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Pitcairn Island: In the Wake of the ‘Bounty’

The repository of more history – romantic history, bloody history, bogus history – than any other island in the Pacific

It presents a picture both awesome and eerie, one that makes the observer realize sombrely the extremes of loneliness

It was surely – on the part of whatever preternatural force or chemical mystery that created our planet – a volcanic afterthought. It rises like a green-and-brown iceberg from the azure immensity of the South Pacific, two degrees of latitude below the Tropic of Capricorn and 1,350 miles southeast of Tahiti. It is ringed perpetually with a collar of white, foaming water and has probably worn that ruff of crashing surf since the cosmic dawn. It was born from the sea floor in that volatile area where the vastest of all oceans runs out of islands. It qualifies as part of the South Seas, but only just. Between it and the frozen wastes of Antarctica lies hardly a speck of chartered land. It is among the world’s most remote inhabited islands, perhaps the most remote.

This is Pitcairn Island, the setting in 1790 for the final act of one of the greatest sea dramas of all time, the celebrated mutiny aboard His Majesty’s Armed Transport Vessel ‘Bounty’, which took place shortly after 4.30 am on 28 April 1789. Inch for inch, it is the repository of more history – romantic history, bloody history, bogus history – than any other island in the Pacific.


Seen from an approaching ship – and only rarely has it been surveyed from the air – Pitcairn is a majestic sight, imposing in a Gibraltar-like way. It has been likened by travellers to a crouching lion, but the simile failed to register on my imagination when I first had the good fortune to visit the island in 1989. Viewed at close quarters, its rock escarpments rising up sheer from the pounding breakers, clouds of Fairy terns and White-tailed tropicbirds wheeling high overhead, it presents a picture both awesome and eerie, one that makes the observer realize sombrely the extremes of loneliness. Once ashore, it offers on all sides the soft, natural beauty of the sub-tropics, the pastels of the hibiscus, the perfume of the jasmine, the tranquil grace of the pandanus palms.

The recent history of Pitcairn began in July 1767, when the island was discovered by the indefatigable British navigator Captain Philip Carteret in ‘HMS Swallow’ as she was beating her way south along the ebbing stream through unchartered waters.

“It is so high that we saw it at a distance of more than fifteen leagues,” Carteret penned in the ‘Swallow’s’ log, “and it having been discovered by Robert Pitcairn a young midshipman, son to Major John Pitcairn of the Royal Marines, we called it Pitcairn’s Island.” Some three years later, the same Major Pitcairn was to play a major role in the first act of a larger drama. He was in command of George III’s Royal Marines at Concord when the first shot was fired in the American War of Independence. He lived to take part in the Battle of Bunker Hill, but died of his wounds on the battlefield.

It is not known for sure, who first settled this small volcanic island. But settlers there were, for early explorers from Europe found many relics of Polynesian civilization, probably from Mangareva in the French Gambier Islands, some three hundred miles to the northwest, the southernmost point of the Tuamotu Archipelago. They discovered roughly-hewn stone gods guarding sacred sites; and to this day, carved in the cliff face at Down Rope are representations of animals and men; evidence that the island was inhabited in prehistoric times.

On his return to England in 1769 Carteret published an account of his voyage, including a description of Pitcairn, noting only that “Pitcairn’s Island” had lush vegetation and adequate rainfall, and appeared to be uninhabited. The tale of the mutiny which led to the founding of the Pitcairn community is well known.

The ‘Bounty’ was passing through the Tonga Group on her way home from Tahiti with a cargo of breadfruit trees for replanting in the West Indies. She was riding in gentle waters some thirty miles from the volcanic island of Tofua. The breeze had dropped during the night. The moon, in its first quarter, cast a ghostly light on the scene of an English ship with a strange cargo waiting for fresh winds to carry her on. Lieutenant William Bligh had retired early for the night after arranging to dine the following evening with Fletcher Christian, his second-in-command, having excused himself from the captain’s table that night on the grounds he was feeling unwell. Bligh was to be shaken awake shortly before dawn on the morning of 28 April to find himself the victim of what he would later describe as “one of the most atrocious acts of piracy ever committed.”

Wearing only his nightshirt, Bligh was pushed on deck where he was guarded by Christian holding a bayonet. When Bligh entreated Christian to be reasonable, Christian would only reply: “I am in hell, I am in hell, damn your blood!” Despite strong words and threats on both sides, the ship was taken without bloodshed and apparently without struggle by any of the loyalists except Bligh himself.

Christian ordered Bligh, the ship’s master, two midshipmen, the surgeon’s mate and the ship’s clerk into the ‘Bounty’s’ 23ft open launch. Without charts or chronometer and with minimal provisions, they were cast adrift. Several more men voluntarily joined Bligh rather than remaining aboard, as they knew that those who remained onboard would be considered ‘de jure’ mutineers under the Articles of War.

In all, eighteen of the loyal crew were in the launch with Bligh; four other loyalists were forced to stay with the mutineers and two passive crew members for fear of overloading the launch. With such meagre equipment for survival, Bligh led his crew to safety in an epic voyage covering 3,618 nautical miles in 41 days, reaching Timor in the Dutch East Indies.

The day before the mutiny, 27 April 1789, produced the final incident that has been identified as its possible cause – a row over a pile of coconuts. That men could mutiny over a pile of coconuts seems extraordinary; yet this is the incident that most naval historians, including Christian’s family have claimed as the cause of the mutiny. If this had been asserted by Bligh instead of by Bligh’s critics, it would have been seen as libel on Christian, for it makes his act of mutiny ridiculous if not insane. It is not surprising that Hollywood scriptwriters have had to use their imagination to create an image for Bligh that would justify Christian’s actions.

After returning to Tahiti to take on supplies, the ‘Bounty’ left the sheltered waters of the islands with Fletcher Christian and the final eight hard-line mutineers, Midshipman Edward ‘Ned’ Young , the gardener William Brown, and six seamen, Matthew Quintal, William McCoy, Alexander Smith, John Mills, John Williams and the American born Isaac Martin, setting out from Matavai Bay in search of the refuge that turned out to be Pitcairn’s Island. With them were six male islanders and nineteen females, plus the infant native girl from McCoy’s woman, Teio, or Mary, who had given birth only seven days earlier. One woman leapt overboard and swam ashore as the ship left Tahiti, and six women who were described as “rather ancient” were put ashore the next day at the neighbouring island of Eimeo, now Mo’orea.

Following the mutiny, Fletcher Christian attempted to establish a colony on Tubuai, but there the mutineers met with conflict with the local natives. Abandoning the island, the ‘Bounty’ returned briefly to Tahiti where Christian married Maimiti, the daughter of one of the local chiefs.

For the next two months, the ‘Bounty’ cruised aimlessly across the South Pacific, stopping occasionally at islands that appeared on the Admiralty charts, but only to take on fruit and water to supplement the supplies they took onboard in Tahiti.

In these discouraging weeks, Christian accidentally stumbled upon a reference to Pitcairn. In Bligh’s library he had found a leather-bound book entitled: ‘Hawkesworth’s Voyages’. A page was devoted to Captain Carteret’s description of Pitcairn’s Island, as it was then known, and an account of its discovery. It seemed to meet all his requirements – it was uninhabited, fertile, warm and well away from the area of French Polynesia which was becoming well known to the Royal Navy. The ‘Bounty’ was swung round and began a long southern detour of 1,000 miles to find it. Christian was not helped in this search by the fact that the charts had located Pitcairn about three degrees out of its true position. The descriptions of Pitcairn that he had were confirmed by the rugged appearance of the island when it finally appeared before them on 15 January 1790; there was no obvious place for landing, but though this made it difficult for them, it also made the island an unlikely place for a visit from a passing ship. For the purpose of fugitive mutineers the island seemed ideal.

Christian sailed around the isolated rock several times looking for an inlet or a bay where he could drop anchor. As skippers who followed him would later discover, he found Pitcairn a forbidding place for a landing. There was only one possibility, the little indentation which would later be raised to the status of a “bay”. With three of the Tahitians and three Englishmen, Christian went ashore in the ship’s cutter to reconnoitre. “With a joyful expression such as we had not seen on him for a long time past” it was later logged, Christian returned from the shore to report that the people who had once planted Pitcairn with coconut palms and breadfruit trees had either died or left it. The island was lonely and inaccessible; it exceeded his highest hopes.

The ‘Bounty’ was anchored in what is now called Bounty Bay and stripped of all her provisions, including hogs, chickens, yams, sweet potatoes, rope, nails and useful ships fittings, which were laboriously hauled up the aptly named Hill of Difficulty to the Edge, a small grassy plateau overlooking the Bay. Then, fearing that if any European vessel sighted the ship, retribution would inevitably follow, the mutineers ran the ‘Bounty’ onto a reef and set fire to her on 23 January 1790, leaving little remaining except the rudder and a 12ft stern anchor (which was later located and recovered from the shallows in 1957), leaving no trace of the vessel, or clue to their whereabouts visible from the sea.

Pitcairn Island missed being the first British settlement in the Pacific by only two years, for in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip R.N. had landed at Port Jackson, now Sydney Cove, so laying the foundations of the British Commonwealth in Australia.

The islanders continued to live in isolation until February 1808, when Captain Mayhew Folger of the American sealer ‘Topaz’ called at Pitcairn and discovered the secret of the ‘Bounty’ mutineers. In the small colony he found only one European still alive, eight middle aged Polynesian women and twenty six boys and girls of various ages. The sole European survivor was Alexander Smith, alias John Adams, seaman. Thereafter, British ships visited the island on a number of occasions, one of them bringing the Royal Pardon from Queen Victoria to John Adams, the only survivor of the original group of mutineers, who had established a model community on the island.

By 1831, the islanders had so thriven that the fear of over-population caused the removal of the whole community of 86 to Tahiti.

This move did not suit them, however, and the following year they all returned to Pitcairn. In 1838 the island was annexed as a British colony.

In 1856, when the population numbered 194, the British Government again removed them,

this time to Norfolk Island, off the east coast of Australia, where many of them remained. Eventually, homesickness caused a number of them to make their way back to their own island in 1863, to form the nucleus of the present population.

In 1898 Pitcairn Island was brought under the jurisdiction of the Western Pacific High Commissioner, who was also the Governor of Fiji. This jurisdiction was exercised for the next 20 years through the British Consul in Tahiti, and the nearby islands of Henderson, Ducie and Oeno were annexed in 1902 to form the Pitcairn Islands Group.

In 1970, when Fiji became independent, the Governorship was again transferred. Under the Pitcairn Order in Council 1970, the Queen appoints the Governor of Pitcairn, who is concurrently the British High Commissioner to New Zealand in Wellington.

Pitcairn is the only inhabited island of the group, situated as it is in the remote South Pacific Ocean at 25° 04’ S, 130° 06’ W. It is roughly equidistant from Panama and New Zealand and 1,350 miles (2,173 kilometres) east-south-east of French Polynesia (The Society Islands). Like the rest of the group, it is of volcanic origin. It rises to 1,100 feet (335 metres) and access from the sea even at Bounty Bay, the principal landing place, is extremely difficult.

The island is largely covered with secondary bush interspersed with grass, family gardens and fruit trees. Of the island’s 1,118 acres (452 hectares), Adamstown, the main settlement occupies about 60 acres (24.3 hectares) and the remainder was classified in 1958 as being suitable for gardens or arable farming – 272 acres (110 hectares), permanent tree crops – 302 acres (122.2 hectares) and forest – 484 acres (195.9 hectares). The soil is fertile and the vegetation luxuriant; tropical and subtropical trees and plants flourish.

The other islands in the group, Henderson, 105 miles (169 kilometres) east-north-east of Pitcairn; and Oeno, 75 miles (121 kilometres) to the north-west; and Ducie, 293 miles (472 kilometres) to the east are low coral atolls. The inhabitants of Pitcairn occasionally visit Henderson and Oeno for the collection of ‘miro’ wood (used for carving) and other purposes.

Pitcairn’s economy is at a subsistence level, the islanders being able to satisfy their basic needs from food-gardens and the fruits of the sea, which are boundless. Their limited monetary requirements are satisfied by allowances and wages gained from part time work for the Administration and from the sale of handicrafts and curios to passing ships and to overseas friends and relatives. Public revenue is derived almost solely from the sale of postage stamps and from interest on investments built up from former budget surpluses.

Exports comprise fruit, vegetables, honey and handicrafts (wood-carvings and baskets woven from the leaf of the pandanus palm),

which for the most part are offered for sale or barter to passing ships. Imports consist principally of building materials, clothing, food (cereals, eggs, cheese, fats, meat, milk, sugar and tinned foods), fuel, machinery parts, medicines and an occasional motorcycle.

The main subsistence crops grown are bananas, beans, peas, breadfruit, cabbages, citrus fruits, coconuts, avocados, ginger, guavas, papaya, mangoes, melons, pineapples, potatoes (including sweet potatoes), carrots, sweet corn, sugar cane, taro and tomatoes. Experiments have been made with new fruits and vegetables and with improved varieties of the old.

Pitcairn’s natural timber resources which had become seriously depleted by indiscriminate felling, are being gradually replaced by means of a reafforestation programme concentrated mainly on the expansion of the fruit and miro (Thespesia populnea) trees, but including Norfolk Island pines and the radiata pine.

The farm plots are based on the original division of the island by Fletcher Christian, such as Isaac’s Valley, Jim’s Ground, Brown’s Water and McCoy’s Valley. The land is held under a system of family ownership and, although alienation to foreigners is forbidden by law, it generally passes from hand to hand through marriage or inheritance.

Until 1964, the only wheeled vehicle on Pitcairn was the wheel-barrow but the introduction in 1965 of two tractors (one with a bulldozer blade), some of the former bush tracks were converted into light mud roads and bicycles, motorcycles and Mini Mokes have since been imported. Today, the majority of the islanders use Quad Bikes as the primary means of transportation on the island.

The three longboats used by the islanders, ‘Tin’, ‘Tub’ and ‘Moss’ are reputedly made in the pattern of a whaleboat given to the island by Queen Victoria. With the decline of manpower they are no longer rowed but engine-powered. Until 1960 wharfage at Bounty Bay was almost non-existent, the facilities for the handling of boats and cargo were very primitive, but with the aid of grants from Britain the jetty has been extended and other facilities have been improved and augmented.

Communications with the outside world are maintained, albeit in diminishing numbers by the passing cargo or cruise ship, although in 2009 with the introduction of the Pitcairn Islands Tourism Authority, the Government is now operating the ‘MV Claymore II’, the island’s only dedicated passenger/cargo vessel providing tourists with adventure tourism holidays to Pitcairn for three or ten day visits.

My first visit to Pitcairn in 1989 was long and arduous, for at that time there were only a few cargo ships that visited the island, and my passage was reliant on the hospitality and goodwill of the captain, but if you enjoy a passion for adventure and have a month to spare it is now far easier to visit this remote archipelago.

Visitors to Pitcairn today usually start their journey flying from their homeland via Auckland, Los Angeles or Tokyo to Tahiti in French Polynesia. Once you arrive in Tahiti, you will likely spend a few nights in a hotel or pension until you join the Air Tahiti Nui flight to Mangareva in the Gambier Islands. On arrival at Mangareva’s tiny Totegegie Airport, little over 300 miles west north-west of Pitcairn, you will take the short ferry ride from the airport to Rikitea village to board the ‘MV Claymore II’. Here, you will be met by the captain and crew at the wharf and transferred directly to the ship to ready yourself for your final 32 hour ocean crossing to Pitcairn.

There are now 14 different accommodation options on Pitcairn, ranging from full board home stays, semi-private studio apartments and 2 and 3 bedroom fully furnished apartments, including Jacqui Christian’s famous ‘Down Flatcher’, a delightful property built on the site where Fletcher Christian and Maimiti built their home after the mutiny, Heather and Kerry Young’s beautiful ‘Big Flower’, or Dennis and Irma Christian’s ‘Down Thornton’, right in the centre of Adamstown. Pitcairn is known the world over for the welcoming and open hearted hospitality of its people. When you stay with one of Pitcairn’s accommodation providers you will have the unique opportunity of experiencing the everyday lives of the islanders, sharing their homes, culture, language and lifestyle.

In cooperation with the Navy Office in Wellington, regular communication was established by radio in 1940 and improved in 1944. In 1952 additional short-wave facilities were introduced and in 1962 the radio station on Taro Ground was completely rebuilt, with financial assistance from the British Government. It now maintains two schedules daily, except Saturdays, with Suva in Fiji. The islanders can also communicate with each other by means of two multi-party telephone lines and marine band walkie-talkie radios. There is also one Government-sponsored satellite internet connection, with networking provided to the inhabitants of the island, and there are now two live English TV channels from satellite, CNN and Turner Classic Movies.

There are many reminders of the island’s ‘Bounty’ origins all over Pitcairn, including the famous Bounty Bible, which was originally kept in a glass case in the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Adamstown, until the Pitcairn Island Museum was built in 2004. One of the ‘Bounty’s’ twelve-foot stern anchors, salvaged by Luis Marden in 1957, stands on a plinth between the Court House and General Post Office in the Square, and there’s a cannon from the ‘Bounty’ further along the road which was raised by the islanders in 1999.

The only known grave site of a ‘Bounty’ mutineer on Pitcairn is that of John Adams, who changed his name from Alexander Smith, perhaps hoping to avoid arrest if the feared Royal Navy should ever apprehend him. Under the shadow of Garnet’s Ridge, high above Adamstown is the yawning cave in which Fletcher Christian is said to have spent many hours meditating and watching for passing ships. Although Christian’s Cave is now clearly visible from the sea, it was previously concealed by vines and lofty trees which would have afforded him a safe retreat. If you call at Pitcairn, you will see a unique community of Anglo-Tahitian descent which turned a naval mutiny into a celebrated romance.

If like me you have a touch of exploration and adventure in your soul, close your eyes and imagine a South Pacific island. You might see a thatched roofed bungalow perched high above the crystal clear waters of an inviting blue lagoon. And then you become part of the vision, adorned in hibiscus and immersing yourself in the history that surrounds you. Come to Pitcairn Island and find yourself in this dream. And it’s just possible, that in common with the ‘Bounty’ mutineers that you’ll never want to say goodbye.

- Peter Holthusen


Middle Image - The only known grave site of a ‘Bounty’ mutineer on Pitcairn is that of John Adams, who changed his name from Alexander Smith until he was discovered in 1808. It has a replacement headstone, the original lead-covered wooden grave marker having been taken back to England in the 1850’s, where it is now on display in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Bottom Image (left) - Under the shadow of Garnet’s Ridge, high above Adamstown is the yawning cave in which Fletcher Christian is said to have spent many hours meditating and watching for passing ships.

Bottom Image (right) - Looking down on The Landing in Bounty Bay from the top of the aptly named Hill of Difficulty, close to the small grassy plateau where the mutineers laboriously hauled up everything they could salvage from the ‘Bounty’ before running the ship onto a reef and setting fire to her.


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