As an Australian, I live on an island continent. But in a land where the horizon stretches as far as the eye can see across plains and mountains, it’s hard to remember that it is actually an island. It’s only when you see our continent suspended in all that ocean on a map that you have a sense of its ‘girtness’ by the surrounding sea. In fact, at the risk of sounding mawkish, I often feel a throb of love when I see Australia on a world map, so complete and self-contained.
I’ve been thinking about islands a lot while up at Norfolk Island last week. It’s only small- 36 square kilometres- and has no safe harbour. You can easily drive from one side of the island to the other and all around you is water, stretching on forever. I found it to be breathtakingly beautiful and I wondered if even convicts sometimes looked up to the sky, or out to the ocean on a calm day and found any beauty in it at all.
Islands have long been used as places of exile, both in the past and today: St Helena, Robben Island, Christmas Island and Norfolk Island itself. Of course the coastline and expanse of water provides its own form of imprisonment, but I think that there’s another aspect of exile at play. For our own Christmas Island , there has been the ugly term “excision” to describe the deliberate, surgical cutting out of the island and beaches from the nation as a body, to ensure that anyone who lands there can have no access to the courts.
I think about Norfolk Island in the Second settlement phase and the absolute power of the Commandants who could choose to use or abuse it, and the tenuousness of the links to British Justice. Justices Dowling and Burton visited the island as Supreme Court judges, but only for brief stints, then returned to Sydney. That, I think, is the ultimate exile: that you can suffer and die by the whim of others; that no-one need know, and there is no brake on the cruelty of the authorities should they exert themselves in that way.
It is a paradox to be exposed to the vast, limitless expanse of sky and ocean, and yet feel claustrophobic.