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Kingston and Arthur’s Vale: Convict Outpost to World Heritage

Kingston and Arthur’s Vale: Convict Outpost to World Heritage

The Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area, or KAVHA for short, is the oldest settled area on Norfolk, and among the oldest colonial towns in the South Pacific. Only Sydney can claim a longer colonial lineage, and even then, only by a few weeks. Kingston is also the capital of Norfolk Island, with Government House, the Legislative Assembly, the Courthouse and the chief administrative offices of the Territory lining its elegant main street, Quality Row.

The KAVHA district encompasses Kingston and its rural hinterland from Watermill Valley, also known by its older name of Arthur’s Vale. KAVHA extends from the verdant Common in the west, through the highlands that encircle the town, providing its dramatic northern backdrop, to the lower Music Valley in the east with its ancient trees and tropicbird nesting grounds. Turquoise wreck-strewn seas fringe the south with the horizon dominated by Nepean and Phillip islands.

The district has been the stage for 220 years of human drama, with successive acts played out by convicts, soldiers, Pitcairn Islanders, whalers, post-war migrants and generations of sailors and mariners. Now KAVHA is on the verge of another great change: inscription on the World Heritage List.

So what is it about this historic town and its picturesque district that distinguish it as being important in the history of the world?

World Heritage Nomination

In 2008, the Australian Government nominated the “Australian Convict Sites” for world heritage listing. The 11 sites represent the story of convict transportation from around the British Empire to Norfolk Island, New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Western Australia between 1788 and 1868.

The nomination took 16 years to prepare. Exploring and writing the stories that linked the sites revealed a fascinating new history of convict transportation on a global scale. It is a history that leads straight to the criteria for World Heritage listing.

The group of sites is known as a serial nomination, or a single nomination composed of several sites. There are a number of serial sites on the World Heritage List, such as the “Frontiers of the Roman Empire”, consisting of sites in Britain and Germany, with nominated additional sites in Croatia and Hungary. Nevertheless, serial nominations are a recent development in the 37-year history of the World Heritage List, and the nomination breaks new ground by being firmly based in an understanding of the historical forces that have shaped today’s world.

If a nomination is to succeed, it must meet at least one of ten formal criteria, and must have a high level of authenticity and integrity, and be of outstanding universal value. These are not easy standards to meet, as would be expected for entry into the world’s most prestigious heritage list. But KAVHA meets several of the required criteria.

An Outstanding Example of Buildings & Landscapes. To meet this criterion, a site must be an outstanding example of a building type, architectural or technological ensemble, or landscape that illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.

The significant stage in human history here is the great mass migration of peoples around the globe that accompanied Europe’s imperial expansion between the 16th and 20th centuries. In particular, it is the stream of forced migration, which included convict transportation (as well as slavery and indentured labour), that KAVHA’s buildings and landscapes can illustrate.

As an overall “ensemble” or connected group of buildings, ruins and landscapes, KAVHA is able to show the main features of this forced transportation of convicts. Transportation was used by several European powers as a strategic tool to expand their imperial interests. Great Britain occupied Norfolk Island in 1788 to help feed the new penal colony in New South Wales, secure potentially valuable naval supplies of timber for masts and flax for sails, and prevent French annexation of the island. The layout of the settlement around Kingston Pier, the stone walls of some buildings, several ancient Norfolk Island pines, and much of the site’s archaeological layer illustrate this aspect of transportation.

A continuing objective of transportation was to maintain law and order within Britain. This is best illustrated in KAVHA by the re-establishment in 1825 of Norfolk as a place of secondary punishment. By the mid-1810s, transportation had gained a reputation as being lax, with claims that criminals were committing crimes with the intention of being caught and sent to sunny New South Wales. The convict system had to be harsher in order to deter crime, and Governor Darling described the new settlement “as a place of extremist punishment, short of death”. Doubly convicted convicts (those who had committed further crimes while still under sentence) were sent to Kingston, initially for life, where they had minimal chance of escape.

Under a succession of brutal commandants, the regime consisted of hard work, either in building (which included quarrying stone in the sea) or agriculture (often without being allowed the use of ploughs or other tools). Punishments for petty rule infringements were frequent and harsh, often with excessive floggings and long periods of solitary confinement. The rates of suicide and mutiny were higher than any other secondary punishment station. This brutality is illustrated by buildings such as the Crank Mill, in which iron gangs of 48 men cranked heavy machinery to grind grain, and the New Gaol’s dumb cells, or underground solitary cells in which men experienced days of sensory deprivation (and so were called by the convicts “the graves”).

KAVHA, however, also illustrates a third element of transportation: the intention to reform convicts and rehabilitate them as useful members of society, best seen during the commandantship of Captain Maconochie RN between 1840 and 1844. Distinctions between the doubly-convicted “old hands” and the new arrivals were abolished, two chapels were built, school education was instituted, cooking and eating utensils and better clothing were allowed. His most notable innovation was the Marks System, whereby each convict earned marks, recorded in a ledger, for good behaviour. The more marks, the more privileges and eventually freedom. One of his early actions was to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, with convicts receiving extra rations, a day off from work, an afternoon of sports, and an evening show of fireworks. When Maconochie was recalled in February 1844 he wrote his own epitaph: “I found the island a turbulent, brutal hell, and left it a peaceful well-ordered community.” The Anglican Chapel in the Barrack’s Compound, its relocated furnishings, and many of the headstones in Kingston Cemetery (old section) illustrate Maconochie’s reforms.

Tangible associations with universal ideas and beliefs

To meet this criterion, a site must be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. The ideas and beliefs of universal significance associated with the site are the debates about the punishment and reform of criminals that took place across Europe in the 18th century as part of a larger movement now known as the Enlightenment, advocating reason and rights (rather than medieval ideas) as the source of legitimacy and authority.

As the First Fleet sailed from Britain in 1787, arguments were being raised by rationalists such as Jeremy Bentham that transportation was a pointless, unjust and expensive punishment. What was really needed was a whole new approach that reformed the mind and the soul of criminals, and rehabilitated them to emerge from scientifically managed detention as productive members of society. The ebbs and flows of this debate dominated the convict system throughout its existence, and occupied the attention of many influential thinkers and reformers across Europe and North America for even longer.

Although this criterion is better illustrated by some of the other 11 sites, KAVHA illustrates a particular feature of this debate in the shift from extreme bodily punishments to reasoned psychological reform. The role of Maconochie, and especially his Marks System, has already been highlighted. Another example of Maconochie’s impact lies in the Separate System. This was meant to reshape the character of individual convicts by separating them from each other in order to prevent them learning new ways to commit crimes. They were generally confined to a single cell with little contact with other prisoners, where they worked during the day and slept at night. This enforced separation was to provide time for each convict to reflect upon his past and think of ways to improve their behaviour for the future.

The pentagonal New Gaol in KAVHA was under construction when Maconochie arrived in 1840. Although designed to some of Bentham’s reformist principles, Maconochie halted construction in favour of his Marks System, which encouraged convicts to learn appropriate behaviours by socialising with other people. However, proponents of the Separate System disagreed with Maconochie, and upon his return to London the pentagonal jail, with its 180 separate cells and exercise areas, was completed by his successor. Unfortunately, the New Gaol was used to continue the old ways of brutal punishment, and its ruins today graphically illustrate the associations between the convict sites, the ebbs and flows of the debates about the punishment and reform of criminals, and the character of the reformers such as Maconochie as well as Governor Macquarie in New South Wales, Lt. Governor Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land, and Captain Henderson in Western Australia who sought to put the great debates of their time in effect and change the lives of real people.

Authenticity and Integrity

Authenticity is about a site being “the real thing”. KAVHA is not a theme park operated by a commercial operator to provide convict-themed entertainment. No one pretends that it never had a convict past, and the evidence of that past has not been hidden or sanitised. The extensive restoration works undertaken during the 1970s and 1980s closely followed the original surveys and plans drawn by the Royal Engineers in the 1830s, from reinstating original roof forms and window openings to fine details such as the profiles of skirting boards. Interior paint colours and pigments used in the state rooms at Government House reflect those used in the 1830s, and were investigated through painstaking “paint scrapes” in forgotten corners, and archival research using original documents such as diaries and account books.

About 36% of Australians today claim some degree of convict descent. With about one-third of today’s Norfolk Island residents being born on the Australian mainland, it is reasonable to assume that at least 12% of the island’s population can also make a similar claim. And some do, even tracing genealogies back to the first settlers, convict and free, of March 1788. Today’s acceptance and celebration of convict origins took many years to arise. The slur of the “convict stain” cast by the abolitionists in the 1840s has taken many years to overcome, with much soul searching within families and across the country. Even today, there are those who deny, and the emotions evoked by facing our convict past are real. The authenticity of these feelings is reflected in the pride taken by locals and visitors to the site today, and the intensity of the reactions provoked.

Integrity is about how well a site is managed. KAVHA has been managed in such a way as to care for and look after its historic fabric since the early 1960s, and specifically under an agreement between the Australian and Norfolk Island governments since 1989. This gives the site a half-century of conservation history that makes its site management among the oldest outside of Europe.

Some of the issues in managing the site today are the same as those faced by the commandants of the convict period. Buildings, roads, gardens and public infrastructure all need to be continually maintained in an aggressive coastal environment of strong salt-laden winds and sea spray and erosive rainfall and winds that scour the seashore and hillsides. Commandants often complained that the convicts lacked the necessary building and agricultural skills, but luckily today this is not such a problem, and KAVHA staff are continually working to maintain and upgrade their conservation trades skills. One problem the commandants didn’t face was predicted climate change effects such as increasingly severe storms and rising sea levels (much of the Kingston Plain is only a metre or two above sea level). These present a challenge to today’s site managers, which can only be met by careful, long-term planning.

The 11 “Australian Convict Sites” have been collectively compared to sites in other convict systems such as those of British India (Andaman Islands, Malaysia and Singapore), France (New Caledonia and French Guiana), and Russia (North Sakhalin and Siberia); as well as other sites of the British system in Bermuda, Gibraltar and the West Indies. By comparison, the group of 11 is more physically intact and is better managed for its heritage values.

Outstanding Universal Values

World Heritage listing has the potential to bringmany economic and cultural benefits to Norfolk Islanders. However, those benefits can only berealised by understanding the Outstanding Universal Values of the group of sites and their capacity to illustrate the significant stage in human history of the forced migration of convicts and universal ideas and beliefs about the punishment and reformation of criminals as they evolved from the age of enlightenment into the modern era.

The capacity of KAVHA to illustrate the most brutal aspects of convictism forms a key chapter in the story of convict transportation. Other chapters, especially about reform and rehabilitation, are illustrated by other sites, such as the Assignment System at Brickendon & Woolmers in Tasmania, the transportation of children and juvenile convicts at Port Arthur’s Point Puer, the reformation of convicts through controlled labour at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, and the final replacement of transportation by a national penitentiary system in Britain by Fremantle Prison in Western Australia.

The reality of Transportation for a small group of convicts was brutal, harsh and only relieved by death. As a visiting clergyman wrote in 1834 when he visited a group of condemned men in their cell at Kingston:

“They had for six months been looking for their fate. I had to announce life to all but thirteen; to these, death. Those who were to live wept bitterly; whilst those doomed to die, without exception, dropped to their knees, and with dry eyes, thanked God they were to be delivered from so horrid a place.”

It was by no means every convict’s experience, but it’s an image that has remained with us since those days, and it’s the chapter in the story of convictism that KAVHA is best able to illustrate. And it is KAVHA’s ability to make such a contribution to the story that imbues this historic town and its picturesque district with the collective outstanding universal values shared by the eleven sites in the nomination. And that is what makes KAVHA (and the rest of the eleven sites) so important in the history of the world, and eligible for inscription on the world’s most celebrated and influential heritage list.

Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V1 Iss3, 2009. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.

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