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  • Norfolk Island: History, people, environment, language by Peter Mühlhäusler and Joshua Nash
  • Kate Burridge
Peter Mühlhäusler and Joshua Nash. 2012. Norfolk Island: History, people, environment, language. London: Battlebridge Publications. vi + 134 pp. ISBN13: 978-1-903292-25-9. ₤12.95, paper.

Norfolk Island is a small Australian territory that sits in the South Pacific Ocean somewhere between Australia (1,700 km to the west) and New Zealand (1,100 km to the south). The focus of this book is on the lives and culture of its inhabitants, and how their experiences and their relationship with their environment have shaped the language variously known as Pitcairnese, Norfolkese, Norfolk Island English, Norfuk, and Norf’k, among many other labels. There are around 1,800 Norfolk Islanders, approximately half of whom are descended from the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives—this makes for one fascinating speech community.

Norfolk Island by Peter Mühlhäusler and Joshua Nash is an unusual volume—on the one hand, a very hands-on booklet, packed with practical information about the island (how to get there, tourist attractions, accommodation advice, and so on) and, on the other hand, an academic account of many different aspects of the island and its population. With only 134 pages (and many of these pages filled with photographs), these accounts are surprisingly comprehensive, crammed with interesting facts to do with the history, environment, cultural traditions, and language of this subtropical “hellhole” and “paradise” (which label the island receives depends on the period of its history).

The book has five chapters in all. The first is the guidebook section with information intended for visitors, or would-be visitors, to the island (and having spent ten days there, a visit is something I would highly recommend). Norfolk Island is a hauntingly beautiful and stunning place; this book’s many black and white photos come nowhere near capturing its natural magnificence.

The next chapter offers a potted history of Norfolk Island’s journey from its “discovery” by Captain Cook in 1774, its infamous years as a penal settlement, through to the “tourist paradise” of modern Norfolk. The authors identify four distinct periods of settlement: the first settlement (1788–1814); the “planned hell” of the second convict settlement (1825–1855); the arrival in 1856 of the 194 transplanted Pitcairn Islanders; and the Melanesian Mission period (1867–1920), in particular, the locals’ resentment of this Christian settlement, but its importance nonetheless in shaping the subsequent relationship between the environmental landscape and the language. The chapter concludes with the post-mission era—the consequences of opening up to the outside world and the significance of the Pitcairn revival.

These themes nicely lead to chapter 3, where the focus is squarely on the Norfolk Island inhabitants today, in particular, Pitcairner identity and self-perception. The chapter also reports on a number of curious anomalies, one being that, although administered by Australia, the island requires Australian citizens to travel with a passport; moreover, should a stay extend beyond the legal period, Australians might well find themselves in the unusual position of being simultaneously a citizen and an illegal immigrant. The chapter covers a remarkable number of disparate topics, from “political [End Page 550] exceptionalism” to “sheds,” “funerals,” and “ghost stories.”. It is a smorgasbord of different morsels of Norfolk history and life, and while the constant shift of focus is a little distracting, the details are fascinating.

The final chapter (around one-third of the entire book) deals with the Norf’k language, a name that was made official by the Language Bill passed in 2004. The most detailed sections cover the historical and sociological conditions that gave rise to this offspring of English—though, as the authors emphasize, there is still much that is mysterious about the emergence of the language. True, what we know is that Norf’k represents the linguistic outcome of contact between the British English of the Bounty mutineers and Tahitian; it is a remarkable example of a contact language, since we know precisely the number of speakers who originally settled on Pitcairn in 1790, the places of origin of those speakers, and even their names. However, its subsequent...


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