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Australian protectorates

Australian States and Territories

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Lasunccty – Accessed 7 October 2020

Australia has external territories in the Indian Ocean, Coral Sea, Tasman Sea and Southern Ocean, these protectorates are: Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Ashmore Reef and Cartier Island, Coral Sea Islands Territory, Subantarctic Islands, Macquarie Island, Heard and McDonald Islands.

Biologically island floras are prized for their high endemism and the important insights they can give into biogeography, plant evolution, naturalisation, island colonization and ecology.

Norfolk Island

On the same latitude as Coffs Harbour the sub-tropical the 2 million-year-old volcanic Norfolk Island (8 km x 5 km, 35 sq km) is 1,500 km east of the mainland on the submarine Norfolk Ridge (once part of Zealandia, a submerged continent that sank 60-85 million years ago) which extends from the North Island of New Zealand to New Caledonia. Nearest islands Lord Howe, New Caledonia,and the Kermedec Islands north of New Zealand.


Norfolk Island

Duncombe Bay
James Cook‘s landing point on the north-east coast on 10 October 1774


Settlement of the islands is divided into four periods: Polynesian occupation (c. 1,000 to 1,400 CE); First Convict Settlement (1788-1814); Second Convict Settlement of Kingston (1825-1856); Pitcairn Islander settlement occurred on 8 June 1856 (celebrated on the island as ‘Bounty Day’) when 194 descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives who had been struggling with overpopulation on Pitcairn Island, with Queen Victoria’s approval were transported across the Pacific to occupy the old military site at Kingston.

Norfolk Island played a key role in the early history of Australia as, from the time it was first observed by Cook in 1774, it was perceived as a source of straight-trunked ‘pines’ (Araucaria heterophylla) suitable for ships masts, and ‘flax’ (Phormium tenax) that could be used for sails and ropes, both materials being in short supply at this time. There were other strategic reasons: to deter the French from any designs on the island and also, after the convict settlement at Sydney Cove, as a place with arable soil that could be farmed to supplement the precarious food supply in Sydney.

The earlier Polynesian presence was evident through the presence of bananas on the island and the assumed site of occupation at Emily Bay has been the site of archaeological excavations. The second settlement as a penal colony was a time of great cruelty when up to 4,000 convicts were jailed on the island under harsh military supervision, the buildings at Kingston now a World Heritage Site and claimed as the oldest Georgian settlement in the Southern Hemisphere. Today descendants of the Bounty mutineers make up nearly half of the population while the population of Pitcairn Island is currently a sustainable 55 people.


First Settlement landing point

Site of Norfolk Island’s first settlement landing on 6 March 1788of HMS Supply carrying 15 convicts and 7 free men under the command of Philip Gidley King. The First Fleet had arrived in Botany Bay on 18 January 1788. Norfolk Island Pines (Araucaria heterophylla) in the background. Photo Roger Spencer – May 2013.


The island, originally covered in vegetation, was largely cleared for pasture by the end of the Second Convict Settlement with 18% of its surface area now making up the 650 ha Norfolk Island National Park (established in 1985 and managed by Parks Australia, with Phillip Island added in 1996) in the north-west where the highest ground occurs, Mt Bates (321 m) and Mt Pitt (320 m). Pigs, goats and rabbits introduced to Phillip Island during the Second Settlement, partly as hunting entertainment for the military, were to later prove a menace, these following the earlier Polynesianlier introduction of the Polynesian rat.Though the vegetation has been greatly affected by human activity it is remarkable that only seven species are known to have become extinct in the Norfolk Island Group which includes the small Nepean Island and Philip Island just off the southern coast.

Accounts of the history of botanical collection on the island are given in Peter Green’s most recent and comprehensive account of the Flora (1994) but also in Kevin Mills’s commentary on Cunningham’s journal (2012). Mills also, in 2010, produced an updated list of native and naturalised plants for the Norfolk Island Group (Norfolk Island, Nepean Island and Phillip Island). Then ther is Peter Coyne’s popular book Norfolk Island’s Fascinating Flora (2011) which contains a brief botanical history and an account of the traditional use of the plants on the island by Rachel Nebauer-Borg. This book is well illustrated and describes the major plants, including their conservation status even stating the number of individual plants within the more important conservation categories known to be in existence in 2003.

European discovery and naming of Norfolk Island occurred when James Cook and a party came ashore at Duncombe Bay on 10 Oct. 1774 during his second voyage of exploration in HMS Resolution. Cooks botanists on this expedition were Johann Forster and his son Georg who had also been joined by Linnaeus’s pupil Anders Sparrmann when the ship put in at the Cape on the way out.

From Nov. 1791 to Mar. 1793 William Paterson (commemorated in the name Lagunaria patersonia which is a common tree on the island where it is called White Oak), who was in charge of a military detachment, made an annotated list of 48 species with illustrations by his convict servant John Doody. Then in 1804-5 botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer was marooned on the island for eight months during which he made plant collections and completed 152 illustrations that were to become part of the island’s first flora Prodromus Florae Norfolkiae (1833) written, surprisingly, by a professor of botany in Vienna, Stephan Endlicher (1804-1849). About 50 new species were named, mostly endemics, the Flora being based almost entirely on Bauer’s collections.

Joseph Banks‘s botanical collector Allan Cunningham worked for four months on Norfolk Island in 1830, from 10 May to 11 Sept., an extended stay as poor weather prevented ships from landing (a problem to this day). His 19-page handwritten journal is based on field notebooks and is the only substantial nineteenth century account of the flora of the island by someone who had actually worked there. Cunningham noted the similarity of the flora with that of New Zealand (it shares about 33% of its indigenous flora with New Zealand) and he recorded 104 species although not all of these had been described.[7] Specimens collected on Norfolk Island were returned to Sydney on the Lucy Ann. Five months later in 1831 Cunningham returned to England aboard HMS Forth bound for Kew Gardens. Norfolk Island collections were included among his other collections which occupied ‘28 cabins, cases and packages‘.[8] He would return to New South Wales in 1837 to become Director of the Botanic Gardens once again but died in 1838 aged 48. A prolific collector he named very few of his novel finds himself and none from Norfolk Island.

Other short visits by botanists included that of George Caley also visited the island from Oct. to Nov. in 1805 and some observations were made on the Flora by James Backhouse who visited the island in 1835.

The first modern account of the island flora was by Joseph Maiden who visited the island in 1902, publishing his findings in 1904, this account being updated by New Zealand botanist Robert Laing in 1914.

Major vegetational change has occurred on the island as a result of human occupation. At settlement the entire island was covered in dense forest which now only occurs in the highest parts. By Nov 1788 the population was 62 and in 1790 a penal settlement was established. Tree clearing was rapid and by 1856, when a second penal settlement was closed, only about one fifth of the original native forest remained. At the First Settlement in 1788 bananas were found, left by the Polynesians. Cunningham’s journal reporting on the Second Settlement ‘Both military and Civil offices have each their separate plots of garden ground, which produce abundances of all kinds of vegetables, when sheltered by Hedges in protections from easterly winds, to the blighting effects of which the Settlement, in consequence of an injudicious clearing away originally of the standing timber, is very much exposed’. Farms had been given to freemen and the industrious but had to be abandoned in 1814. Today there is a mix of market-gardening horticulture including bananas, sugar and a commercial Kentia Palm industry and crops grown in the past have included arrowroot, potatoes, onions, lemons for peel supplied to the mainland, bean seed and bananas and a supply of seasonal local produce to the shops and farmers’ market. About 66% of the flora is introduced and the land degraded by the introduction of the Black Rat, Rattus rattus in 1943, about the same time as the completion of the air strip. There was a brief period of whaling from 1859-1862. A botanical garden, also managed by Parks Australia, contains a valuable sample of lowland rainforest. A banyan near the airport has spread to cover an area of approximately 1 acre and a short avenue of Moreton Bay figs, said to be planted in the 1840s display remarkable buttressed roots.

With the construction of the airfield mainlanders became regular visitors and the tourism, on which the island now depends, began. The present population is about 2000.

Lord Howe Island

Lord Howe Island covers about 17 sq km. It was first sighted on 17 Feb 1788 by HMS Supply carrying the settlers to Norfolk Island and visited on its return. There are no signs of habitation. It was first settled in 1834 by New Zealanders, 3 men and their Maori wives whose stocks were replenished by passing vessels as it became a trading post. By 1869 the population had grown to 35 and Charles Moore made some botanical collections and observations and these were extended by John Duff of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney on a visit in 1882. A palm seed industry developed in the 1880s for export to Britain, America and Europe as Kentia palms and this persists today as a source of income. The present population is constant at about 320 with tourist numbers limited.

Christmas Island

The Tropical and volcanic Christmas Island[2] is about 360 km south of Djakarta towards the western tip of Java, and covers 137 sq km, four times the area of Norfolk Island. It rises to 361 m above sea level in a series of terraces and cliffs. Limestone from coral has formed a crust over most of the island and colonies of seabirds have produced phosphate-rich soil which covers much of the limestone on the plateau and terraces. Extensive phosphate mining over the last century has resulted in large-scale clearance of the native forest. There is no indigenous population. European settlement began in 1888 to exploit the phosphate but by 1988 the population of 1500 consisted of Malay-Chinese mine workers. The native vegetation arrived by sea, wind or bird dispersal but in recent times plants associated with habitation have been introduced including the weeds Mimosa indivisa and M. pudica which were first recorded in the 1960s and now form impenetrable scrub on cleared land. A National Park of 91 sq m was established in 1980. There are 16 endemic species.

Cocos (Keeling) Iss

Cocos (Keeling) Islands[3] in the Indian Ocean are about 900 km from Sumatra and about 920 km from Christmas Island and 2100 km from Australia’s North West Cape. They consist of two sea atolls, North Keeling Island and the southern atoll, on a volcanic base with coralline sand and rubble on coralline and algal limestone. The highest point is a dune 9 m above sea level. Charles Darwin visited the atolls in 1836 in the Beagle and they provided data for his studies of reefs. On this visit 21 indigenous and 3 introduced plants were recorded and Darwin’s collections are housed in Cambridge. Further collections were made in 1879 by Henry O. Forbes and Henry B. Guppy in 1888 now housed in Kew, further collecting was done between 1961 and 1987. Unlike Christmas Island the soils are purely coralline with a humic layer under forest. Possibly discovered between 1607 and 1610 by Captain William Keeling and shown on Dutch ans French maps as Cocos islands. The islands were settled in 1826 by about 100 people, mostly Malayan, to establish trade in copra and coconut oil. John Clunies Ross and a party of about 20 people settled shortly after, establishing a trading depot. In 1978 the islands were purchased from the Clunies-Ross family by the Australian Government. The naturalised Panama Cherry (Muntingia calabura) and Pawpaw (Carica papaya) provide fruit.

Ashmore Reef & Cartier Is

Ashmore Reef and Cartier Island[4] are about 500 km north of Derby, Western Australia, in the Timor Sea. First recorded European sighting was in 1811 by Samuel Ashmore as coral and sand and three low vegetated and uninhabited islands. Although Britain took possession of Ashmore Reef in 1878 and Cartier Island in 1909, in 1931 they were placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia, annexed to the Northern Territory in 1938, and designated a nature reserve in 1983. A vital bird breeding ground for sea birdsthat have left a cover of phosphate-rich soil. Indonesian fishermen have used the islands as a traditional fishing ground, planting coconuts and maize. Also camping by oil and navigation personnel. There are feral rats and mice on the three main islands, two about half a km long and one about 1 km.

Coral Sea Is Territory

The Coral Sea Island Territory[5] consists of about 46 cays in the south-western Coral Sea. The islands are the tips of reef platforms that have grown on submarine plateaus and most only rise 1-3 m above high water mark with a maximum of 5 m on cays where trees can grow. Soils derive from coralline and algal limestone sometimes with guano accumulation. Twenty two cays support plant – herbs, shrubs and a few with low forest. European discovery was in 1803 when the islands were spotted by a British 3-ship convoy returning to Britain from Port Jackson. Some guano mining was done in the 1860s and a meteorological station was sited on Willis Is in 1922, otherwise the islands are uninhabited. Part of the area was gazetted as the Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserve in 1982. The earliest plant collections were made in 1858-9 during hydrographic surveys by the English Royal Navy and are housed at Kew (K). The first comprehensive collections were made in 1960-61 on scientific expeditions for CSIRO and the Australian Museum with K. Keith as botanical collector, the specimens housed in Canberra (CANB). A number of surveys by the ANPWS have taken place since 1967.

Macquarie, Heard & McDonald Iss

The subantarctic islands Macquarie and Heard Islands[6] lie at the point of the ‘Antarctic convergence’ where cold water flowing NE from Antarctica meets and sinks below warm south-flowing surface water. Macquarie Is is on the warm side of the current and Heard on the cold side but with temperature differences of only 2oC there is nevertheless a large difference in the biota they support. Macquarie Island is assumed to be oceanic crust arising from the sea 90,000 to 200,000 years ago: temperatures vary about 1-1.5oC daily and 4-4.5oC annually with annual rainfall of 1050 mm, almost constant cloud and heavy winds. It is 35 km long and 3 km at its widest rising to peaks about 350 m tall: it has some freshwater lakes. The moss and lichen flora is rich there being over 91 moss specie being on record. The island was first sighted and claimed for Britain in July 1810 when looking for new sealing grounds. It was annexed to the colony of New South Wales and named after its Governor. In 1900 it became part of the state of Tasmania, in 1978 a Tasmanian State Reserve and, in 1997, a World Heritage Site. Ecologically, it is part of the Antipodes Subantarctic Islands tundra ecoregion. Heard is the largest (about 700 sq km) of a small group of islands and an active volcano, the highest peak 2745 m. There is high cloud cover, annual rainfall of 1360 mm and mean annual temperature of about 1oC. Only 11 species have been recorded although the moss flora is rich. Populations of elephant, fur and leopard seals, as well as penguins are still recovering from the heavy hunting (almost to extinction) by sealers in the 19th century.

Summary – vascular plant species


Total no. speciese = endemicn = naturalised % n % e
Lord Howe Is. 459 (218 n, 105 e) 47.5 44
Norfolk Is. 445 (274 n, 47 e) 62 27.5
Christmas Is. 411 (174 n, 16 e) 42 4
Cocos (Keeling) Iss 130 45 < 1
Ashmore Reef & Cartier Is 27 (4 n) 15
Coral Sea Island Territory 26 (5 n) 19
Macquarie Is 46 (3 n, 1 e) 7 2
Heard & McDonald Iss 12 (1 n) 8


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . revised 7 October 2020

Page Menu


... Norfolk Island

... Lord Howe Island

... Christmas Island

... Cocos Keeling Iss

... Ashmore Reef/Cartier Iss

... Coral Sea Territory

... Macq'ie/Heard/McD'ld Iss



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