The trial of the twenty-one: a reassessment of the Commandants of Norfolk Island, 1788-1814 and 1825-1855
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 16:18 by Reginald Colin Wright
Twentieth century writers have generally condemned the harshness of the convict administrations of a number of the Commandants during both the First (1788-1814) and Second (1825-1855) Settlements of Norfolk Island. On the other hand, several Commandants have also received unwarranted praise for their efforts to improve the lot of the convicts under their control. Some of these views have relied on questionable or biased writings, which are not supported by the surviving official records. This thesis considers some of the environmental factors and events that affected the Commandants. After examining the significant features of their periods of service on Norfolk Island, it is evident that historians have unfairly treated a number of these officers. The severity of convict life on the Island during the Second Settlement has been exaggerated; the regime of corporal punishment has been dramatized and was in fact less severe than that applied during the First Settlement, which was not planned as a place for secondary punishment. Again, for example, there is no support for the view that during the Second Settlement the convicts welcomed death to relieve them of their sufferings on Norfolk Island. In the 19th century, a significant proportion of the informative literature about the convict settlements on Norfolk Island, and particularly the Second Settlement, was written by individuals who wished to promote their own agendas for change. Supporters of concepts such as prison reform, opposition to transportation, the elimination of assignment to private masters, and moral reform in the colony of New south Wales, provided exaggerated pictures of life on Norfolk Island. The misrepresentation of the Commandants is attributed to the survival and promotion of these often-skewed writings that yielded copy for imaginative, fictional narratives about the convict years.