Wednesday, July 13, 2011
During “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, the cemetery tour we conduct every Tuesday and Friday, we usually stop at the grave of Elizabeth Robertson. Elizabeth was the adult daughter of Gilbert Robertson, the Superintendent of Agriculture between 1845 and 1846, and mother Agnes. Together with their four daughters and a son, the family lived in Branka House at Longridge.
Amidst the grisly tales of mutiny and murder of the convicts and their overseers, Elizabeth’s story provides the opportunity to talk about the lives of the women in the Second Settlement. With nearly an entirely male convict population, the majority of the women here were the wives and daughters of the officers and civilian men. Through a series of letters Elizabeth wrote in a diary form to her sister in Tasmania, we have the chance to peer into their lives. Her diary is a popular seller in our REO Café and Bookshop, titled simply “Elizabeth Robertson’s Diary, Norfolk Island 1845”. It covers a six week period commencing just weeks after her arrival on the island.
Elizabeth was homesick for Hobart and especially missed her married sister Fanny. It seems clear that she knew that her illness, tuberculosis, was serious as she is haunted by premonitions that she may never see Fanny again: “when I look round and miss the dear faces that I have been accustomed to – the thought comes into my head that I may never see them again and I can scarcely refrain from tears..”. She also tells us about the violence of the settlement. The period the family were on the island includes during the terms of the notorious Commandants Major Childs and his successor, John Price. She was here during the infamous Cooking Pot Riot, a number of escape attempts, executions of convicts, convicts attacking other convicts, an accidental self-shooting by an officer – plus much more: “there are two bushrangers out just now they have been out for four days – yesterday there was a gang of men beating their overseers – fired a pistol and then drew another there was a terrible uproar..”.
Intermixed with her descriptions of the news of the convicts and their conduct, we also gain a glimpse of the social comings and goings – the visits of the ladies and the gentlemen. Elizabeth is not shy in describing her contempt for a number of the men – “he is as great a Jackass as ever I met” and her frustrations with visits on a Sunday which she feels should be for quiet and contemplation. We also get a feel for the organisation of social calls - “We wanted father to go with us to the settlement to day for Mr Rowlands says the people are all wondering [why] we have not been returning their calls – but he will not go till he has finished sheep washing”.
In a lovely surprise, last week we received an email from a descendant of Elizabeth’s father Gilbert. She has sent us the transcript of a letter Gilbert wrote to his wife Agnes, in January 1847. By this time Gilbert had resigned his post on Norfolk after coming into conflict with John Price, had left his family behind and travelled ahead to Hobart to seek new employment and make arrangements for them to follow. When he left Norfolk in late 1846 Elizabeth’s illness was much worse. So very sadly, his letter is written without knowing that his daughter died ten days earlier – “May God in his mercy assist and direct you in the very trying circumstances in which you are placed and may he grant that my dear Lizzie may be restored to such a measure of health as will enable her to accompany you with comfort..”. He is hopeful that Elizabeth may have been wrongly diagnosed as he talks of having set up doctor’s appointments for her: “from what I hear of two cases very similar to Lizzie’s I am in hopes that the Doctors may have quite mistaken her complaint”.
However Elizabeth did not live to see Hobart again and died on January 14 1847. Her grave is close to the front fence in the Norfolk Island Cemetery – looking over a magnificent view of the bay. Around her are the graves of so many others from that period – military, civilians, convicts. It is over 164 years since her death, yet through her diary we can still get to know a little of her and life on this island during that tumultuous time.
Elizabeth Robertson’s Diary is for sale at the REO Café and Bookshop or on-line through the Shop section of our web site at www.norfolkislandmuseum.com.au