Tuesday, March 6, 2012

1899 Council of Elders Letter Returns to Norfolk Island

Working at the Norfolk Island Museum we are in the privileged position of dealing every day with the stories of this island. Every now and then we receive new objects or information that brings to light yet another chapter or event that has occurred here. This week we received a letter from the USA that has opened up one of those new chapters.

The letter we received was written in 1899 and signed by John Buffett, President of the Council of Elders. It was sent to the Chief Magistrate Charles McArthur King and from there most likely ended up in a file in one of the buildings in Kingston. During WWII it was taken from Norfolk when a visiting American naval man somehow ended up with it and kept it as a souvenir of the island. He told his family that he found ‘the place’ abandoned (perhaps the place where the letter was found) and kept it as a keepsake.

Nearly 70 years later the sailor’s son, Terry Thomas of Massachusetts USA, emailed me to ask if we would be interested in the letters return. Headed Council of Elders and dated 25th November 1899 it reads:
I have the honour to inform you that the following resolution, after much consideration, was passed at a meeting of this Council on the 21st instant – the motion ran as follows: -
“That a letter be sent to the Chief Magistrate complaining of the manner in which Colonel Spalding is allowed to hold and utilise land contrary to the privilege allowed to any other inhabitant”. The idea of the resolution is that if Colonel Spalding is allowed to do these things why can’t the same privilege be granted to the other inhabitants, as the law stands it appears to me to be one sided.
I am Sir
Your Obedient Servant
John Buffett
C. McA King Esq
Chief Magistrate

Chief Magistrate King has noted in the margin “please mention what the subjects of your complaint are” and signed his name.

The letter was written during a time of significant tension and change on the island. Three years before the island had had its full administration taken over by NSW. This formally occurred on the 14th November 1896 when NSW Governor Hampden landed on the island and called for a public meeting to occur that afternoon at 3.00pm. There he proclaimed the new laws and regulations of the island which meant that the domestic affairs that the Islanders had been in control of were taken out of their hands. Under the new laws the office of Chief Magistrate became a government appointment and was not subsequently filled by an islander. In reality the islanders had lost self governance.  At the meeting Hampden installed Colonel W.W. Spalding as Chief Magistrate, Spalding’s son Lieut. W Spalding as Clerk of Courts and John Knuckey as sergeant of Police.

Spalding was appointed with a salary of £25 per month. However from the very start of his appointment there was discontent with both Spalding and his son and petitions were sent for his removal. In 1898 the chief inspector of Public Accounts GE Brodie arrived on the island to investigate financial matters and found that the island’s books were not kept in orderly fashion and that the Chief Magistrate - Colonel Spalding – was putting certain fines and fees to his own use, he contending that they were prerequisites to which he was entitled. There were charges too that in administration of justice he was leaning to his friends.

Information compiled by Claude Dillon in 1957 from the Manuscripts Library and in our files says Spalding’s son was found to have broken the moral code and the Sergeant of Police had abused his authority, got a girl into trouble, and stole away from the Island in the ‘Ysabel’ and left debts unpaid for! Dillon says: “The Government did not feel inclined to openly discharge Spalding as the Islanders would regard it as a victory. The three officials to whom the Government had entrusted the affairs of the Island under the new order did not set a good example and the islanders, in a well signed petition seeking the withdrawal of Spalding, did not fail to comment adversely, pointing out that under the 1896 code they were faced with proceedings against them for offending against the laws and they saw no valid reason why a Government appointee should not be charged”.

Spalding had secured land whilst chief magistrate and surprisingly continued to farm on the island for some years after he was removed from office. No doubt, this is what the Council of Elders letter of complaint is about. As the next chief magistrate and the person to receive the letter of complaint, Charles Macarthur King also brought to the island a connection with the first penal settlement (1788-1814) as he was the grandson of Philip Gidley King, the first Commandant of the island.

There is another story still to be fully investigated and told regarding the circumstances of Terry’s father here on Norfolk Island during WWII. All we know so far is that he was with the ship S.S. Nichols, which we haven’t been able to research as yet. If anyone has any information we would love to receive it.

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