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Pitcairn Island

Famous as the refuge of the HMS Bounty mutineers, Pitcairn Island is still inhabited by approximately 50 direct descendants of those mutineers.

Volcanic in origin, the island is about 2 miles long and 1 mile across. Adamstown, the only town on the island, serves as the administrative capital of the Pitcairn Islands.

overhead view of Pitcairn Island

Adamstown, Pitcairn Island

History

Pitcairn Island was uninhabited when the Bounty mutineers landed, but they found evidence of previous residents -- roughly hewn stone gods still guarding sacred sites; carved in the cliff faces were representations of animals and men; burial sites yielding human skeletons; and there were earth ovens, stone adzes, gouges and other artifacts of Polynesian workmanship. Although it is believed that those Polynesians came from Magareva Island, about 304 miles to the northwest, it is not known exactly when they arrived, nor is there any evidence of what happened to them.

The first European to see Pitcairn Island was Robert Pitcairn, a Midsipman aboard the HMS Swallow, captained by explorer Philip Carteret, in July 1767. Carteret named the island for his crewman and noted it in his journal, but did not land there.

In 1790, nine mutineers from the British ship Bounty, led by Fletcher Christian, took refuge on Pitcairn Island. They brought with them six men and twelve women from Tahiti, as well as pigs, potatoes, and other supplies. Whether by accident or design, the Bounty was subsequently set afire, and the unburned remnants of the ship still sit on the bottom of what is now Bounty Bay.

On arrival the mutineers made themselves rough leaf shelters where the village of Adamstown now stands, but the tiny community did not settle down without friction. The first problem the community faced was that there were more men than women, a problem exacerbated by the deaths of two of the women in 1790. Another problem was that when the land was divided between the families the Polynesian men were not given any property and were treated more like slaves than community members. Two of the Tahitian men were killed by another Tahitian man, by order of the mutineers, and, in September 1793, the remaining Tahitian men killed four of the mutineers (Fletcher Christian, John Mills, Isaac Martin, and John Williams) in one day. The Tahitian men were themselves subsequently killed (one by another Tahitian man, one by a Tahitian woman, and the other two by mutineers), and by 1794 only four mutineers (William McCoy, Edward Young, John Adams, and Matthew Quintal) remained, leading households of ten women and children.

Aside from occasional brief "revolts" by the women, the remaining community lived fairly peacefully until 1798, when McCoy committed suicide after becoming drunk on an alcoholic brew he had concocted from a native plant. In 1799, Young and Adams killed Quintal because they believed that Quintal was planning a revolt. Young died on December 25, 1800, leaving Adams as the last surviving mutineer.

Several ships apparently discovered the island during the 1790's, and one even landed to pick coconuts, but none of these ships encountered the community. The community's first contact with the "outside world" came on February 8, 1808, when the Topaz, an American ship commanded by Mayhew Folger, landed on the island. The captain and crew were impressed by the community, which at that time numbered about 30. After two British vessels, the Briton and the Tagus, visited the island on September 17, 1814, Pitcairn Island became a "regular" stop for merchant and whaling ships sailing from India and Australia to South America, or to England via Cape Horn. Most of those ships left gifts and goods behind, allowing the Pitcainers to improve their living conditions. Despite still being wanted in Britain for his role in the Bounty mutiny, Adams was allowed to stay on Pitcairn, and he died there on March 5, 1829.

During the 1820s, three British adventurers named John Buffett, John Evans and George Nobbs settled on the island and married children of the mutineers. Nobbs took over leadership of the community following Adams's death, but Buffett and Thursday October Christian, the son of Fletcher and the first child born on the island, were also important leaders during this time.

In 1831, drought threatened Pitcairn and the islanders were removed to Tahiti. The Tahitians welcomed the Pitcairners with open arms, land was made available for the islanders to build their own homes, and a large house was made available for their temporary accommodation in Papeete. The Pitcairners, however, did not feel at home, having become on the one hand too European in their ways and, on the other, stricter in morals and sexual behaviour than their hosts. They longed to return to their own habits on their own island, all the more so when infectious diseases, to which they had little immunity, began to kill them. On April 21, within a month of arrival in Tahiti, Thursday October Christian died. His death was followed by the youngest, Lucy Anne Quintal, and during the next two months there were 10 more deaths and only a single birth. The Pitcairners hired the American whaler Charles Doggert, under Captain William Driver, to return them to Pitcairn, and 65 of them arrived back at their homes on September 3, 1831.

The Pitcairn Island community spent the next two decades "servicing" passing ships. Great Britain took formal possession of the island in 1838, and the islanders adopted a written constitution that same year. Signed on November 30, 1838, that constitution placed local authority in the hands of a native-born magistrate who was to be elected annually "by the free votes of every native born on the island, male or female, who shall have attained the age of eighteen years; or of persons who shall have resided five years on the island." He was to be assisted by a Council of two members, one elected and one chosen by himself. Not only was this the first time female suffrage was written into a British constitution, it also incorporated compulsory schooling for the first time in any British legislation.

By 1856 the population of Pitcairn Island had grown to 194, far more than the island's resources could support, and in June of that year the entire colony was removed to then-uninhabited Norfolk Island. While most of the Pitcairners found life on Norfolk Island acceptable, some became homesick and sixteen of them returned to Pitcairn in 1858; they were joined by four more families in 1864. Further immigration to Pitcairn was banned in the mid-1860's, and the island's population has hovered around 50-60 ever since.

Economy

The major sources of revenue, until recently, have been the sale of coins and postage stamps to collectors, .pn domain names, and handicrafts to passengers on passing ships. Trade is restricted by the jagged geography of the island, which lacks a harbor or airstrip, forcing all trade to be made by longboat to visiting ships. Occasionally, passengers from expedition-type cruise ships will come ashore for a day, weather permitting. The island is also home to a very productive population of honeybees, and the sale of honey and honey-based products has become an increasingly important part of Pitcairn's economy.

Government

The Pitcairn Islands are a British overseas territory with a degree of local government. The Queen of the United Kingdom is represented by a Governor, who also holds office as British High Commissioner to New Zealand and is based in Auckland. The 2010 constitution gives authority for the islands to operate as a representative democracy, with the United Kingdom retaining responsibility for matters such as defense and foreign affairs. The Island Council, the members of which are elected at large, appoints a Mayor of Pitcairn as a day-to-day head of the local administration. There is a Commissioner, appointed by the Governor, who liaises between the Council and the Governor's office.

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The Robinson Library >> Pitcairn Islands

This page was last updated on 07/02/2018.