers, constructed a replica sloop Norfolk; 10.9 metres long by 3 metres beam a moulded depth of 1.8 metres and displacement of 16 tons. Whether she was 25 or 16 ton is a discussion point, however thorough research and sailing experience by Norfolk replica Project Coordinator, Bern Cuthbertson, determines she was 16 ton. In 1998 Bern skippered the new Norfolk with a volunteer crew on re-enactment voyages, navigating with an 18th century quadrant as Flinders and Bass had done before. And now one can appreciate this full size replica in the maritime museum in George Town, Tasmania.
The other replica is in the Norfolk Island Museum, a 50:1 scale model, donated to the museum by honorary ship model maker Col Gibson. Col emphasises his model is made from Norfolk Pine as is the base board it is mounted upon. The plans for it came from the files draughted by the Navy Department of Deptford held by the Greenwich Maritime Museum. They are for a 1770 longboat with a 33 foot keel and form the basis of the replica and the model, resulting in an accurate and valued replication of this significant little sloop.