When the British government began sending their criminals to Australia in the 18th century, one location became a byword for unchecked harshness. The history of Norfolk Island, much like other penal colonies, is a particularly cruel chapter in the Australian penal system's story.
Some historians claim Norfolk Island was a colony for "doubly convicted" men, but there is credible evidence that many of the prisoners were first-time offenders, and the majority were imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. Yet a series of antagonistic overseers made the island infamous. These behaviors continued for almost 30 years, culminating in the career of John Giles Price, possibly one of the most savage characters in Australian history.
After Price, the colony continued for a few years until the British government abandoned it in 1855. Although some accounts of Norfolk Island have been exaggerated, according to Tim Causer, a historian at University College London, life at the colony was undoubtedly difficult.
From its inception, Norfolk Island was meant to be the worst of the penal colonies - a hell in paradise. The mistreatment started long before the convicts landed on the shore, as guards silenced captives by gagging them.
Prisoner James Lawrence described the crossing: "Seventy-five of us in cross irons... rove to a chain in a small prison scarce able to breathe, our passage was dreadful in the extreme."
Though Norfolk had the appearance of a tropical paradise, it was anything but for the prisoners who landed there. During or after their sentencing in Sydney, they were subjected to flogging. Many made the ocean crossing with open wounds on their backs, which often went unwashed and untreated, leading to severe infection.
In some cases, a prisoner's first task on Norfolk was to carry on their backs enormous barrels of salty provisions from the boats. As prisoner Laurence Frayne described it, "My shoulders were actually in a state of decomposition... I really longed for instant death."
Flogging was a near constant on Norfolk; it was the punishment of choice for almost any infraction, and a system quickly developed to make sure it was as cruel as possible. The flogger was often a fellow convict, who would be flogged themselves if they did not inflict severe-enough lashes.
The lash used on Norfolk was often a variation of the "cat o' nine tails:" an apparatus with nine leather cords, each with a lead weight, said to draw blood within four strokes.
After Laurence Frayne was lashed 200 times in a week, guards sent him to solitary confinement. While confined, he received a small water ration and a piece of bread. Rather than drink the precious water, he poured it out on the ground, then urinated in the puddle to expand it.
Lying down with his flogged back in the water was the only way to alleviate the pain, but it caused a terrible infection. "I was literally alive with maggots and vermin, nor could I keep them down," Frayne later wrote.