Backstory: Mutiny on the Norfolk

It's just a subtropical dot barely visible on a map. Its nearest neighbor is 500 miles away. First settled by mutineers, Norfolk Island remains as peculiar as it is small. Cows are given the right of way on rural roads. It has the only telephone directory in the world that lists people by nickname. Many islanders speak their own language, a singsong mix of 18th-century English and ancient Tahitian.

Now this volcanic speck in the South Pacific is embroiled in a David-and-Goliath fight to maintain its coveted distinctiveness. Officially a territory of Australia, Norfolk Island is clashing with Canberra over the right to manage its own affairs. It has enjoyed special autonomy and its own legislative assembly since 1979. But Australia, citing security concerns and the threat of international terrorism, wants to claw back some of the island's jealously guarded powers of self-government.

Call it Mutiny on the Bounty, Part II. Some of Norfolk Island's early settlers were descendants of the notorious mutineers on the British schooner the Bounty. In 1790, the insurrectionists, led by Fletcher Christian, overthrew the tyrannical Captain Bligh and fled with their Tahitian lovers to Pitcairn Island, where they remained undiscovered for 18 years. Overcrowding forced them and their many children to relocate to Norfolk Island in 1856.

Now many of the island's 1,900 inhabitants are feeling restive again. Australia wants to wrest back control of immigration and customs, in particular, as part of its effort to reengage with its long neglected South Pacific backyard since 9/11. The region has been referred to by strategists as an "arc of instability," and fears endure that failing states could be vulnerable to human traffickers, drug smugglers, and terrorists.

Last month Canberra sent 470 extra police and troops to the troubled Solomon Islands to quell violence in the aftermath of a contested election. In the past five years, Australian police officers and public servants have been placed in senior positions in countries such as Fiji, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea. "It's part of our overall review of border control and the security of Australia," says the minister for the territories, Jim Lloyd. "It's not that Norfolk Island poses any specific risk, but we want to bring it into line with the rest of the country."

At the same time, Australia says the island is unable to raise enough revenue and faces bankruptcy within two years. Islanders pay no income tax; the government instead raises funds through a customs duty on all imports.

In parliamentary reports and letters to the islanders, Australia has set out two scenarios, the most radical of which would result in the island's tiny legislative assembly being stripped of its powers and reduced to a local council. Islanders would have to start paying income tax, which they claim would hurt businesses and harm tourism, the main employer. A group of islanders has launched a challenge of Australia's authority to the High Court in Canberra.

"I don't want to see the people here forced into something they don't want to do," says Ian Wilford, an autobody repairman who moved here from New Zealand five years ago. "This is a wonderful place to live, and I don't want to see it ruined."

Norfolk was once home to a convict settlement renowned as the most savage in the British Empire. The island now has its own flag, stamps, customs service, and international telephone code. It lies closer to New Zealand than Australia, and Australians have to carry their passports when they visit. Furious locals say that Canberra has no right to interfere in their affairs because in 1856 Queen Victoria bequeathed the island to their forbears.

"We feel as if our island is being taken from us," says businessman Chris Magri. "We're being muscled by Canberra with very little consultation."

The more militant islanders are calling for outright independence, even though Norfolk covers only 15 square miles and has no ports and no industry. Some locals mutter that Australia is only interested in the island because of the rumored existence of huge seabed deposits of oil and gas. "I have no doubt that that is the agenda," says Ric Robinson, who raises palm seedlings and is president of the Society of Pitcairn Descendants (his great-grandfather came to Norfolk in the 1860s). "I think they're worried because we're not really part of Australia."

Curiously, Norfolk Island retains many of the trappings of a British colony. The national anthem is God Save the Queen, rather than Advance Australia Fair, and the Union Jack stands beside the Norfolk Island flag in the legislative assembly building, a magnificent former military barracks built by convicts in 1832.

Many islanders cherish their idiosyncratic ways. Around half the population speaks Norfolk, the English-Tahitian blend. The handful of surnames brought by the Pitcairners are shared by so many islanders that the phone directory resorts to nicknames, including Cane Toad, Dar Bizziebee, Kik Kik, and Mutty. Television was not introduced until the 1980s, and local menus feature dishes such as periwinkle pie. The distinctiveness of Norfolk's history and culture has fueled islanders' anger toward Canberra's plans to strip their autonomy.

"Australia's approach has been heavy-handed and completely unnecessary," says the island's chief minister, Geoff Gardner, whose office displays a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II beside Norfolk's distinctive green and white flag. "It's been hinted to me that if we don't play ball we may be the next Solomon Islands [where Australia sent a large peacekeeping force in 2003]."

That seems far-fetched: There is no breakdown in law and order and thus no need for troops. "I find that an outrageous statement," says Mr. Lloyd, the Australian territorial minister. "The fact that it comes from the mouth of the chief minister himself is symbolic of the rumor mill that exists on the island."

Still, many islanders insist they should be given the opportunity to determine their own destiny by holding a referendum. Some precedent does exist: Four years ago Norfolk decided to ban mobile phones after the issue was put to a vote.

Not everyone here sees Canberra as Captain Bligh. Some islanders believe their tiny government is incompetent and failing to manage Norfolk's finances. They lament deteriorating roads and want Australia to take control of health, education, taxation, and revenue.

"Canberra is right - we're heading towards bankruptcy," says Alice Buffett, a former minister and one of Norfolk's matriarchs. "The laws that apply to the rest of Australia should apply here."

Claudine Nicholson is even more anti- independence. "Australia should come in straightaway," she says, sitting behind the counter in Norfolk's only pub. "I say 'bring it on.' "

Talk of Norfolk

About half the island's 1,900 inhabitants speak Norfolk, a mixture of 18th-century English and Tahitian. Examples:

• Sup musa dan - The soup's nearly cooked.

• Wan kau f' mais bradhas s' orf aut - My brother's cow has got out.

• Kat krors aa paedak aafta tii en wi gu sing - Cut across the paddock after tea and come for a singsong.

(Source: Speak Norfolk Today, by Alice Buffett, 1999)

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