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Arriving at Pitcairn

It will be difficult for me to explain everything I felt and thought when we first laid our eyes on Pitcairn Island. To sketch the setting, I need to give some background information on the days prior. James Walters, son of Stephen Walters, has accompanied us on this journey. His father was involved in the creation of the famous movie “The Bounty’ movie, featuring Mel Gibson. On a magic starry night, we watched this movie on Desmond – being accompanied of the sound of the waves around us. A magical experience. And thanks to James’ upbringing he has become a walking encyclopedia on anything to do with Pitcairn Island and its fascinating history. He was kind enough to share his knowledge with us during a very impressive talk. Since then, I have become slightly obsessed with the history of the island and of course, the events that unfolded on the Bounty. I even dare to say that it is maybe one of the best stories I have heard in a long time - even more sowhen one realizes it is not fiction. And we are about to set foot on the location where it all happened. It feels a little bit like going to the castle of Harry Potter – if that would have been possible. So why is this Island so special? And why are we all so interested in its history?  

This will be the longest blog I have ever written, but for those interested, the story goes as follows: 

- Start of story -  

There once was a captain, born on the 9th of September, 1754. His name was William Bligh. At age 22 he was selected as the sailing master of the Resolution by Captain James Cook. Over the next three years, he would accompany Cook to the Pacific Ocean - which would go into history as Cook’s last voyage. In the movies, Bligh is portrayed as a tyrant, sometimes harsh beyond reason. However, realizing he was set on an almost impossible task, taking place in the wrong season beyond his fault, with limited availability of replacement provisions due to a leak, it is easy for me to sympathize with him a little.  

Hunger makes people moody, but when you are out in the open ocean, with limited possibilities to get new provisions and without the luxury of a water maker like we have on board, I can imagine the mood on board was maybe not always as positive as it is here with us now. And then complaints always end up with the commander – who inevitably has to make the hard decisions. He was known for his bad temper, but I think if I were in him and coconuts were stolen and sails were molding due to bad maintenance (as would happen later), I would maybe also get a little bit angry. Furthermore, the Bounty’s log shows that Bligh was relatively sparing with his punishments. 

Bligh was an educated man, interested in science, believing in the importance of a good diet, sanitation, and regular exercise. Even though he might have been good at his job, and not as bad as movies make him to be, it does not make him a saint. There are some quotes on his personality like "Bligh made dogmatic judgments which he felt entitled to make”, “thin-skinned vanity was his curse through life” and “Bligh never learned that you do not make friends of men by insulting them”. But maybe this was just a common attitude of the upper class in those years? 

Anyway - Bligh did arrive at Tahiti, although a bit late. He had just spent a month trying to get around Cape Horn, battling the notoriously stormy weather there – to then be forced to take the long route around Africa. It’s probably the biggest ‘detour’ one could imagine on this planet. The crew probably was not so happy about the Cape Horn part, but he arrived without people having suffered from scurvy.  And that without a functioning doctor; he got unlucky the appointment of a drunk surgeon. 

The goal of this whole adventure was to bring breadfruit to the plantations in the West Indies, where they hoped it would be a successful food-crop for the slaves working on the British plantations. Due to all the delays, the crew had to wait for the breadfruit plants to mature sufficiently. We can only imagine what five months on this tropical island must have been like after a few rough months at sea. Bligh allowed part of the crew to live ashore, where they became aware of the customs and culture of the Tahitians. Bligh’s friend, Fletcher Christian, even got married to one of the women there. Many others also formed so-described ‘connections’, picking up a lot of venereal infections as well. 

So then, after five months of island bliss, the crew had to get back on board. Say goodbye to their new-made friends and trade the beach for hammocks on board of a wooden leaky ship. We will never know what events, conversations, or emotions led to the day when Fletcher Christian would turn his back on Bligh. But he did and 22 out of the 43 men on board joined him. Conflicts had been plenty; the ship was badly maintained and Bligh was probably a bit upset about it – humiliating and scolding the crew. And so, Bligh was sent adrift with 18 loyalists, a quadrant, a compass, a pocket watch, and food and water for perhaps a week. No maps. The nearest European colony was Timor (modern Indonesia), 3.618 nautical miles away (6.700 km). It is an epic tale: I imagine storms, hunger, thirst, andfear of capsizing. They tried to land to find supplies in Tofua, but hostile natives killed a crew member there, and so they did not dare to set foot on land until reaching the Great Barrier Reef. After living on 40 grams of bread per day and relying on Bligh’s memory, they somehow managed to arrive. Weakened by their 47-day trip, some died before getting back to England. Bligh however, survived and obviously very skilled at navigation went on to become a Vice-Admiral.   

But there are two epic stories here. Bligh got a good ending, but what about Fletcher Christian? The day he took the Bounty, he was considered an outlaw. Punishment when caught: hanging. 

At first, I thought this could be the start of a romantic story: willing to turn his back on the English empire, all for his Tahitian wife. However, the story does not turn out to be that romantic. At first, Christian attempted to build a colony on Tubuai – the natives were not so friendly and so they returned to Tahiti (after 66 native islanders had been killed). Tahiti did not want problems with England, which I think we all can understand looking back at history, and so the men could not stay. The Bounty had to move on. They did leave 16 men behind – many of them were later found, some hanged, some drowned while being imprisoned on a ship, and some were given mercy. The remaining nine mutineers moved forward. That’s not enough men to sail the ship, and so they kidnapped six Tahitian men, luring them on board for a Party. Eleven Tahitian women were brought along as well. 

And then, the moment you have all been waiting for: Pitcairn enters the stage. Christian had seen the island in a book in Bligh’s Library, but realised that it was not properly documented. And so only an accurate latitude was known, but the island was not plotted on any charts. Christian thus followed the latitude and luckily for him found the island. Once, long before, the island had been inhabited by Polynesians and therefore was full of fruit trees, helpful in their future survival. Again, almost a romantic start of a story; an uninhabited little paradise where Christian could settle with his wife. However: we have a sexual disbalance combined with the enslavement of the Tahitian men.  

Things were about to get bloody: when the island was finally found 18 years later only one man (out of 15) and nine women were there. Did all the men kill each other? Did the women kill the men? One of the mutineers is supposed to have fallen off a cliff intoxicated, but all remains a mystery. As I said, an epic tale. A tale continuing still, with their descendants still living on the island. 

- End of story-part -  

So why did I tell you all of this? 

When Pitcairn appeared on the horizon, it looked like the perfect pirate hide-out island. With steep ridges and waves wildly clashing on its rocks. No white beaches, not exactly looking like a tropical paradise. Over two hundred years ago the mutineers arrived here, knowing they would probably never leave it. The ship was used to build houses, so there would not even be a ship to sail away with. They were stuck. 

And so, staring at the island from a distance, I just kept wondering if it was worth it. Did they, when they decided to mutineer, realize the consequences? Abandoning England forever, and all the luxuries that contained. Not able to import anything, not able to see family ever again. What had driven them to such madness? Would they regret their choices? What would they have felt, finally spotting the island on the horizon? 

It felt strange to arrive in a place with such a special history. To arrive there sailing, just like they once did. After landing, the island looks completely different. Not like a rough rock; it is a small lush paradise covered with colorful flowers and fruit trees. It is calm and quiet, has some incredible viewpoints and astonishing swimming spots. It is truly a magical place; unlike any other place I have ever been. I did luckily not regret my choices. 

Marretje Adriaanse 

p.s. James encouraged me to mention the fierce and brave Jenny, who tried to leave the island on a raft. Her story can be found in the book “The Bounty” by Caroline Alexander. 

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