Pitcairn's History

As you sail towards Pitcairn, you approach one of the remotest of the world's inhabited islands, lying halfway between New Zealand and the Americas. Four thousand eight hundred kilometres of open ocean separate you from them; a few archipelagos lie to the north; and the southern seas are empty to the ice caps of Antarctica.

If you call at Pitcairn, you will see a unique community of Anglo-Tahitian descent which turned a naval mutiny into a celebrated romance.

Who were the first settlers?

We do not know who first settled this small volcanic island about 9.6 km. round and 4 km. at its greatest length. But settlers there were, for early visitors from Europe found many relics of Polynesian civilization, probably from Mangareva some 490 km. to the north-west. There were roughly hewn stone gods still guarding sacred sites; carved in the cliff faces were representations of animals and men; burial sites yielding human skeletons; and there were earth ovens, stone adzes, gouges and other artifacts of Polynesian workmanship.

Discovery by Europeans: 1767

"It is so high that we saw it at a distance of more than fifteen leagues, and it having been discovered by a young gentleman, son to Major Pitcairn of the marines, we called it PITCAIRN'S ISLAND".

In these few words were recorded the first sight and naming of Pitcairn by a European.  That was in July 1767, and the words are those of an Englishman, Captain Philip Carteret of H.M.S. Swallow, who was however, unable to land because of the surf "which at this season broke upon it with great violence".

No one except the determined Captain Cook was interested in Carteret's report and his search for the island was deflected by an outbreak of scurvy.  So Pitcairn might have become the home of ex-sailors with their Polynesian families and, like other islands in these latitudes, a casual stopover for whalers looking for land and fresh food.  But its destiny was to be quite different.

The tale of the mutiny of His Majesty's armed ship Bounty, which led to the founding of the Pitcairn community, is well known.  All that needs to be told here is from Tahiti with a cargo of breadfruit trees for planting in the West Indies, the master's mate, Fletcher Christian, and others of the crew mutinied.  Casting adrift the Commander, Lieutenant William Bligh, and eighteen loyal officers in the ship's boat, the mutineers sailed the Bounty back to Tahiti, then to Tubuai in the Austral Group.

There, relations with the inhabitants soon deteriorated and, spurred by the fear of discovery and arrest, eight of the mutineers set sail with Christian in search of an uninhabited island, secure from the outside world. To help them the men took with them six Tahitian men and, to look after them and be their consorts, twelve Tahitian women.

Settlement by the mutineers: 1790

For two months the men on the Bounty combed the Cooks, Tonga and the eastern islands of Fiji for a home; and it was almost in desperation that Christian, recalling or stumbling on Carteret's account, sailed eastwards again for Pitcairn, which he reached on 15 January 1790. "With a joyful expression such as we had not seen on him for a long time past" Christian returned from the shore to report that the people who had once planted Pitcairn with coconut palms and breadfruit had either died or left it. The island was lonely and inaccessible, uninhabited, fertile and warm; it exceeded his highest hopes.

The Bounty was anchored in what is now called Bounty Bay and stripped of all her contents, including pigs, chickens, yams and sweet potatoes, which were laboriously hauled up the aptly named Hill of Difficulty to the Edge, a small, grassy platform over-looking the Bay. Then, fearing that if any European vessel sighted the ship retribution would inevitably follow, the mutineers ran the Bounty ashore and set her on fire so that no trace of her, or clue to their whereabouts, would remain visible from the sea.

Fletcher Christian, the man who had led the mutineers to this remote island, was a son of the Coroner of Cumberland and of Manx descent on his father's side. He had been to school with the poet William Wordsworth, was well educated and, in the words of a friend, "mild, generous and sincere". Certainly his energy and cheerfulness drew both respect and affection from his fellows and, although he died a few years after landing at Pitcairn, he is still remembered as the founder and first leader of the settlement.

Of the other mutineers, Midshipman Edward Young was also well connected and was devoted to Christian, whom he succeeded as leader; "reckless Jack" Adams, later to become Patriarch of Pitcairn, was a Cockney orphan; Mills, Brown, Martin and Williams were killed within four years of arrival; and of the other two, the Scotsman William McCoy and the Cornishman Matthew Quintal little good can be said, except that they were neither better nor worse than the average seaman of the time.

On arrival the mutineers made themselves rough leaf-shelters where the village of Adamstown now stands, but the tiny community did not settle down without friction and, indeed, murder.  The Tahitians were treated more as slaves than as fellow human beings and their revolt led to the slaying of some of the mutineers and, finally, to their own deaths. By 1794 only Young, Adams, Quintal and McCoy remained of the male settlers, leading households of ten women and children.

The next four to five years were peaceful except for occasional outbreaks by the women, including an abortive attempt by some to leave the island.  As Young recorded in his journal: "building their houses, fencing in and cultivating their grounds and catching birds and constructing pits for the purpose of entrapping hogs, which had become very numerous and wild, as well as injurious to the yam crops", kept the settlers busy. Gradually the men and women grew reconciled to their lives and to each other, and all might have remained harmonious had not McCoy, who had once worked in a distillery, discovered how to brew a potent spirit from the roots of the ti plant (Cordyline terminalis). By 1799, Quintal had been killed by Young and Adams in self defence and McCoy had drowned himself.  Then, in 1800, Young died of asthma, leaving John Adams as the sole male survivor of the party that had landed just ten years before.

John Adams and his flock: 1800

As leader of the community of ten Polynesian women and twenty-three children the former able seaman, John Adams, showed himself to be as capable, kind and honest as he had formerly been loyal and helpful to Christian and Young.

Each family had its own house and most, but not all, of them were within the village, planned in English style around a common and fenced to keep the chickens in and the hogs out.  Solidly built of local timber, some of them with bedrooms on a second floor, the island homes owed little to Polynesia except their thatched roofs.

The women had brought their own utensils from Tahiti, which were handed down from mother to daughter, and the men landed tools and other implements from the Bounty and fashioned more as necessary. Food cooked in Polynesian stone-lined ovens, consisting mainly of yams, taro and bananas with coconut cream and an occasional pig, bird or goat was in Polynesian style, served twice a day, at noon and nightfall. Clothes were at first made out of sail cloth from the Bounty, but they were later replaced by loin cloths and skirts of tapa, the traditional Polynesian fibrecloth.  In brief, European and Polynesian ways mingled in complete isolation from the rest of the world.

John Adams was no scholar. He read with difficulty and could hardly write, but he was essentially a gentle man who humbly discharged his responsibility for the community he headed.  Such was his manner that all took pleasure in obeying his example, which he patterned on virtue and piety and regulated by the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, on Sunday services, family prayers and grace before and after every meal. And to ensure everybody's well-being, Adams saw to it that the young people cultivated the land, cared for the stock and were not allowed to marry until they could support a family.

John Adams (from a drawing by

R.Beechey,engraved by H.Adlard).

An end to isolation: 1808 and 1814

In 1808 the little colony was discovered by Captain Mayhew Folger, an American sealing captain, but his visit was brief and his report aroused little interest in an England pre-occupied with the Napoleonic wars.

Six more years passed before H.M.S. Briton and Tagus rediscovered the settlement on 17 September 1814. Ignorant of the American's report the astonished British commanders were charmed by the physique, simplicity and piety of the islanders. Favorably impressed by Adams and the example he set, they agreed it would be "an act of great cruelty and inhumanity" to arrest him, and so began the long association between Pitcairn and the British Navy which was to influence its development over the next century.

Twenty-five years of isolation were now ended. Increasing visits were paid by ships sailing from India and Australia to South America, or to England via the Horn. The reports they brought back stimulated an interest, not least in the English Missionary Societies, and gifts of Bibles, prayer books and spelling books were sent to the island, as well as such practical necessities as crockery, razors, tool and guns.

In addition, nearly every visiting ship made generous gifts and bartered surplus stores for provisions, and it was at this time that the orange was introduced; that houses were improved with the aid of saws and planes; and clothes and living became more European in character.

Successors to John Adams

As he grew old, Adams worried about the future of his flock but his appeals to the British Government and missions for a successor to lead and educate them were not met, and it was to voluntary exiles that succession fell.

The first was John Buffett, a shipwright from Bristol who landed with John Evans, a Welshman, in 1823. Both married island girls and founded families, and Buffett taught the children and took over the church services.

The population had now risen to 66 from the 35 of 17 years earlier, and Adams, believing the land was yielding less, seeing the supply of timber decreasing and concerned that the erratic water supply would be insufficient for the growing population, sought the community's removal to Australia.

Meantime, in 1828, another settler arrived. George Nobbs, alleged to be the illegitimate son of a marquis, was well educated and had served both in the British and Chilean Navies. He was a strong character and soon ousted Buffett from the role of schoolmaster and pastor. Then, on 5 March 1829, John Adams, venerable and corpulent, died at the age of 62.  He left behind a community which, though it originated in mutiny and had suffered misery and murder, was to form the basis of countless Victorian sermons. The dramatic regeneration was virtually Adams' work alone, and he was mourned as 'Father', the name by which he had been known to every member of the community.

Unsuccessful emigration to Tahiti: 1831

Meanwhile Adams's request for emigration was being sympathetically supported in London and, although later naval reports discounted his fears, it was decided to re-establish the islanders in Tahiti. Despite some initial objections, the islanders all set sail on Admiralty vessels in March 1831.

Thursday October Christian

(from an engraving by H.Adlard)

They were given a generous, warm-hearted welcome by the Tahitians but they did not feel at home: They had become on the one hand too European in their ways and, on the other, stricter in moral, particularly in sexual, behavior than their hosts. They longed to return to their habits in their own island, all the more so when infectious diseases, to which they had little immunity, began to kill them. The first to die, within a month of arrival in Tahiti, was Fletcher Christian's son, Thursday October Christian, the first child born on Pitcairn and the oldest member of the community.

His death was followed be the youngest, Lucy Anne Quintal; and during the next two months there were ten more deaths and only a single birth. This heavy toll of deaths, more than their general unhappiness, moved everyone in Tahiti to pity for their plight. Supplies of special food for the sick were provided; and a number of efforts were made to arrange for their return to Pitcairn. All attempts failed, however due to one reason or another, until Captain William Driver of the Salem whaler Charles Doggett arrived at Papeete and offered to take the remaining 65 back to their island home for a total of $500. A subscription was immediately organized by the community; the Pitcairn Islanders contributed to this by selling blankets and other necessities, so anxious were they to return.  Captain Driver sailed with them from Papeete on 14 August 1831, and reached Pitcairn on 3 September.

Their gratitude was expressed in a note of thanks:

Pitcairn Island, Sept. 3, 1831

This is to certify that Captain William Driver of the brig Charles Doggett of Salem carried 65 of the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island from Tahiti back to their native land, during which passage Captain Driver behaved with the greatest kindness and humanity becoming a man and a Christian, and as we can never remunerate him for the kindness we have received we sincerely hope (that through the blessing of the Almighty) he will reap that reward which infalliably (sic) attend the Christian.

Signed: George H. Nobbs, Teacher

Arthur (his mark) Quintal

John Buffett

John Evans

A dictator steps in: 1832

Inevitably, the little community had list some of its innocence. It was leaderless, too, for Nobbs had not yet been accepted as Adam's successor, and they could not agree on a local head. There was a period of anarchy and drunkenness but the vacuum was soon filled. In October 1832, a puritanical busybody, by the name of Joshua Hill, landed on the island, claiming to have been sent by the British Government. He was welcomed and, supplanting Nobbs as pastor and teacher, at once appointed himself as President of the 'Commonwealth' of Pitcairn.

To his credit, Hill abolished the distilling of liquor but he also introduced arbitrary imprisonment and other severe punishments for the smallest misdeeds. He secured the expulsion of Nobbs and other "lousy foreigners" who formed an intimidated opposition, but their departure caused a reaction and his power gradually declined until, in 1838, his claim to represent the British Government was exposed and he was forcibly removed from the island. Nobbs returned from 'exile' and by a general vote was reinstated as pastor and teacher. One has only to read Hill's literary effusions to surmise that he was probably mentally unstable throughout his six years on Pitcairn.

Pitcairn's first constitution: 1838

The dictatorship of Hill and increasing visits by American whalers brought the islanders to recognize their need for protection, and they prevailed upon Captain Eliott of H.M.S. Fly to draw up a brief constitution and a code of laws selected from those already in force. A magistrate (who must be native-born) was to be elected annually "by the free votes of every native born on the island, male or female, who shall have attained the age of eighteen years; or of persons who shall have resided five years on the island". He was to be assisted by a Council of two members, one elected and one chosen by himself. Not only was this the first time female suffrage was written into a British constitution but it also incorporated compulsory schooling for the first time in any British legislation.

Whatever the precise legal significance of Captain Eliott's action the Pitcairn Islanders date their formal incorporation into the Empire from 30 November 1838, when the new constitution was signed on board the Fly. That they also became a British Settlement later under the British Settlements Act of 1887 is of no consequence to them!

A time of tranquillity: 1838-1848

The next decade was peaceful and uneventful, although in 1845 the worst storm in the island's history destroyed many coconut palms, bananas, yams and boats. Periodic epidemics of influenza; accidents recorded in place names such as "Where-Tom-Off"; and births, marriages and deaths alone disturbed the placid life.

The population topped the hundred mark; Nobbs was firmly in control; and Buffett taught the young men navigation, carpentry, and how to fashion curios of the kind still made from miro and other local woods.

Adapting themselves to the needs of their seafaring visitors the islanders became skilled market gardeners, producing potatoes, yams, coconuts, bananas, oranges, limes and chickens, for which they accepted in return clothing, tools and money. And largely because they sold their produce for fixed prices, they acquired a reputation for strict honesty.

Inevitably, the islanders' numbered 156 and were increasing rapidly.  Their friends in England and the Pacific were again discussing the question of emigration, for it was feared that land would soon become insufficient, and fish had deserted the coastal waters since the landslides caused by the great storm of 1845.

After their experiences in Tahiti the islanders insisted that if they were compelled to emigrate it should be to an uninhabited island, and, after examining several possibilities, the majority of the community decided to move with British Government aid to Norfolk Island. It had much to recommend it. It was larger than Pitcairn and now uninhabited, but sixty earlier years of convict labour had left hundreds of acres under cultivation. It was well stocked with domestic animals; there were roads and houses and, in 1856, when the naval transport Morayshire arrived, all the 194 islanders boarded her.

George Hunn Nobbs

(from an engraving by H.Adlard)

Return to Pitcairn: 1859-1864

This might have been the end of the Pitcairn story, but in spite of the advantages of Norfolk, many of the islanders wanted nothing more than to return home. By this time, no matter who was elected Chief Magistrate, the real leader of the community was George Nobbs, who had been ordained priest in the Church of England in 1852 and who lived on, at Norfolk, until 1884. His early failings had long been forgotten and, through twenty years of selfless service as spiritual mentor and secular teacher, he had won affection and trust in his adopted home.

Had he opposed migration few of the others would have gone; but not even his arguments against return could conquer nostalgia.

Late in 1858 an opportunity arose when the Mary Ann, en route to Tahiti, offered passages, and 16 of the islanders led by Moses and Mayhew Young boarded her. Characteristically, those who chose to stay behind voted to pay the costs of the journey from communal funds.

The returned settlers found their houses in Adamstown and their gardens over-grown and the cattle and other domestic animals running wild. And they arrived just in time to stop the French, who thought the island abandoned from annexing their home.

In 1864 a further four families from Norfolk Island decided to return, led by Simon Young who, with Nobb's parting blessing, was to become the community's new leader. It was a different Pitcairn now of 43 people and only five families - the Youngs, Christians, McCoys, Buffetts and the American Warrens. And of these, the male lines of the McCoys and the Buffetts were to die out!

A Swiss Family Robinson existence

This third wave of settlers knew from past experience how to make the best use of their resources, but materially they were probably worse off than the mutineers. They had, for instance, no sail cloth to turn into clothing and no means of lighting their make-shift homes other than by candlenut. What was more, there were far fewer visiting ships from which to obtain goods. The peak period of whaling in those latitudes was past and, compared with the forty ships a year that called twenty years previously, there were now only about a dozen.

The occasional vessel that did stop, however, was now likely to be a steamer carrying passengers. The islanders therefore turned Buffett's lessons to advantage by selling them curios in place of the food they had sold to the whaling crews. Their limited resources were fortunately supplemented by a succession of shipwrecks which brought them a new 'bounty' from the outside world. The kindly community fed and clothed the shipwrecked sailors who, after they returned home to relate their adventure, rewarded their rescuers with gifts of crockery, clothes, flour, books and even an organ.

Renewed visits by men-of-war in the Pacific also revived the traditional English interest in the children of the Bounty mutineers. Queen Victoria sent another organ as a personal gift in appreciation of the islanders' "domestic virtues"; and a Liverpool firm tried to arouse interest in the commercial production of cotton, arrowroot and candlenut oil.

The Islanders settle down

As Nobbs had planned, Simon Young took over the work of pastor and school teacher, and the former system of government by a Magistrate and two councilors was re-introduced. Almost the first communal task was the construction of a combined school and church but, with this, repairs to houses, and the replanting of gardens, there was no energy left, and much of the island reverted to natural bush.

In 1868, some of the Norfolk Island settlers, including old John Buffett, who was to live to the ripe old age of 93, visited Pitcairn and urged their relatives to rejoin the now wealthier community. But nothing happened except that occasional visits between the two settlements have continued, desultorily, until today.

Fresh settlers create a bar to any more: 1882

New blood brought new ways and ideas to the tight little society, but one of the new-comers fell in love with a girl who was, unfortunately already engaged to a Christian. Strong passions were aroused and the Commander of the visiting H.M.S. Sappho was induced to approve a law forbiding strangers to settle on Pitcairn. The law was later amended but only to permit settlement by those whose presence was considered of benefit to the island.

A change of religion: 1887

With the passing years and no strong leader, reports of social deterioration grew. Simon Young, loved and respected, and his gentle and talented daughter Rosalind, were too humble and tolerant of frailty to impose their will, and family factions inhibited cohesion.

From the days of John Adams, the islanders had been staunch adherents of the Church of England. They read and studied the Bible, which was for many of them their only reading matter, and its texts were truth. Not unnaturally, therefore, they read with increasing interest the contents of a box of Seventh Day Adventist literature sent to them from the United States in 1876. And when a missionary arrived ten years later he was allowed, by unanimous vote to stay and argue his cause.

The result was recorded in Mary McCoy's diary in March 1887: "The forms and prayers of the Church of England laid aside. During the past week meetings were held to organize our church service on Sabbath". So Saturday again became the day of rest as it had been until 1814 when Fletcher Christian's omission to correct the time across the date line was rectified.

Conversion was greeted with great pleasure by the Seventh Day Adventists in America and they raised funds for a missionary ship, which sailed for Pitcairn in 1890. The islanders were baptized in one of the rock-bound coastal pools, and the pigs were killed to remove the temptation of eating pork. But few other changes were needed; all were already total abstainers; most were vegetarians, except for occasional meals of goat, which is not forbidden by Adventist discipline; and few smoked.

Parliamentary Government: 1893

The Missionaries relieved the aging Simon Young in the school and, energetically, introduced history, grammer, cooking and bursing; began a newspaper and a kindergarten; and opened a public park. Thus stirred by example, the islanders began to question their social inertia and, putting down to weakness in thier leaders, asked Captain Rooke of H.M.S. Champion to reorganise their system of government. An elected Parliament of seven was introduced and, for the only time in Pitcairn's history, executive and jusicial functions were separated.  The legal code also was revised to create penalties for, amongst other things, adultery, wife beating, cruelty and 'Peeping Toms'; and the system of public work of premigration days was restored. Society was a long way indeed, from the simple order of Adams!

The influence of James McCoy: 1845-1924

 But the reports of the naval officers who visited Pitcairn towards the end of the nineteenth century still continued to reveal how society had deteriorated since the return from Norfolk Island.  There was lawlessness and a lack of unity and purpose; and in 1897, murder.  That the community did not degenerate still further was due largely to the influence of James Russell McCoy, a great-grandson of the mutineer.

 In 1870, at the early age of 25, McCoy had been elected Magistrate and during the next 37 years he was chief executive no less than 22 times.

 Although island-born, McCoy had spent some time both in London and Liverpool and, autocrat though he was also, in a real sense, a link between the old Pitcairn and the new.  By the turn of the century he had restored purpose to the community by enforcing the recently revived laws of public work; and his personal courage and example, which won him respect if not popularity, secured improvement until he began to spend much of his time overseas on missionary work.

The constitution reverts

In 1904, R.T.Simons, the British Consul at Tahiti, paid his first visit to Pitcairn and found the parliamentary system too cumbersome for the small community. He reintroduced the time-honoured post of Chief Magistrate and two committees to take charge of internal and external, that is marine, affairs. All the posts were made subject to election and an additional office of Secretary-Tresurer was created. What was more, the days of representation without taxation were ended: an annual licence fee for the possession of firearms was introduced which, until 1968, when motor vehicle licences were introduced, was for so long Pitcairn's only tax.

With some amendment Simon's constitution and code stood the test of time, until in 1940 H.E.Maude, representing the British High Commissioner in Fiji, consolidated and expanded them.

The end of isolation

The twentieth century brought an end to European rivalry in the Pacific and naval visits gradually diminished. Fortunately the mission ship, Pitcairn, and her successors maintained contact with Tahiti and merchant men again began to call with increasing frequency until, in 1914, the opening of the Panama Canal placed Pitcairn on the direct run to New Zealand. Many of the new visitors were liners carrying hundreds of passengers anxious to have mementos of the island, halfway rock on the longest regular service in the world. A ship a week, and Pitcairn's isolation was over!

The pattern of life changed, inevitably. More and more men developed an urge to see the world, which money and the visiting ships made possible, and communities grew up in Wellington and Auckland from which some moved on to Australia. But even so, the public economy of Pitcairn languished and it was not until postage stamps were issued in 1940 and philatelists came to the rescue, that 'shanty town' became the Adamstown of today.