|Jan Lowe and (inset) her ancestor J.T. Morisset|
Thursday, November 7, 2013
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”.
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.
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!