Friday, April 06, 2018

Mutiny on the Bounty and Pitcairn Island

Pitcairn Island was sighted on 3 July 1767 by the crew of the British sloop HMS Swallow. The island was named after Midshipman Robert Pitcairn, who was the first to sight the island.  The island is best known as the final refuge of the mutineers from HMS Bounty.

On April 4, 1789, the Bounty embarked on the return journey to England from Tahiti. Three weeks later the crew, led by first mate Fletcher Christian, mutinied against Captain William Bligh.  Bligh and eighteen loyal sailors were set adrift in a 23-foot open boat, finally reaching safe harbor seven weeks later.

After the mutiny, Christian and the other mutineers returned to Tahiti, where sixteen of the twenty-five men decided to remain. Fletcher Christian, with eight others, their Tahitian women, and a handful of Tahitian men then sailed in search of a safe hiding place from the British fleet that was sure to scour the Pacific in search of them.  They arrived at Pitcairn Island on January 23, 1790. The island’s location had been incorrectly charted and was therefore an ideal refuge.  The Bounty was burned to prevent detection and the fugitives settled into their new home.  The British navy spent three months searching for the mutineers but never found Pitcairn Island.  The mutineers who had remained on Tahiti were quickly captured and brought to trial in England.

It was not until 1795 that the first ship was seen from the island, but it did not approach. A second ship appeared on the horizon in 1801. The American trading ship Topaz was the first to visit the island and make contact in February 1808, eighteen years after the mutineers first landed. 

The Americans discovered that eight of the nine mutineers had been either murdered, committed suicide, or died of illness during their eighteen years on the island.  Fletcher Christian had not created a paradise on earth.  Mr. Christian had three children by his Tahitian wife but was killed along with four of the other mutineers by the Tahitian men who had accompanied them to the island.  The Tahitian men had grown disillusioned with Christian and the others for treating them little better than slaves.

The remaining four mutineers and the Tahitian wives of the murdered men turned on the Tahitian men and killed all of them.  Four European men now remained, along with ten women and their children.  In the succeeding years, one of the men was executed for the “well-being” of the community, one died a natural death, and one committed suicide by leaping off a cliff.

Pitcairn flourished under the leadership of the last surviving mutineer, John Adams. As leader of the community of ten Polynesian women and twenty-three children the former able seaman, John Adams, showed himself to be capable and compassionate.  Adams insisted on Sunday services, family prayers and grace before and after every meal. Adams saw to it that the land was cultivated and the livestock tended.  The small community prospered in amity.

In 1814 HMS Briton and HMS Tagus rediscovered the island.  The British commanders were charmed by the simplicity and piety of the islanders. Favorably impressed by Adams and the example he set, they agreed it would be “an act of great cruelty and inhumanity” to arrest him.

In 1825, a British ship arrived and formally granted Adams amnesty, and on November 30, 1838, the Pitcairn Islands (which also include three uninhabited islands–Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno) were incorporated into the British Empire.

Today Pitcairn Island is a British possession.  The eighteen square mile island has a population of sixty seven, most descendants of the Bounty mutineers. Pitcairn Island does not have an airport or seaport; the islanders rely on longboats to ferry people and goods ashore across Bounty Bay. A dedicated passenger/cargo supply ship, chartered by the Pitcairn Island Government, is the principal transport to and from the outside world, via Mangareva, Gambier Islands, French Polynesia.  The islanders speak a dialect that is a hybrid of Tahitian and eighteenth-century English.

Phrases in the Pitcairnese Dialect:

I starten. – I'm going.

Bou yo gwen? – Where are you going?

I gwen down Farder's morla. – I'm going down to Father's place tomorrow.

Bou yo bin? – Where have you been?

I gwen out yenna fer porpay. – I'm going out yonder for red guavas.

Foot yawly come yah? – Why did you come here?

Up a side, Tom'sa roll. – Up at that place, Tom fell down.

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