Part 10: PITCAIRN ISLAND

Bounty Hunter on Pitcairn Island

Residents of the planet’s tiniest inhabited island and smallest self-governing political entity are extremely unique, as is their 2-mile-long by 1-mile-wide tropical realm. The progeny of the Polynesian women and British mutineers who settled in Pitcairn in 1790 have their own unique patois called “Pitkern” that combines Tahitian and English words. A linguistic Oceanic amalgam, their dialect is similar to Creole, Bislama and pidgin English. Pitkerners’ greeting is “Whata way ye?” and smatterings of their tongue being spoken can be overheard during our two-day visit. But they speak the King’s English with Aranui 5’s “invaders” and are perfectly understandable to the English-speakers among us.

A bi-racial population, the Pitkerners seemed more light-skinned than their Tahitian, Tuamotu and Gambier Polynesian brethren. They are well-aware of their singular history which is preserved in a museum ( www.government.pn/museum.html ) perched up a hill behind the center of Adamstown, a town square formed by a Seventh Day Adventist church, administrative offices, public hall and general store, where lunch is served on picnic tables draped with red tablecloths to Aranui’s passengers, who are seated on plastic stools and serenaded by the ship’s mariner/musicians. We’re beneath a protective roof but there are no walls, so it’s cool and breezy. At the far end of this central gathering point of downtown Adamstown is the Bounty’s salvaged anchor.

I spend the next day and a half exploring this isle at Earth’s edge. Despite its Lilliputian size it’s not easy getting around the rugged terrain – whether on foot or ATVs, we’re roughing it. As previously recounted, I climbed Highest Point our first day. After spending the night in my cabin, I return for a half day foray and set out for St. Paul’s Pool. To save time I pay for a ride aboard an ATV piloted by Mike Warren. As the rough-and-ready ATVs don’t have seatbelts, I must hold on for dear life in order not to become “man overboard!” (This sketchy, smelly, noisy mode of mass transit is a disaster waiting to happen.)

The route to St. Paul’s Pool alternates between stretches of paved and dirt road. The foliage is dense and at times resembles a canopy of branches. Along the way spectacular views of Pitcairn and its coastline are revealed. The ride takes about half an hour and upon arriving, literally, the end of the road, I realize that to actually reach this swim site I still have to walk down flights of wooden stairs then climb over rocks to get to the Pool per se.

To be sure, St. Paul’s Pool is beautiful to behold. A solid phalanx of rock separates the Pool from the ocean, where surging seas pound Pitcairn, but bathers are shielded within the enclosed azure and turquoise swim spot. Two rocky pillars – perhaps reminiscent for the English mutineers of the twin towers of St. Paul’s Cathedral back in the London they were destined never to return to – stand guard over the swimmers.

I’m lured by the beauty but realize that it may take too much time to descend the staircase then carefully negotiate the boulders and rocks to reach the water for me to return to the Landing at Bounty Bay in time to catch a barge back to Aranui 5 before it raises anchor and shoves off. Safely standing on a wood platform surveying the gorgeous scene I suddenly see a woman scampering across the rocks towards my general direction. I politely outstretch a hand towards the woman to steady her descent to the stairs but she declines, agilely landing on her own with great aplomb.

More Scrutiny on the Bounty

It’s hard to believe that this clambering climber is about 70 years old, but Brenda Christian, who has been charting a course over these rocky outcroppings as well as the rest of Pitcairn for decades, lightheartedly describes herself as being “part goat.” Aranui passenger Mike Leyral, a correspondent for Tahiti Nui TV who’d bunked the previous night ashore at the home of Brenda and her beekeeper husband, later tells me that Brenda lithely led him to Christian’s Cave, which I had only glimpsed from afar when Dennis Christian pointed it out to me from John Adams’ gravesite.

The so-called “cave” – which is really only about 10-feet or so deep – was Fletcher’s hideaway. He’d climb up and stay there for days at a time, ostensibly to scan the horizon for roving British vessels and perhaps to get away from the settlers’ conflicts back at Adamstown. Mike informs me that “Brenda’s favorite place at Pitcairn is Christian’s Cave,” which she likes to ascend to in order to monitor the vast Oceanic expanse like her ancestor did 230-plus years ago. There, Mike relates, the sixth generation descendent of Mr. Christian likes to “wonder what Fletcher was thinking?” at his secluded sanctuary.

I wonder what today’s Pitkerners think of their mutinous ancestors and what they did? Of course, this is touchy territory – in addition to the mutiny itself and throwing Bligh overboard, which was perceived by many as an act of treason against the crown and admiralty, Pitcairn experienced not only the aforementioned race war, but also an early 21st century spate of rape trials. Pitkerners seem reluctant to divulge their intimate thoughts to a total stranger who is merely passing through for just a couple of days.

But this is my one shot at interviewing the insular descendants, so at the risk of appearing like the proverbial reporter parachuting (or rather, sailing) in and out of a zone to get the story, I bite the bullet and persist: Was the mutiny right or wrong? And to the Pitkerners, was Fletcher Christian – whose reputation has been burnished for the outside world by the fact that he was portrayed by four of moviedom’s most popular actors – a hero or villain? How do they feel about their ancestor?

Aboard Aranui 5 at her lecture, Melva Evans, who is directly descended from Mr. Christian, answers, “People don’t talk about Fletcher. He was the father of our community.” As for the seizure of the ship, Melva replies with the understatement of two centuries-plus: “It’s just a thing that happened and we’re a product of it.”

At Highest Point Dennis Christian tells me: “I’m not sure what really happened. But if Bligh was cruel to the crew like in the movies, Fletcher was right to take the ship… I’m a Christian, and I’m on the side of the Christians.”

In a separate conversation at Highest Point Randy Christian echoes these sentiments, saying, “I don’t know what really happened. But they were my ancestors. And what happened already happened.” Mike Warren, my ATV driver over to St. Paul’s Pool, has a somewhat different take: “They were rash young men. They were in their twenties. They did what young men do.”

While I was at St. Paul’s Pool, Kevin Young – who spent many years abroad at New Zealand and served in the military, with stints at Antarctica, California and New York and may have been the most formally educated of the Pitkerners I spoke with – gave the most in-depth response to my inquiry. As HMAV Bounty’s commanding officer, “Bligh controlled the ship’s purse. He bought himself good wine and bought the sailors inferior wine. But the coconuts [procured at Polynesia] seemed equal. Fletcher was surprised that taking a coconut would upset Bligh,” a purported interaction dramatized in 1984’s The Bounty (see: www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-WrZcFJo2k ).

According to Prof. Arthur Linder in his Famous Trials web series, this is how the coconut caper went down: “On the morning of August 27, Bligh concluded that some coconuts were missing from the pile kept between the guns. ‘Don’t you think those coconuts have shrunk since last night?’ he asked Fryer. Bligh announced that he would find and punish the coconut thief. He questioned one person after another about the missing nuts. According to boatswain’s mate James Morrison, Christian responded to Bligh’s interrogation of him by saying, ‘I hope you don’t think me guilty of stealing.’ Bligh answered, ‘Yes, you damned hound, I do–You must have stolen them from me or you could give a better account of them…. I suppose you’ll steal my yams next, but I’ll sweat you for it you rascals. I’ll make half of you jump overboard before you through Endeavor Straights.’ He ended the confrontation with orders that rations for yams be cut in half. Christian was left devastated by the incident. William Purcell reported that Christian left Bligh with tears ‘running fast from his eyes in big drops.’” (See: www.famous-trials.com/bounty/392-story .)

Although opinions differ among the descendants, I notice that none condemn Fletcher or the mutiny. They won’t throw this Christian to the lions. Bully for them!

After Young departs St. Paul’s Pool I realize there aren’t any ATVs remaining to carry me back to Adamstown. As the Aranui is departing that afternoon, I must hike all the way back to Adamstown and on the double, so the passenger/freighter doesn’t leave without me. Much of the rugged road is dirt and uphill, and I arrive at the micro-nation’s capital more than an hour later, covered in dust, thirsty and exhausted. There’s just enough time for me to pay a token to an ATV driver to transport me down to the Landing at Bounty Bay, where I make the very last barge back to Aranui 5, which will carry us back – like the Bounty before us – to Tahiti. We cast off from the pier as Pirate Pawl and assorted Pitkerners wave farewell to this final but (it will be at least another month before any supply or cruise ship makes landfall at isolated, lonely Pitcairn) and we make our way back to our waiting cargo/cruiser, crossing exceptionally choppy seas.

Despite the daunting waves I am relieved to have made this last launch. The last thing I’d want is to be marooned on the mutineers’ distant diminutive domain in the Pacific’s boondocks.

When you go:

DESTINATIONS:
French Polynesia:
tahititourisme.com
Pitcairn Island:
www.visitpitcairn.pn
www.government.pn

GETTING THERE:
Aranui: www.aranui.com/en (800)972-7268
United Airlines: www.united.com (800)864-8331

TOURS:
TIURAI TOURS: Vanessa Alvarez Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89513222 Vanessa@tiuraitours.com
Mana Tang Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89527377 mana89w@gmail.com.

HOTELS:
Hilton Hotel Tahiti: (689) 40 86 48 48; 1-800-HILTONS
www.hilton.com/en/hotels/ppthihh-hilton-hotel-tahiti
Hilton San Francisco Union Square: (415)771-1400 1-800-HILTONS.
www.hilton.com/en/hotels/sfofhhh-hilton-san-francisco-union-square
Beacon Grand, A Union Square Hotel: www.beacongrand.com (866)377-9412.

Written by: Ed Rampell

 Ed Rampell picture Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E — The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. Rampell was interviewed in Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours, and National Public Radio’s Savvy Traveler interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production Hula Girls, which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell’s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.

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