Sunday, November 24, 2013

Letters from Pitcairn Islander Girls

A few months ago we wrote about a donation to the Museum of six letters from Frederick (Fred) and Roslyn Howard. The letters were written in 1856 and ’57 to Fred’s great Grandfather also named Frederick Howard, by two young Pitcairner girls, Catherine ‘Kitty’ Christian and Louisa ‘Victoria’ Quintal. Fred and Roslyn had emailed a copy of the letters and promised that when they visited Norfolk this month they would bring the letters with them. Well this week the wonderful moment arrived and they brought them in to the museum and formally made their donation.

These letters are very special. They provide us with a rare opportunity to get to know the youthful Kitty and Victoria and through them the community as a whole. We so often think about that arrival of our ancestors from Pitcairn, imagining what it would have been like for them to land at their new home so alien yet full of new promise. What did they think, how did they feel? 

Frederick and Roslyn Howard
 Howard met Kitty and Victoria in the days after they had arrived on the Morayshire. Howard was Second Master on board HMS Herald, which was here at Norfolk Island when the Pitcairners landed on the 8th of June 1856. Captain Henry Mangles Denham from HMS Herald was of course one of the people greeting the Islanders as they came ashore on Kingston Pier. The Herald had come to Norfolk Island during its work undertaken between 1852 and 1861 carrying out an important series of hydrographic surveys amongst the island groups of the South Pacific and in the waters adjacent to Australia.

From the letters we get a sense of these girl’s humour, innocence and naivety, together with their obvious enthusiasm for meeting the new people they are coming into contact with as a result of the enormous change that has just occurred in their young lives. Together with a separate letter to this donation sent by Kitty’s mother Charlotte to Howard, they reveal how easily trusting they were, sharing their feelings and personal circumstances so openly.

Howard’s view of the Pitcairners is fairly well known as another of his letters to Emily (now held by the Mitchell Library) describes them in great detail – and refers specifically to Kitty and Victoria. It was Howard’s sister Emily who received Kitty and Victoria’s letters, sent to her by Howard as he sent all his letters to her for safe keeping. From Emily they were passed down through the family to Fred’s father, who had kept them in Howard’s old sea chest where they remained untouched for many years until Fred and Roslyn discovered them. Roslyn has also compiled for her family a fabulous history of Frederick’s life detailing his years at sea.

It is such a generous act of Fred and Roslyn to separate Kitty and Victoria’s letters from their collection and return them to Norfolk and we sincerely thank them for doing so.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lieutenant Colonel James T. Morisset

It was wonderful to meet Jan Lowe at the Museum this week visiting from Sydney for a relaxing week on Norfolk. However Jan’s visit has provided not only the opportunity to have a relaxing time, but as a descendant of Lieutenant Colonel James Morisset and Victor Selheim Morisset, to walk in the places that her ancestors walked. To proudly say on Norfolk that you are a descendant of James Morisset can be a tricky thing as without a doubt he has been described as one of the more notorious of Commandants on Norfolk Island during the Second Settlement.

His time here between 1829 to 1834 is one that has historically been told in stark terms of violence, cruelty and personal mental turmoil. However a quiet challenge to that view has begun to emerge through the work of historians and another of Morisset’s descendants and cousin of Jan’s, Margaret Thompson. She argues that “there is much evidence to suggest that he was no harsher than others and that his conduct was consistent with the attitudes of his time”. She cites his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography by Vivienne Parsons who wrote: “[M]orisset does not appear to have been considered unnecessarily harsh by his contemporaries. Both Macquarie and Bigge approved of his methods, as did later governors, and the Sydney Gazette, 28 November 1827, praised him for being upright and conscientious, and not frightened by daring offenders, while ironically lauding him as an opponent of capital punishment”.

Jan Lowe and (inset) her ancestor J.T. Morisset
We know that he most likely suffered a mental breakdown during his time on Norfolk Island and spent time too ill to take charge of the settlement, relying on his deputy Captain Foster Fyans and men such as Captain Charles Sturt to keep control of the convicts. The tenor and harsh rule of these two men during that time, which includes a notorious mutiny attempt, has never been written about with the same ferocity as Morisset. There were a number of mutiny attempts and uprisings that occurred during his term as Commandant, but the question of whether these were as a direct result of Morisset’s harsher rule in comparison to other Commandant’s and conditions in other penal settlements of the day is still being debated. He had served his superiors well in postings before arriving on Norfolk Island particularly at Newcastle and Bathurst, which have then also been cited as evidence of his “zest for rigid discipline”. Other strong men and his superior’s of the day such as Governor’s Brisbane, Darling and Burke were all pleased with his work.

On a personal side Morisset was clearly a family man. Prior to his arrival no women had been allowed into the settlement after December 1825 when Sir Ralph Darling, the Governor in NSW declared that all women, bond or free, should leave the island. “I laid it down, as a rule on my arrival here, that women should not be sent to that settlement…”. James Morisset was the first to insist that his family accompany him and they all arrived in 1829. The sense of vulnerability and fear that he felt for his wife and four young daughters living in such violent circumstances appears to have played a part in his mental decline.

Perhaps also the physical appearance of Morisset has played a part in him becoming historically cast as the villain. During the Peninsula Wars he was badly wounded by a sabre cut to the face, from which he barely survived and carried a facial disfigurement for the rest of his life. The only known portrait of him is from before this time and he appears as quite slight and fresh-faced with no hint of the cruel temperament of his reputation. Certainly Morisset ruled with severity, but no matter what we believe about Morisset’s rule on Norfolk, it is clear that reducing his time to simplistic statements of horrors reduces a more complex and nuanced person, history and story. It may serve our purposes to continue to represent his term to that only of a “mentally-ill sadist”, but can we now continue to truthfully do so as more detail and analysis of his time is revealed?

Norfolk Island of course has had two Morisset men play a part in the affairs of the island. Commandant Morisset’s grandson Victor Sellheim Morisset came to Norfolk Island in 1928 and served as Administrator until his death from a severe heart attack in 1929. He is buried in the Norfolk Island cemetery.

For Jan Lowe visiting Norfolk today, there must be many strong feelings about the role her ancestors played in the affairs of this island. Hopefully this has not stopped her enjoying the beauty, wonders and overall complex yet fascinating history of this island!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Pitcairn Tapa

In 2011 Meralda Warren visited Norfolk Island and our museum was delighted to present an exhibition of her handmade and painted tapa. The Museum Trust purchased one of her works titled “The Keepers of the Sea” which has recently been framed and is now hanging in the Pier Store Museum. It hangs alongside a tapa pounder most likely brought to Norfolk in 1856, and an historical piece of tapa made on Pitcairn in 1841. The story of the near loss of the skill of tapa making on Pitcairn Island is told through these artefacts and in particular Meralda’s tapa art work.

The Polynesian women who went with the mutineers to eventually settle on Pitcairn Island and become the island’s foremothers, would have taken their tapa pounders and cloth with them. These items held great importance to the women as they provided the only means of making cloth for themselves and their families. By the time the Pitcairners arrived on Norfolk Island in 1856 the women were clothed in full-length cotton dresses and the men in pants and shirts. We know that the women were still making barkcloth in the weeks before they left Pitcairn and also brought beaters with them to Norfolk, however tapa making and the wearing of tapa clothing does not appear to have continued on Norfolk. With the return of two groups to Pitcairn in 1858 and 1863, tapa making did continue on Pitcairn however the influence of the Seventh Day Missionaries during the 1930’s saw it cease.

Meralda Warren scraping the outer bark
 Meralda Warren born and still living on Pitcairn Island today, describes herself as “a 7th generation descendant of the Tahitian mamas and the Bounty mutineers”.  One day in 2007, feeling a challenge that was too strong to resist, she went into her backyard and gathered the bark from a mulberry tree (aute). This act began a journey that resulted in the lost art, and a part of the islander’s heritage, being revived. Together with her mother Mavis they experimented with all they could remember from the last time they saw the women making tapa. Over the next few years they worked out how to harvest the aute plant using a sea shell to strip the outer bark from the inner fibrous paper mulberry, soak it in citrus juice and beat it into a piece of cloth. Once dried they seal the piece with arrowroot cooked to the right consistency. Through trial and error they worked out how to create various dyes from the Doodwi and Nano trees. 

"The Keepers of Sea" by Meralda Warren
Meralda now teaches the craft to the island’s children and an exhibition of their work was recently held on Pitcairn. Other descendants and artists, Pauline Reynolds, Sue Pearson and Jean Clarkson joined Meralda in the quest to restore the lost art. Pauline has undertaken detailed research into surviving tapas now held around the world and produced the book “Pitcairn Tapa: ‘Ahu no Hitiaurevareva” (on sale at the Pier Store museum). Together they also formed a group called the ‘Ahu Sistas’, with the aim of ensuring historic Pitcairn tapa designs are safe from exploitation and that the traditions of ahu making are not lost.

Meralda’s modern tapa work now hangs alongside a framed piece of historic tapa cloth and letter (donated to the museum by Chloe Nicholas). The letter written by Mrs W. Jeffery in 1893 describes how the tapa piece was made in 1841 on Pitcairn, its voyage to Norfolk Island, gifting to Mrs Jeffery and fact that these pieces were scarcely seen. The tapa beater on display had been attributed to the Melanesian Mission, however investigations by Pauline Reynolds reveal it as being consistent with Pitcairn and eastern-Polynesian beaters. It appears most likely that it was brought to Norfolk Island in 1856.

Together these artefacts and art works tell us of an important part of our heritage handed down from our Tahitian foremothers. We came so close to losing it, but thanks to the determination of Meralda and a small group of dedicated women it has been saved. That is a good news story.