Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ensign Best and the life of an Officer


When we think of the Second Settlement on Norfolk Island most of our thoughts turn to the terrible conditions of the convicts and the misery of their lives. However, while that was certainly occurring there was also another type of life happening for the officers, their wives and families.

Ensign Best served on the ship James Pattinson with the 80th Regiment and was on Norfolk Island from August 1838 until March 1839. He kept a diary which was intended to keep his family informed of his life away from home. For this reason perhaps it describes the books he read, a lot of fishing and hunting, cliff top walks, jolly evenings at mess and visits of fellow officers. Presumably he found it too distasteful or uninteresting to write about the convicts and his work with them. He mentions a severe military flogging with curt repulsion and just a few words to explain why it occurred. When he attends a court martial he describes in detail the journey riding to it but tells us nothing of the case or outcome. Best thoroughly accepted the view that convicts were there to be punished and did not dwell on their squalid and awful lot. The following entries are from his dairy:

25th September 1838. Was a great day of employment to us bachelors of Norfolk Island. We purposed giving a ball in the mess room the following day & determined to do it in a style hitherto unknown. A great quantity of evergreens were brought in and disposed around the room so as to make it resemble a shady bower. Over the Orchestra was a transparency expressing our welcome to our guests. The supper room was disposed as an armoury & and a transparency over the door inscribed with the words “Eat drink & be merry”.

26th Arose early, bathed and rendered what assistance I could to the committee of management; as soon as my services were dispensed with I went out shooting returning at seven P.M my sport was a wild cat. At nine the Company began to assemble and as ushered into the ball room expressed great satisfaction with the grace & beauty of its appearance…Dancing was kept up till midnight when supper was announced. The supper room afforded quite as much gratification to our guests as the Ballroom…A table in the form of a T occupied the centre & one end of the room bearing on it all the luxuries of Norfolk Island. When eating had ceased several toasts were proposed and songs sung. Dancing was then resumed until past five when the party broke up…

8th and 9th October.  As we proposed opening the cricket season on the 10th with a match between the two regiments I devoted these two days to getting the ground into some sort of order and practicing. The ground was in a wretched state cut up by carts and overgrown by weeds. This work, my garden and stockyard with my bathe in the morning, and evenings read, left me most anxious for bedtime which I make 10 o’clock.

10th There was great excitement; in the Barracks men rushing violently about and betting figs of tobacco on the result of the game, on the cricket ground a pitching of wickets and tents. At half past twelve the playing commenced and lasted till five when the 50th were declared victorious. This was a result I had expected, few of our men having taken a bat in hand since leaving England…A pig with a soaped tail was then turned loose and afforded great amusement after which the men ran races in sacks. All these diversions having ceased we returned the men with the pig to their barracks and we to my room where dinner was ready; when this was disposed of we adjourned to the mess room and danced all night…

31st Bathed at six. Wrote till breakfast. Took my gun up to Long Ridge to shoot pigeons only killed two. Arranged with McLean that Storey should go out with me at five next morning…

Thursday November 1st. I was up and ready to start at five…We went to Steeles Point for White Swallows they were too wild however to allow themselves to be knocked down and out of four I shot only one was fit for stuffing…I shot a pair of slate coloured birds and a mutton bird. Ascending the cliffs with our game we went to the camp of the charcoal burners for water to take a snack of what we had brought in with us. In another attempt I killed the Wood Quest and put him on a stick...

2nd Took my gun and went to Longridge...then I walked to the Ansons Bay Hut. From Ansons Bay we went to Duncombe’s Bay where we cliffed to the bottom…here was the island where we hoped to get many birds. Storey and myself swam over, the distance was not great but the current was very strong. We remained hunting the birds for about two hours but they had done hatching and were so wild that we only got three black and white swallows a pair of mutton birds and a young gannet…

6th February 1839…While sitting at luncheon Mr Hayne commander of the ‘Alice’ joined our party. He is quiet and gentlemanly and one of the handsomest men I ever saw. We soon dispersed in search of various amusements and assembled again at seven to dinner. We sat late and heard some good singing from Mr Turner, he has a good voice and some taste but wants scientific teaching. Towards four in the morning some of the party waxed boisterous and chairs flew like flies about the room to the infinite danger of the spectators of the fray. As soon as the storm had passed and the principles carried off to bed the rest of the party dispersed…

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