In November of a year-long voyage through the South Pacific, Author Gilbert Wheat and five others—Co-captain Hank Taft, Crewmen Dick Sargent, Juanito Bugue√±o, Jack Smith and Eduard Ingris—left Tahiti aboard the ketch "Blue Sea" Their destination, 1,200 miles to the southeast, was Pitcairn Island, a forbidding mound of rock inhabited by 150 persons, most of them descended from the men who seized and destroyed history's most famous ship, H.M.S. "Bounty." There is no harbor on Pit cairn, no dock, no hotel, not even a store; yet for 170 years this tiny island has supported an independent and—surprisingly—puritanical community. On page 45 Wheat begins the story of his visit with these fascinating people, the true inheritors of the mutiny on the "Bounty."
This is an article from the Nov. 20, 1961 issue
SECRETS OF PITCAIRN
It was early in December when we sighted Pitcairn Island. An east wind was blowing, a heavy sea was running, but the weather was warm and clear. On the horizon a dark mound of volcanic rock and vegetation jutted from the sea—a lonely landfall, as if nature had deliberately chosen the most deserted part of the South Pacific and dropped an island on it. We sailed in close to the northeast tip of the island and heaved to off a dent in the rock called Bounty Bay—300 yards from the spot where His Majesty's armed vessel Bounty was burned and abandoned in 1790 by Fletcher Christian and his mutineers.
A wisp of smoke rose from the cliffs—a signal that we had been seen. Through binoculars we watched eight or nine men wrestle a longboat down a log ramp and into the shallows of Bounty Bay. A diesel engine began popping, and the boat bucked its way through the surf. A man at the tiller brought it smartly alongside Blue Sea. The Pitcairn men hailed our yacht by the name on the stern: "Ahoy Blue Sea! Welcome to PEETkern!"
The men in the boat appeared to range in age from 16 to 60. Their faces were swarthy and tanned from the sun. They leaped aboard with agility and shook hands as if we were old friends. One of them stationed himself behind our steering wheel. He pointed toward the wild stretch of ocean separating us from Bounty Bay. "Start the engine and we'll put you right over there.... Seven fathoms, sand bottom."
The longboat led us to the anchorage, the man at the tiller turning suddenly to wave at us and yell, "Now, mates!" Our pilot swung Blue Sea into the wind, the anchor rattled down, and for better or worse we were rooted to the ocean floor off Pitcairn, ready to go ashore.
Hank and I decided that at least three of us would have to remain aboard at all times. Hank took Dick Sargent and Juanito Bugue√±o in his group, and I took Jack Smith and Eduard Ingris in mine. It was agreed each group could spend 24 hours ashore. My group won the toss to go first, and a moment later the longboat carried us plunging through the waves toward the island.
The longboat captain stood in the stern with the tiller wrapped under his arm. I called to him above the roar of the engine: "What happens when we get past the breaker line?"
"Safe enough then, Mate!" he shouted back. "That's the bay inside. We jump overboard where it's shallow and get everything out of the boat. Then we pull the rudder off and haul her up those wooden rollers."
We were close enough now to see the wooden rollers and beyond them a series of wooden boathouses with the white hulls of other longboats inside. The helmsman grasped the tiller with both hands. He squinted at each breaker with a practiced eye. Long oars were fitted to thole pins; the man on the diesel stood ready to push the throttle forward. The Pitcairn crew faced aft, oars poised, eyes fixed on the helmsman's face. For a moment we hung motionless, then a breaker curled in from astern. The skipper shouted "Gang na!...pull left da! pull ri!" The diesel raced at full, the left oars pulled, the right oars pulled, and we planed and skidded through the foam.
Suddenly it was over. The boat swirled into a patch of calm water, nosed gently onto a gravel beach, and everyone jumped overboard. I managed to land on the beach without even getting my feet wet; the boat crew dismantled the rudder and pushed the boat around to align it with the rollers. An elderly man came briskly up the beach and introduced himself as Theo Young, a direct descendant of Midshipman Young, an officer on the Bounty. Theo wore a sailor hat and a tiny pair of rimless glasses. His feet were tough and brown from no shoes.
"Stay at my place, Cap," he said. "Plenty food, clean bed.... Stay as long as you please."
I thanked him, and he led me at once up the steep path to Adamstown, the island's only settlement. Following behind us was Jack Smith with his new host, John Christian (descended from Fletcher Christian), the island magistrate, and next came Eduard Ingris, adopted by Herman Schubert, the schoolmaster. The procession grew. A jaunty little man clapped me on the back. His grin revealed no front teeth.
"This here is Morris," said Theo. "Morris Christian."
Morris pumped my hand. "O.K., Cap!" he said.
Morris wore blue jeans and a Boy Scout shirt from Redwood City, California. In his breast pocket he sported a row of neatly sharpened pencils. Theo noticed my surprise over the shirt.
"We get duds from America," Theo said. "The Seventh-day Adventists send so much we got a bag for you to take to Easter Island if you going there."
The procession continued up the path. After a climb of about 300 feet, we reached a plateau known simply as The Edge. Old people and children were sitting on a long bench. As we neared the bench, two spare, muscular old men rose to greet us. They were Parkin Christian and his brother, Fred, both 77, and the oldest men on the island. Their faces had the handsome brown coloring we had seen in the natives of Tahiti. Parkin and Fred introduced us to the people on the bench, and we proceeded once more along the main street of Adamstown—a 10-foot-wide dirt path winding along the cliff edge, with wooden houses on either side. Fred pointed to the smooth-raked path.
"We sweep her every Friday," he said. "Each man is responsible for the part in front of his own house.... Did they tell you about public work?"
"No," I said, "they haven't."
"Well, from 7 in the morning till 2 in the afternoon, with an hour off for breakfast at 11, all the men do public work.... The town council decides what work to do."
"Our council," said Parkin, "means a magistrate, like John over there. He's on for three years. Then we have a chief of police—that's Floyd McCoy, the man who piloted your ship to anchor—and two assessors."
"And a chairman for internal affairs," Fred added. "When we ring the bell in the square, public work starts."
Theo Young's wife, Lila, and her two children, Nola and Bary, stood in the doorway of their simple wood house watching us come up the path. It was the first Lila knew about Theo bringing home a guest. Everything, however, seemed prearranged. Jack walked on with John Christian to his house and Eduard walked on with Herman Schubert toward the schoolhouse.
Once in Lila's kitchen, Theo thought I should be fed.
"The Cap's been on canned stuff since Tahiti," he told Lila.
Lila nodded and began to boil potatoes and fry bananas over a wood-fire stove. Nola set the table, and Theo beckoned me out to the back door.
"Come and get a wash down," he said. "Wait in the bathhouse and I'll get hot water."
He closed me in a wooden hut and returned with a bucket of water and a towel. "You'll want some fresh duds, too."
I came back to the kitchen still unshaven but clean. I wore Theo's pants, socks and a white shirt. The door opened and a man came in and sat at the table. He nodded to the Youngs and to me and spread jam on a piece of bread.
"Quite an event," he said quietly, "Blue Sea stopping at Peetkern."
"This is Virgil Christian," said Lila. "Virgil lives next door."
"He lost his wife," Theo explained, "so he eats with us now."
No wife, no cooking. Why not eat next door?
Nola brought fresh pineapples to the table, tomatoes and a platter of chicken. She was about 15, with dark hair and eyes; strongly Tahitian in appearance. Bary, about 4 years old, had English features and blond hair.
Lila kept on cooking. Nola brought fried fish, homemade bread, rice pudding and an enormous bowl of hot chocolate.
"Will you have some fried eggs?" Lila asked me. I hadn't seen an egg for days, but I had to turn down more food.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" I said. So far I had seen no one do it.
"Sure, sure!" said Theo. "Now look, Cap, we have no use for tobacco on the island, but you do as you please."
"Let him smoke if he wants to," Lila said mildly.
"I don't see why not," said Virgil. "He don't live here."
I soon realized I was among people living by a code of conduct stricter than any I had ever seen. The islanders have no use for alcohol either, or any kind of stimulating drinks including coffee and tea. When the Seventh-day Adventists brought their religion to Pitcairn in 1886, the people adopted it wholeheartedly. Those who had been Church of England changed over, and since that time there has never been any other religious influence on the island.
The word of their church is law; so are the rulings of the town council. There is an island jail. But, according to Parkin Christian, citizens are sent in there only to sweep it out. No one I talked to could recall a major crime.
All around me were the objects of civilized life: gramophones, musical instruments, cameras, machinery, tools. Some people had more than others, but the line between the haves and the have-nots was thin. An obvious question was: "How does Pitcairn pay for these things and who brings them?"
"You seen the longboats, Cap," said Theo. "When we know a ship's going to make a courtesy stop off Bounty Bay we ring the bell in the square. Then we get in the boats and go out to meet her."
Only steamships operating on the New Zealand-Panama-England routes find themselves anywhere near Pitcairn. When weather conditions permit, they stop for a while. Then, the longboats of Pitcairn are loaded with fresh fruit—pineapples, oranges, bananas, coconuts—and with tiny wheelbarrows, flying fish and turtles carved from hard, reddish miro wood. Sometimes, on the way out, the longboats capsize; but usually, a quarter of a mile out at sea, the longboats dance sturdy and dry, in the lee of the steamer. Over the side of the steamer goes a cargo net, and the men carry everything aboard for sale or barter.
Besides being Pitcairn's only business outlet, the steamer offers the only commercial means of getting on or off the island. Once in a while, when the longboats go out, a Pitcairn woman with a suitcase, wearing her best dress and flowered hat, will nimbly scale the net and drop her luggage on deck. She is on her way to New Zealand to have her teeth fixed. The island radio has arranged for her berth. She will not stay in New Zealand long but will catch the first boat back and hope the weather at Pitcairn will allow the captain to stop. If not, she will go on to Panama and try for the island on the return trip.
Each time a ship stops, too, mail is exchanged. John Christian may have a letter going to Auckland for a new harmonica; his wife, a letter going the other way to Sears Roebuck for eight yards of cloth. It may be six months before they receive answers. Deck hands from the steamer lower a bag of mail for the island into the longboat. The stenciled bag says simply: "Pitcairn, S.P.O. [South Pacific Ocean]."
After dinner I walked down the path to visit Floyd McCoy and his wife Violet. Floyd's house was one of the largest and best kept on the island, boasting even an indoor bathroom. His living room was filled with diverse objects collected over the years—parts of shipwrecks, presents from visitors, photographs that have resulted from his correspondence. Violet brought us ice cream made from powdered milk (no cows on Pitcairn) but, like most of the island wives, she seemed content to let her husband do the talking.
Floyd settled his lanky frame in an old armchair. "I'm four generations away from the Bounty's William McCoy," he said. "Will McCoy was a seaman under Christian. He left three children before his death, but I suppose he will be remembered mainly for his ability to distill a pretty potent liquor from the roots of the ti plant. He used one of the Bounty's kettles to catch the juice. I believe the kettle is now in a museum on Norfolk Island, north of New Zealand."
"In 1856 the British government tried to move the Pitcairn colony to the island of Norfolk. It was a noble idea. They thought the living would be better, so a lot of our people got aboard the Morayshire, sent out from Sydney. But a lot of them came back; you just can't leave your home like that. There are 78 of our people on Norfolk now and 150 here."
McCoy took me into his ham radio shack. On the walls were radio call signs from hundreds of other operators.
"I go on the air Tuesday nights," he said. "I keep in contact with hams everywhere. Right now I'm saving my pennies for a trip to the States. Vi and I have never been, but I've made so many friends over the radio I'd sort of like to see who they are."
We went back to the living room, and I spent two hours going through Floyd's very complete library on Pitcairn history.
"Nobody did much recording during the first years after Christian's landing," Floyd said. "Very few diaries and notes were kept. But later the history was pieced together and now we have a good idea what happened."
History officially began for Pitcairn in 1790 when Fletcher Christian sailed the Bounty from Tahiti, searching for a deserted island. He had already relieved Captain Bligh of his command; working the vessel with Christian were a midshipman, a botanist's assistant and six seamen who had helped him in the mutiny. There were 18 other people aboard. These extra passengers were Tahitians—Tahitian men to act as servants; Tahitian women to perpetuate a new race.
After nine months of sailing, the black hump of Pitcairn appeared, and Christian sent his men ashore to make an exploration. Pitcairn is two and a half miles long and a mile wide. The cliffs of the island were surmounted by a plateau indented with valleys of rich soil. Because of its location south of the Tropic of Capricorn, Pitcairn is free of the heat and humidity of true tropical islands. The air is sharp and dry, the rainfall light and the temperature warm but never oppressive—in all, one of the most favorable weather spots on the globe.
The mutineers, however, knew little of these gifts of Providence before they landed. Once ashore, they discovered that the island was uninhabited. They found coconuts, breadfruit, bird's eggs, plantains, wild yams and fresh-water streams. Pitcairn's cliffs, descending into a turbulent ocean, would discourage whaling ships and men-of-war from exploration. Stands of miro wood and heavy vegetation would hide the family dwellings. Christian predicted, and rightly, that his island would not be rediscovered for many years.
The 90-foot Bounty was stripped of all useful items and burned in the shallows of Bounty Bay. The mutineers believed there could be no escape from Pitcairn.
The little colony of 27 men and women turned inward on the island, and for a year or two occupied themselves with the problems of sustaining life. Land was divided among the Englishmen, though harvests were shared. The Tahitians were given no land. Babies were born and shelters became more elaborate. Island rule was arbitrary and strict, with Fletcher Christian the recognized leader.
But arguments broke out over women and the division of land. Tahitian rose against Englishman. Murder and violence followed. Even the women participated in one final, terrible civil war that brought about the death of Christian and ended with the slaughter of all adult island men except two mutineers, Edward Young and Alexander Smith, who had for some reason changed his name to John Adams. Eighteen years later, in 1808, when Captain Mayhew Folger of the American ship Topaz sent his launch ashore, he found only Adams, eight or nine women and several children on the island.
Adams stayed on the island with his small clan, working the soil and educating the children from a single book, the Bounty's Bible. Fletcher Christian left only one child, Thursday October, so named because he was born on a Thursday in October. According to Sir John Barrow, writing in 1831:
Young Christian was, at this time, about 24 years of age, a fine tall youth, full six feet high with dark, almost black hair, and a countenance open and extremely interesting. As he wore no clothes except a piece of cloth around his loins and a straw hat ornamented with black cock's feathers, his fine figure and well-shaped muscular limbs were displayed to great advantage, and attracted general admiration. His body was much tanned by exposure to the weather, and his countenance had a brownish cast.... He was married to a woman much older than himself, one of those that accompanied his father from Otaheite [Tahiti].... His manner, too, of speaking English was exceedingly pleasing, and correct both in grammar and punctuation. His companion was a fine handsome youth of 17 or 18 years of age, of the name of George Young, son of Young the midshipman.
Today Christian's surname leads all the rest; a fifth of the people claim lineage from him. He is described as ruggedly handsome, strong-willed, but given to melancholy. A thousand feet above sea level, a windy cavern in the cliffs is known as Christian's Cave, where supposedly the leader of the mutineers retired to brood. More practically, the cave made a good vantage point to scan the horizon for ships bringing the king's revenge, but none ever came in his lifetime.
"How did Christian die?" I asked Floyd.
"Well, some accounts say it was suicide; that he threw himself from a cliff. No trace of his body has ever been found. But most of us hang to the idea that he was killed by a Tahitian servant during the uprising—killed by a blow in the head while working in his yam plot."
Floyd found a flashlight and we stepped outside. Adamstown was dark, except for the glimmer of a few kerosene lamps and one or two bulbs burning electricity. There was no sound in the settlement but the night wind rustling in the palms and the muted roar of the ocean. Floyd's flashlight beam darted among the undergrowth behind his house, seeking out a small trail.
"Come on," he said, "I'd like to show you something."
We entered a small shack set down the hill from the house. In the center of the floor was a diesel generator.
"Electricity is a personal matter on Pitcairn," said Floyd. "I put this unit together."
He carefully oiled a few parts and turned it on. A bulb glowed dimly in the ceiling. "It's usually off unless we want lights to read by; or when I operate the transmitter, of course."
Near the generator was a workbench and I asked him about an elegantly carved flying fish, the wings attached to the body with brass screws.
"Most every man is a carver," Floyd said. "It's practically a duty for us to carve in our spare time."
I noticed a second fish, sanded and waxed, ready for its ride out to a steamer in the longboat. The fish were the same as others I had seen on the island. Apparently none of the carvers felt any need for a change in design.
"You might say we're in a rut, but they sell. Maybe if someone made a better shape and it sold better, we would all change. The flying fish were first carved in 1937, and the screws for the wings first used in 1957. It makes them easier to pack. You see, the wings come off, like this, for mailing."
That night I slept soundly in a back bedroom at the Youngs', awakened at dawn by chickens clucking outside the window. Lila's stove was already popping and crackling, and Theo and the children already moving about. It was Saturday, a full religious day for Pitcairn, and Theo was pleased I wanted to attend the morning sermon. My clothing wasn't right. From Theo's ample closet, stocked by years of church contributions, came a pair of white pants, a white shirt, a black necktie and a straw hat. Lila gave me a well-thumbed Bible.
I stood with the Young family in the town square, bounded on one side by the children's Sabbath school and on the other side by the church. At the back of the square the island post office nestled against the palms, and next to it lay the great black anchor of the Bounty. The bronze bell, the regulator of community life, hung quiet in its white rack. Morris Christian, in his Saturday best, waited patiently beneath it, ready to swing the clapper for prayers.
Eduard and Jack came down the path with Herman Schubert and John Christian, Morris rang the bell, and everyone took his seat in church. The parson, like the Schoolmaster Schubert, spends a two-year term on Pitcairn. He delivered a fiery sermon, referring at times to a biblical message printed on a blackboard behind him. He hurled questions at his congregation, addressing the people by name. They came to their feet and gave serious, exact answers. I could imagine sitting in a country church during America's frontier days.
Hank Taft and his group were waiting on Blue Sea when the longboat ferried us out for our duty day aboard. "You won't need anything," we told them, "except a toothbrush. They'll take care of you completely."
During evening the wind came up. In the night Blue Sea began rocking back and forth so hard she shipped water on both sides. Our anchorage became untenable. Working under spreader lights, we hauled anchor and sailed around the island the rest of the night, running under shortened canvas.
The wind continued the following day, but when our 24-hour period was up the longboat came out anyway. With a bone in her teeth she came plunging toward us. We changed the watch; and once again the Pitcairn men steered their boat safely through the churning foam off Bounty Bay. But now, we had to start planning for our departure.
The people, knowing our need for fresh food to supply the boat, gathered the best the island had to offer. Fred Christian's wife baked a tin of biscuits. Violet McCoy raided her kitchen shelves for canned dates, cooking oil and flour. Floyd McCoy, John Christian and Theo Young arranged for fresh water to fill our tanks; and they gave us papayas, avocados, tomatoes, pineapples, corn and bananas. Finally, they handed us bags of clothing for Easter Island.
On our last night ashore John Christian beckoned us off the path and into his house for a "cold drink," a pitcher of lemonade. John's wife Bernice brought out cake and cookies, and the island people dropped in to say goodby. We sat around John's dining room table and talked of simple things: Blue Sea's draft; the weight of miro wood; the amount of rain during the year; the number of steamers that go by Pitcairn every month (an average of five). I asked John Christian about Pitcairn's correspondence with the rest of the world, since almost every house had a table piled high with incoming and outgoing letters.
"We find out about the world by mail," said John. "We know many people by mail alone. A lot of our carvings are sent out by mail, and anything that can't be grown or made on the island must be ordered this way."
In the morning we made a run with the longboat to load food and water. The wind had abated somewhat, but the ocean still smashed against Pitcairn's doorstep. A second longboat came out, carrying 30 men, and women and children, as well. Blue Sea had her anchor up, with all sails set, but we came into the wind long enough to wave goodby to the tossing boatload of islanders. At a signal from the longboat captain they all stood up, precarious as it was, and sang us a song of farewell.
As we sailed away I thought of Floyd McCoy's answer to my question about new settlers on Pitcairn. He had lifted his golf cap and scratched his head: "I wouldn't say we would exactly discourage it...I would say we would be easy on the matter."