Mutinous feelings

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 May, 2006, 12:00am

It is a little known fact that just a few months after establishing their convict colony in Sydney in 1788, the British despatched another group of wretched prisoners to found a second South Pacific gulag.

The convicts were sent to Norfolk Island, a pinprick of land 1,760km northeast of Sydney, soon to become notorious as a place of 'the severest punishment short of death'.

The convict settlement foundered after a while and was abandoned, as was a second, even more brutal, penal colony.

In 1856, the island entered a new chapter with the arrival of nearly 200 people from the even more far-flung British colony of Pitcairn Island, thousands of kilometres to the east.

They were the descendants of the notorious Bounty mutineers, whose leader Fletcher Christian seized control of a Royal Navy ship after overthrowing its captain, William Bligh.

Norfolk islanders have been a fiercely independent bunch ever since, but now they are faced with a challenge from the Australian federal government which has them feeling mutinous once again.

Australia says the island is unable to raise enough revenue and faces bankruptcy within two years. Canberra wants to claw back some of Norfolk's jealously guarded powers of self-government, which the island was granted in 1979.

It has set out two likely scenarios, the most radical of which would result in the island's tiny legislative assembly being stripped of its powers and reduced to the status of a local council.

Furious islanders say Canberra has no right to interfere in their affairs because, in 1856, Queen Victoria bequeathed the island to them. The more militant islanders are calling for outright independence, despite Norfolk being home to just 1,900 people and no more than 8km wide.

'Australia's thugs and bullies are trying to rape our democratic rights,' said Ric Robinson, president of the Society of Pitcairn Descendants. 'They have no right to impose their will.'

Curiously, Norfolk Island retains many of the trappings of a British colony.

The national anthem is God Save the Queen, rather than Advance Australia Fair, and the Union flag stands beside the Norfolk Island flag in the tiny legislative assembly.

A group of islanders is challenging Australia's authority in the High Court. But Canberra has said the changes to self-government will go ahead regardless of the islanders' objections.

So the stage is set for a confrontation. The islanders believe they must win this David-versus-Goliath conflict to retain their identity.

Canberra says they must move with the times. It will be interesting to see who wins.