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Pitcairn Island: Paradise, Paradox


As I write this, on the desk beside me is a photograph of Charles Christian, seventh generation descendent of Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. The photo was taken on Pitcairn Island by my niece, Eliza, during a recent voyage around the world.

 

Charles Christian, great, great, great, great grandson of mutineer Fletcher Christian. Credit: Photo © by Eliza PriestYou have heard, of course, of the mutiny on the Bounty. Everyone has. Have you ever wondered whether that ordeal was fact or fiction? Have you ever heard of Pitcairn Island? Pitcairn is a tiny South Pacific isle, one by two miles, in the middle of nowhere. It lies 3,300 miles from New Zealand and 4,000 miles from Chile. It has 50 residents. There are almost no other human settlements for over a thousand miles in any direction. It has no airport. It is approachable only by sea and there is no scheduled maritime service. The health of the community is looked after by a registered nurse from a small dispensary.

How does this remote place relate to the notorious mutiny over two centuries ago? Pitcairn is living testimony to what transpired. The island and the mutiny are eternally entwined, and therein lies our tale. Let’s begin with the purpose of the Bounty’s voyage. It was to procure breadfruit plantings from Tahiti and transport them to the Caribbean. Transplanted, they would provide food for slaves. The crew worked for five months to gather and stow a sufficient number of plants aboard Bounty. During that time—in stark contrast to their regimented life aboard ship—they were free to roam the land, associate with Tahitian women, eat, drink, and behave as they pleased. And they reveled in it.

With the cargo finally aboard, Bounty set sail for the Caribbean, Lieutenant William Bligh in command. Twenty-four days into the voyage, the unthinkable occurred. The following is Bligh’s entry into the ship’s log for 28 April, 1789: "Just before Sunrise Mr Christian and the Master at Arms... came into my cabin while I was fast asleep, and seizing me tyed my hands with a Cord & threatened instant death if I made the least noise. I however called sufficiently loud to alarm the Officers, who found themselves equally secured by centinels at their doors... Mr Christian had a Cutlass & the others were armed with Musquets & bayonets. I was now carried on deck in my Shirt, in torture with a severe bandage round my wrists behind my back, where I found no man to rescue me..."

Many theories exist about the insurrection. The two principals were astonishingly young, Bligh only 33, Christian 23. Bligh was a perfectionist and had little tolerance for those not sharing his devotion to duty and detail. His temper was legendary, and he could deliver formidable tongue-lashings. Those qualities did nothing to endear him to his coarse and violent crew, especially a crew despondent about leaving Tahiti. Conditions were ripe for a revolt. When it came it was swift and decisive. Twelve crew members led by Fletcher Christian, the ship’s second-in-command, seized the vessel, a crime punishable by hanging.

The mutineers placed Bligh and eighteen of his followers in an open 23-foot launch and set them adrift at sea. In an epic feat of navigation, Bligh traveled 3,600 miles in the long boat, without loss of life on board, to Kupang in the Dutch East Indies. Eventually he made it all the way back to England. Christian turned the Bounty around and headed back to Tahiti where the mutineers enlisted women in their scheme. Together they would proceed elsewhere—where they did not know—to avoid detention and start a new life.

When Christian departed Tahiti, not all of the crew sailed with him. After Bligh arrived in England, a search vessel was dispatched. Crew members on Tahiti were found and transported home. When their vessel sank, three died by drowning, but most made it to England and were court martialled. Some were acquitted, some were found guilty and pardoned, and three were hanged. When Christian sailed from Tahiti, with him were 8 mutineers and 19 Polynesians, 12 women, an infant and—strangely enough—6 men. For two months they plied the seas, searching for a place where they would never be discovered. They explored the Cook Islands, Tonga, and the eastern islands of Fiji. Imagine the anxiety, anticipation, and bewilderment they must have felt, facing the unknown and hoping for the perfect hideaway. At last they found an island that was exotic, tropical, breathtaking, and as far from civilization as one could imagine.

View from inside Christian’s Cave, Eliza (left) and her friend far above the ocean and their sailing ship Concordia. Credit: Photo © by Eliza Priest Christian went ashore to investigate. He returned to tell his anxious comrades that breadfruit and coconuts were abundant. With food from the ship's stores, they would have plenty to eat. This would be their home. The excited flock disembarked to explore their long-sought refuge. It was Pitcairn Island. After celebrating, they stripped the ship of everything removable. Then, to ensure that they would forever remain undetectable, they did something so momentous that it must have taken all their resolve—and they lived to regret it. They ran the ship aground and set it afire. It sank near what is now known as Bounty Bay. Their fate was sealed. Unless they were discovered—God forbid—they would never leave the island.

 

The early days on Pitcairn must have been exhilarating, splendid, and filled with promise. It was Shangri-la, paradise, utopia. There were no ties to the past, no debts, no prisons, no captains; only a free and pristine existence. One joyous day the first child was born, Thursday October Christian, Fletcher's son. But things took a turn for the worse, and it soon became painfully apparent that this paradise was not to be.

The settlers’ dreams turned into their worst nightmares. Illness, revolution, murder, execution, and suicide were calamities that besieged their small company. Three years after their arrival, Christian and several other mutineers were killed by the Polynesian men. A year later, only four mutineers were alive. The women tried to flee the island, but were prohibited by the men. All six Polynesian men met with violent deaths, either at the hands of the mutineers or their own compatriots. How these tormented wayfarers must have often longed for the Bounty—defunct in its watery grave—to escape a living hell.

By 1800, ten years after their arrival, only one male of the original party was alive. He was John Adams, a cockney orphan once known as "restless Jack Adams." He became patriarch of a colony of 10 women and 23 children. Under his leadership, Pitcairn became peaceful. In 1808, the colonists were finally detected when they were visited by an American sealing captain. He composed a report but it aroused little interest in England, then heavily occupied with the Napoleonic Wars. Six years later, two British naval vessels rediscovered Pitcairn. The commanders were impressed by the simplicity and piety of the islanders, and by John Adams’ leadership. They concluded that—25 years after the mutiny—it would be "an act of great cruelty and inhumanity" to arrest him. Known as "father" by every member of the community, Adams died there in 1829 at the age of 62.

Burial site of John Adams, patriarch of Pitcairn. Credit: Photo © by Eliza Priest What’s the island like today? Enter my niece, Eliza. As a student in Class Afloat Alive! she recently circumnavigated the globe on the 188-foot Barkentine tall ship Concordia. One of their stops was on Pitcairn Island. To Eliza, it was the most fascinating one of all. Fifty people live on the island in a scattered settlement called Adamstown. Two centuries after the mutiny, all the inhabitants are—most amazingly—direct descendants of the mutineers. Part Polynesian and part English, some are dark-skinned and dark-haired, and some are light. They speak perfect English with visitors. But among themselves they speak a staccato and choppy tongue, a mixture of English and Tahitian called Pitcairnese.

The islanders love visitors. When a ship arrives, a bell rings that can be heard all over the island. They rush out in long boats, board the vessel, and barter with wood carvings and weavings for whatever they can acquire. Since they have no hotel, they select which visitors—if any—they will take into their homes. Sixty guests came from Eliza’s ship, more than doubling the population of the island. Charles Christian, middle-aged and a direct descendent of Fletcher Christian, chose Eliza and her friend. The community is closely knit. His daughter lives but 20 feet away, and Eliza went there for dinner. The house was spacious and many visitors were present. They dined on delicious fare of seafood and tropical fruit.

The telephone system is communal. When a call comes, everyone with a telephone hears it ring. But each home is assigned a different set of rings, and if it’s not your ring you don’t pick up. In their spare time the Pitcairners scuba dive around the wreckage of the Bounty. In the town square children play on the immense, rusted anchor of the ship. The Bounty Bible is preserved inside a case in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the only house of worship on Pitcairn.

After finding the island, Fletcher Christian lived but three years. It is thought that he was racked by guilt after casting Bligh and his followers adrift, never knowing the successful outcome of their epic voyage. Christian’s Cave is a place where he went to be alone.

Christian's Cave, where Fletcher Christian went for solitude. Credit: Photo © by Eliza Priest But in locating Pitcairn, Fletcher did his job well. The authorities didn’t find the fugitives until it was too late. What do the islanders think of living on Pitcairn today? This is my guess. It’s tropical, they own it, and they’re free. That’s just about what the mutineers had in mind. They just couldn’t stay around long enough to enjoy it. But seven generations later, their descendants are doing just fine.

Copyright ©1999 by James D. Priest

The following sources were used in preparing this article. The web sites provide abundant travel information about Pitcairn Island.

http://library.puc.edu/pitcairn/index.html
http://www.visi.com/~pjlareau//
http://www.slnsw.gov.au/ml/mss/bligh.htm
http://www.sitesalive.com/cal/98f/ca98ffin.htm
http://crash.ihug.co.nz/~gsnell/map.htm
http://www.mc-monaco.com/geovoyages/

View from inside Christian’s Cave, Eliza (left) and her friend far above the ocean and their sailing ship Concordia. Credit: Photo © by Eliza Priest Christian went ashore to investigate. He returned to tell his anxious comrades that breadfruit and coconuts were abundant. With food from the ship's stores, they would have plenty to eat. This would be their home. The excited flock disembarked to explore their long-sought refuge. It was Pitcairn Island. After celebrating, they stripped the ship of everything removable. Then, to ensure that they would forever remain undetectable, they did something so momentous that it must have taken all their resolve—and they lived to regret it. They ran the ship aground and set it afire. It sank near what is now known as Bounty Bay. Their fate was sealed. Unless they were discovered—God forbid—they would never leave the island.

The early days on Pitcairn must have been exhilarating, splendid, and filled with promise. It was Shangri-la, paradise, utopia. There were no ties to the past, no debts, no prisons, no captains; only a free and pristine existence. One joyous day the first child was born, Thursday October Christian, Fletcher's son. But things took a turn for the worse, and it soon became painfully apparent that this paradise was not to be.

The settlers’ dreams turned into their worst nightmares. Illness, revolution, murder, execution, and suicide were calamities that besieged their small company. Three years after their arrival, Christian and several other mutineers were killed by the Polynesian men. A year later, only four mutineers were alive. The women tried to flee the island, but were prohibited by the men. All six Polynesian men met with violent deaths, either at the hands of the mutineers or their own compatriots. How these tormented wayfarers must have often longed for the Bounty—defunct in its watery grave—to escape a living hell.

By 1800, ten years after their arrival, only one male of the original party was alive. He was John Adams, a cockney orphan once known as "restless Jack Adams." He became patriarch of a colony of 10 women and 23 children. Under his leadership, Pitcairn became peaceful. In 1808, the colonists were finally detected when they were visited by an American sealing captain. He composed a report but it aroused little interest in England, then heavily occupied with the Napoleonic Wars. Six years later, two British naval vessels rediscovered Pitcairn. The commanders were impressed by the simplicity and piety of the islanders, and by John Adams’ leadership. They concluded that—25 years after the mutiny—it would be "an act of great cruelty and inhumanity" to arrest him. Known as "father" by every member of the community, Adams died there in 1829 at the age of 62.

Burial site of John Adams, patriarch of Pitcairn. Credit: Photo © by Eliza Priest What’s the island like today? Enter my niece, Eliza. As a student in Class Afloat Alive! she recently circumnavigated the globe on the 188-foot Barkentine tall ship Concordia. One of their stops was on Pitcairn Island. To Eliza, it was the most fascinating one of all. Fifty people live on the island in a scattered settlement called Adamstown. Two centuries after the mutiny, all the inhabitants are—most amazingly—direct descendants of the mutineers. Part Polynesian and part English, some are dark-skinned and dark-haired, and some are light. They speak perfect English with visitors. But among themselves they speak a staccato and choppy tongue, a mixture of English and Tahitian called Pitcairnese.

The islanders love visitors. When a ship arrives, a bell rings that can be heard all over the island. They rush out in long boats, board the vessel, and barter with wood carvings and weavings for whatever they can acquire. Since they have no hotel, they select which visitors—if any—they will take into their homes. Sixty guests came from Eliza’s ship, more than doubling the population of the island. Charles Christian, middle-aged and a direct descendent of Fletcher Christian, chose Eliza and her friend. The community is closely knit. His daughter lives but 20 feet away, and Eliza went there for dinner. The house was spacious and many visitors were present. They dined on delicious fare of seafood and tropical fruit.

The telephone system is communal. When a call comes, everyone with a telephone hears it ring. But each home is assigned a different set of rings, and if it’s not your ring you don’t pick up. In their spare time the Pitcairners scuba dive around the wreckage of the Bounty. In the town square children play on the immense, rusted anchor of the ship. The Bounty Bible is preserved inside a case in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the only house of worship on Pitcairn.

After finding the island, Fletcher Christian lived but three years. It is thought that he was racked by guilt after casting Bligh and his followers adrift, never knowing the successful outcome of their epic voyage. Christian’s Cave is a place where he went to be alone.

Christian's Cave, where Fletcher Christian went for solitude. Credit: Photo © by Eliza Priest But in locating Pitcairn, Fletcher did his job well. The authorities didn’t find the fugitives until it was too late. What do the islanders think of living on Pitcairn today? This is my guess. It’s tropical, they own it, and they’re free. That’s just about what the mutineers had in mind. They just couldn’t stay around long enough to enjoy it. But seven generations later, their descendants are doing just fine.

Copyright ©1999 by James D. Priest

The following sources were used in preparing this article. The web sites provide abundant travel information about Pitcairn Island.

http://library.puc.edu/pitcairn/index.html
http://www.visi.com/~pjlareau//
http://www.slnsw.gov.au/ml/mss/bligh.htm
http://www.sitesalive.com/cal/98f/ca98ffin.htm
http://crash.ihug.co.nz/~gsnell/map.htm
http://www.mc-monaco.com/geovoyages/