No sooner had we dropped anchor just off the coast of Pitcairn Island that I noticed a boatload of people approach the ship. All on board wore bright orange life vests. The men were seated in the front and the back of the boat while women and children, together with boxes of supplies, occupied the middle. And as the boat came closer, I counted 28 passengers. They came on board to sell us wood carvings, crafts, honey and children books. Hmm…knowing that Pitcairn has a population of 49, they must have left 21 behind on the island. Somebody has to keep the island going, I guess.
Our visit to Pitcairn Island, a small speck of land in the middle of the vast South Pacific Ocean, introduced me to a very special type of communal life. With a tiny population and 224-years of a mostly well documented history, the turbulent existence of the Pitcairners in their island paradise (or exile, depending on your perspective) reads like a case study. The story of Pitcairn Island could serve as a social science experiment: Take nine tough sailors, six Polynesian men, twelve Polynesian women and a baby girl, drop them off on a tiny, uninhabited island in the South Pacific without a ship and see what happens.
The Pitcairn Islands, officially Pitcairn, are a group of four volcanic islands in the southern Pacific Ocean that form the last British Overseas Territory in the Pacific.
Now, more than two centuries later, I can tell you how the experiment turned out. But first some historical background: It was in 1790 when the mutineers on the Bounty left Tahiti in search of a refuge, some place, any place that does not exist on a map and where the British Navy won’t find the mutineers. The mutineers feared they would be captured, carried back to England and hung from the gallows for setting Captain Bligh adrift with 18 of his loyal crew.
After almost four months of criss-crossing the South Pacific in search of a new home, the little group on the Bounty found Pitcairn Island, a tiny 4.6 sqkm volcanic land mass with lush vegetation. Isolated, inaccessible, uninhabited, fertile and warm - it was perfect. Fletcher Christian, the leader of the group, was thrilled. After everybody got settled, he set the Bounty on fire and let it sink to the bottom of the bay. Fletcher and his group were here to stay.
As you can imagine, life on Pitcairn started out, in a First World sense of the word, not exactly civilized. Given the type of individuals involved, it is not surprising that the first of many dark moments in the island’s history occurred not long after the group’s arrival. The British mutineers each claimed a Polynesian wife for themselves and left the rest of the women to be “shared” among the Polynesian men. The Europeans also treated the Polynesian men like slaves, which didn’t sit well with them. Soon, the killing began. By 1793, three years after the group’s landfall on Pitcairn, all of the Polynesian men and five of the nine Bounty mutineers had died violent deaths.
It was not until 1808 that the island and its inhabitants were discovered by a visiting ship. John Adams, by then the only original mutineer left alive, had assumed a patriarchal position within the group and filled an essential leadership role. While a warrant for his arrest was still active, his standing in the community was such, that the British Crown did not have the heart to separate him from his people. He was pardoned for his crimes and allowed to stay on Pitcairn.
As the population grew dramatically during the 19th century, so did the pressure on the island’s resources. The community had to act if its people were to survive. There must have been many lively discussions among the community members around that time. What is the number of people the island can support? Who stays behind and who leaves the island? What happens to the homes and the land belonging to the people who are leaving? What happens if people want to return and the island is inhabited by someone else? Twice, the group split with some members moving off the island permanently, while the rest got homesick and returned to Pitcairn after three years of trying to live elsewhere.
It is amazing to see the difference strong leadership made for the Pitcairners. Purpose, direction and acceptable behavioural norms for the community – all were carefully articulated and their implementation guided by individuals who had gained the trust and respect of the islanders. But too many times, a leadership vacuum occurred when a leader died, and what entered was not always pretty: lawlessness, drunkenness and the breakdown of the social fabric became widespread. It was at one of those times that the island experienced the rule of a dictator, a man by the name of Joshua Hill. He claimed to have been sent by the British Crown before installing himself as “President of the Commonwealth of Pitcairn”. Mr. Hill asserted himself and was in firm control of the island community for 6 painful years. Arbitrarily, he sentenced people to exile and imprisonment, until his claim to represent the British Government was exposed as fraud. He was expelled and the exiled families returned to the island. It was soon after Joshua Hill’s dictatorship ended that the need for rules was recognised. A constitution was drafted, policies were established for the distribution of land, education became mandatory and an administrative system was set up. Interestingly, when printed materials sent by the Seventh Day Adventists arrived via mail from the US, many families on the island took the new spiritual concepts to heart. As a community, the Pitcairners decided to convert to the Mormon faith. The newfound religion had a significant impact on the civility of the people’s behaviour. Among other things it disallowed dancing and the consumption of pork and alcohol. From an anthropological and linguistic perspective, the island’s culture and language took on a truly unique character. Shaped by generations of part European part Polynesian influences, many British traditions were adhered to, but with very strong Polynesian undertones. Decades of isolation also contributed to the development of a very unique language: the “Pitcairn” language, and while all of the island’s inhabitants speak fluent English, they still converse in “Pitcairn” when no outsiders are present.
The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 brought significant changes to the island’s economy. Suddenly, Pitcairn found itself at the half way point between the canal and New Zealand. Freighters, tankers and passenger vessels welcomed the chance to visit the island, which was now perfectly aligned with the world’s longest shipping route. Pitcairn’s isolation, in relative terms, was over.
Now fast forward to the present. Today, Pitcairn Island is a British overseas territory with close links to New Zealand. With its population of 49 men, women and children (plus 10 expatriates), most of whom are direct descendants from the Bounty mutineers, Pitcairn is the smallest democracy on earth. After overcoming infighting, murder, slavery, hunger, incest and many more challenges that commonly have to be dealt within small isolated communities, the people of Pitcairn have succeeded in establishing a modern, semi-autonomous society. Of course, earning a livelihood has always been a challenge for the island’s population. Living on one of the world’s most remote inhabited island has its challenges. Sure, the basic needs can be met locally. Shelters can easily be built and food production is no problem in the island’s fertile valleys. But how do you catch up with the rest of the civilized world when you are more than 5,000 km away from the nearest continent? The islanders tackled this challenge during the 20th century and today, the community seems to have everything it needs: a store, a tourism office, satellite communication, a post office, a mayor, 6.4 km of paved road, a police officer on duty, ATVs, a medical clinic, a jail, a church with a pastor and a school.
The people of Pitcairn Island earn their living by exporting honey, stamps, post cards and coins over the Internet and selling arts, crafts, books and locally grown vegetables and fruit to passing ships. Some in the community also offer tourist accommodation to the few hardy travellers who find their way to this remote place. On average, ten cruise ships, four freighters and twelve private yachts come to the island per year – all of which pay landing fees when they visit. Anything that cannot be produced on Pitcairn has to be brought in by supply ship, which stops by four times annually. All of the men on the island are employed by the British government, which pays $10.-/hr. for infrastructure maintenance, plant quarantine programs and public works projects. The official currency on Pitcairn Island is the New Zealand Dollar.
Despite all of the above efforts, without the assistance from the U.K. and New Zealand, Pitcairn would not be able to support a community that enjoys the conveniences of the modern world. While Pitcairners don’t pay taxes, they benefit from subsidies and grants that keep the supply ship coming and going, allow for the construction of boat sheds, pay for the purchase of satellite communication equipment and fund an apiculture program, to name a few.
Life on Pitcairn appears idyllic and quaint (at least in the eyes of some), but the future of this little island community is hanging in the balance. During the past 30 years, the island’s population has hovered around 47. Understandably, few young people find life on Pitcairn appealing. They move away to make a living elsewhere, leaving the community without a new generation of islanders to follow in the footsteps of their pioneer forefathers. I, on the other hand, am fascinated by the community life on Pitcairn. Aside from the island’s beauty, living within a tightly knit community sounds very attractive to me. Stories of giant Christmas parties where everybody is invited, ringing the resurrected bell from the sunken Bounty to announce the arrival of ships, celebrating Bounty Day (a national holiday) to commemorate the anniversary of the mutineers’ arrival on Pitcairn or gathering with family and friends at the island’s only restaurant for dinner and beer, are food for the soul.
As I watch the Pitcairners leave our ship by descending on a rope ladder into their longboat, I want to join them. Instead, I stay off Pitcairn’s shores reluctantly and ask myself what life must really be like on the island. I wonder from a safe distance about the hardships these people must have endured over their more than 200-year history, how often and how close the families on Pitcairn must have come to extinction and how forgiveness and reconciliation can never be seen as options in a small community living on an isolated island. The latter was put to the test when six men were convicted of sexual abuse in 2004 and sentenced to five years in jail by a British Court. But then, the Pitcairner’s resilience and ingenuity were proven when the jail they built to accommodate the six men, was designed and constructed to serve as a hotel after the sentences were served.
Five major Hollywood movies have been made and over 2,000 books written about the Bounty sailors and their adventures. Today, the surnames of these most famous mutineers in history, Christian and Young, still prevail on the island and, if Pitcairn's 200-year history has proven anything, they will for some time to come.