Pacific paradise was once a hell on Earth

A century and a half ago, criminals in Australia would beg to be hanged rather than sent to Norfolk Island. “The worst prison in the British Empire” was a place where brutal discipline led to the death of many convicts. Escape was unlikely. From Norfolk, it was an 800 kilometer voyage north to New Caledonia, 1100km south to New Zealand, and almost 1700km west to the coast of Australia.

Despite its isolation, Norfolk has attracted some remarkable migrants. In 1856, after humanitarians in Australia succeeded in having the penal colony closed, 194 new settlers moved onto the island. They were descendants of the men who seized HMS Bounty in one of history’s most famous mutinies.

Today, about one third of Norfolk’s 1600 inhabitants trace their ancestry to nine of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives. 

A more recent immigrant is Margaret Meadows, manager of the local radio station, 2NI. Meadows, originally from the UK, stumbled upon this self-governing territory of Australia while traveling in the Pacific a decade ago. She fell in love with Norfolk’s casual lifestyle and sub-tropical climate. She also found a new career – in radio. 

After gaining experience as a volunteer at government-owned 2NI, Meadows went to the UK and worked in commercial radio for a couple of years. In 1991 she returned to Norfolk, and became Broadcast Manager, the only full-time employee at 2NI. Meadows and six paid part-time staff handle on-air duties from 6:30 am to 2 pm daily. From 2-10 pm, six unpaid volunteers take the controls. 

“During the daytime, our format is a mix of new and old music,” explained Meadows. “But when the volunteers are on, it can range from country music to comedy to programmes from the BBC. We have one young lad who’s a bit of a heavy metal person, so people know if they want to hear heavy stuff, they just listen to him!” 

Volunteers are an essential part of Norfolk life. The territory has been debt-free ever since the Bounty settlers arrived, and the government attributes this to the fact that about 100 civic positions, from magistrates to radio announcers, are unpaid. 

Another note on the Norfolk economy: there is no unemployment. In fact, 500 jobs are filled by temporary workers from New Zealand and Australia.

The airport, built during World War II, welcomes planeloads of tourists, but Norfolk has not lost its rugged and isolated character. Just as in the 19th century, ships must anchor in the lee of the island while their captains watch the weather. The coast is mostly high cliffs offering no harbor, so cargoes must be transferred to small local craft. 

In the capital, Kingston, there is only one streetlight, erected despite much objection about “citification.” And the almost perfectly conical Norfolk Island pines which, in 1774, Captain Cook observed growing “in vast abundance and to a vast size,” are still magnificent, although not quite so numerous. 

Radio 2NI also provides a link with the island’s colorful history. Announcers switch smoothly from speaking English, to speaking Norfolk – the language of the Bounty descendants that is a mixture of Tahitian and 18th century West Country English. 

Meadows doesn’t speak Norfolk, but said: “It’s not a difficult language to understand. For example, the local greeting is ‘what-a-way?’ Most people speak to me in Norfolk, and I understand them.” 

News on 2NI comes from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) plus short-wave services Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand International. The 2NI announcers cover local events by conducting interviews, but the manager says there just is not enough money for a news department. 

The 2NI budget is about US $80,000, with almost US $50,000 going to salaries. After other expenses, there is little or nothing left. The station earns about US $15,000 from sponsorships, but these funds are turned over to the government treasury.

2NI was formerly located in the museum, which was destroyed by fire in 1970. Since then, the station has had its own “temporary” building. Meadows hopes for larger quarters someday.

“We currently have one main studio, and a second room – not really a studio – that we use for auditioning material,” she said.

The manager laughed about the numerous ducks that enter the building freely through open doors and windows. Then she recalled the time, some years ago, when a worker repairing the station roof came through the studio ceiling while the announcer was on the air.

Meadows noted that it is often necessary to close the studio window. “We are right next door to the Public Works depot which means we live with a lot of noise,” she said. 

All of 2NI’s studio equipment, except the CD players, is analogue. The 100 watt AM transmitter and 250 watt FM stereo transmitter are on 316 meter high Mt. Pitt. Generally the programme is simulcast, but Meadows said it is useful to have flexibility. 

“Once a month we broadcast the meeting of our parliament on AM, while the regular programme continues on FM,” she said. 

Overnight, 2NI’s AM transmitter relays the ABC Regional service from the state of New South Wales, while the FM carries ABC National. There are also two FM transmitters providing round-the-clock relays of ABC’s Regional and Fine Music services. 

Despite this competition, most radios on Norfolk remain tuned to 2NI.

Although the broadcasting facilities may not be the most up to date, and it can be difficult to find enough volunteers, Meadows is happy to be living and working in a place she calls paradise.

How the Bounty descendants came to Norfolk Island

In 1790, Fletcher Christian and eight other Bounty mutineers settled with their Tahitian wives on Pitcairn Island in the southeast Pacific. Three generations later, the growing population was too much for the five square kilometre island to sustain. 

Meanwhile, 8000 kilometres to the west, the penal colony on the larger island of Norfolk was being closed. For strategic reasons, the British government wanted to maintain a settlement there and so, in 1856, all 194 descendants of the mutineers accepted the offer to be relocated. After a few years, a small number of settlers chose to return to Pitcairn. 

Today, almost a century and a half later, these two islands at opposite sides of the South Pacific share a history and language. Occasionally, a few islanders make the long journey to visit each other. Although Norfolk measures only five kilometres by eight kilometres, it is seven times the size of Pitcairn. Visitors comment that the rolling hills and 150 kilometres of roads make it seem much larger.

* First published 19 March 1997 in the International Edition of Radio World