Photo by Michael Gill
A summary of "Some Highlights of Pitcairn History,"
a talk given by Bob Kirk, PhD, at BPC 2012 in Angwin, California, August 21, 2012:


I first heard of Pitcairn Island when another kid traded me Pitcairn numbers 1-3 in a junior high stamp club when I was 12 years old.  I then read Nordhoff and Hall's Bounty Trilogy and became fascinated.  Eventually I became a history teacher.


In the mid-1980s at a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on the British Empire at Yale University, Professor Robin Winks told me that he was going to travel to Pitcairn as a lecturer on a cruise ship; and I advised him that I would give my right arm to be able to visit Pitcairn myself.  Later, after Professor Winks found that he was unable to travel, he mentioned my name to Lindblad Cruises which called me to offer a position as a lecturer on a six-week Pacific cruise which included a call at Pitcairn.  Professor Winks commented that he had never seen anyone so excited about going anywhere! 


In February 1987 I first visited Pitcairn as a lecturer.  In the meantime I have lectured on 61 other cruises, several of which have included the South Pacific.  In 2004 my wife and I returned to Pitcairn aboard Discovery World.

In August 2007 I decided to write a history of Pitcairn, which I felt was sorely needed.  I assembled my lecture notes, conducted additional research, and wrote the book in just nine months.  Then I presented my work to Herb Ford, who suggested that I submit it to McFarland Publishing.  Just three weeks after doing that I had a book contract for Pitcairn Island, the Bounty Mutineers and Their Descendants, which was published in 2008.

Today I'd like to present half a dozen points from my book:


Islanders as Celebrities:

Pitcairners are famous.  Except for royalty, there is no other extended family of three or four dozen individuals, people without remarkable talent, stunning appearance, or notable accomplishment -- quite ordinary individuals -- who have been so studiously inspected, so celebrated, so invasively reported by the world's media.  Pitcairn Island is a public icon and its inhabitants are like a royal family in that their celebrity has been determined by heredity.  If the name Windsor reflects splendor in Britain, the names Christian and Young reflect romance and daring in the South Seas.  They inhabit one of the most isolated spots on earth.  They are descendants of the perpetrators of the most notorious mutiny in all of history -- that of His Majesty's Armed Vessel Bounty.  The blood of mutineers and of sultry Polynesian women surges in their veins.


The Christian, Young, Brown and Warren families have their community's origin, history, and pedigrees documented in and by a library/study center, internet discussion groups, websites, a philatelic research organization, tons of newsprint, detailed genealogical charts, documentary films, and Hollywood extravaganzas.  By the end of the twentieth century, an estimated twelve hundred books, thirty-two hundred magazine articles and uncounted newspaper articles had been published about the mutiny and the mutineers' descendants!   

The Real Motive for the April 1789 Mutiny:

Fletcher Christian mutinied because he thought his career was ended.  In the eighteenth century, officers depended for advancement on patronage.  A man did not actually join His Majesty's navy, but "in constitutional theory and in everyday practice, he was primarily a member of a ship's company and not of the Navy as a whole."  It might be said that a man joined an officer rather than the navy itself.  When the crew was paid off at the end of an operation, the mariner would sign on the same ship again or look for another ship.  Ideally, the next voyage would be under the same commanding officer.  Commanders, for their part, attempted to staff their ships with men who had been loyal to them.  As the senior officer advanced, the young officer would advance in rank under him.  Christian might even have looked forward to command of a vessel after successful completion of the breadfruit mission.

Christian did not cause a mutiny because he was called a scoundrel and rascal or because his yam allowance was halved.  Christian deposed his commander because he had been accused of theft.  Bligh's rant effectively ended Christian's career.  As N. A. M. Rodger explained, the worst crimes aboard ship were murder, sodomy, "and after that theft, by far the most serious crime which was at all common. ... A thief among the ship's company destroyed its mutual bonds of trust and loyalty more swiftly than anything else."


As a result of the accusation, everything Christian had worked for was destroyed, and he knew it was within Bligh's power to have him court-martialed.  If that were the case, Christian had lost his patron and could look forward to imprisonment and dismissal under the most dishonorable conditions and -- conceivably, though improbably -- hanging.


Pitcairn:  The Nearly Perfect Hideaway

What could be better:  An uninhabited island with fresh water, accessible only with difficulty and only in good weather, mischarted and unvisited by Europeans for twenty-three years.  No indentation on the island warrants even remotely the name harbor.  The hazardous opening at Bounty Bay serves well as a security door to which only the islanders to this day have a key; Pitcairn boatmen know the way in and deliver those visitors they wish to welcome.


The mutineers and the Polynesian men and women climbed a muddy incline that came to be called the Hill of Difficulty, up to the Edge, where the terrain flattened out somewhat.  Exploring further, they eventually came to the summit of the western ridge of the mountain, with steep inclines and ravines to the west.  Christian and his companions saw infinitely more trees than are present today.  Upon exploring further they found "many caves and narrow defiles where a few determined men could make a stand against considerable numbers."


Fletcher Christian was fortunate to have found Pitcairn.  The island is indeed remote:  2,590 miles from Santiago, Chile; 4,695 from Sydney; and 1,312 from Tahiti.  It is capable of supporting a community of substantial size; agriculture could be supplemented by fishing off shore for rock cod, mullet, mackerel, red snapper, and lobster.  If the mutineers had gone to any other Pacific island they may have been apprehended or become protein for the inhabitants.  Even on Pitcairn, not being apprehended was a matter of luck.  If a British man-of-war had stopped in the 1790s, and its crew come ashore, the history of Pitcairn might have been cut short.


Baffled by Disease in the 1840s:

1842 brought thirty-one ships, and in early January 1843, George Hunn Nobbs reported fever that begins "with a slight shivering, succeeded by violent pain in the loins and much febrile heat -- emetics and application of warm water to the feet, hands and loins are the principal remedies applied, and under the Divine blessing, have been attended with beneficial results."  Nobbs himself was so ill that school was discontinued for the duration.

On July 30, 1844 the surgeon of HM cutter Basilisk vaccinated sixty islanders in an attempt to protect them from disease, but within two weeks Nobbs noted, "All our hopes concerning the vaccination are at an end, it has turned out a complete failure."  And so it went.  Nobbs complained of disease exacerbated in 1944 by weeds that "overrun the island, worms [that] infest the potatoes and there is a comet in sight."


By the following year, Nobbs, who felt able to account for the influenza attacks, wrote, "I do not think the fever was infectious; and though in the space of six days not less than sixty out of one hundred and twenty two were attacked yet I attribute it solely to the peculiar state of the atmosphere:  whenever we have been visited by this epidemick the circumstances, as respects the weather have been invariably the same.  A long drought succeeded by two or three weeks of wet; and the wind settling into the north west; in fact a north west wind is always the precursor of rheumatism, catarrh, and slight febrile affection."



When the population was two hundred or more, it was possible to field two eager cricket teams.  The losing team had to prepare and serve dinner featuring wild goat meat for the entire community.  No cleared land flat enough for a proper cricket playing field existed, but the best available field appeared to be "the Valley," the high plateau where plantations are located.  Enough land was cleared of grass and bushes that two wickets could be set up on either side of a field.  A slope provided a natural grandstand for spectators.


One who has no concept of the rules of this British game is at no disadvantage, because Pitcairners did not play by them, or by any other apparent rules.  The Guide to Pitcairn explained, "There is no batting order:  men and boys push and grab and the victors, flourishing their bats, take up a stance at the crease, surrounded on the leg side by their own team impatiently waiting for the chance to push and grab again ...  The prevailing stroke is a hearty and lofted sweep to mid-on, for the grass, scrub and hillside pitch make other strokes almost worthless, and the ball is enthusiastically chased by all fielders within range, and by a good number of excited children as well when it vanishes into grass and lantana scrub."  

Dreams of Smiley's Millions in the 1980s:

In Frog Level, Virginia lived one A. M. "Smiley" Ratliff, a fifty-seven-year-old divorced multimillionaire.  Smiley had made a fortune in coal mining.  In addition to mines, Ratliff owned a motel, a shopping center, thousands of head of cattle, and around twenty thousand acres of the best farm land in Grundy, Virginia.  He wanted to trade his lucrative empire for isolation.  Ratliff wanted to separate himself permanently from the "evils of Communism, Freudian analysis, big government, narcotics and Elvis Presley."


In 1981, Smiley Ratliff sailed 4,500 miles around the South Pacific on a rented sailboat with a hired crew.  Smiley sailed in search of his own private paradise.  One day he happened upon Henderson Island.  After scaling the cliffs and struggling through the dense undergrowth, he envisioned "crops growing, cattle grazing, some decent housing, a jetty down at the beach, solar electricity."  Smiley sailed over to Pitcairn, where he found the islanders to be "kind and gentle, almost Christ-like; they're what man was meant to be and once was," he said.  Because Communism, Freudian analysis, big government, narcotics, and Elvis Presley's music were not present on uninhabited Henderson, Smiley Ratliff offered Britain's Foreign Office a million dollars to lease it; some reports have the figure as high as five million.  Smiley now began to dream of transforming Henderson into his private Shangi-La; Pitcairners began to dream of what they would do with Smiley's millions.


But Smiley's millions would never arrive.  When the World Wildlife Fund heard about the scheme, they reminded the Foreign Office of its obligation to preserve this incomparable natural habitat of sea birds, coral reefs, and diverse fauna for which Henderson Island is known.  The British government informed Ratliff that the island was not for lease.  "It's got where you can't do anything anymore without first checking it out with some idiot," Smiley concluded. 




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Last updated April 12, 2013

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