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Raoul Sunday Bell: The island and the man

Raoul Sunday Bell: The island and the man

He was known as Roy – a photographer, ornithologist, naturalist and a spiritualist. His namesake and place of birth is an island in the Kermadec Group known as Raoul or Sunday Island. Roy came to Norfolk Island in 1911 and it is here that he lived for the rest of his life.

The Kermadecs are situated thirteen hundred kilometres due east of Norfolk Island. They were discovered in 1793 by the French Admiral d’Entrecasteaux, Commander of the ships Recherche and Espérance, who named the group after the Captain of the Espérance, while Raoul Island was named for the quartermaster of the Recherche. Raoul Island was later seen in 1796 by Captain Raven of the Britannia. Believing he was the original discoverer, the Captain named it ‘Sunday Island’, in commemoration of the day he landed. The island was annexed by the New Zealand government in 1887, and by 1939, ‘Raoul ‘became its official name.

Roy Bell was the seventh child of Thomas and Frederica Bell and the family is known as the ‘Crusoes of Sunday Island’. In fact the incredible life story of this family is recorded in a book of this title, written by Elsie K Morton. It reveals the idiosyncrasies of their isolated lifestyle from the memories of Bessie Dyke (nee Bell) Roy’s older sister.

Raoul Island imposed harsh blows on its early European settlers, wreaking havoc and misfortune from natural disasters and human kind. It was the Bell family who managed to survive and sometimes thrive in this harsh environment through determined strength and love of family and place, until they too, accepted defeat and left.

The various connections between Raoul and Norfolk Islands are notable. Norfolk Island’s first settlers were Polynesian, arriving from the Kermadecs more than seven hundred years ago. Archaeological excavations on Norfolk during the 1990’s uncovered pieces of obsidian or volcanic glass that came specifically from Raoul; appearing rather immaterial, they are possibly the most significant of the archaeological finds to inform us of our island’s earliest Polynesian settlers.

Norfolk Island’s first British Governor, Philip Gidley King, had been ill for some time and asked to be taken back to England. Captain Raven of the Britannia came by Norfolk Island in 1796 to collect King and his family, and it was on this voyage back to England that Raoul Island was renamed ‘Sunday’ for the British.

Captain Denham on board the HMS Herald was at Norfolk Island to greet the Pitcairn Islanders as they arrived in 1856. Two years prior to this he charted and surveyed Raoul Island and named the island’s best landing place Denham Bay. He sailed away from Denham Bay leaving behind his young son, Fleetwood James, in a grave near the beach where he had died from tropical fever.

Norfolk Island produced some great whalers, among them George Henry Parkin Christian (Parkins). The American whaler ship, California, arrived at Raoul Island and on board was Captain George, Mrs Lizzie Brightman and Parkins. Coming ashore, the Brightmans introduced Parkins to the Bell family as the ship’s first mate and holder of the record for sperm whaling in the South Pacific.

Parkins became a solid friend of the Bells for many years to come. He would thrill the children with the stories of the Great White Whale and Moby Dick, who bit whaleboats in half and crunched them to pieces in his awful jaws. Interestingly, he didn’t talk of his ancestor’s infamous role in the mutiny on board the HMAV Bounty.

Lizzie Brightman was the first woman Frederica Bell had sighted or spoken to for more than two years. Lizzie spent time ashore at Norfolk Island during her days of sail on the California. Her time on the island extended beyond days into weeks, as she enjoyed the company of Norfolk’s women, sharing knowledge of domestic practices and imparting an American influence on the local culture. The Brightmans’ baby girl is buried in our cemetery.

From 1836 onwards, there were a number of European attempts to settle Raoul, focused mainly on Denham Bay and, to a lesser extent, at Low Flat and the Terraces on the other side of the island. They were all driven away at some point by cyclones, earthquakes, rat plagues, starvation or some other form of incredible environmental or natural disaster.

It was in 1880 when the sixth child born to Thomas and Frederica was named Raoul Sunday. He was the first-born native son of the ‘Kingdom of the Kermadecs’, but died at only a few weeks old. Eighteen months later came another baby boy. He too was christened Raoul Sunday Bell – and this is our Roy Bell.

Roy became one of Norfolk’s best known settlers, a first class photographer and a noted authority on the plant and bird life of the Kermadecs and other South Pacific Islands.

By 1907, the Bell family remained the ‘Robinson Crusoes’ of Raoul Island, having very little contact with the outside world. Whaling had diminished and they had no produce to be taken to the mainland market, so were living a very simple subsistence life. Then along came a group of five young scientists to investigate the island’s flora and fauna, geology and meteorology, and other features of native life.

This was a pivotal moment in Roy’s life. Well versed in island lore, both Roy and his brother William, or King as he was known, were of inestimable help in providing valuable information to the scientists. Photography seemed to be innate to Roy, who had the ability to capture nature at its finest. Along with the young scientists, Roy Bell produced the first collection of photographs of Raoul; its bird and plant life, and the beauty of the forest and rugged coastal scenery.

After one year, the scientists departed leaving the Bell family alone once again. Roy began to keep a diary. General entries note erratic weather conditions, incessant rain and tropical heat; otherwise he records descriptions of his explorations in search of shells, birds, butterflies and insects.

The weather was punishing – on March 30, 1910 he records, “Strong, heavy rain all day. Seas immense and the whole island one mass of fog. We think it is a cyclone sea”.

Then it gets worse: “All at once the full fury burst over us. Down came the rain in a way we had never seen. It seemed to fall in long strips. All the gullies in the cliffs at the back of the Bay became tearing rivers; in fifteen minutes the whole place was six inches deep in water and presently it deepened to two feet … The water rushed through the house like a river. The walls were burst in on one side and out the other; everything was swept before the flood and carried out into the bay. The noise of falling rocks and landslides and the roaring of the rain was so terrific that we could not hear each other speak”.

The place was devastated and so were their food supplies. In amongst all the cacophony, Roy distinguishes the birds: “All through the night we had heard the birds crying out in great distress. The beach was now piled with their dead bodies, this is certainly the worst disaster by tenfold, of any that has ever occurred to us during the past thirty years. We have held a grand council, and the resolution is, ‘off first trip’!”

The ‘first trip’ was a whole year off. Their circumstances had come full circle, ending as it had begun for the Bell family on Raoul; imminent starvation, a rat plague and ever watchful for a ship on the horizon. Like castaways, Roy and his brother made a raft out of calabashes, inserting messages into bottles inside these calabashes, seeking help from whoever may read them.

At last, on 6 April 1911 a ship dropped anchor in Denham Bay. Roy wrote:

“The ship is leaving in half an hour we had only managed to get half our stuff aboard when we had to stop. The rest must be left until next year, as we now have to go on board.

Sunday Island has treated us very badly, and I am not sorry to be leaving. 

Goodbye, Sunday!”

The family relocated to Auckland and eventually they all went their separate ways. Sadly, this included Thomas and Frederica.

Norfolk Island became Roy’s new home where he continued to research, collect, photograph and record details of flora and fauna. During World War I, he was a member of the No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps serving as an air mechanic and aerial photographer. Afterwards, he took the opportunity to visit various coastal towns in Victoria and N.S.W to develop his scientific studies, eventually settling back in to life on Norfolk Island.

During WWII, he joined the local militia, working as a telephone operator stationed in the Old Military Barracks in Kingston. Roy is an interesting character to say the least. He is remembered with affection by many on Norfolk Island, possibly as a little roguish, yet genteel and somewhat of an enigma.

Roy was a tall, rather thin man with blue eyes, ginger hair and a very fair complexion, white as white, some said. He did not enjoy good health. He coughed quite a bit, and also suffered from poor eyesight, which is quite remarkable considering his eye for photography and his meticulous study of specimens.

On Norfolk he is possibly best remembered as a photographer. His photography was used on postcards, reproduced in books and used to design Norfolk Island’s first postage stamp in 1947; and later in 1961, as the basis for a famous painting by Lilian Medland which featured on another stamp issue. He experimented in hand colouring photos, entertaining some of the young islanders by teaching them the skill, paying them for this ‘work’ with stewed peaches and cream.

Roy passed away on Norfolk Island on the 28th March 1966 at the age of eighty-four. The vale notice in the ‘Norfolk Islander’ newspaper states that: “Roy was a great lover of children and it was rarely that a ‘Good-day Mr. Bell’ didn’t bring forth a sweet for the child who had addressed him”. Roy was known to humour the children – playing tricks like sticking a needle into himself and pulling it out again – and lo and behold, no blood! Thus leaving the children wide eyed and surprised.

Not only did he entertain our children, but similarly the adults. This is Roy the spiritualist. No doubt his recognition as a medium is venerable, however many a local can recall gathering around Roy Bell’s kitchen table calling upon the spirit world to manifest. Arriving with skepticism, one could be assured to depart with trepidation that would escalate to fear as they made their way home in the dark.

He grew gerberas, calabash and peanuts. The gerbera seeds he exported for Yates; the calabash he made into vases for the tourist market; and the peanuts ended up in brown paper bags at the movies in Longridge Hall.

Roy’s name is not only recognised for the island of his birth, but also for his work as a naturalist and ornithologist. The ‘Gygis alba royana’ is our common white tern and ‘Ninox novaeseelandiae royana’ our Boobook owl. Besides these two birds, many a mollusc and shell specimen are identified with ‘royana’.

It is now 50 years since Roy passed away and the Norfolk Island Museum is marking this anniversary with a special memorial tribute. Roy’s story is to be featured in a display at The R.E.O. beginning in March, and in the Cemetery Tour, which runs every Tuesday and Friday.

“I Say,” as Roy would say, he was a very fine man indeed.



Image Credit: Norfolk Island Museum


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 06 Issue 01, 2016. 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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