Post Office Crowded on Mail Day
While I talked with Roy Clark, the American-born postmaster who came to Pitcairn in 1909, Oscar Clark, assistant postmaster, rang the bell four times: mail call. It was the mail that came in with me from the Rangitoto.
Mail day is an exciting time for the islanders. They may not have received mail for weeks, if bad weather has forced ships to bypass them. Roy and Oscar locked themselves in the post office and distributed the mail to pigeonholes, one for each family. They came to the porch and called off a list of names. Only people whose names were called crowded into the miniature building.
After the letters come the parcels. These are most eagerly awaited by the Pitcairners; since there are no shops on the island, all their buying has to be done by mail. Women regularly order from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward in the United States.
I saw some cloth-wrapped parcels that bore a label familiar to me: “O. Mustad and Sons, Oslo, Norway.” They contained fishhooks, 65 pounds of them, ordered by one man for all the fishermen on the island.
From the courthouse square switchback paths lead “up ah hill” toward the cultivated ground and the wireless station. We walked through thickets of rose apple, a tree imported to Pitcairn about the turn of the century.
“This stuff’s a nuisance,” said Tom. “Crowds out everything else.”
Yet the rose apple is a boon to deforested Pitcairn. It grows so fast that it keeps the island hearths well supplied with firewood.
As we climbed higher, we could look down over the scattered red roofs of Adamstown to the open sea (page 785). Lush green valleys, filled with a dense growth of banana and plantain, alternated with ridges running down to the sea. Deep in the valleys bunches of ripe fe'i, the red banana, flashed fire-orange.
As we talked, Tom thrashed his way through the high grass and guava bushes beside the trail and emerged with a ripe watermelon. He drew his sheath knife and sliced it lengthwise.
All Pitcairn males wear a sheath knife on the belt (page 769). It looks very seagoing, but its chief use is to slice and peel the fruit that is always in someone’s hand.
We sat under a pandanus tree and ate the melon. I leaned against the gray roots that sprang out from the base of the trunk like Gothic flying buttresses and looked out to sea. My thoughts drifted back to the Bounty.
After Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers set their captain adrift, they tried to settle on the island called Tubuai, about 400 miles south of Tahiti. The natives there were hostile, however, and the mutineers found themselves in a constant state of warfare. The malcontents among the men demanded to return to Tahiti “and there separate where they might get weomen without force.”
Three Mutineers Ended on Yardarm
Feeling his authority weaken, Christian made this speech:
“Gentlemen, I will carry you, and land you. wherever you please. I desire none to stay with me, but I have one favour to request, that you will grant me the ship, tie the foresail, and give me a few gallons of water, and leave me to run before the wind, and I shall land upon the first island the ship drives to. I have done such an act that I cannot stay at Otaheite.”
Christian knew the Admiralty had a long arm, and that sooner or later they would send a ship to look for him and his henchmen.
When Christian and his eight comrades set sail, 16 mutineers remained at Tahiti. They were to regret it. True to Christian’s fears, the frigate Pandora arrived in Matavai Bay a year and a half later and captured all the mutineers except two who had been killed.
The Pandora was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef on the homeward journey and four mutineers, as well as many seamen, went down with her. The survivors got away in the boats and eventually returned to England, where the 10 mutineers were tried. Four were acquitted and six were found guilty. Three of the latter obtained pardons, and the other three were hanged from the yardarm of a man of war.
What Christian wanted was a hospitable but uninhabited island where he could live out his life without fear of discovery. In a book called Hawkesworth’s Voyages in the Bounty’s library he found a description of what sounded like just such an island. It occurred in an account of Capt. Philip Carteret’s voyage around the world in 1766-9.
“It was not more than five miles in circumference, and seemed to be uninhabited; it was, however, covered with trees... It lies in latitude 25° 2’ S., longitude 133° 21’ W... It is so high that we saw it at the distance of more than fifteen leagues, and it having been discovered by a young gentleman, son to Major Pitcairn of the marines... we called it PITCAIRN’S ISLAND.”
The name holds interest for Americans, as the Maj. John Pitcairn mentioned was in command of the British Marines at Concord when the first shot was fired in the American War of Independence. He was later mortally wounded in the battle of Bunker Hill.
Christian decided to steer for Pitcairn. Unfortunately, Captain Carteret had been more than three degrees off in his reckoning of longitude, an error of 178 nautical miles west of the true position.
Christian seems to have cruised for weeks looking for this island, and he nearly had another mutiny on his hands before sighting it.
When the mutineers first landed, they found signs that humans had been there before them. Rude carvings were cut into cliff faces, polished stone axes lay about, and near one marae, a platform built of stones on which stood crude idols, they found a human skeleton. But they saw not a living soul. Today we know these remains belong to primitive Polynesians who once lived on Pitcairn Island.
No one knows the exact date on which the Bounty arrived at Pitcairn Island, but it was in the first days of 1790. Having landed all the stores, plants, and livestock, the ship’s crew stripped her, ran her ashore, and burned her on January 23, 1790.
Christian divided all the land into nine portions among his fellow seamen and himself, leaving none for the Polynesian men. Their resentment smoldered; later it was to burst violently into flame.
Through succeeding generations the land of Pitcairn has been so subdivided through inheritance that by the time I arrived on the island some people owned only four feet of ground. Others are completely landless.
Even individual trees have owners, but no one objects if anyone who is hungry picks an orange or a coconut.
“All right you pick coc’nut,” Fred said, “so long you eat it under the tree. Cahn’t cahly it away.”
Wind Powers Island Transmitter
Climbing again, we emerged on a grassy hill, almost 900 feet above sea level. Here stands the radio station. The transmitter works on batteries powered by a wind charger. Tom Christian listens for ships’ calls every morning and transmits in the evening. His point of contact for regular communications is Rarotonga, 1,900 miles away.
Fred and I waited while Tom took his readings and sent out a call. No one answered; so we continued our stroll around the plateau.
I had left northern winter behind when I crossed the Equator, and now in mid-December it was high summer on Pitcairn. Sea breezes keep the temperature pleasant most of the time on this subtropical island. There is usually plenty of rain—fortunately, because the island depends on it for its water supply. The houses have corrugated iron roofs from which the rain runs through gutters and spouts into cement tanks.
The top of Pitcairn consists of an undulating savanna, set here and there with gray-trunked pandanus trees and thickets of dark-green rose apple. The highest point, 1,100 feet, is on a ridge above Palva Valley, west of the island’s center. The early voyagers all described Pitcairn as being heavily wooded, but now axes and goats have rendered it nearly treeless, as far as big timber is concerned.
As we walked along a path skirting a cliff that dropped almost sheer to the foaming surf, I could see bearded billy goats and their bleating nannies skipping down cliff faces. Reforestation is a losing business as long as the goats remain on the island. They clip green shoots right down to the ground. Cutting of firewood and the cropping of the goats has caused erosion on several steep slopes. Whole hillsides have slipped down into the sea, leaving only the raw red clay.
Pitcairn is only 2 miles long by about a mile wide, and after 167 years of habitation every prominent rock, cove, or cliff has acquired a name (map, pages 734-5).
I had seen one point on the southwest coast of the island marked “Oh Dear” on the map, and I asked Fred how it got its name.
“Well, native man wading ‘long shore there, drop his malu [from Tahitian maro, loincloth] in water. You know that’s all they wear, and he look down and say ‘Oh dear!’”
Another point offshore on the west side bears the designation “Headache.”
“One man gwen fishin’ ‘long that place, when his boy say: ‘Let’s go back, my head hurts!’ Before he get him back, he dead.”
The old accounts speak of “clouds of sea birds,” but today one sees only occasional frigate birds swooping and gliding on their tapered high-aspect-ratio wings, opening and shutting their black scissor tails, and pairs of snow-white terns fluttering in graceful arcs against the dark-green foliage of the valleys.
In our walk I saw only one species of land bird, a warbler with erectile head feathers, that chirped and hopped busily among the rose apple trees. Pitcairners call them sparrows, doubtless because they reminded the English sailors of their own little town bird.
Birthday Party a Lucullan Feast
We slipped and skidded down a steep trail that plunged toward Adamstown. Near the bottom we met a man wheeling a barrow.
“You bin firewood?” Fred asked.
“Ee-yeh. Pick some plun [banana] too.”
From one of the houses just below came the high, shrieking laughter of a woman, a sound as Polynesian as baked pig.
We met Flora coming down from the hill at the trail that debouched at Fred’s door. “Bin up planting taty [potatoes],” she called. “Yawly invited long fa us go birthday party.”
I had a quick bath in half an oil drum filled with heated rain water, dressed, took a flashlight and joined the family going up the hill.
About 50 people were seated at two long tables made of planks laid on trestles. Piled high on the tables were unbelievable quantities of food: big platters of boiled goat meat, corned beef stewed in coconut milk, chicken, boiled fish, pilhi (made of yams, plantains, bananas, or pumpkin), maize, loaves of freshly baked white bread, mounds of peas and beans, hills of butter, arrowroot, and pineapple pudding, avocados, rock melons (muskmelons), mangoes, and watermelons. Here and there stood pitchers of “drink,” a sweet, red liquid made by steeping strawberries in sugar water.
And of course, baked breadfruit.
“Coc’nut Milk Make Sawdust Taste Good”
The Pitcairners are amazing trenchermen. I thought I could hold my own at table, but I was forced to yield to professionals. Fred urged me to have some more beef in coconut milk.
“Coc’nut milk make even sawdust taste good,” he said.
I believe it. The coconut milk used in Polynesian cookery is not the water that comes from inside the nut. It is made by steeping the flaked meat of a ripe coconut in hot water, then kneading it. The creamy liquid that results imparts a delicate flavor to whatever is cooked in it, seems to tenderize meats, and is very nutritious.
Len Brown watched the fish he had helped catch disappear.
“My, dem soon scoff up hem fish; want one he piece, tak’ whole platter.”
At length even Fred, the master of us all, had to stop. The host looked anxiously at Fred’s stilled knife and fork and asked, “Can I bring you anything?”
“Yes,” murmured Fred, “bring me another stomach.” He smiled beatifically and added, “I always say Fletcher Christian find a good place to hide.”
I could barely croak my admiration to Jessie Clark, who laughed and said, “We have only one meal a day on Pitcairn: start in morning and end at night.”
Actually, two meals a day are eaten: breakfast, a heavy meal at about 11 o’clock when everyone comes down from working on the hill, and supper at about 8 or 9 at night.
After the party Chester Young told me that the old island dishes are disappearing.
“Have you ever tasted humpus-bumpus?” he asked. “Eddie? China-in-the-milk? Potta?”
“Not yet,” I admitted.
“Why, man, you’ve not eaten Pitcairn food.”
All these I savored in time. Humpus-bumpus is made of mashed ripe bananas with arrowroot flour, fried as fritters or baked.
Flora told me about Eddie, bananas cooked in coconut milk.
“It’s not Eddie the name,” she said, “but they put it that way. Eddie—that’s Lucy’s husband—he like it, so that’s why they call it for him.”
China-in-the-milk is another favorite way of preparing green bananas in coconut milk; potta is made by stewing taro greens in the same liquid.
Goat Fence Divides the Island
As the days went by, I became more and more absorbed into the life of the community. Allen Wotherspoon, the schoolteacher, had started a men’s and a ladies’ club. One night I attended a meeting of the former.
Anything may be discussed. One man said that people should not shoot “white birds,” the lovely terns that fly in pairs along the cliffs. Another brought up the question of whether or not a small boat should be built to make use of a 12-horsepower gasoline engine that had been left on the island by an American scientist. Most men thought this not practical because of the difficulty of obtaining gasoline, since ships refuse to carry it. Lighting plants and other engines on the island run on diesel fuel.
Then someone brought up the question of goats. The chairman looked resignedly heavenward and everyone laughed. Goats are a sore point on Pitcairn.
The original goats were probably imported by the mutineers. There are now 400-odd goats on Pitcairn, confined to the southern half of the island by a five-foot-high fence.
Anti-goat Pitcairners say: “They nuisances, do lots of damage.”
Pro-goaters say, with Flora: “If war come, ships cut right off, and we’ll go stranded with no meat.” Pitcairners remember vividly the war years, when they were almost completely isolated.
A goatmaster, elected each year, is in charge of all island goats. With eight helpers he brands the new kids as they come along. No household may keep more than two breeding nannies. The goatmaster also organizes shoots when the people need fresh goat meat. I was delighted to hear Flora refer to the rifles used as “muskets.”
Both schoolteacher Wotherspoon and Pastor Hawkes try to convince the people that the goats must go for the good of the land. They remain, by and large, unconvinced.
On Pitcairn today there are only three of the original surnames: Christian, Young, and McCoy. The forebears of the Browns migrated from New Zealand; the original Warrens and Roy Clark came from the United States.
The reason there are no representatives of other mutineer surnames is that in 1856 the British Government, fearing overcrowding on Pitcairn, moved the colony to Norfolk Island, east of Australia. After a few years, some of the people grew homesick and returned. These were the nucleus of today’s colony.
Floyd McCoy is the only representative of his family on Pitcairn. From the age of 14 Floyd has been a close student of the island’s history, and today he has the best collection of books on the subject on Pitcairn.
Floyd is also inspector of police, but he has very little to do in that line, for there is no serious crime on Pitcairn.
“Our chief offense,” said Floyd, “is false report, and there is not too much of that.” In other words, gossip—the bane of any small, isolated community.
Floyd is the custodian of two Bounty relics, an ax and an anvil. When he visited Norfolk Island, Floyd wanted to bring back the Bounty’s copper kettle, but his relatives there would not part with it.
The kettle is of particular interest to the McCoys because back in the mutineer days William McCoy had used it to distill alcohol from the roots of the ti plant.
This happened in April of 1798, but long before that date the dark cloud of violence had settled over Pitcairn. The little colony had lived in peace for about two years after the burning of the Bounty in 1790. Then the wife of John Williams, one of the mutineers, died in a fall from a cliff.
Williams took the wife of one of the Tahitians, who banded together to take revenge. Over the next few years there followed a series of bloody battles and violent deaths. Fletcher Christian was shot to death as he worked in his field; William McCoy threw himself into the sea after drinking too much of his home-distilled alcohol.
Nine years after the Bounty landed, all the Tahitian men were dead, and only two mutineers, Alexander Smith, seaman, and midshipman Edward Young, were still alive.
Young died of asthma a year later, leaving Alexander Smith the only man on Pitcairn, patriarch of a flock of women and children.
When Capt. Mayhew Folger in the ship Topaz of Boston called at Pitcairn to look for seals in February of 1808, he was astonished to see a canoe put out to sea from what he thought was an uninhabited island. In the canoe were three young men, bearing presents of fruit and a pig.
The youths took the captain ashore to meet their “father Aleck” Smith.
Bounty Bible Goes Home to Pitcairn
Smith is better known as John Adams, the name by which he called himself when other vessels touched at the island some years later. It was his real name; Smith was a pseudonym he assumed when signing the Bounty’s articles.
Adams one night dreamed of the Angel Gabriel, who showed him the wickedness of his past life and put the fear of divine retribution in him. From that time forward, Adams began to instruct the little community in religion, using for the purpose a Bible that had come in the Bounty (page 741).
Years later, the Bible was given to a visiting whaler, who took it to the United States. There it remained until 1950, when it was returned to Pitcairn. It now stands in an honored place in the church.
Captain Folger wrote to the Admiralty telling of his discovery—the first news the outside world had heard of the whereabouts of Christian and his companions. Oddly enough, he and one of his officers aboard Topaz gave three different accounts of Fletcher Christian’s death, all based on conversations with Adams. One version said Christian was shot by the Tahitians; another that he died a natural death; still another that he threw himself from the cliffs and was dashed to death on the rocks below, the last perhaps confusing Christian’s death with that of McCoy.
Why should Adams have told two or three different versions of Christian’s end? Could it be that he did it to conceal the fact that Christian had escaped from Pitcairn and returned to England?
In the years 1808 and 1809 rumors were current in the Lake District of England, Christian’s birthplace, that Fletcher Christian had returned to that part of England.
At about that time Capt. Peter Heywood, late midshipman of the Bounty, who had been tried for mutiny, found guilty, and then pardoned by the King, was walking in Fore Street, Plymouth. He noticed walking ahead of him a man who reminded him strongly of Fletcher Christian. The stranger, hearing footsteps behind him, turned round, looked at Heywood and instantly ran off.
Since then, some students of the Bounty’s history have speculated on the possibility that Fletcher Christian returned to England. C. S. Wilkinson, in his book The Wake of the Bounty, even suggests that it was Christian who inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write The Ancient Mariner.
A sum of gold ducats Captain Bligh carried has never been accounted for. Could Fletcher Christian have used it to buy passage back to England? The question adds one more facet of mystery to the many-sided adventure of the Bounty.
Fred had told me that his grandfather Thursday October Christian (son of the original Thursday October Christian, Fletcher’s first born) had pointed out a spot next to a big pandanus tree where Fletcher Christian had been shot while he worked in his garden, and buried by the women who found him.
I persuaded Fred, Tom, Len, and young Fletcher to go up the hill with me to dig at the place, to see if we could find any trace of a body. It was a blazing hot day, and my friends trudged along without enthusiasm. They carried “muttocks” for the digging.
On a hillside waist high in grass Fred pointed to the spot, and the young men set to work. When they had dug a hole about two feet deep, the three gravediggers threw down their mattocks and disappeared into the grass. In five minutes they returned carrying a big watermelon and some pineapples. We sat in the scant shade and cut up the fruit.
Pitcairn pineapples are the best tasting in the world, I make no doubt. The juice runs from them in a continuous stream when you bite into them, and the flavor must be tasted to be believed.
It was too hot for much exertion. Halfheartedly the boys dug down to about four feet. Then Fred said: “I doan’ think them black wimmens bury him—or if they do, they doan’ have time to bury him deep. So cahn’t be here.”
We picked up the tools and walked down the hill. I still do not know whether Fletcher Christian is buried on Pitcairn or in England.