200 Years Later, Pitcairn Celebrates Its Bounty
The 70 inhabitants of a tiny volcanic island in the Pacific are celebrating the 200th anniversary of its settlement by the perpetrators of one of history’s most infamous mutinies.
On Jan. 15, 1790, after nine months sailing aimlessly in search of a safe haven, mutineer leader Fletcher Christian spotted Pitcairn Island from the deck of the HMS Bounty, and realized that he had found the perfect place to hide.
Today the island’s sheer cliffs still prevent the building of a harbor. Visitors must be transferred from their vessels to longboats modeled on the Bounty originals and built to withstand the vicious surf.
The mutineers, including men and women picked up in Tahiti, remained undiscovered for 20 years before an American whaling ship happened upon Pitcairn, which on British naval maps had been shown about 200 miles from its real position.
By then only one of the British ship’s nine mutineers--who bundled Capt. William Bligh and 18 men loyal to him into an open boat on April 28, 1789--was still alive after a series of murders and accidents.
Luckily for John Adams, his conversion to Christianity during his stay on Pitcairn meant that the British government did not take revenge and the island community was allowed to continue a way of life now considered near-perfect by many outsiders.
Today’s islanders, who have just four family names among them, pay no taxes, share everything, including spouses, and follow a religious code that allows most things but not guilt.
“It’s a paradise. You can grow anything in the soil and they have no money worries,” said Sydney Morning Herald photographer Stuart Davidson, who recently returned from a visit to Pitcairn.
“Under their butchered Seventh-day Adventism they don’t eat pork but they’ll eat chicken. They’re not supposed to eat shellfish but they think they should as God supplied so much of it on the island.”
Seventh-day Adventists are members of a Christian sect that expects the second coming of Christ and are not supposed to eat meat and shellfish of any kind.
For the anniversary in addition to a series of banquets, one of Pitcairn’s favorite pastimes, the islanders scheduled fireworks shows, a commemorative church service and a re-enactment in period costume of the landing.
Jan. 23 is celebrated every year as Bounty Day, marking the date when the ship was set on fire off the island, which is roughly midway between Panama and New Zealand.
Three plaques were prepared for the bicentennial--one to commemorate the landing, one by a British Christian group that paid for the training of an islander who was later ordained, and another by a group of Norfolk Islanders.
Pitcairners made two attempts to leave the island during the 19th Century. In 1831, worried by overcrowding, they sailed to Tahiti but returned after 13 of them died within six months due to a lack of immunity to diseases there.
In 1856 the British government offered them a home on Norfolk Island, also in the Pacific, but many returned.
The population rose to a peak of 233 in the 1930s but the ending in the 1960s of a regular shipping service between Britain and New Zealand, which stopped at Pitcairn, led to steady emigration, mostly to New Zealand.
“At present everyone on the island can trace a common bloodline to the Bounty except for a New Zealand teacher and his family, an Australian pastor and his wife, and two New Zealand ladies married to Pitcairners,” said Garth Harraway of the British Consulate General in Auckland.
Harraway visited the island, a British dependency governed by the high commissioner to New Zealand, in June.
“It takes about eight days from Auckland on a scheduled service, but then there’s the two or three months you have to wait for a (return) boat,” he said.
Pitcairners appear happy in their isolation despite the lack of a modern water system and limited electrical service, Harraway said. A diesel generator to provide electricity runs only eight hours a day.
The 20th Century intrudes in the form of three-wheeled motorcycles, compact disc players and a battery of home electronic equipment, including video recorders and televisions.
Most of the island’s revenue is derived from the sale of postage stamps, but the Pitcairners also do a good trade selling wood carvings, models of the Bounty and T-shirts to visiting yachtsmen and their crews.
The island has no hotel or bar. The few visitors stay with families on the island, although they find it difficult to understand the pidgin Pitcairnese, “a mixture of George IV English and Tahitian,” according to Davidson.
The sharing of partners among the islanders is not obvious to outsiders but is one of the facets of traditional Tahitian life still practiced on the island.
“Passing ships have also introduced new blood to strengthen the bloodline and prevent in-breeding,” Davidson said.
The Australian pastor, Rick Ferret, turns a blind eye to his parishioners’ free love and drinking.
“He’s very hip and trendy, into motorbikes and rock ‘n’ roll,” said Davidson. “He’s clever--he’s realized he and his wife will never be accepted as locals but they will be accepted as friends.”
This arms-length attitude means that few of the many outsiders who apply to live on the island are allowed to settle there.
“They get lots of letters from people wanting to leave the rat race and live in a nuclear-free, caring society,” Davidson said. “But the answer’s always ‘no.’ The islanders say they need someone who is stable mentally to live the life there.”