When museum staff opened a supposedly secured container holding one of their most treasured items last Friday afternoon, they discovered the Great Seal of Norfolk Island had been stolen.
The brazen theft of an artefact symbolising Norfolk Island’s identity may have sparked a locked-room mystery in the South Pacific, but it has also exposed the struggle for the soul of a most storied island.
The Norfolk Island Museum Trust’s chair, Rhonda Griffiths, said in the days since the heist, her emotions had “gone from shock, horror and nausea to outrage”. The sterling silver and ivory seal was taken off public display in late 2019, but was recently brought out of its secure and climate-controlled storage after a viewing request from a community member.
Griffiths said the seal was made in 1856 on the order of Queen Victoria, when she gave over the abandoned prison colony island to the Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers who had outgrown the island upon which they had developed their own language and culture.
“This is a tangible object that recognises us as distinct and represents everything we believe in,” she said.
A member of the council of elders who can trace her lineage to the mutineers and their Tahitian wives, Griffiths said the theft was all the more upsetting given there was “very little the community actually owns”.
In 2015 the Australian government – from 1,900km away – abolished the island’s assembly, and it has since been subject to federal and New South Wales state laws. Last year, the Australian government also dismissed the Norfolk Island Regional Council, appointing an administrator for the next three years.
But whereas those were incursions from outsiders, Griffiths said she believed the seal was stolen by one of the 2,000 or so people who call Norfolk home. “As well as our political institutions, we’ve had our archives and our health records all taken away under the dead of night, not knowing where they go,” she said.
“I think this is what has motivated this theft – we have to assume that this may have been an islander making a political statement.” While Griffiths said she was “as frustrated as the next islander” about the political situation, the theft was “not achieving anything”.
Local business owner Brett Sanderson, of Pitcairn descent and a Norfolk Islander “through and through”, is among those frustrated by the takeover of the island. Sanderson described the theft of the seal as “disgusting” and said he wanted to see the item returned.
But Sanderson was more riled by the loss of local autonomy of schools, facilities and the museum itself.
“It is upsetting,” he said of the seal heist. “But what is more upsetting is the theft of the museums – they belong to the people of Norfolk Island.” The museum is administered by Australia’s Department of Infrastructure.
“But a lot of the pieces [in its collection] came from Pitcairn, when our ancestors moved here in 1856,” Sanderson said. “So who owns those items now, if the department has taken over museums?”
The department said the Great Seal was “an important part of the identity and history of the Norfolk Island community”.
“While the Imperial Seal has no legal or official use, the design on the artefact is frequently used as an emblem for Norfolk Island,” a department spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said security and access arrangements for the collections were being reviewed.
The Australian federal police, which services Norfolk Island, are investigating. They did not respond to questions about what punishment the culprit might receive on the once infamous penal colony should they be caught.
But Griffiths said she was only interested in returning the seal.
“I don’t care who’s got it, just ring me up and I’ll come and pick it up from anywhere,” she said.