Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

PITCAIRN: A Two-Century Old Haven

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

PITCAIRN: A Two-Century Old Haven

Article excerpt

Martin Williams describes one of the most unusual, famous and inaccessible communities in the world

Many successful films have been made of the famous and dramatic mutiny on HMS Bounty which occurred on 28 April 1789, only a decade after Captain Cook's last voyage into the South Pacific. Normally the films end with Fletcher Christian, the other mutineers, and their Tahitian companions, after nine months of travels, making landfall at Pitcairn. Although it is only three kilometres long and one and a half across, with steep cliffs on all sides, Pitcairn's fertile soil and sub-tropical climate suggested it would be an ideal new home. Besides, the mutineers wanted to be as safe as possible from the long arm of the Royal Navy. Pitcairn was remote. Even better, the primitive charts of the day showed it a few hundred miles away from its actual location. This meant the island offered an excellent chance of evading the navy's unwelcome attention.

So the mutineers decided to settle there. First they carried ashore all the material and supplies they could salvage from the Bounty to start their new settlement, and manhandled them up the steep cliffs to the flatter land above. They then set fire to the ship, thus committing themselves to their new home. The start of a new Eden? Not exactly. The events of the next few years are as extraordinary as the mutiny itself, and even more violent.

Nine mutineers made it to Pitcairn. With them were twelve Tahitian women and six men from either Tahiti or other nearby islands, plus one baby girl. How voluntarily some of the Tahitian women came is questionable; even more so the Tahitian men! Within a few years, out of these 15 men there was only one left alive. The others had all been killed by each other or by the women, apart from one who died naturally and one who seems to have killed himself while drunk. Only one of the women had died, of natural causes. Yet out of these bloody beginnings did arise a sort of Pitcairn paradise.

The Pitcairn community was finally discovered by the outside world some 20 years later. Despite its violent origins, it had been transformed to become godly and peace-loving, to an exemplary degree. The one surviving man, John Adams, was now a revered patriarch, leading his small community of women, young adults and children on principles derived directly from the Bible. This model society became an inspiration for the British public, which hastened to supply it with religious and uplifting tracts, in order to reinforce its moral basis. The Royal Navy even decided, with most untypical clemency, not to prosecute Adams for his part in the mutiny. The former mutineer finally died in 1829, enjoying general admiration and respect.

Two developments had a profound impact on the early community. First, as they dutifully obeyed the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply, the island became seriously overcrowded. Twice the entire community was evacuated. First they went to Tahiti in 1831, but all soon returned to Pitcairn; second, in 1855 to Norfolk Island, where the infamous penal settlement had recently been closed down. Consequently there was no shortage of land, or of stoutly constructed buildings. This time most remained there, but two small groups returned to Pitcairn after a few years; it is from these that the present day Pitcairn islanders are descended. The second development is that the community in 1838 became a British colony. It adopted an extremely liberal constitution which gave votes to all adults including women (some 55 years before New Zealand followed this enlightened precedent), and compulsory schooling for all children.

Convenient location

Pitcairn is conveniently located mid-way between New Zealand and Panama. It used to offer a welcome interlude for passengers on the ocean liners. After eight days steaming from Auckland, the tedium of the South Pacific crossing was broken when the liner hove to for a few hours off Pitcairn. …

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