Spotlight: Norfolk Island (29 October 1846)

Sentinel (Sydney, NSW : 1845 – 1848), Thursday 29 October 1846, page 2


(From a Correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald )

We have been recently favoured with important intelligence from this island, and as it is but rarely any of the doings of that unhappy spot reach the public ear or eye, we are glad to have it in our power to communicate an account of the late proceedings upon which our readers may fully rely. A more melancholy one can scarcely be imagined, and if to what we now publish we were to add other enormities with which we have been made acquainted, we can scarcely doubt but that the whole community would indignantly protest against a station which, it may be feared will sooner or later call down the vengeance of God, as of old, upon the nation which can tolerate such a festering mass of wickedness. The late Commandant it was universally confessed, was unfitted in every possible way for the duties most unaccountably entrusted to him.

The following may be relied upon as a correct outline of the late transactions; and of the incentives which terminated in so frightful and so fatal a tragedy.

From a state of really quiet obedience; the island, from the time of the prisoners (who are not. slow to appreciate character) began to perceive the weakness of the Superintendent, fell into a gradually increasing state of insubordination. Some of the prisoners cringed, others plotted, and others bullied him. Temporary expedients were resorted to, in order to keep them quiet, but all discipline was relaxed, and when the difficulty of managing them became daily greater and the various officers remonstrated, their complaints were either treated with rudeness, or altogether evaded. To make matters worse, an increasing number of ruffians began to be landed from Van Diemens Land, who soon rendered the English prisoners as mischievous as themselves. What a state of things! An absolute ruler! yet thoroughly incapable; at war with every officer on the island, bearded by the convicts, and at length in open day knocked down by one of them. It would occupy too much time to tell of the progressive steps by which the total insubordination of the convicts, and the disorganisation of all system were brought about.

Mutinous disturbances began towards the close of last year. The ration of the prisoners has always been notoriously bad at Norfolk Island — throughout the year they have salt beef and maize meal only, so that but for the indulgence (always allowed them) of growing a few sweet potatoes in plots of ground marked out for their use and cultivated by themselves on Saturday afternoons, their fare would have been positively destructive of life, as indeed it frequently proved to the freshly arrived prisoners, before they could grow potatoes for themselves. On the 1st of January, a public order was posted to the effect, that all their garden plots were henceforth to be taken away from them. It is difficult for any person unacquainted with the island to conceive the commotion this occasioned. The prisoners refused to work unless some equivalent were given for the potatoes, and after some hesitation, which only rendered matters worse, a hall pint of pease was promised each man daily. At the end of three or four days the pease were said to be all issued, and there was another row. The Superintendent then promised to have 8 oz. of 12 percent, flour served out in lieu of the pease, To add to this unhappy state of affairs, a resident Police Magistrate had been appointed from Van Diemen’s Land, who very soon rendered himself an object of vengeance. The flogging became perfectly furious, from 500 to nearly 2000 lashes were inflicted of a morning, until the ground about the triangles was literally soaked with human blood.

Matters daily grew worse, the wretched men by this sort of alternate rage and peevish vacillation gradually grew more and more exasperated and insubordinate. About the commencement of June the store of flour was reported by the Commissariat officer to be nearly exhausted, and as a matter of course the 8 oz. of flour were discontinued. The men became more clamorous than ever By an order published in May 1845, and forming part of the Van Diemen’s Land Regulations for Norfolk Island, it had been announced that the gardens being no longer allowed, 2 lbs, of sweet potatoes should form a part of the daily ration to each prisoner. It will scarcely be credited that Major Childs caused this order to be posted at every station on the island; yet knowing at the time he did so, that it was impossible to furnish the men with a single ounce daily potatoes! During fourteen months this order had been hanging up before the men’s eyes! They read it, and again and again demanded their allowance of vegetables, they promised, but withheld from them: and when at length they became furious and riotously clamorous, they were told that it had been determined by a board that 2 oz. of salt pork was equivalent to 8 oz of flour! (the ration issued instead of peas); and that this, would be accordingly issued to them instead of the 2 lbs of sweet potatoes, to which, under the regulations, they were entitled.

It is utterly impossible to conceive the state of mind in which the men are described to have been at this time; such trifling had really goaded them to the point of madness; they were ready for any desperate deed, and the deed alas! was too soon effected. Ever since the time of Major Anderson, the prisoners had been allowed for each mess a tin pot to cook the potatoes. &c., in. It was suggested by the stipendary magistrate that it would form a powerful effect on the minds of the men — a new stage our penal science, in short powerfully reformatory in every way, if these abominable kettles, (in which more mischief was supposed to be brewed than ever Macbeth’s Witches ever dreamt of) were taken away, and therefore simultaneously with an order, announcing that at length the long expected 2 lbs. of potatoes would be issued; it was added that on the evening previous to the 1st July, all their kettles would be seized.

This order was acted upon in a manner which showed the men that the hand of authority trembled in the execution of its duty. When all the prisoners were shut up in their wards, except the few who attended school, the police went into the lumber yard, and look away the obnoxious kettles, and every thing belonging to the prisoners they could find. At this time “Jackey Jackey” ( William Westwood, of some notoriety in this colony) was sitting in school, about seven o’clock, when a hand-cart came rattling into the barrack-yard, and a crash of tin vessels was heard. Jackey Jackey was busy in the intricacies of a sum at this moment, he suddenly paused — lifted up his hand with the pencil in it, held it elevated for a few seconds, as it listening and hesitating — then dashed down the pencil — pushed the slate off the table with a violent movement — and deliberately folding his arms, as if he had finally made up his mind, remained buried in thought the rest of the evening. Every man followed his example, and sat whispering until the school broke up.

The following morning the men were all mustered for prayers — a practice but recently introduced — (nothing can be more disgraceful than the former negligence in this respect) and during the service a murmuring sort of sound was heard passing from bench to bench. It has since been surmised that this was a signal for the indiscriminate slaughter of the officers present; but nothing was at that time attempted. After prayers they all went into the lumber yard and found the tins gone. A short pause ensued, and then they all marched back again, five or six deep, to the Barrack yard in perfect silence — broke into the store, took out every vessel in it, and returned in the same manner to the lumber yard. As they approached, Jackey Jackey addressed his followers in a speech. “Now, my men,” said he, “I’ve made up my mind to bear this oppression no longer; but, remember, I’m going to the gallows, if any man therefore funks; let him stand out of the way! Come on.” A loud cheer followed from his desperate followers. A policeman named Morris was in the archway, Jackey Jackey, with an immense bludgeon, others with sticks, one man with a reaping hook, and another with a pitchfork, rushed upon the unhappy man, and knocked him down, he struggled, and got into the room behind him. Jackey Jackey followed him, and beat his head to pieces. The men, furious by the taste of blood, then proceeded to the cookhouse, where Stephen Smith, the police runner, was. The same murderous villain rushed on him also; then poor Smith, who was formerly much liked by the prisoners, cried out most piteously, “for God’s sake don’t hurt me, Jackey ! remember my poor wife and children !” “D— n your wife and children” was the horrible reply, accompanied by a blow which beat in poor Smith’s eye, and the side of his face. His shrieks for help, were terrific; but in a second or two his cries were over for ever. From the cookhouse they proceeded to the Police house at the Baarack-gate [sic] At the corner of the road, Price, overseer of work, and a man named Ingram, were standing, Jackey Jackey made a furious rush at Price, and aimed a deadly blow at him, but Price stooped, and the blow fell upon Ingram, nearly killing him. The mob came rushing on with such violence, that Westwood was pushed forward, and Price escaped, he knows not how, and ran for the soldiers.

The great object of the mob at this time seems to have been to seize the stipendiary magistrate, Mr. Barrow, who usually sat at six o’clock every morning to try cases.

Most providentially he was this morning on a board of survey, and so escaped. The beach guard seeing the mob approaching, advanced, and forming near the gaol, drove the rioters back. They then ran towards Government House, and on their way Westwood stopped at the lime-kiln, and entered the hut there with an axe; which he had by this time obtained. Two policemen, Dillon and Saxton, were in bed. The former was actually asleep when the cowardly villain drove in his skull by a blow of the axe, and Saxton only opened his eyes to see his death-blow fall from the hand of the same monster; the wounds were most appalling ones — the walls of the room were scattered with brains and blood.

Westwood, after this atrocity, coolly lighted his pipe, and, after a few puffs, shouted out, “Now for the Christ killer,” and a cry was immediately raised, “To Barrow’s, to Barrow’s.” Happily the alarm given by Price had roused the military, who were now under arms, and at this critical juncture, the soldiers were seen running down the Water-road: the rioters instantly retreated to the lumber yard — Westwood loudly denouncing their cowardice. The place was surrounded, and after much difficulty and delay, the ringleaders were seized, and about sixty left to be tried by a special Court of Criminal Sessions.

So rests for the present this fearful tragedy, unparalleled in heartless atrocity. How much, of its guilt may be justly traced to the hands and heads to which the supreme authority was entrusted, it is hard to say; but never was a greater blunder committed, or one which has been followed by more disastrous consequences, than the appointment of the late Superintendent to a post requiring so much intelligence and firmness, tempered indeed by an enlightened humanity. We ardently hope that discipline may be restored end sounder principles be acted upon. Without extenuating in the most remote degree the enormities of which the diabolical perpetrators of these atrocities have been guilty, we must still commiserate the fate of better men whose feelings hare been insulted, who have been bullied and trifled with, harrassed [sic] and cheated by men who may boast of their savings, but who will not soon shake off the odium of their doings. We trust again, we say, that order may be established in this, after all, most horrible plague spot; but it is to be feared, that like the tiger which has once drunk blood, it will be long before these wretched men, cooped up so unnaturally, and lacerated in mind and body, will forget the power for mischief they have discerned by these acts they really possess.

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