Published: December 1957

Pitcairn Island

Matavai Bay Tahiti

I Found the Bones of the Bounty

Lonely Pitcairn Island, Home of the Descendants of History’s Most Famous Mutineers, Yields Its Secret to a Diver

By Luis Marden
Photograph by Luis Marden

The course was WNW. The breeze had fallen during the night, and just before dawn the ship had almost completely lost way in the water. Her sails hung loose from the yards. Cordage slatted against the masts, the blocks creaked, and the chuckle of water at the bows died to a whisper. As the vessel rolled gently in the calm sea, the trucks of her masts traced slow arcs against the blazing stars of the Southern Hemisphere.

Distant 10 leagues, under the brilliant blue-white star Vega, the volcanic peak of Tofua rose from a dark sea. The moon, in her first quarter, filled the sails with a white radiance.

Eight bells struck. Fletcher Christian, acting mate of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, came on deck to relieve the watch. The ship’s commander, Lt. William Bligh, was asleep in his cabin below.

“I am now unhappily to relate one of the most atrocious acts of Piracy ever committed,” Bligh later wrote. “Just before sun-rising, Mr. Christian, with the master at arms, gunner’s mate, and Thomas Burket, seaman, came into my cabbin while I was asleep, and seizing me, tied my hands with a cord behind my back and threatened me with instant death, if I spoke or made the least noise: I, however, called so loud as to alarm everyone; but they had already secured the officers who were not of their party... Christian had only a cutlass in his hand the others had muskets and bayonets. I was hauled out of bed and forced on deck in my shirt...

“The boatswain was now ordered to hoist the launch out, with a threat, if he did not do it instantly, to take care of himself... Particular people were now... hurried over the side: whence I concluded that with these people I was to be set adrift.

“Christian... then said—‘Come captain Bligh, your officers and men are now in the boat, and you must go with them; if you attempt to make the least resistance you will instantly be put to death:’ and without any further ceremony, holding me by the cord that tied my hands, with a tribe of armed ruffians about me, I was forced over the side... A few pieces of pork were now thrown to us, and some cloaths, also... cutlasses... We were at length cast adrift in the open ocean.”

One of the Sea’s Greatest Stories

So, on April 28, 1789, began one of the greatest sea stories of all time: the mutiny in the Bounty and its fantastic train of events.

Bounty had sailed from Spithead in December of 1787, under orders to proceed to Otaheite (Tahiti) in the South Sea, there to take on breadfruit for transport to the West Indies. She stayed nearly six months at “the finest island in the world,” taking on plants, and then proceeded to Endeavour Strait by way of Tonga, the Friendly Islands. There, off Tofua, the famous mutiny took place.

In a boat only 23 feet long, heavily laden with 19 men to within 7 inches of the water, Bligh performed the most celebrated open-boat voyage in the chronicles of the sea (page 730). In 41 days he sailed from Tofua to Timor, 3,618 nautical miles, without the loss of a single man.

As the launch pulled away from the Bounty, the castaways heard the mutineers shout “Huzza for Otaheite!” Christian and his mates did return to their island paradise, where 16 of them elected to remain ashore. Eight threw in their lot with Christian; with them went six native men from Tahiti and Tubuai, 12 Tahitian women, and a little girl.

Suddenly in the night they sailed from Tahiti and vanished from history. Not until the ship Topaz of Boston touched at Pitcairn Island, a lonely rock 1,300 miles southeast of Tahiti, 18 years later, was the mystery solved.

Rudder Preserved in Fiji Museum

Christian had taken his little band to this uninhabited island, stripped the Bounty, then run her ashore and burned her. Trouble over a woman touched off a wave of violence and murder. When the Topaz arrived in 1808, only one of the original mutineers was still alive.

The story of the Bounty, with its incredible amalgam of adventure, violence, and mystery, has long fascinated me. While on assignment in the Fiji Islands some years ago, I was astonished to find in the museum at Suva some lengths of worm-eaten planking held together by copper fastenings, marked “Rudder of H. M. S. Bounty.” The curator told me the rudder had been fished up from six fathoms of water at Pitcairn in 1933.

Two things surprised me: first, that there had still been visible remains of the old vessel as recently as that; and second, that they lay in such shallow water.

Here was a chance to combine my interest in submarine photography with a story for the National Geographic on the Pitcairn colony. I did not know whether any traces of the burned Bounty still remained on the sea bed, or, if they did, whether I could find them, but I wanted very much to try.

Last winter I sailed for Pitcairn from Panama on the New Zealand Shipping Company’s Rangitoto. Ten days out from Panama we raised the island (map, pages 734-5). It lay low on the horizon, a slate-colored smudge against the bright gold of the westering sun.

We had still more than an hour’s steaming to reach the island, as Pitcairn’s 1,100-foot height is visible from 45 miles away.

All passengers embarking for Pitcairn at Panama must take passage through to New Zealand, because sometimes wind and sea make it impossible for the boats to come out, and the ships continue on to New Zealand without stopping. No one may land on Pitcairn without permission from the governor of Fiji, who administers the island.

“You’re in luck,” Capt. C. R. Pilcher said at my elbow. “We’ve got a calm sea. You’ll have no trouble getting ashore.”

The captain handed me his binoculars. Through them I could see three small boats rising and falling on the long Pacific swells.

The island rose slowly out of the sea and gradually took on the shape of a crouching lion rimmed with the white of breaking seas (page 732). The boats waited until we stopped; then they shipped their long oars and pulled for our dangling Jacob’s ladders. From the bridge I stared curiously down for my first look at the Pitcairn Islanders.

My first impression was one of friendliness. Every upturned face wore a smile, and some people were waving and calling to friends on board. With practiced maneuvers the boats were warped alongside, and almost instantly the Pitcairners began swarming up the ladders, with the women in the lead.

The first men to reach the deck lowered lines to the boat and began to haul up palm-frond baskets full of trade goods—fresh fruits, wood carvings, baskets. The women wore loose cotton dresses and the men were in shirts and dungarees. All were barefoot.

Christian’s Descendant Comes Aboard

A tall, broad-shouldered man came up the companion ladder. He wore a high-crowned palm-leaf hat and, as he smiled, his white teeth looked dazzling in a handsome tanned face. He held out his hand to the captain. This was Parkin Christian, 73-year-old great-great-grandson of Fletcher Christian and chief magistrate of Pitcairn Island (page 741).

“Welcome to Pitcairn,” he said (he pronounced it Peet-kern), when the captain had introduced me. &ldquol;Hope you enjoy your stay.”

I left Parkin talking with the captain and went down to the promenade deck, where the islanders stood surrounded by passengers eagerly buying fruit from the baskets: pineapples, bananas, limes, and mangoes.

The features of the Pitcairners, both men and women, were more strongly European than I had expected. They were tanned and brown skinned, but most were no darker than sunburned, brown-haired Englishmen. The women looked more Polynesian than the men.

Hymn Bids Ship Farewell

The Rangitoto stayed only an hour; then I said goodbye to my shipboard acquaintances and climbed down the swaying Jacob’s ladder. When the last islander had taken his place in the boats, the ladders were pulled aboard the Rangitoto and someone called out, “A song for Captain Pilcher and the ship!”

A man began to sing, one by one the others joined in, and then 70 voices of men and women rose in clear harmony, singing the hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” High above us the rails were white with waving handkerchiefs; as the last strains died away, our boat captain called out, “Cast off!” and we moved slowly away from the ship.

I turned toward shore. The sun had set behind the rocky heights of Pitcairn, and blood-red streaks, like rents in a blast furnace, slashed across the darkening sky.

A voice sang out, “Tillah, tillah! Anybody bin see ah tillah?” The heavy tiller was passed over my head. Then a dozen hands raised the mast, made fast the shrouds, and hoisted our jib and gaff-rigged mainsail.

“H’ist hah shrodes higher!” called the captain, and the men hauled on the shrouds to tauten them.

Left to themselves, the islanders conversed in Pitcairnese. Though difficult for an outsider to understand at first, this was not nearly so unintelligible as I had expected. They used many nautical terms, and the accent was somewhat like that of parts of the West Indies.

As we drove toward the island, with the lee rail well down, my neighbor on the crowded thwart said: “It’s darking.”

Night does not really fall; it rises, starting at the water’s edge and suffusing upward like ink creeping up a blotter.

The man thumped a crate of my air tanks.

“I heardsay you gwen dive in Bounty Bay.”

I admitted it.

“Man,” he said, “you gwen be dead as hatchet!” Why a hatchet should be deader than a doornail, or anything else, I never found out, but it signifies utter extinction.

Boat Rides Combers into Bounty Bay

As we approached the shore, the darkening island grew taller; the recumbent lion was slowly getting to his feet. In the half light I could see a line of white breakers ahead. Stark against the sky a pinnacle of rock rose 700 feet—Ship Landing Point. At its base lay the rocky cove called Bounty Bay.

At the captain’s shouted “Down sail!” the canvas came down with a rush, and the mast was unstepped. We waited just outside the surf while the captain, holding a long steering sweep, scanned the breakers ahead. The 14 rowers lay on their oars, not even turning their heads, until a particularly high wave lifted us and then let us slide down its back.

“Pull ahead!” cried the captain, and the long oars bent as they dipped in unison. We shot forward as a big sea rose under our stern. The men pulled like demons, keeping just ahead of the roller. At express-train speed we rushed past three black rocks on the port hand, entered a narrow channel of calmer water, then slowed and gently bumped against a sloping grid of logs and planks (page 739).

Ready hands seized the bows of the boats as lanterns bobbed at the head of the wooden slide. Several men from our boat jumped into the waist-deep water and started to hand crates and bundles ashore. One presented his broad back to me, said “Ready, mate?” and then carried me pickaback in to the landing.

Above us the escarpment rose 250 feet to The Edge, beyond which the houses of the village began. Figures passing before the gas lanterns threw long shadows on the white boats. The unloading went forward rapidly, and a pile of mailbags, sacks, boxes, and crates grew on the shore.

Now I met Allen Wotherspoon, the island schoolteacher, a New Zealander who had come to Pitcairn a year before, and Pastor Lester Hawkes, a Seventh-day Adventist missionary.

On Pitcairn the chief magistrate is the head of local government, but the schoolteacher is government adviser, representing the British governor of Fiji.

“You are lucky,” Wotherspoon said. “We had very little sea tonight, and you got your things ashore in a dry state. Sometimes we take a green one, and everything gets soaked.”

When the boats had been unloaded, the men secured a cable to one of them; a donkey engine coughed, and the boat moved slowly up the slide, its heavy keel squealing and groaning. The Pitcairn boats are 37 feet long and well over 7 feet high at the stem.

When the last boat was stored, everybody, including the women, picked up a sack, a box, or a bundle, and we started up the trail. The heavier boxes and mailbags would go up tomorrow by telpher, or cableway.

Someone asked, “Where’s ah man gwen stay long fa me?”

I introduced myself to Fred Christian, at whose home I was to live. Fred is six feet five inches tall, with a broad brown face, curling gray hair, and a gentle smile.

Tom, Fred’s 21-year-old son, also shook my hand.

The steep trail is cut into the side of an escarpment. Bare feet take the best grip, and my rubber-soled shoes slipped and skidded. I began to pant, and the women, most of whom carried far more than I, looked at me with friendly amusement.

Finally, a series of stony steps helped us over The Edge, and the trail leveled off. Beyond, I saw the lights of houses on both sides.

The pastor was one of the last to turn off, but Wotherspoon, Fred, Tom, and I went on, lighting our way with electric torches. We passed under the aerial roots of a big banyan tree and Fred said, “We home now.”

“No Mister or Mrs. Here”

We said goodnight to the schoolteacher and turned aside to a house of gray, unpainted weatherboards that rested on big foundation stones. A generator plant buzzed in an outbuilding, and the house shone with light.

Flora Christian took my hand at the door.

“I hope you be happy here,” she said.

“Thank you, Mrs. Christian,” I replied.

“No Mister or Mrs. here; I’m Flora.”

“Yes,” Tom said with a grin, “we all use our Christian names here.”

Of the island’s 153 souls, 55 are surnamed Christian; there are only half a dozen surnames on the whole island. To avoid confusion, no two Pitcairners have the same given name.

“Come have a bit o’ supper,” Flora said, leading us to a porch furnished with a long oilcloth-covered table. Over my protest I was seated in a chair at the head of the table. Flora, Fred, and Tom sat on benches at the sides. Fred bowed his head and said grace.

I had known before coming to Pitcairn that almost everyone on the island was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. All the Adventists of my acquaintance are vegetarians. So I was surprised when Flora placed before me a big platter of steaming corned beef, along with heaped plates of island vegetables.

Fred is an elder of the church, and I asked him about Adventists eating meat.

“O-a, we always eat meat on Peet-kern; church don’t forbid it,” he said. “We eat bully beef, salt beef, and fresh goat meat.”

Pastor Hawkes told me later that vegetarianism is not an inflexible tenet of his church. Pitcairners, in view of their isolation and lack of variety of diet, have more reason than other Adventists to eat meat, he said.

This license does not extend to pork, however, as Adventists strictly obey the Mosaic injunction against eating the flesh of pigs.

This seems a strange prohibition for a people who are half Polynesian, for throughout the South Pacific pork—pua’a—is always the center of any feast. Pigs rooted and ran free on the island from the time the mutineers brought them until John Tay, a missionary from the United States, converted the islanders to Seventh-day Adventism in 1886. Since then not a squeal has been heard on Pitcairn.

Another Biblical prohibition restricts the island diet still further.

“And whatsoever hath not fins and scales ye may not eat; it is unclean unto you.”

Adventists interpret this to mean large, visible scales, so that smooth-skinned fish are forbidden, as are shellfish.

In early accounts of life on Pitcairn I had read of parties going down the steep cliff face called The Rope to gather shellfish on the rocks below. So far as I could learn, these are a kind of whelk or winkle. I asked Fred if he had ever sampled them, and he replied with a twinkle, “O-a, I used to like them, when I was a heathen.”

Islanders do catch lobsters and crabs for fishing bait. I am an old New Englander, and my mouth watered at the sight of the handsome red-and-black spiny lobsters. Occasionally my thoughtful hosts would cook one for me, and everybody would watch in a kind of fascinated horror as I ate it.

Before going to bed, we all drank a cup of “hot drink”—Ovaltine. Adventists eschew all stimulating drinks, even the nonalcoholic ones such as coffee and tea.

Bell Calls Men to Public Work

I was awakened my first morning on Pitcairn by the island bell ringing.

“Public work,” said Fred, thrusting his head inside my door. When this bell sounds three times, all able-bodied males from 16 to 60 must report to the courthouse and do whatever work the island council decides must be done—road mending, repairs to the landing slide, land clearing. Today the job was to bring the freight up from the landing.

Tom Christian is wireless operator for the island. He must be on the air twice a day, morning and night, and so is exempt from public work. He offered to guide me round Adamstown, and then “up ah hill” to the radio station. Fred, who at 73 is still stronger and more agile than I am, accompanied us.

As we walked down the path, Fred greeted the people we passed: “Bout yawly gwen?” (Where are you going?) Islanders say this instead of “Good morning.”

The women said: “We gwen up ah hill, pick kumara” (sweet potato).

To me they said: “Enjoy yourself?”

They seemed to ask it with a genuine concern. Pitcairners are gentle and kindly, and so hospitable that I felt instantly at home.

The main track of Adamstown—“Pitcairn Avenue”—parallels the sea; houses stand at random on both sides. On a flat square cut into the steep slope stand the courthouse, church, and post office (page 771).

Since Pitcairn has no taxes or customs duties, stamps furnish the government’s only revenue. Because of collectors’ demands, they bring in sizable sums. On July 2, 1957, when a new set of stamps was issued, orders totaled $1,740 the first day. By the end of the month nearly $3,000 worth had been sold.

Continue »
email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |