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Pitcairn a Regular Port of Call

I had always thought of Pitcairn Island as remote, and so it is; yet I was surprised to find how often ships visit the place. Last year, for example, there were more than 60 calls. In practice, one can count on seeing a ship about every 10 days.

Usually they stay about an hour, though some stop longer. Of one who generally stops only half an hour, Flora would say: “O-a, he a hurry-up captain.”

If there is anywhere in the world where the romance of the sea should still cling to ships, it is Pitcairn. Yet even at this place fast and reliable motor vessels have reduced the comings and goings of deepwater vessels to the soullessness of a bus schedule.

On occasion captains have announced to Parkin as he climbed to the bridge: “Sorry, we can stop only half an hour this time; if we stay longer we shall miss the tide going up the Thames.”

The Thames estuary is 8,300 sea miles away from Pitcairn Island.

Pitcairn lies about halfway between Auckland and Panama, which are 6,500 miles apart, but it is almost 400 miles north of the shortest route between the two. Thus islanders live in apprehension of a change of route that would deprive them of their chief contact with the outside world and their principal source of private revenue.

Islanders are hard hit when too many ships call on Saturday, the Adventist Sabbath, because their religious principles will not permit them to trade then. In 1956, 14 ships came on Saturdays. The people still go out to the ship and give some fruit away, but they will not buy or sell on that day.

Island Timetable Geared to Ships

Everything on the island is geared to the coming and going of ships. There is always keen rivalry among the men to be the first to sight an incoming vessel. Usually Tom has talked to the ship by wireless, and he knows about when she is due.

The people begin to take their basketloads of souvenirs and fruit down to the landing several hours before the expected arrival (page 779). They carry baskets and bunches of bananas suspended from a shoulder pole, called a to’o. Most of the names of utensils are still pure Tahitian, probably because they are things the women used.

Almost anywhere you go on Pitcairn you will see men carving wood and women weaving baskets (pages 769 and 777). When the men are not at sea or working in the fields, they are usually whittling a piece of wine-red miro wood to make a flying fish, a turtle, or a sea bird. Tourists on the ships take all the island can produce.

I sat one day with the men up under the flagpole at The Edge, looking out to sea for the ship (page 736). Suddenly a man sprang to his feet and sang out, “Sail ho-o-o!”

I saw nothing, but, like the rest, I took his word for it and started down the hill. One youth raced to the bell to give the signal: five strokes repeated three times.

Children are not permitted to go aboard ship, and one man called out to some youngsters who had started down the trail: “Bout yawly orkal sullen gwen?” (Where are you little children going?)

“We gwen narwy.” (We’re going swimming.)

More people arrived at a half trot. Someone called: “John, where’s you-a?”

Receiving no answer, he asked another man, “You ka bout he-sa gone?” (Do you know where he’s gone?)

“I kawa. I no bin see-um.” (I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.)

Pitcairners have been called the finest surf boatmen in the world. These descendants of seamen live from early youth on and by the sea. All boys from the age of 14 go into the boats to train; at 15 the boy becomes a crew member and pulls an oar.

Three boats, Ho Ho, Nuni, and Surprise, were in use when I was on Pitcairn, while a fourth, the Barge, was resting. A boat rests for four months, then goes back into service for a year.

My notebook records a trip out to the Mataroa of the Shaw Savill Line, on a day when great green-and-white combers were crashing on the black volcanic rocks of Bounty Bay.

“By the time she arrives, the sea has moderated a bit, but as the three boats put out to sea, each in turn is lifted high on the rollers, hesitates with bow hanging in air, then slides down the translucent green hill of water, oar blades flashing (page 750). Beyond the combers, we set our sails and proceed to steamer rendezvous three miles out.

“Boat piled high with baskets of fruit and souvenirs. Clement says, ‘I doan’ like to take fruit out to ships like this. Rather cahly it inside.’ I have seen him eat five pineapples without stopping. And half a watermelon. Good man.

“I am riding in Len’s boat, Surprise. Roy chaffing Len about several days’ growth of beard, said ship’s people would think islanders a run-down lot if he went out like that, said he looked like a heathen. Len shot back: ‘Well, den, you-a call yus Maker a heathen? He never shave.’”

When the boats come alongside a ship, two are usually made fast astern and one forward. One man stays in each boat on watch; these positions are changed every 10 minutes so that everyone has a chance to go on deck.

After selling their curios, the islanders rush to buy at the ship’s shop. The fastest trade is in sweets. The islanders buy “lollies” by the box. Canvas yachting shoes, tinned milk, soap, and even watches move briskly.

It is a Pitcairn tradition to sing from the boats before casting off. One captain told me that if trading has been unusually good the passengers hear a lusty rendering of the hymn “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.”

Duddy and Mummy Guard Bounty Bay

On our homeward run, the helmsman pointed our boat too close up into the wind. The captain shouted: “Let’er off! Let’er off! You want her sail like Flattie?” Flattie is the outermost of three rocks that stand at the entrance to Bounty Bay. The first two rocks are called Duddy and Mummy, after Thursday October Christian 2d and his wife.

We landed and hauled the boats out as the sky took on a strange mulberry color that contrasted sharply with a robin’s-egg-blue sea. The two colors were divided clearly, as if the horizon were drawn with a straight edge. As we topped the ridge, the glow suddenly went out and the sky turned to lead.

On Pitcairn many things—buildings, tools, foodstuffs—are owned in common. When a ship comes in, a certain amount of fruit is contributed to a common fund by every householder. As community property, the fruit is traded en bloc to the ship’s steward for staples such as wheat flour, potatoes, onions, or sugar. The articles so obtained are divided on the courthouse square into 48 equal heaps, one for each household.

One of my chief objectives in coming to Pitcairn had been to find, if possible, the resting place of the Bounty. I questioned the islanders about any visible remains. Everybody knew that a clutch of iron ballast bars lay in the surf, almost on shore, but no one could tell me anything of the actual ship.

“It-sa gone,” they all said. “Nothing left.”

Everyone knew, of course, that she had gone down in Bounty Bay. The question was, exactly where?

I soon found in going over the area with a waterglass, and later in diving to the bottom, that no “wreck,” as such, remained. The burning, the fishing up of timbers more than a century ago, and, above all, the relentless pounding of the Pacific combers had demolished the Bounty. The most one could hope to find would be metal fittings.

One night at Fred’s house Parkin told me how he found the Bounty’s rudder.

It was 1933. Parkin Christian and Robert Young had been fishing, and they were paddling their canoe toward shore. At the entrance to Bounty Bay, in 40 feet of water over a sand bank at the foot of weed-covered rock, they stopped. Parkin got his waterglass over the side and scanned the bottom.

“These nanway [a kind of fish],” said Parkin, “they lived there, and I try to look for fish. The gudgeon is laying on top of the sand right out, and I start to sing out:

“‘There’s the Bounty’s gudgeon!’

“Then I catch myself, I say, ‘Oh, what a fool; I know I can get it for myself.’

“We come ashore. I pull my canoe up and start for home. I come get a line and sinkers and off I go again. I don’ want even my wife to know where I’m goin’.

“I get it up first time; it come only so high, then it slip off. It stand right up on bottom; so I let the noose down and it go right down as though I put a hat on my head, and up he come.

“A chap don’t see what I take out of my boat. He ask me did I catch any fish; I say I get one.”

The gudgeon (it actually turned out to be a rudder strap and pintle) had at first slipped from Parkin’s noose; it struck the bottom and uncovered some planks and timbers. It was the Bounty’s rudder. Parkin returned the next day to fish up the rudder, but it was heavy and he needed help; so he could no longer keep his find a secret.

Bounty’s Voyage Begins with Breadfruit

The Bounty started life as the merchant ship Bethia.

In 1787 one of the secretaries of state had addressed a letter to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty: “The Merchants and Planters interested in His Majesty’s West India Possessions have represented that the Introduction of the Bread Fruit Tree into the Islands in those Seas to constitute an Article of Food would be very essential Benefit to the Inhabitants, and have humbly solicited that Measures may be taken for procuring some Trees of that Description... to be transplanted in the said Islands...

“I am in Consequence to signify to your Lordships His Majesty’s Command that you do cause a Vessel of proper Class to be stored and Victualled for this Service...”

The planters thought that the breadfruit, which Dampier, Cook, and others had described as a cheap and nutritious substitute for bread, would make good food for slaves.

The Bethia was renamed in recognition of George III’s bounty to the West India merchants. She was of 220 tons burden and she had an over-all length of about 100 feet.

The Bethia had been sheathed in wood, but for better protection against the shipworm (Teredo navalis), the Admiralty ordered that the vessel be sheathed in copper. (* See “Shipworms, Saboteurs of the Sea,” by F. G. Walton Smith, National Geographic, October, 1956.)

Copper sheathing had been tried for the first time in 1761, with only partial success, because designers of that day were ignorant of the phenomenon of electrolysis. When ferrous and nonferrous metals are immersed in salt water, a galvanic electric current is set up which rapidly corrodes away the iron.

To prevent such corrosion, the Bounty’s gudgeons, pintles, and other exposed underwater fittings were also made of copper and bronze, and so have lasted intact to this day.

Ship Stripped Before Burning

We may picture the mutineers on January 23, 1790—Christian well aware that all signs of habitation on Pitcairn must be destroyed, the others torn between the fear of discovery and the knowledge that by destroying the ship they would forever cut themselves off from the world they knew.

All agreed at last, and everything useful in the Bounty was taken ashore: top hamper, timber, all the metal that could be drawn, sails, compasses, chronometer, glass from the great cabin windows, sheet lead for musket balls, forge, muskets, cutlasses, hand tools, pitch, earthenware, guns.

In my mind’s eye, I see the Bounty anchored in eight fathoms well outside the semicircle of Bounty Bay. One calm day cable was paid out, and she was worked into the bay and run aground. Following seas must have slammed her rudder from side to side with shuddering crashes until it snapped off, and, with a final lift under her stern, the sea-worn little vessel struck hard upon the shore.

Then they set fire to her. Once she was alight, she must have made a stout blaze, with her sun-dried timbers and pitched seams.

I can see her blazing away, and hear the crackling of the flames. The little band huddles silently on shore, watching the flames eat away their last hope of seeing England again.

Lady Diana Belcher, in her book on the mutiny, speaks of the arrival at Pitcairn in 1841 of “H. M. S. Curaçoa” (Curaçao?) under Capt. Jenkin Jones. She writes:

“Captain Jones, having ascertained the spot where the Bounty had been sunk, succeeded, with some difficulty, in raising the charred hull, and found that such had been the solidity of her timbers, that her ‘heart of oak’ had survived the power of fire and water, and the effects of submersion for half a century.”

It seems difficult to believe that a vessel not equipped with special salvage and lifting devices could have raised the “charred hull” of the Bounty. No doubt Captain Jones did bring to the surface some sizable timbers of the old ship. In any case, so far as I can ascertain, nothing more was seen of her until Parkin Christian grappled the rudder to the surface in 1933.

Len said to me one day: “I can show you one copper bar. My father first see it ‘bout 15 years ago. I dive down to it and touch it, but it’s stuck to the bottom.”

This was the first word I had had of anything definite that might mark the site; so on the first calm day we got Len’s canoe and paddled out to the place where Len had seen the copper bar.

Fifty yards offshore Len stopped paddling and turned to take bearings. He sighted over one shoulder at the soaring rock spire of Ship Landing Point, then looked up at The Edge.

“She right here,” he said.

Sea Floor Yields Bronze Rudder Pintle

I lifted the waterglass over the side and pressed its glass bottom into the heaving sea.

“See it?” Len asked.

I shook my head. Len peered over my shoulder and pointed. Deep in a fissure I saw a short, gray-green bar, too straight to be a natural growth. Little yellow wrasses flickered unconcernedly over it, indifferent to the encrusted fragment of history.

I shrugged into the harness of my Aqua-Lung, put on rubber flippers and face mask, and fell backward, diver-fashion, into the sea.

Turning over, I flutter-kicked my way down into the miniature valley, past flowerlike small corals, until my hand closed on the bar. It was cemented firmly to the bottom.

Directly above, Len’s face peered through the disk of the waterglass. I made a hammering motion. The face disappeared, and a hammer and cold chisel were slowly lowered to me on a cord.

I stood on my head in the cleft in which the bar lay. Down there my head and shoulders were in comparative calm, but every few seconds the surge would slam into me and my wildly kicking feet were then powerless to hold me vertical. Helplessly I would crash against the coral fingers that clung to the rock and feel the stings that meant the sharp fingers were scoring crimson lines on my legs.

For a quarter of an hour I chipped away around the sides of the two-inch-thick bar. When I had cut a trench in the limestone bottom all the way around it, I inserted a steel rod, heaved, and the bar came away.

In the boat we turned the bar over and over. It tapered slightly to a rounded and eroded point and the upper end was irregular; it was evidently a pintle that had broken off from the rudder strap which held it. I think this is the second of four pintles shown on the Admiralty plan (page 758).

Parkin had pointed out from The Edge the spot where he recovered the rudder; that was only a dozen yards from the rocky embrasure that held the pintle we recovered, but though Len, Tom, and I searched the area minutely in the calm days that followed, we found no other trace of the Bounty. Obviously, the main body of the vessel lay elsewhere.

Where Did the Bounty Go Down?

“I think,” I said to Len, “that as the ship drove ashore, the following seas broke off her rudder. The pintles dropped in the sand, and the Bounty drove aground some distance beyond. What do you think?”

“Sound reasonable,” said Len.

“Well, then,” I said, “where did the ship itself go down?”

We talked it over. The thing is relatively simple, we thought: The Bounty was about 100 feet long; the ballast bars are over there in the surf; the rudder and pintles were found out there; all we have to do is draw an imaginary line between the two places, cruise along this line on the bottom, and we are bound to find some trace of the ship.

Cruise we did; every day of reasonable calm we filled the air cylinders and dived. We nearly plowed furrows with our chins in the bottom. But we found nothing.

Then, late one afternoon nearly six weeks after my arrival on Pitcairn, I took Chester Young out to show him how diving was done. By this time we were losing hope, but we paddled out to near where we had found the pintle.

Len helped me on with my Aqua-Lung, and I dived first. While waiting for Len, I took my bearings on the big rock under which the pintle had lain and cruised slowly over the animate carpet of undulating seaweed, scrutinizing the cove bottom closely. Big jacks swam round me, watching curiously. On a bed of weed I saw a crescent-shaped object.

Thrusting my face closer, I saw it was an oarlock. Unlike the standard U-shaped oarlock, this one had one arm markedly longer than the other, forming a tilted crescent that looked strikingly like a new moon or the symbol of Islam (page 757).

As I watched, 14 Moorish Idols, bizarrely shaped black-and-yellow reef fish, swam in echelon over the crescent—Moorish fish maneuvering over a Moorish crescent. Fantastic coincidence that only the sea can produce!

Then I came unexpectedly on a long, sandy trench. The end nearest me was covered with white limestone secreted by calcareous algae—lithothamnion, a stone-making plant—and I could see little squiggles in the surface, a curious marking that resembled nothing so much as petrified worms.

I thrust my face closer, almost touching the bottom. My heart gave a jump. The squiggles were encrusted sheathing nails, Bounty nails—dozens of them. I looked up for Len. He was just above me, staring questioningly. I reached up my hand for his, pumped it violently, and pointed. He looked up grinning and nodding, and we shook hands again.

We had found the resting place of the Bounty.

Bounty Nails Give Off “Smoke”

Beyond, two other trenches stretched toward the spot where the ballast bars lay in the yeasty surf. I had been searching too far to the eastward. Apparently, prevailing winds and currents had veered the ship as she went ashore. The bow had pivoted on the shore, and the stern had swung round to the west.

I began to chip away at the layer of nails. At each blow of the hammer a puff of black “smoke” arose—carbonized wood of the Bounty, still clinging to metal fastenings. It was extremely difficult to hold a position on the bottom. Ever and again, the sea would bowl us over completely or carry us shoreward sprawling on our backs.

Near the nails I came on a long bolt, partly uncovered. I carefully chipped down both sides until it came free. Swinging up to the bobbing canoe, I thrust the bolt over the side.

Len and I saw enough to convince us that we had found the line of the keel, or at least one of the main strakes of the hull, though we saw no planks or ribs. Everything was covered by a hard, limy growth.

As we dug deeper, we came upon fragments of the copper with which the Bounty had been sheathed, in good condition and almost an eighth of an inch thick. Deeper digging should bring up larger pieces of the ship.

Broad Arrow Identifies Oarlock

That night I polished and buffed a bronze sheathing nail until it shone like gold. A piece of the original Bounty! The burnished gold surface caught the light with a mesmerizing effect. As I stared and dreamed, I seemed to see the shipyard at Deptford, with the Bounty on the stocks and the shipwrights swarming over her. I heard the ringing hammer blows, the “chink, chink” of the caulking irons, and the “chid, chid, chid” of the adzes paring away the solid English oak. I smelled the winy odor of new timbers oozing sap in the hot sun, the resinous smell of pitch, and the clean astringent scent of Stockholm tar in the rigging.

A leather-aproned workman, perched in the scaffolding, drives another nail into the copper sheathing, and says to his mate: “Off to Otaheite and the Great South Sea! Damn my eyes, Sam’l, I’ve ‘alf a mind to ship myself.”

As I worked, the noisy electric light plants were turned off and a hush fell over Adamstown, for it was the eve of the Sabbath.

By the soft yellow light of kerosene lamps, Fred’s family gathered for prayers. Fred’s shock of curly gray hair shone like a halo in the lamplight. The light and shadow lay on the bowed heads of the little group with the bold chiaroscuro of a Rembrandt.

After prayers I watched Flora scrutinize the bronze oarlock in the beam of an electric torch.

“I look for the broad arrow,” she said, referring to the symbol struck into all large fittings of the Royal Navy in the 18th century, “but I doan’ find it.” She handed the heavy metal crescent to me. I snapped on my flashlight, and the three strokes of the broad arrow leaped out at me (page 756).

“That’s it, all right,” said Fred. “She’s from the Bone-ty.” I thought back. This could only have come from the Bounty’s cutter, for the launch had been cast adrift with Bligh and his loyal men in it.

By great good fortune, one of the Bounty’s anchors was later found by a diver from the globe-girdling yacht Yankee during her last visit to Pitcairn (pages 762-5). (* See, “The Yankee’s Wander-World,” National Geographic, January, 1949; and “Westward Bound in the Yankee,National Geographic, January, 1942, both by Irving and Electa Johnson.)

During my stay on Pitcairn, I asked Parkin why he thought his ancestor had mutinied. He replied: “Because he was an honest man and Bligh call him a thief; say he steal some coc’nuts.”

This is the standard story, but it is difficult to determine in the case of the mutiny in the Bounty which of the two chief actors—Bligh or Christian—has been treated unjustly by history. Volumes, literally, have been published on both sides of the story.

Bligh Greeted as Returning Hero

What then, was the real cause of the mutiny? As usually happens in real life as opposed to fiction, neither side of the question is all black or all white.

When Bligh returned safely to England after his epic open-boat voyage, he was greeted as a hero and martyr. But after the court-martial of the captured mutineers, the climate of public opinion changed, and ever since Bligh has been pictured as an unendurable martinet and even a monster.

Hear Bligh himself: “It will very naturally be asked, what could be the reason for such a revolt... I can only conjecture that the mutineers had assured themselves of a more happy life among the Otaheiteans, than they could possibly have in England; which, joined to some female connections, have most probably been the principal cause of the whole transaction.

“The women at Otaheite are handsome, mild, and cheerful... The chiefs were so much attached to our people, that they... made them promises of large possessions. Thus the mutineers imagined it in their power to fix themselves in the midst of plenty, on the finest island in the world, where they need not labor, and where the allurements of dissipation are beyond any thing that can be conceived.”

Fletcher Christian left no written record, but he has been quoted by several witnesses. Bounty crewman James Morrison recorded in his journal that when Bligh was ordered by Christian into the boat, he “begged of Mr. Christian to desist, saying ‘I’ll pawn my honour, I’ll give my bond, Mr. Christian, never to think of this if you’ll desist’; ... to which Mr. Christian replyd ‘No, Captain Bligh, if you had any honour, things had not come to this... I have been in hell for this fortnight passed and am determined to bear it no longer, and you know Mr. Cole that I have been used like a dog the whole voyage.’”

There is no doubt that Bligh had a caustic tongue and an irascible nature. He drove his men and was impatient with inefficiency. But the records show that he used the cat-o’-nine-tails less than many other commanders of his day, and that he was solicitous of the welfare of his men. In dirty weather off Cape Horn, he kept a fire going below and even gave up his own cabin to the men who had wet berths. Most remarkable, he brought them through the long voyage without a single case of scurvy.

Christian seems to have been oversensitive—today he would be called neurotic—and given to a feeling of persecution. Like Bligh, he had a quick temper.

It seems evident that the unpremeditated mutiny arose from a sudden impulse on the part of Christian, who smarted under Bligh’s hazing, but that the opportunity was quickly welcomed by the rest as a chance to return to an island paradise.

Tahiti Still Lures Men to Linger

I have walked on the black sand beach of Matavai and looked across the green thunder of the surf to the anchorage of Wallis, Cook, Bougainville, and Bligh (page 726). Whatever may have been the song the sirens sang, I am certain in my own mind that it must have been in the Tahitian tongue.

Capt. Irving Johnson, who has sailed the South Sea in Yankee for more than 20 years, knows at first hand the difficulty of keeping a crew together at “the finest island in the world.” He says: “I don’t see how Cook, Bligh, or any other navigator had any men at all left to work the ship when leaving Tahiti.”

The irony of it all is that when the breadfruit reached the West Indies at last—at the cost of mutiny, piracy, shipwreck, murder, and exile—the Negro slaves there found it tasteless and would not eat it.

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