Norfolk Island of Secrets (Norfolk Island)

Norfolk island mapby Tim Latham

Norfolk Island. A remote and hilly Pacific island covered in pines, where flax grows freely and chickens run wild. The country is famous for 3 things: Convicts, Mutineers, and Murder. Norfolk has its own government, flag, stamps, immigration, health and welfare systems, and it sends its own team to the Commonwealth Games. There is no taxation.

Is It a Country?

Norfolk says yes: These days, many of the islanders (about 3,000 in all) claim that Queen Victoria gave the island to them, and that they are not a part of Australia.

Australia says no: Australia claims Norfolk as a territory, but you have to board an international flight from Sidney to get there, and you have to have a passport, which is stamped by Norfolk customs. Norfolk has its own language, so to me, it gets to be its own country. In Norfolk, the name for the pervasive way everybody is in everybody else’s business is called “Dem Tull”–the island version of the bush telegraph.

The Convicts

In the 1700s and middle 1800s, convicts too bad for the penal colonies of Australia were sent to Norfolk Island, where there wasn’t even a harbor to facilitate escapes.

  • (Or as the Australians would have written it, a harbour. I have no doubt that Down Under, “harbours” get shortened to “harbies” with regularity. The Nofolk folks speak like Aussies, so throughout this book you will find slang terms like:
    • “sunnies” for sunglasses
    • “stubbies” for beer bottles
    • “footy” for football meaning soccer

Instead of an exercise yard like we have in today’s prisons, the Norfolk Island convicts got to break rocks in the hot sun. And guess what they were made to build? A town called Kingston, which is said to be one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the world. All from cheap convict labor. But in 1814, Her Majesty’s Government decided that having a penal colony n such a remote Pacific island wasn’t worth the expense, and everyone was removed to Australia. Ten years later in 1834 and a change in politics the convicts came back. Finally, in 1856, the Powers That Were disbanded the convict colony for good.

pitcairn island mapUnlike Australia and New Zealand, where white settlers wrested the land from its original inhabitants, Norfolk Island was abandoned when whites set foot on it. There was evidence that Polynesians had been there, but not for at least 500 years.

The Mutineers

The next Norfolk Island settlers volunteered to live there, in exchange for a royal pardon. If you’ve seen the movie Mutiny on the Bounty, then you probably know that Fletcher Christian and his tiny band of merry men and their kidnapped Tahitian women originally settled on Pitcairn Island. The place is just as remote as Norfolk, but nearly 3,000 miles away on the other side of the Pacific. The problem with Pitcairn was that the mutineers and their descendants eventually ran out of food. When the British Royal Navy found them again, 60 years after the mutiny, they pardoned the 194 descendants on Pitcairn and resettled them on Norfolk in 1856.

The really important people on Norfolk are descendants of the mutineers and the Tahitian women. The Pitcairners, they’re called. Last names:

  • Adams
  • Brown
  • Christian
  • Martin
  • McCoy
  • Mills
  • Nobbs:
    • This family is descended from Reverend George Nobbs, who sailed to Pitcairn and stayed, and was instrumental in getting everyone resettled on Norfolk.
  • Quintal
  • Young
  • Williams


Norfolk from the oceanNorfolk has carefully cultivated a reputation for safety and being crime free. When Australian Janelle Patton, age 29, was murdered and dumped in a park, it was widely reported that this was Norfolk’s first murder in 150 years. Wrong. In this book, journalist Latham points out that in 1893, a young Norfolk woman who had concealed an out-of-wedlock pregnancy gave birth in her bedroom, then threw the still-breathing baby down a well. Ironically, this former penal colony had/has no jails. It was deemed too expensive to transport the young woman to Australia to incarcerate her, so she was sentenced to “hard labor”–working in a house as a maid–and being locked in her bedroom at night for some years. This lack of judicial teeth still plagues Norfolk today. It is said that there is a ferocious amount of domestic violence, rape and incest that goes unreported to police, because the victims know nothing will be done, and almost everyone is inter-related.

Once, the offices of the newspaper editor burned to the ground because people didn’t like what he was printing. And once, a “come-here” (my words, not Norfolk) was building this ostentatious mansion in defiance of local opinion and it too burned to the ground. He never rebuilt.

Unfortunately, the Pitcairners have been left with a murderous legacy. It seems that four short years after landing on Pitcairn, Fletcher Christian was shot in the back while tilling his field. The Polynesian men who had joined the mutineers all ended up dead. As did all the mutineers, except for John Adams. Only one mutineer died of natural causes–Edward Young, who passed away from asthma. John Adams eventually got religion. But the scandal lingers.

Let’s Talk About the Book

cows on roadThe author does a bang-up job of introducing Norfolk as a character in the book. So the circumstances, place, and people surrounding Janelle Patton are more understandable. There are no cell phones on the island–the Assembly voted against them. But organic, healthy Mary Jane is grown and on the first page of the book, as Tim Latham is getting off the plane, the friends of friends who pick him up in their car offer him a fat bud. Very first page. This is important later, when examining the motives behind Janelle’s murder.

First murder in 150 years or not, the Norfolkers were shocked by the occurrence and the brutality of it. She had over 64 wounds to her body. She may have been kicked, punched, beaten, stomped, and stabbed. Or, she may have been hit by a car, dragged, and stabbed. It may have been a sexual assault, because her clothes were ripped and cut. The Norfolkers were hoping the murderer wasn’t one of them, since everybody’s related. The desperately wanted it to be an outsider–one of the many Australians or New Zealanders who came over to work for awhile.

I had two complaints about this book. One, the author kept saying that it “might” have been a sexual assault. I immediately wondered, was there any DNA to indicate this? And two, the chapter on Forensics comes at the end of the book. This was a strange choice that distracted me from the rest of the things he was saying. It turns out that there was no semen on the body, so someone may have tried to make it look like a sexual assault, but it wasn’t. Why not just say that up front?

KingstonAn unexpected character in the book is author Coleen McCullough, the brilliant mind behind The Thorn Birds. She married Pitcairner Ric Robinson and moved to the island to live out her last years. She is quoted as saying that the investigation was bungled from the start, and I have to agree. I think she called the Australian Federal Police the “Keystone Cops.” I watch a lot of Crime TV. So I know that the first 48 hours in a murder investigation are crucial. But the AFP, while they put a CSI and the ME on a plane to Norfolk immediately, the lead detective on the case wasn’t sent over for two days. What evidence disappeared during that time? What witnesses had their memories muddled? What shady characters were given time to get their stories straight? Sloppy, sloppy police work. Detective Bob Peters, who eventually did crack the case–perhaps–says that if the murder had occurred in Canberra, he would have had 9 other detectives working with him. But not on Norfolk. It was just him and one other policeman. I guess because of the expense.

Still, since Janelle Patton and her parents were Australian citizens, you would think…but I digress. Janelle wasn’t an easy young lady to get along with. She had big personality problems. Still she didn’t deserve to die, and she fought her killer every inch of the way. I’d have expected to learn that there was foreign DNA under her fingernails, but no. The book says there was no DNA on her at all, except for her own.

More Shame and Scandal?

At the inquest, Bob Peters named 16 Persons of Interest (SIXTEEN!) and why he was looking at them for Janelle’s murder. They included Janelle’s parents, (but not her brother Mark), her ex-lovers Laurie “Bucket” Quintal (a mutineer descendant) and “Jap” Peterson–who is not Japanese–it may be Norfolk for Jack–a woman she fought with or two, and many more. These people had their lives marred by suspicion and the indignity of having their private lives revealed to a community in which very little is able to be private. I think Mr. Peters owes the people of Norfolk Island an apology. They could have at least kept that part private, if they were going to do it. Instead, anyone on the island could buy a copy of the transcripts for $5. (To add insult to injury, the man eventually arrested and charged with Janelle’s murder was NOT even on this list.)

“That Norfolk Island is NOT the city is most apparent,” says the author. “It is not a fragmented mass of individuals where personal behaviour is diluted by population, it’s an extended family unit. Norfolk is an island where the Butterfly Effect is tangible and the sooner people realize their anonymity no longer exists the sooner they understand their personal actions and behaviour will be noted and discussed. Where people go, who they associate with, what they say and who they take home will be registered in a collective consciousness. If it’s intriguing enough it will be broadcast via Dem Tull.

“The by-product of isolation is a fascination with other people’s lives. It helps alleviate the boredom of one’s own. In this respect, Norfolk is like any other remote place, but its location in the Pacific, its steep cliffs and extended family bloodlines, make it more intense and a lot trickier to navigate than an average outback town.”

Fish fryMany on Norfolk thought that the murder would never be solved, because police from Canberra can’t investigate murders because Canberra doesn’t have many murders to investigate. They felt the New South Wales Homicide Squad would have cracked the case in no time, simply because New South Wales is the murder capital of Australian states. Well, would you want an inexperienced surgeon operating on you?


Since I bought this book used, I can’t complain that it hasn’t been updated, since at book’s end the murderer was still in the wind. I can, however, Google. About a year after the book’s publication, Bob Peters arrested someone for the crime. I won’t spoil it–you go ahead and Google. After his confession however, the man took it back, claiming he had indeed dumped Janelle’s body, but that he was forced to by an island couple who needed to kill Janelle because she was going to go to the police about their “drug dealing.”

Janelle PattonGiven the lax enforcement of serious crimes on Norfolk, I found this hard to believe. Although it was well known that Janelle didn’t like pot. She broke up with at least one boyfriend because of it. She did make enemies. Perhaps the right man is in jail…and perhaps not.

Janelle is pictured here, looking happy and relaxed. Sweetie, I am so sorry that this happened to you, and to your family. You did not deserve it.

Ironically, Janelle’s life was taken from her in the very place where her parents had honeymooned 30 years earlier. I hope with all my heart her murderer is in jail in New Zealand…but I’m not entirely convinced. And an Internet search claims that unidentified female DNA was found on Janelle’s shorts…

Rating: Five really excellent wild chickens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s