Putting down roots: belonging and the politics of settlement on Norfolk Island

Mitchell Low

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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In this thesis I theorise emergent nativeness and the political significance of resettlement among the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty in the Australian external territory of Norfolk Island (South Pacific). Norfolk Islanders are a group of Anglo-Polynesian descendants who trace their ancestry to unions between the mutineers of the HMAV Bounty and Tahitian women. Norfolk Islanders’ ancestors were resettled from their home of Pitcairn Island to the decommissioned, vacant, penal settlement of Norfolk Island in 1856. Since this date, members of the Norfolk community have remained at odds with state officials from Britain and Australia over the exact nature of their occupancy of Norfolk Island. This fundamental contestation over the Island’s past is the basis of ongoing struggles over recognition, Island autonomy and territoriality, and belonging.

Using a combination of qualitative research conducted on Norfolk Island and extensive historical and archival research, I present an ethnography of belonging among a highly emplaced island population. One of the central problems in conceptualising Norfolk Islanders’ assertions of belonging is that Norfolk Islanders not only claim Norfolk as a homeland, but members of this community have at times declared themselves the indigenous people of the Island. With respect to recent anthropological theorisations of indigeneity as relationally and historically constituted, I consider the extent to which concepts such as ‘native’ and ‘indigenous’ may be applicable to descendants of historical migrants. I distinguish between a concept of ‘nativeness’ as entailing primary historical and social connections between a group of people and a defined territory as asserted against others, and ‘indigeneity’ as a globalised form of subjectivity inseparable from historically constituted power relationships colonists and colonised. This distinction allows me to productively describe Islander’s emplacement and enduring connections with place. I suggest that Norfolk Islanders’ sense of belonging to Norfolk Island should be regarded as a form of nativeness, not to be dismissed as inauthentic due to the facts of their ancestors’ historical movement.

Describing how nativeness is constructed on Norfolk Island required me to take a multifaceted approach to how Islanders made connections to their past and attributed meaning to it. I situate my analysis at the juncture of anthropology, memory and history, focusing on how Norfolk Islanders construct their belonging to the Island by positioning themselves relative to their past. I explain how Norfolk Islanders’ sense of nativeness to Norfolk Island is constructed through a combination of the ways in which they: remember settlement through ritual and commemoration; construct key continuities with original settlers through tracing descent from founding Pitcairn ancestors, maintain a deep sense of family emplacement on Norfolk Island through intergenerational property relationships; mobilise connections between language, locality and belonging and importantly; reiterate a historically persistent belief, not always shared by all Islanders, that Norfolk Island was a gift from Queen Victoria to the Pitcairn people.

I bring the thesis to a close by reflecting on Islanders’ awareness of their historical and contemporary occupation of Norfolk Island and the role of historical documentation in Islanders’ constructions of belonging. I argue that nativeness can emerge among people who are historically conscious of their ancestors’ history of migration, provided the concept of ‘nativeness’ is disarticulated from the conditions of ‘occupation since time immemorial’ associated with related concepts such as ‘indigeneity’ and ‘autochthony’. Contrary to these conditions, I conclude that nativeness and a memory and history of migration are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Rather, I demonstrate that the form of nativeness that Norfolk Islanders claim to Norfolk Island is largely predicated on their ability to remember and document the conditions of their ancestors’ settlement on Norfolk Island and their ability to sustain the significance of this event in contemporary consciousness.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2012


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