Restoring hidden histories to Norfolk Island

The Kingston and Arthur's Vale Historic Area from Flagstaff Hill Lookout on Norfolk Island. Photo: Professor Sarah Baker.

Elevating the visibility of Norfolk Island’s living cultural heritage of its Pitcairn Settler descendants is the focus of a new research project led by Professor Sarah Baker and funded through the Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative scheme.

Professor Sarah Baker is a research expert in heritage studies.

The project revolves around the Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) a World Heritage listed site on the southern side of Norfolk Island.

While the picturesque outlook of KAVHA’s ruins and Georgian buildings mark it as one of 11 significant Australian Convict sites, its historic role in the settlement of Pitcairn Islanders has been downplayed according to Professor Baker.

In 1856, the entire Pitcairn Island population, descendants of Tahitian women and mutineers of HMS Bounty, landed on and settled the abandoned penal site at KAVHA and are the forebears of present-day Norfolk Islanders with a distinctive and living culture and language.

Professor Baker says her project will engage and collaborate with Norfolk Island’s Pitcairn Settler descendants to develop a self-guided heritage walk to overlay the Pitcairner story onto a site which focuses primarily on penal heritage.

“Pitcairn Settler descendants experience contemporary island life as colonial subjects.”

“There are concerns that the governance changes that occurred here following the passing of the Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 are a threat to the culture and language of Pitcairners and their identity as Norfolk Islanders.

“Bringing greater recognition and visibility to the Pitcairner story in KAVHA is a small step toward greater cultural justice in the site’s interpretation”.

The project will also deliver an industry focused policy report to help heritage managers and tourism operators to adapt their practices in ways which Professor Baker says does justice to Pitcairn Settler heritage.

“The Pitcairner occupation of KAVHA has a long history now, far longer than the colonial and penal settlement periods combined.

“Ensuring this living heritage is front and centre in interpretive strategies — whether that be the bus and walking tours that move through KAVHA, interpretive signage or exhibitions — will ensure visitors leave the island with an understanding of the unique cultural, language and heritage of Norfolk Islanders.”

“KAVHA is a site of contemporary and historical struggle.”

Professor Baker is a sociologist in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science and the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research. She was also chief investigator on an Australian Research Council funded project on popular music.

Professor Baker is lead investigator with Dr Zelmarie Cantillon from Western Sydney University on Reimagining Norkfolk Island’s Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area which received $229,000 in the 2020 Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative for Australian Society, History and Culture.