A history of harakeke flax on Norfolk Island

A history of harakeke flax on Norfolk Island

Science researcher Lara Shepherd recently spent a week on Norfolk Island collecting ferns. One non-fern plant she was particularly keen to see was harakeke (Phormium tenax), on which she has done recent genetic work. On Norfolk Island it is known as flax, and she uses that name here. What she hadn’t appreciated before the trip was the significance of flax to the settlement of Norfolk Island.

View of flax with dead flower stalks and some pines in the background on a cloudy day.
Flax (Phormium tenax) at the summit of Mt Pitt, Norfolk Island. Photo by Lara Shepherd. Te Papa

Captain Cook named and mapped Norfolk Island in 1774 during his second expedition into the Pacific. No one was living there at the time and they found no evidence of former settlement.

However, later archaeological research indicates Pasifika peoples had settled on the island for several generations sometime between 1150 and 1450 AD, and then disappeared for unknown reasons.

Flax was one of the first plant species on Norfolk Island noted by Cook. At the time hemp and a plant also called flax, but unrelated to the flax of Aotearoa New Zealand and Norfolk Island, were the primary fibre-producing plants in Europe used for making cloth and rope. Cook was familiar with the flax of Norfolk Island having seen it in Aotearoa New Zealand, where he was impressed with the quality of the garments made by Māori in the Marlborough Sounds.

Several years earlier Russia, the main supplier of sailcloth and rope for the Royal Navy, had restricted sales to England and Cook considered New Zealand flax as an alternative for making these vital supplies.

A purple-blue flower with five petals on a green stem.
Linum usitatissimum is known as flax in Europe, where it was used for making linen. It is also the source of linseeds. This flax is unrelated to the flax (harakeke) in Norfolk Island and Aotearoa New Zealand. Photo by plantsman via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Attempts to develop a flax industry

European settlement of Norfolk Island was prompted by the presence of New Zealand flax, along with the abundant Norfolk Island pines, which were considered promising for making ship masts. The lack of an indigenous population was also seen as an advantage.

The first European settlers (22 men, including 15 convicts, under the command of Lieutenant-Governor Phillip Gidley King) arrived in March 1788 from Sydney. They were instructed to ‘immediately proceed to the cultivation of the Flax Plant, which you will find growing spontaneously on the island.’

Two of the first settlers were men who understood the cultivation and dressing of flax. However, their knowledge was of the flax of Europe; not the flax from Aotearoa New Zealand and Norfolk Island.

A page of a old book with a drawing of a flax plant with leaves and one stem of flowers.
Raper, George, 1769-1797. Raper, George, 1769-1797: Flax plant of Norfolk Island. Geo. Raper. 1790 [New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax)]. Raper, George, 1769-1797: Birds of Australia and South Seas. Original drawings 1788-90. From E. Cane. Ref: E-327-f-060. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22700158
It took several weeks for the settlers to determine that the ‘large kind of iris’ that was abundant on the cliffs was indeed Captain Cook’s flax because it looked so different from the flax with which they were familiar. Cultivation proceeded but they were unable to prepare the fibres because the technique for preparing European flax is quite different to that required for the flax on Norfolk Island.

In 1791, King reported back to Sydney “every effort has been tryed to work it, but I much fear that until a native of New Zealand can be carried to Norfolk Island that the method of dressing that valuable commodity will not be known, and could that be obtained, I have no doubt but Norfolk Island would very soon cloath the inhabitants of New South Wales”.

Flax is common around the coasts of Norfolk Island. Photo by Lara Shepherd. Te Papa

The kidnap of Huru and Tuki

in 1792 two young Māori men, Huru and Tuki were kidnapped from Motukawanui Island in the Cavalli Islands of Northland and taken to Norfolk Island to teach the settlers how to prepare New Zealand flax fibre.

During their stay they were treated as guests, living with King and his family at Government House. However, they were of little assistance to the flax industry as it was women who prepared harakeke in Aotearoa New Zealand at the time. Huru and Tuki suggested that processed flax fibre could be obtained from Aotearoa New Zealand through trade with Māori for items such as metal tools.

Whilst on Norfolk Island Tuki produced one of the earliest drawn Māori maps of Aotearoa New Zealand and taught Governor King some Māori customs and language. Tuki and Huru were personally returned to Aotearoa New Zealand nine months later by King, who was presented with a cloak and two patu onewa from their families as thanks for their return. In 1993 the patu were returned to Huru and Tuki’s descendants, who gifted them to the people on Norfolk Island, in honour of their ancestors’ fond memories of the island. These patu are now on display in one of Norfolk Island’s museums.

These two patu were gifted to Governor King as thanks for the safe return of Huru and Tuki to New Zealand. Photo by Leon Perrie. Te Papa
These two patu onewa were gifted to Governor King as thanks for the safe return of Huru and Tuki to Aotearoa New Zealand. Photo by Leon Perrie. Te Papa

Hopes of producing New Zealand flax for export from Norfolk Island were eventually abandoned, as was the first settlement in 1814 (a second penal colony was established 11 years later).  However, the trade of flax from Māori producers in Aotearoa New Zealand to Australia began in the 1820s, where it was exported on to Europe.

New Zealand flax on Norfolk Island – native or introduced?

There has been debate about the origins of New Zealand flax on Norfolk Island: was it present before people arrived, or was it introduced by the early Pasifika settlers. Knowing whether a species is indigenous or introduced can be important for its management. We know bananas and kiore rats were introduced by the original inhabitants and obsidian artefacts found in archaeological sites on Norfolk Island have been shown to be sourced from Raoul Island in the Kermadec Islands.

Recent genetic research is consistent with flax being introduced to Norfolk Island. Genetically the Norfolk plants were very similar to harakeke from Northland, suggesting this region was their likely source.

In any case, flax signifies the strong connection between Aotearoa New Zealand and Norfolk Island, including their peoples.

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