Haunted by the past
THE spectre of history looms large on Norfolk Island, so little wonder it’s awash with ghost stories. Measuring only 34.6sq km, this South Pacific wonder is said to be the most haunted place in Australia, with more documented ghosts per square kilometre than any other state or territory.
Canadian website The Paranormal lists Norfolk as No.4 in the world’s most haunted islands.
An Australian territory, about 1600km north-east of Sydney, Norfolk is wildly picturesque and ruggedly remote, and attracts 30,000 visitors annually.
Its lonely walks, deserted beaches, chilling graveyard headstones and eerie ruins are enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies – especially after dark.
Even 80 years ago, mainland Aussies were intrigued by other-worldly beings and inexplicable phenomena some people had encountered there.
The Western Star in Roma reported on September 23, 1939, in an article on the Ghosts of Norfolk Island that among the ruins and in some of the buildings of the convict era, wandering spirits had made friends with some of the residents of the time.
“Quality Row, where most of the official houses stand, has its eerie tales,” the report noted.
“Soldiers in the colourful uniforms of old and Empire-gowned and crinolined ladies are said to have revisited their old homes, and the clanking of the chain gangs is held to re-echo at times.”
Today, Norfolk Island remains haunted by its past. A third of the population of 1700 can trace its lineage to Fletcher Christian and his eight mutineers from the Bounty.
Along with their Tahitian-Polynesian wives, they occupied remote Pitcairn Island for almost 20 years before being granted their new Norfolk Island homeland on June 8, 1856.
But the two earlier penal settlements on the island can lay claim to being the bloodiest stain on Norfolk Island history.
The first settlement started on March 6, 1788, only six weeks after the First Fleet had arrived at Botany Bay to establish the penal colony of New South Wales.
The commandant, Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, arrived with a skeleton crew of seven free men and 15 convicts to make masts and sails from the Norfolk pines and flax for British ships, and prevent the French from laying claim to the island.
As the island of the damned increased its convict population, and fertile soils saw crops prosper, Norfolk’s role changed to feeding a starving Sydney settlement and providing a labour camp for the worst of its criminals.
But by 1814, the once-thriving settlement of more than 1000 had outlived its purpose. Buildings were razed or taken down stone by stone to make the island less hospitable for passing ships and escaped convicts.
The old capital, Kingston, rose from the dead with the second penal settlement (from 1825 to 1855).
It was where the worst felons were sent, by order of the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane.
Heavy chains were the norm. Torture, lashings and solitary confinement were common for petty misdemeanours, and hard labour meant hard labour with the scarcest of food rations as sustenance.
A stroll through the island cemetery today sends a shiver through any spine with inscriptions in black and white telling of sorry ends through murder, execution and drowning.
But nearby Quality Row – the main street of World Heritage-listed Kingston, the old capital of Norfolk Island – is where I may have had my own ghostly encounter.
The Research Centre at No 9 Quality Row is an elegantly restored Georgian cottage, built in 1839 as the home of the Royal Engineer.
The servants’ quarters in the rear courtyard host the dessert leg of one of the progressive dinner tours available on Norfolk and I admit a chill swept over me as I flicked through the photographs afterwards.
A phantom presence – almost like a head and body with three arms raised in surrender – appears on a wall in one photograph, and a glass window in another.
For ghost hunters and those in the land of the living who enjoy being chilled to the bone with real-life history, Norfolk Island offers a number of ghost tours.
◗ Ships including the HMS Sirius in 1790 have been wrecked on the reef at Kingston.