Two British attempts at establishing the island as a penal colony (1788-1814 and 1825-55) were ultimately abandoned. In 1856, the island was resettled by Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian companions.
The first European known to have sighted the island was Captain James Cook, in 1774, on his second voyage to the South Pacific. There is some evidence of earlier settlement by Polynesians.
It was taken by Philip King of the "Stirling" and twenty-four convicts from New South Wales. This settlement was abandoned in 1805, but in 1826 the island was made a penal settlement from New South Wales. Its purpose was one of incarceration of hardened criminals. It is said that convicts went to the gallows glad to be released from the Hell on Earth that was Norfolk Island. It was officially described as "a place of the extremist punishment, short of death".
In 1856, 194 Pitcairn islanders took the place of the convicts. Forty of them soon returned to Pitcairn Island, and the remainder deteriorated owing to intermarriage. The administration of justice by an elected magistrate was unsatisfactory. Crime was rarely punished, and debts were not recoverable. A remedy was attempted in 1896 by an improvement in the government. The island was brought under the immediate administration of New South Wales; a chief magistrate, appointed by the governor of New South Wales, took the place of the elected magistrate, and an elected council of twelve elders superseded the general gathering of the adult population.
In 1867 a Melanesian mission station was established at St Barnabas, and in 1882 a church was erected to the memory of Bishop Patteson, with windows designed by Burne-Jones and executed by William Morris.
In 1979, The Norfolk Island Act, a Commonwealth Act of Parliament, passed into law, providing for the establishment of a Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly to assume responsibility for a wide range of functions previously handled by a Commonwealth-appointed Administrator, with assistance from a locally elected Advisory Council. First Assembly elected on 1 August 1979.
Local ordinances and acts apply on the island, where most laws are based on the Australian legal system. English common law applies when not covered by either Australian or Norfolk Island law. Suffrage is universal at age eighteen. As a territory of Australia, Norfolk Island does not have diplomatic representation abroad, or within the territory, and is also not a participant in any international organizations, other than sporting organizations.
Controversy exists as to the exact status of Norfolk Island. Although officially part of Australia some Islanders claiming that it was actually granted independence at the time Queen Victoria granted permission to Pitcairn Islanders to re-settle on the island. Residents of Norfolk Island do not pay Australian taxes (creating a tax haven for local and visitor alike) and the island is subject to separate immigration controls to the remainder of the nation.
Tourism, the primary economic activity, has steadily increased over the years and has brought a level of prosperity unusual among inhabitants of the Pacific islands. The agricultural sector has become self-sufficient in the production of beef, poultry, and eggs.
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