In [Bounty Bay], which is bounded by lofty cliffs almost inaccessible, it was proposed to land. Thickly branched evergreens skirt the base of these hills, and in summer afford a welcome retreat from the rays of an almost vertical sun. In the distance are seen several high pointed rocks which the pious highlanders have named after the most zealous of the Apostles, and outside of them is a square basaltic islet. Formidable breakers fringe the coast, and seem to present an insurmountable barrier to all access.
F.W. Beechey, Narrative Of A Voyage To The Pacific And Beering’s Strait, Volume I, Chapter IV (1831)
Pitcairn Island, a remote, rocky outcrop just three kilometres long and two wide, was famously settled in 1790 by mutineers from Captain Bligh’s Bounty, along with a number of Tahitian men and women who had joined them (to a large extent involuntarily). Twenty years later, when the settlers were discovered by the American sailing ship Topaz, only one Briton and no Tahitian men remained alive.
Trevor Lummis’s book, Life And Death In Eden: Pitcairn Island And The Bounty Mutineers, tells the story of the murderous events that had taken place in the intervening years.
The island is still inhabited by descendants of the mutineers, along with a few in-comers. Mutineer Fletcher Christian’s surname is still prevalent among its forty-odd inhabitants. It’s Britain’s last overseas territory in the Pacific, and one of the most remote inhabited places in the world.
I’ve already written about our visit to the other, uninhabited islands of the Pitcairn group. This time I’m going to tell you about Pitcairn itself.
We were still dogged by the northerly swell that had prevented a landing on Henderson Island. The landing point at Bounty Bay opens northeast, and is little more than a shingle beach and a boat ramp protected by a short jetty. Metre-high waves were rolling in past the end of the jetty and breaking on the shingle. Getting ashore involved surfing the Zodiac in on the crest of a wave, and then turning hard left to get into the choppy partial shelter of the jetty. (I’m told there’s a new landing area at Tedside, facing northwest, but we never got over to take a look at it).
From the landing point, there’s a steep pull up into Adamstown, Pitcairn’s only settlement—a scatter of houses amid the island’s lush vegetation. The road up is called the Hill of Difficulty. It used to be a red earth track, which became notoriously chewed up by the islanders quad bikes when it was wet, but it has now been paved.
The village square is flanked on three sides by the Seventh-Day Adventist church, the Post Office and the meeting hall. There, the islanders had set up their souvenir stalls—and it must be a very rare visitor who, conscious of the unusual and once-in-a-lifetime nature of their visit, nevertheless comes away without a single memento of their time here.
The Post Office did a brisk trade (Pitcairn’s stamps have a certain philatelic cachet), but postcards can take several months to arrive with their intended recipients.
According to a spreadsheet pinned up on the noticeboard outside the meeting hall, Pitcairn sees visits from only ten or twelve passenger ships a year. Maybe only two or three of the smaller vessels will try to put passengers ashore. But if you’re on a large cruise liner, the Pitcairners will come to you—bringing their goods out to the ship in the island’s longboats (of which, more later) and setting up their market on board.
Various energetic folk set off to climb Pitcairn’s 347m highest point (which is poetically named Highest Point). We wished them luck. Captain Frederick Beechey , a quote from whom is at the head of this post, also described his visit to the summit of the island:
By a circuitous and, to us, difficult path, we reached the ridge of the mountain, the height of which is 1109 feet above the sea; this is the highest part of the island. The ridge extends in a north and south direction, and unites two small peaks: it is so narrow as to be in parts scarcely three feet wide, and forms a dangerous pass between two fearful precipices.
The day was hot and humid, so the Boon Companion and I decided to lounge around the village and its nearby viewpoints instead. I remarked to a Pitcairn lady that the day was too hot for a Scottish boy; she answered that it was too hot for her, too, which I found simultaneously disappointing and heartening. After most of our fellow travellers had dispersed, we perched ourselves on one of the benches outside the Post Office (a sitting area I’m told is ironically referred to as the “bus shelter” by the locals). I listened to the Pitcairners chatting to each other, enjoying the rhythm and intonation of the local dialect, Pitkern, which is said to retain some eighteenth century features, as well as borrowings from maritime slang and Tahitian.
An elderly pair of Pitcairners sat next to us, gloomily surveying the souvenir stalls. “Oh well,” said one to the other, after a while. “Soon be back to normal.”
When we began to feel poached by the airless heat, we strolled down to Pitcairn’s lovely cemetery, with its fine view and riot of wild flowers. An undistinguished grey bird hopped unassumingly around the gravestones, blithely unaware of the effect it would have on any passing bird-watcher—it was an endemic and endangered Pitcairn reed-warbler.
From the graveyard, we ambled along to The Edge, a fine viewpoint overlooking Bounty Bay, with a bit of a breeze, a park bench, and a good position to watch frigate birds and tropic birds drifting and squabbling in the updrafts.
There are memorial plaques here, commemorating the Bounty landing (with a second plate commemorating the Tahitian contribution to the community, added later).
One of them is (bottom left) is written in Pitkern:
Bout ya 200 years ago, January 1790, dem Bounty mutineer en dems Tahitian gerl cum orf ar Bounty. Uwas descendency start ya!
After a while, it was time to drift down to the landing site for our return to the ship. Which was starting to look a little problematic, as the surf was getting more active, and the waves were higher. Here’s what it looked like inside the protection of the jetty:
One Pitcairner cheerfully suggested we might have to stay and help repopulate the island.
But it turned out there was nothing to worry about—they launched a longboat for us, sliding it out of the boat-house and down the ramp into the sea. We clambered aboard at the jetty, and then the heavy longboat punched out through the surf as if it wasn’t there. After that there was just the small matter of dropping a metre or so over the side of the rolling longboat into a bouncing Zodiac (hint: timing is all), so that we could in turn embark from the Zodiac on to the low marina deck of our ship.
Knuckles were intermittently white, but a good time was had by all.
Well, I think.
My next post (and the final post in this series), tells you about our journey through French Polynesia.