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HM Sloop Norfolk:

Updated: Mar 16

In service: 1798-1800 Vessel type: 16 ton, one masted Sloop

Location: Norfolk Island and Australia's Eastern coast.

HM Sloop Norfolk was the first sea-faring ship built on Norfolk Island, a small settlement located 1,673 km from Sydney. As Norfolk Island’s population included convicts, the shipbuilding project was in blatant disregard of a command issued by Governor John Hunter. However, low supplies and disgruntled settlers convinced the Island’s new Lieutenant-Governor, Captain John Townson, to approve the project. Constructed from local Norfolk Pine, the small one-masted sloop successfully arrived in Sydney Cove in June 1798.

However, victory was short-lived as Governor Hunter immediately confiscated the vessel. Refitted, HM sloop Norfolk was then used by Lieutenant Matthew Flinders and Mr George Bass for their circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land, confirming the landform was a separate island.

In 1799 Flinders' request to explore the coast north of Port Jackson was granted and the sloop Norfolk was assigned to him. Bass had by this stage returned to Britain and in his place Flinders recruited his brother Samuel 16 (now Midshipman on HMS Reliance), Bungaree a Port Jackson aborigine and Flinder's cat Trim.

He was also given a timekeeper from HMS Reliance for this voyage. They sailed out of Port Jackson on 8 July 1799 to chart the area that Cook had done 29 years earlier. They departed on 8 July 1799 and arrived in Moreton Bay six days later.

The trip was hampered by a leaking boat a few days out (constructed from Norfolk Pine which despite Cook's recommendation

for its use turned out to be quite unsuitable for shipbuilding) and several encounters with aborigines. Despite detailed sketch

surveys, three major rivers were missed, Clarence, Brisbane and Burnett. Unlike English rivers clearly running into the sea many Australian river outlets only give this appearance during the wet season when the rivers are high and at other times of the year resemble estuaries (tidal marshes), sand banks and mangroves which makes their appearance far less obvious.

He described their inland expedition to one of the Glass House Mountains and recorded differences with the aborigines he encountered and different animals such as dugongs.

Arriving at what is now called Redcliffe on the 17th July 1799 and anchored offshore.

The following was noted in his journal for Wednesday 17th 1799:

"Wednesday. 17th At daylight on Wednesday morning we again weighed and turned up with a southerly breeze, as long as the tide lasted. At half past ten oClock, anchored one mile and a half off a point that has red cliffs in it, in three and half fathoms. A little West of this Point I observed the latitude with the artifical horizon to be 27°:16’:25" south. The bight which lays round the Point, is shoal with a muddy bottom; the land is low, but not so sandy as in the neighbourhood of the river. The rocks are a strongly impregnated Iron stone, with some small pieces of granite & chrystal scattered about the shore. From Red Cliff Point we pulled over to a green head about two miles to the westward, round which the bight is contracted into a river like form, but the greatest part of it is dry at low water. The wood that we collected at high water mark for our fire, proved to be Cedar and of a fine Grain.

A light sea breeze coming from the northward in the afternoon on our return on board, we got the Sloop underweigh, steering our course SEbS; the water gradually shoaled to two fathoms, and the breeze dying away at the same time, we pulled to the north eastward with the sweeps into two and a half and then anchored for the night upon a soft muddy bottom. The extreme near Cape Moreton now bore N21°E, and the farthest connected land now visible on the same side of the bay [Moreton Bay], ENE, which is not far from the latitude of the entrance from Moreton Bay: the shore to the S:W: was four or five miles distant."

We know the headland two miles to the west as Clontarf Point. There he found an indigenous (Ningi Ningi) humpy and observed tracks of dogs (dingoes) kangaroos and emus on the beach. Flinders took away with him a large aboriginal fishing net and in its place left a tomahawk.

He mapped Green Island, Morton Bay and Pumicestone River which is in fact a passage between Bribie Island and the mainland and returned to Port Jackson on 20 August 1799.

Two years after its maiden voyage, in service as a government cargo ship transporting provisions and grain, she was bound for Port Jackson laden with bushels of wheat from the Hawkesbury River Settlement when seized by a gang of fifteen convicts.

This piratical seizure was reported to Governor Hunter who issued a general order on the 9th of October 1800, wherein he stated, “On this occasion the Governor finds it necessary to fore warn any convicts from attempting such a scheme in future, as nothing but inevitable destruction awaits those who have seized the Norfolk”.

Planning to travel through the Dutch settlements in the Moluccas then onto China, the convicts sailed north and ran into a storm, seeking shelter in the Hunter River the runaways only succeeded in wrecking her onshore at a place infamously called ‘Pirate Point’ until 1862 when it became known as Stockton.

Of the fifteen convicts who wrecked the small sloop on Pirates’ Point (Stockton Peninsula), seven were ironically sent to Norfolk Island as punishment. The very place the ship had illegally been built! Made in secret, confiscated, stolen and finally wrecked, the little sloop Norfolk had a short, but important story.

Mysteriously, no traces of the original Norfolk have ever been found.

Stockton in 1812 – 12 years after the pirates ran the Norfolk aground at Pirate Point.

Full-scale Norfolk replica at the Bass and Flinders Museum. George Town Tasmania.

Model of HM sloop Norfolk, NIM7082, Created by Col Gibson in 2007


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