Lesson 9: Pitcairn and the Bounty

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PITCAIRN:

The small volcanic island of Pitcairn is very isolated, even by Pacific standards; the tiny speck sit in the far South Pacific, about 1,350 miles southeast of Tahiti. And, also even by Pacific standards. Pitcairn has an unexpected and unparalleled history.

In 1787 a boat called the Bounty set sail from England bound for Tahiti in order to pick up a cargo of breadfruit saplings to transport to Jamaica to feed slaves working on the plantations there. Bounty sailors, who had taken almost a year to reach Tahiti, were quite content on the welcoming, subtropical Tahiti. Many of the sailors fell in love with Tahitian women during their stay there, including the master’s mate, a sailor named Fletcher Christian.

When the Bounty left Tahiti for the second part of its journey the crew and the boat’s commander William Bligh, fell into conflict over what the crew claimed was Bligh’s inhumane treatment of the vessel’s sailors. Led by Christian, the crew mutinied and cast Bligh off the Bounty, sending him and 18 loyal sailors adrift on a 23 foot long boat. Remarkably, Bligh and these sailors survived a 3,600 mile, seven week ordeal and eventually landed in the now-Indonesian island of Timor. Meanwhile, Christian
and the Bounty returned to Tahiti. While sixteen of the men decided to stay there, Christian
and eight others, afraid of being found and arrested for their mutiny, set sail for isolated islands where they could build their own lives along with twelve Tahitian women and six Tahitian men.

For a couple months Bounty bobbed from island to island and in 1790 finally found Pitcairn, a then-uninhabited and very lonely little blip. The sailors took all the food and goods they had brought with them, hauled them up a hill now known as “Hill of Difficulty to the Edge,” then ran Bounty ashore and burned the boat so no one passing by at sea would be able to spot them.

The tiny group built shelters and set about creating a small, isolated society. Unfortunately their peace on Pitcairn didn’t last long. The British sailors didn’t treat the Tahitians well and the Tahitians–yes, ironically–rebelled. All but three of the men who originally came to the island died in the fighting. Over the next few years there was more dissent and other troubles; by 1800, a sailor named John Adams was the only male survivor. There were ten Tahitian women and twenty-three children.

John Adams took his role as patriarch of Pitcairn seriously and led the community in building sturdy houses around an English-style commons. There was enough vegetation on the island, and the occasional pig, to sustain them. Adams was not a learned man but he was a devout Christian; he shepherded the islanders through a period of spiritual peace and relative calm. In 1814 when the British naval commanders finally found Adams the islanders’ piety impressed them. They decided not to arrest Adams for his role in the mutiny, and instead to support Pitcairn by opening it up to supply visits from other islands. Since Adams died in 1829 Pitcairners have known him as “Father.”

In 1831 the islanders, fearing their population, though less than 70, would outstrip the resources of the land, emigrated together to Tahiti. The islanders weren’t happy there; they had become used to their particular fusion of European sensibilities, pious Christianity and Polynesian sense of peace. They also found themselves dying of diseases Tahitians had to which they weren’t immune. Within the year they had returned to Pitcairn. Unfortunately, in 1832 a settler named Joshua Hill joined them and took the island’s leadership, becoming a dictator and cruelly punishing islanders for even the smallest transgression.In 1838 the islanders removed Hill from the islands by force and, seeking order, drew up a constitution that was the first in the British Empire to include female suffrage and mandatory education. Throughout the rest of the 1800s the islanders weathered severe storms and bouts with influenza and developed a rather stable society, though again population growth outstripped resources. In 1856 all 194 Pitcairners left for the then-uninhabited former British convict-inhabited Norfolk Island. In 1858, several islanders returned. They restricted immigration by all outsiders other those who the islanders deemed welcome on the island. One of these immigrants was a missionary who convinced the islanders to stop following the Church of England and become Seventh Day Adventists.

Pitcairners lived in relative peace throughout the 1900s, struggling economically but receiving support from Britain as a member of the Commonwealth. Most of the islands’ under-100 inhabitants continued to be descendants of the original mutineers. In 1999, however, Pitcairn returned to international attention when a number of women on the island accused many men on the islands of abuse and sexual assault. In 2004, seven men–half the island’s male population–faced charges. Four ultimately were convicted and were jailed on Pitcairn. Not a pleasant story, but no doubt not the end of Pitcairn’s unlikely tale.

More information:

Pitcairn’s history, according to the government of Pitcairn (with no mention of the 2004 trial) | Infoplease.com’s summary of the story of the Bounty and Pitcairn (which tells the whole tale)

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