The first thing I noticed on my arrival at Norfolk Island was the number of people who lined the cliff tops, some three hundred feet high at Cascade Bay, to watch our arrival. As a penal settlement, Norfolk Island had been the scene of brutal floggings and inhumane treatment of desperate prisoners condemned for stealing a loaf of bread, or poaching a rabbit ― capital crimes no doubt! Eventually the scene of the crime was changed by removing the prisoners to be ill-treated elsewhere, and the island was granted to the descendants of the Mutineers of the fine ship ‘Bounty‘, who had, by this time, begun to overpopulate Pitcairn Island. Like most migrants, some settled there, and some returned to Pitcairn Island.
During my visits ashore to the homes of various people on Norfolk Island, I learned that we were not the first whaling company to operate there. Later, on a visit to Ball Bay, I saw the remnants of what had been large cooking pots and various other debris. Apparently this whaling venture terminated suddenly one night when the plant caught fire and burned down. Cause of the fire ― unknown.
One night while in conversation with one of the older inhabitants, I learned of whaling expeditions by the Islanders themselves ― using rowboats and hand harpoon. He described how the whale, once harpooned, would sometimes drag the boat so far away that by the time the whale was killed and towed back to land ― the sharks had almost eaten the lot! Were they fortunate enough to get a whale to the shore in good condition, then the Islanders would descend from the cliff tops, where they had watched their men chase and kill the whale, and each person would carry pieces of blubber, meat etc to the top of the cliff where it was cooked.
To me, the cliff top vigil was a repeat of history.
You will find the story as it was told to me, in my song ‘Norfolk Whalers’. HR
Lyrics and Music: Harry Robertson
(As performed by Marian Henderson on Harry’s 1971 LP “WHALE CHASING MEN”)
High on the cliffs of Norfolk’s green isle,
Women and children are waiting the while,
Far down below the whale boatmen row,
As after the Humpback the Norfolk men go.
Each man in the boat strains hard at his oar,
They head for the whale, and away from the shore,
Up at the bow the harpoon man stands,
A steel-shafted harpoon clutched tight in his hands.
Row, my love row, and bring back to me,
The king of the ocean, the prize of the sea.
Ship the oars lads, and quiet as we go,
The harpoon strikes deep, and the blood starts to flow,
Then hell’s violent furies break out on the waves,
One blow from its tail could mean watery graves.
For hours the whale drags the boat through the sea,
And tires from its effort to break the rope free,
Exhausted at last, it floats in the sun,
Sharp lances complete what the harpoon begun.
Back to the island, ’twill be a long row,
If darkness comes down, the lantern will glow,
For high on the cliffs the Islanders stand,
And wait for their men to return to the land.
With backs nearly broken, and blistered hands sore,
The boatmen at last reach the isle’s rocky shore,
The joy on friends’ faces, what pleasure to see,
Their loved ones return with the prize of the sea.
© Harry Robertson,
and subsequently ©1995 Mrs Rita Robertson, Brisbane, AUSTRALIA
Registered with APRA/AMCOS www.apra-amcos.com.au