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Littell's Living Age/Volume 127/Issue 1645/Recent History of the Pitcairn Islanders

< Littell's Living Age‎ | Volume 127‎ | Issue 1645

From Chambers' Journal.


A brief notice of the Pitcairn Islanders in Dilke's "Greater Britain" reminds us that there are still in existence two remnants of the once famous mutineers of the "Bounty" — one in Pitcairn Island, in the vast South Seas; the other in Norfolk Island, in the Australian Seas. The readers of this journal may perhaps remember the main incidents of this singularly interesting history, down to about the year 1850. We then recounted how Captain Bligh, in H. M.S. "Bounty," set out on a voyage of discovery to the South Seas in 1787; that in 1789 many of his crew, headed by Lieutenant Christian, mutinied, forced him and eighteen of the crew into an open boat, and cast them adrift; that after much suffering he and some of his companions reached England in 1790; and that in 1791 the government sent off Captain Edwards in the "Pandora," to seek out the mutineers and bring them home for trial. There came to light facts, one by one, showing how Lieutenant Christian and his companions, after much quarrelling and fighting, settled down, some at Otaheite (Tahiti), and some at Toobonai, with Otaheitan women as wives. Captain Edwards captured the party at Otaheite, but did not know that the others were at Toobonai. Christian navigated the "Bounty" to Pitcairn Island, burnt the ship, and settled down finally at that island. Happily, there was a steady religious man, John Adams, among them, and he, after Christian's death, trained up a rising generation of mixed breeds, in habits of peaceful industry. How these Pitcairners increased and multiplied to a community of a hundred and fifty souls — simple, well-principled, and loyal to the English sovereign — and how they came to have interviews occasionally with visitors from the outer world, our two former articles shewed. Let us now briefly touch on the incidents of the last quarter of a century.

The year 1851 marked the beginning of a series of proceedings destined to make an important change in the condition of the islanders — more than sixty years after the mutiny. A plan was formed to remove them to another spot, under the dignified title of a colony, although small in dimensions. The colonial secretary in England, Sir John Pakington, wrote despatches on the subject; and so did his successor; but these ministers differed one from another concerning what it was best to do. Norfolk Island, near Australia, had for some time been used as a sort of prison or penal settlement for the more desperate among the convicts; it had not turned out satisfactorily; and the government conceived the idea of transferring the Pitcairners to that place as their further home. Accordingly, Sir William Denison, governor of New South Wales, took the subject into consideration, and decided that the removal might possibly be effected in 1854. The Pitcairners, now increased by the addition of grandchildren and great-grandchildren to a total of a hundred and seventy persons, expressed pleasure and thankfulness when they heard of the plan. The end was not yet, however; governments moved more slowly than the simple Pitcairners expected.

A pleasant picture of this deeply interesting people was presented in 1855, when Captain Fremantle, in H.M.S. "Juno," touched at the island, to ascertain how far unity of opinion and wish prevailed among the islanders. The Rev. Mr. Nobbs, their pastor and schoolmaster (a few "outsiders" had reached them by this time), assembled them together, and read to them a description of Norfolk Island, and the terms of the queen's offer. A large majority at once assented to the proposal; but some could not find heart to quit the only home they had ever known, albeit barely a mile in length. George Adams, a son of John Adams the mutineer, was among these. They were sensible of the queen's kindness; they well knew that any further subdivision of the land of their tiny island would reduce the portion for each household or family to a mere patch scarcely worth cultivating; but still they were loath to leave "home," and make a perilous voyage over thousands of miles of ocean. At length, one hundred and fifty-three, out of a total of a hundred and eighty-seven souls, decided on Norfolk Island. Captain Fremantle found them to be so affectionately attached one to another, that he believed they would all join when the time of departure arrived. He described them as a pious, unsophisticated, single-minded, cheerful, docile people; his crew were never tired of rendering them little kindnesses, which the islanders returned in their own artless way. Whether at Pitcairn Island or Norfolk Island, they were delighted at the idea of being recognized subjects of Queen Victoria.

In 1856 Sir William Denison chartered the ship "Morayshire," to convey the descendants of the mutineers to Norfolk Island. Lieutenant Gregorie, R.N., managed the enterprise. He arrived at Pitcairn on 22d April, and found that the islanders had provided themselves with good store of sheets and packing-cases, in readiness for the grand flitting. All, though some of them unwillingly, had decided to go. They packed up everything likely to be useful, with a stock of swine, fowls, and fresh vegetables; leaving a few head of live-stock to multiply as they might.

It was a scene without parallel when, on 3d May, the islanders departed from Pitcairn; without parallel, for though the number was small, no community had ever before been reared under such remarkable circumstances. Sixty-six years after the mutineers of the "Bounty" first landed on the island, their descendants quitted it. The simple-hearted people were troubled with some of the miseries of a long ocean-voyage; but they kept up cheerfully, the men and boys helping the sailors in any way that might be useful, the women and girls engaging in needlework and domestic duties. An infant was born during this remarkable voyage; and the little stranger received the names of Reuben Denison Christian. (The little community had only a dim knowledge of the fact, that Lieutenant Christian, grandfather or great-grandfather of this child, had been a lawless mutineer.) They only sighted one island during the voyage; it caused great excitement among the Pitcairners, being the first strange land the greater part of them had ever beheld. With the crew they were on excellent terms throughout, and harmony was never once disturbed.

After a voyage extending over sixty-three degrees of longitude, the "Moray-shire" arrived at its place of destination. What the Pitcairners felt at such an exciting time, we can hardly conceive in our present English mode of life: hopes, fears, wonderment, regrets followed in rapid succession, as the shores of Norfolk Island came into view; and the people speculated whether Queen Victoria thought of them as anxiously as they thought of her. One hundred and ninety-four, (including the "little stranger") landed on the 8th of June. The government had set aside such buildings and store-sheds as might be immediately needed, leaving the people to provide better at leisure. Dr. Selwyn, bishop of New Zealand, paid them three or four friendly visits, taking such seeds and plants as might be useful to them; and Mrs. Selwyn stopped with them many weeks, ingratiating herself with them by kindnesses which easily won their hearts. Norfolk Island, small as it is, was raised to the dignity of a distinct colony, but under the charge of the governor-general of New South Wales. In October of the same year, Captain Fremantle paid them a visit in the "Juno," and was pleased to find them progressing favourably. There were, however, many perplexities in the thoughts of the islanders. The long voyage and the change of scene had somewhat unsettled their habits. They marvelled at the contrast between the past and the present; at the vast size, as they deemed it, of the really small Norfolk Island; at the largeness of the buildings; and at the amount of property made over to them. They were like children, almost bewildered with a sense of magnitude in all around them; and displayed a kind of timid distrust of their own powers of appreciating what they saw.

In the following year, Sir William Denison went over to see how the little colony prospered. He found their simple code of laws inapplicable to their present position, and substituted a new code — a constitution, in fact. It almost excites a smile to hear of so formal an instrument as a constitution for a colony of only two hundred persons, with provisions relating to magistrates, councillors, doctors, chaplain, commissioners, a great seal, oaths of allegiance, public meetings, public works, public receipt and expenditure, judges, juries, legislation, punishments, fines, schools, and schoolmasters. There was a little dark spot, however; the people had become somewhat indolent and improvident. The government had provided them amply with live-stock, seeds, plants, tools, agricultural implements, boats, and fishing-apparatus; and as their wants were simple and easily satisfied, the islanders felt no need for doing much work, nor "saving for a rainy day." He saw evidence that they would be benefited by the instructions of a millwright and smith, a shoemaker, a mason and plasterer, and a gardener or farmer; and he planned the means for supplying these aids after a time. One great advantage was, that the moral conduct of the people remained as exemplary as ever; the lessons taught by old John Adams had sunk deep and taken firm root. The whole adult population assembled to meet Sir William; and he was struck with their general good looks. "There were none who could be called strikingly handsome, but all had good features, well-developed foreheads, and an intelligent expression of countenance." Mr. Lower could have added a new chapter to his "History of Surnames," by a study of those which prevailed among the islanders. A census of the population revealed the names of the original mutineers of the "Bounty" over and over again: Christian, Adams, Young, Quintal, and M'Coy, were one or other of them in almost every house. There were two hundred and twelve souls altogether, forming thirty-four families. Only one bachelor, Samuel M'Coy, lived by himself; and there was an old spinster of sixty-four, Mary Christian. One family comprised Charles and Charlotte Christian and eleven sons and daughters. Matrimony was evidently in high favour, for there were only seven spinsters of marriageable age.

By the year 1859, some of the older people began to have a yearning to return to their first home, Pitcairn Island; and two families, numbering seventeen persons, made the voyage in that year. The women generally showed more of the qualities of their original Otaheitan mothers than of their English fathers, especially a passionate fondness for music and dancing; and were with some difiiculty imbued with English notions of thrift, application, and mental exercise.

Another official visit, in 1862, led to the following report: "On the whole, I am clearly of opinion that as large a measure of success has attended the removal of the Pitcairn Islanders to Norfolk Island as could well have been expected. The people are not much given to steady and continuous labour; but, on the other hand, it must be recollected that the climate indisposes to exertion, and they have not the stimulus of want to prompt them to toil. The people live in security and abundance, attend divine worship regularly, and are free from all those foul practices and baneful superstitions which render the occupants of too many of the lovely islands of the Pacific licentious."

Occasional notices in later years show that there is a little interfusion of new blood among them, by marriage with English persons from Australia and New Zealand. Some, moreover, have gone back to their own tiny island. When Sir C. W. Dilke was collecting materials for his "Greater Britain," he made a brief stay at Pitcairn Island. The union-jack was espied on shore; canoes pulled off to the ship, laden with oranges and bananas; three men nimbly came on board; and one of them, without any embarrassment in manner or speech, grasped the captain's hand, and said: "How do you do, captain? — How's Victoria?" The queen of the British Empire lived in their hearts, although they had never seen her. It appeared that fifty-two of the Pitcairners had found their way back from Norfolk Island, but that some difficulty had arisen about ownership of bits of land, the late comers interfering somewhat with the early comers. The handful of people traded occasionally with passing ships, exchanging fruit and poultry for cloth and tobacco. Wine and spirits they knew nothing about. The old familiar names of Adams and Young were prevalent. Some lady-passengers in the ship sent a blue silk dress to a Mrs. Adams, and a red-and-brown tartan to a Mrs. Young. Young was also the name of the magistrate, a sort of small viceroy to represent the queen. One of the most interesting points connected with the brief interview (none of the crew or passengers appear to have landed on the island) was, that the three islanders inquired earnestly for any recent English periodicals! Here was the old Saxon voice speaking out again, on a speck of land amid the vast ocean.

Thus it is, then. The mutineers of the "Bounty," or such of them as escaped violent deaths, intermarried with Otaheitan women; and their descendants, morally pure to a most unusual extent, now inhabit two widely distant bits of land — Norfolk Island in the Australian Seas, and Pitcairn Island in the South Seas — both alike rejoicing to call themselves subjects of Queen Victoria.