Norfolk Island’s natural history has been deeply affected by its human history.
When James Cook came by in 1774 on his second round-the-world voyage of discovery, he found Norfolk Island had been previously occupied by unidentified Polynesian people whose arrival is estimated to have been around 800-1000 years ago. Stone tools and other man-made objects have been found across the island, but the duration or numbers of their population remain unknown.
The period of occupation has been estimated by dating bones of the Pacific Rat Rattus exulans, which arrived in a similar time frame in New Zealand, where it is known as kiore. These rats were commonly transported in Polynesian migrating canoes, and believed to have been released on oceanic islands to breed and provide a plentiful food supply.
The Pacific Rats were the first known of many of man’s great impacts on Norfolk Island’s fragile environment; their presence in the fossils taking the place of the two lizard species that once existed here, but could not survive in the presence of rats. These reptiles are now found on the offshore islands in the Norfolk group, and also at the Lord Howe Island group, about halfway between Norfolk and the mainland of Australia.
1788: Two species of Norfolk Island lizards, a skink Leiolopisma lichenigerum and a gecko Phylodactylus guentheri were already extinct on Norfolk Island prior to the first European settlement, due to the introduction of the Pacific Rat 600-800 years earlier by Polynesian travellers. Fortunately populations remain on the offshore islands, which are to date free from rodents. (Successful restoration of the Norfolk Island ecology will include their reintroduction into a predator-free environment.)
The British flag was raised in New South Wales on 27 January in 1788, marking the colonisation of that country, and it was only weeks later that a further settlement was established under that flag on tiny Norfolk Island. The first group of settlers, only 29 of them, were to arrive here on 28 February, but were unable to land until 6 March. They had been set the task of establishing a community to harvest and process flax Phormium tenax and the Norfolk Island Pine Araucaria heterophylla which Cook had recommended as being useful for ship building purposes in the fledgling antipodean settlements. A great deal of land was cleared and many of the oldest, biggest pines removed in that era.
The island was again deserted in 1814 when the entire population was removed to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania), giving rise to the place names there of New Norfolk and the Norfolk Plains. During the time between that and the following settlement it is estimated that the few pigs that had been uncatchable bred to around 14,000. Any ground nesting birds, or other animals would have been decimated if not completely removed during that time.
1800: The Norfolk Island Ground Dove Gallicolumba norfolciensis, extinct due to hunting by humans and predation by cats.
A Prison Island
In 1825 the empty island was recolonised by the British and the entire island used as a prison to relieve pressure on the British gaols and the overpopulated prison hulks on the Thames. With up to 2000 prisoners and the military and civilian staff required to manage them, many areas were cleared for farming to keep the island self-sufficient. It was during this period that the majority of the convict-built settlement of Kingston was established, an area that today is renowned as the most impressive collection of Colonial Georgian architecture, and which was honoured with World Heritage status in 2007. This settlement also was abandoned, in 1855.
1851: The last known Norfolk Island Kaka Nestor productus died in captivity in England.
Resettlement of the Pitcairn Island population
When the infamous mutiny on HMAV Bounty took place in 1789, the British sailors who sent Captain William Bligh into expected oblivion in a longboat returned to Tahiti. After many adventures and relocations, eventually they ended up occupying a small, remote, almost unknown uninhabited island, with their Tahitian wives. The population eventually grew too large for little Pitcairn and the entire population was removed with the assistance of Queen Victoria, who had pardoned them of their fathers’ sins and agreed to their appeal for a new and larger home.
More land clearing occurred as the new community of Norfolk Islanders set to work establishing farms to keep themselves fed and to produce exports from the fertile island. This population is the basis of the current day community.
1900: The last recorded sighting of the Norfolk Island Pigeon Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae spadicea.
1923: The endemic fruit-eating Norfolk Island Starling Aplonis fusca was last seen.
World War II
Following WW II there were many changes on the island, one of which was a large swathe having been cut through native habitat to make way for the first aerodrome. The island was used as an aircraft station during the war, bringing aircraft landing and refuelling facilities closer to conflicts in the Coral Sea, which had previously been flying forays from New Zealand
1970: A recently dead Norfolk Island Triller Lalage leucopyga, found near Mt Bates, was the last of this species to be seen.
1975: Norfolk Island Grey-headed Blackbird Turdus poliocephalus last seen. (It is possible that the genes of the Norfolk Island Grey-headed Blackbird are surviving in the population of hybrid European Blackbirds now found across the island. Selective breeding may allow the species to be substantially reinstated).
1989: The last reported sighting in Norfolk Island of either of the Norfolk Island bats. Neither Chalinolobus gouldii nor the endemic Tadarida norfolkensis have been seen since this sighting.
1995: ‘Miamiti’, the last Norfolk Island Morepork Ninox novazelandiae undulata sighted for the final time. But there is a supplementary story here…