The HM Norfolk is well known for being the first ship to circumnavigate Tasmania, but what happened after this mission is a wild story from the history of Newcastle.
Head to the southernmost tip of the Stockton peninsula and you will find a plaque that reads “Pirate Point”. More than just a historical marker, this was once the name given to the entire suburb. Here’s why —
Prior to colonisation, the suburb of Stockton was known to the local Worimi people as Burrinbingon, referring to the abundance of food available there. It was an area of great natural beauty featuring sand-dunes, marshes, and forests of blackbutt, apple gum, and paperbark. It supplied the Worimi with fish, pippies, and oysters and was used frequently as a place for travel and trade across what is now called the Worimi Conservation Lands.
European settlers began taking residence on the peninsula as early as 1797 when it was then referred to by the new inhabitants as Point Kent. In 1862 the name was permanently changed to Stockton, but in the years between it was known as Pirate Point, due to an incident that occurred there in 1800: the wreckage of the HM Norfolk, which ran aground during a gale. Shipwrecks had been frequent and continued to be so well into the following century. What made this event special is that the Norfolk was under the command of fifteen pirate convicts.
According to the records of the Australian Maritime Museum, the 16-ton one-masted sloop HM Norfolk was the first to circumnavigate Tasmania. It was also the first sea-faring ship to be built on the brutal penal colony of Norfolk Island. In fact, this shipbuilding project was undertaken “illegally”, disregarding a command issued by the New South Wales Governor of the day, John Hunter. Norfolk Island’s Lieutenant-Governor Captain John Townson approved the project in order to secure supplies for disgruntled settlers. Hunter responded to the subordination by confiscating the vessel and putting it under the command of Lieutenant Matthew Flinders as a survey vessel. It was Flinders and his crew who then took it on its journey of circumnavigation, which proved the existence of the Bass Strait as a body of water separating Tasmania from the mainland. After this, in late 1798, it was put to regular use as a transport ship for wheat and other goods.
Two years later, in 1800, it was seized by fifteen escaped convicts at Broken Bay on the Hawkesbury River. Their plan was to sail to the Dutch settlement of Maluku, Indonesia, but they were thwarted by the notorious waters surrounding Newcastle harbour, crashing into the rocky reefs of what is now Stockton. While all men survived they did not all agree on how to proceed. A group of nine agreed to continue their journey and managed to take a second, smaller boat out to sea, while the other six opted to stay behind with the local Worimi people and were rumored to have settled permanently somewhere along Throsby Creek. The nine buccaneers were eventually chased down and captured further up the coast. Two were sentenced to death, determined to be the ringleaders, while the other seven were sentenced to imprisonment on Norfolk island, a fate some would regard as worse than death, and one that ironically brings things back full circle to where the ship was built.
The event saw the creation of new anti-piracy laws by NSW Governor Phillip King. Among these was the proclamation that vessels must sail in pairs between Port Jackson and the Hawkesbury River. It was also decided that vessels approached by pirates should cut their masts and run themselves aground, preventing any would-be captors from using them. Special axes were installed for the specific purpose of cutting into the hull to sink the boat. It is widely believed however that the fates of these 15 pirates significantly discouraged similar events from occurring.
Mysteriously, no traces of the original Norfolk have ever been found.