Picaresque and Picturesque Pitcairn

Upon arriving at Bounty Bay, all Aranui 5 passengers are given tokens, not unlike those straphangers previously dropped into turnstiles to gain egress to New York City’s subway. Pitcairn Island, too, has mass transit – but instead of underground or elevated trains or trams, it consists primarily of All Terrain Vehicles that, in addition to a driver, holds two or three commuters. A token betokens the bearer to one trip up or down the 229-foot “Hill of Difficulty,” which connects the Landing at Bounty Bay to Adamstown. But I prefer to hoof it, so I can take my time and drink in the ambiance of this spot in the middle of nowhere I’ve dreamt of since I saw Mutiny on the Bounty when I was a child.

Below me, in the murky depths of Bounty Bay, lies what little remains of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, which the mutineers liquidated shortly after finding the incorrectly charted Pitcairn. After ransacking their ship, removing anything of value and relocating it ashore, the seamen burned and sunk the Bounty on January 23, 1790. The reasons that have been given for doing so were to make sure British and other naval vessels wouldn’t see the tall ship should they sail past Pitcairn, where the fugitives from London’s long arm of the law were hiding out. The other explanation for burning/sinking HMAV Bounty is so no one would get the bright idea to sail the three-masted collier – perhaps all the way back to England. I believe it also gave finality to the notion that Pitcairn was to be the outlaws’ home forever more. Whatever the reasons, disposing of the Bounty worked, in that off-the-beaten-track Pitcairn wasn’t visited by outsiders for another 18 years.

Trekking up the recently paved road of the aptly named “Hill of Difficulty,” I pause to read periodically posted handsome English language texts with photos and historical explication about HMAV Bounty, or the recovery of sunken artifacts from the long-submerged ship. These educational broadsides are literally signs that isolated Pitcairn is developing its visitor industry and the residents realize their number one selling point is a totally unique history.

During my first of several hikes, as the occasional ATV whizzes by, I experience firsthand how steep and rugged Pitcairn – an isle of cliffs, jagged peaks and thick green tropical foliage – is. Although it is sunny, a refreshing breeze helps me to make the tough climb. At the top of the Hill of Difficulty is a marketplace at “Le Plazza” where Aranui’s wayfarers peruse T-shirts, handicrafts and what has long been a mainstay of Pitcairn’s economy: Postage stamps.

I’m instantly drawn to a set of stamps issued in 2014 that celebrated the “250th Anniversary of Fletcher Christian,” and does so with photos of the actors who have portrayed Mr. Christian on the big screen since the 1930s: Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson. These blockbuster, big budget pictures have been noteworthy. The 1935 and 1962 adaptations of Nordhoff and Hall’s novels each scored seven Oscar nominations, while the Gable and Charles Laughton version won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The distinguished cast of 1984’s The Bounty included many actors who had by then or would go on to win Oscars: Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson (in the Best Director and Best Picture categories for 1995’s Braveheart).

But what especially attracts me to the philatelic “Official First Day Cover” laid out as if they are two strips of celluloid is that the stamps include Errol Flynn who, unbeknownst to most movie fans made his motion picture debut starring as the mutiny’s leader in In the Wake of the Bounty. Although this isn’t widely known in America, all of the Pitkerners I spoke to were familiar with and had probably seen this 1933 Australian movie. Indeed, Charles Chauvel’s 66-minute production is the only Bounty film wherein the filmmakers actually sailed all the way to Pitcairn to shoot footage on location there. I buy the sheet for 2,000 Central Pacific Francs (Tahiti’s currency) or about $20.

From Adamstown I hike 1,138-feet up to the Highest Point, which offers commanding vistas of picturesque Pitcairn and across an Oceanic vista broken only by the anchored Aranui 5. At the summit, signposts point in the general directions of various cities, whose names along with how many kilometers they are from Pitcairn are emblazoned on arrow-shaped signs. For instance, my “Native” island of New York is 9,322 kilometers (5,792 miles) east of Pitcairn.

Scrutiny on the Bounty

Atop Highest Point, I encounter amiable drivers patiently waiting for the ship’s “interlopers” whom they have transported uphill, and discuss the Bounty movies depicting their ancestors with the Pitkerners. Representation and misrepresentation are big issues now for productions – how do the mutineers’ greatgrandchildren many times removed feel about how Fletcher and their other forefathers are portrayed on the silver screen?

Dennis Christian’s favorite film version starred “Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando” as Captain Bligh and his forebear in MGM’s 1962 epic. On the other hand, Randy Christian, who drives what may be Pitcairn’s sole mini-bus, prefers the most recent screen rendition starring “Mel Gibson” in 1984’s The Bounty, opposite Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh.

Later that night, during a lecture aboard Aranui, Melva Evans, another direct descendent of Fletcher Christian, describes these dramatizations of her ancestors’ derring-do as “highly entertaining… movies.” However, in addition to the amusement factor, accuracy is a matter of importance to the distant offspring of the British sailors and Polynesian partners. Melva, Randy and also Kevin Young all agree that the “Mel Gibson version was the most historically accurate.”

Descended from mutineer Edward Young, Kevin was born in Pitcairn but moved to New Zealand when he was a child and was living there when the realistic replica of HMAV Bounty was built in NZ to lend verisimilitude to The Bounty. Because of his heritage, Young was invited to observe construction of the exacting iteration of the ship that his progenitor had sailed on almost two centuries earlier.

While Dennis Christian prefers the Brando Mutiny on the Bounty, he quickly adds: “But the scenes at Pitcairn are completely wrong. Fletcher Christian did not die in a fire on the ship” at Bounty Bay. This correct observation reminds me of something a late friend of mine told me way back when I was 21, during my first of 15 visits to Tahiti. Swedish anthropologist Bengt Danielsson may be best known for sailing from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa wood raft and for appearing with archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl in 1950’s Kon Tiki, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. This expedition led to Bengt relocating from Scandinavia to the South Seas and becoming a prolific author.

Kon Tiki, however, is not the only film Bengt was involved with and in the early 1960s, when MGM adapted Nordhoff and Hall’s Bounty trilogy, the Swede was hired as a consultant for Mutiny on the Bounty. When he read the ending of the Mutiny on the Bounty screenplay, like Dennis, Danielsson – who’d written What Happened on the Bounty in 1962 – was concerned and pointed out to the filmmakers the historically inaccurate denouement of their epic. Nevertheless, the moviemakers refused to change their ending.

In recounting the story to me with a twinkle in his eye, Bengt laughed: “Hollywood loves sex and violence. In real life, there was a lot more sex and bloodshed than in the movie at Pitcairn,” where a race war took place in the 1790s, as the Englishmen, who were unwilling to share the Polynesian females (who were outnumbered by the males), fought the Polynesian men over the Tahitian women. For instance, according to Presser’s The Far Land, Kevin Young’s ancestor Edward “Young hacked off the heads and arms of the two dead Polynesians and had Smith march them up to Quintal and McCoy’s hideaway as proof of their demise.” Pretty gruesome, sensational stuff, yet Tinseltown chose to stick with its wildly inauthentic not-so-grand finale, with Brando’s idealistic Fletcher dying because he tried to put the fire other mutineers had lit on the Bounty out.

The only final resting place of Pitcairn’s original settlers belongs to the sole surviving adult male of the 1790s massacres, John Adams (probably a pseudonym). Dennis drives me on an ATV to the grave, where the namesake of Pitcairn’s capital, who’d returned peace to the isolated settlement by preaching the gospel, is buried along with his wife and daughter beneath headstones, shaded by a lovely bamboo grove. The Bounty’s Bible, which Adams proselytized with, is displayed at the Pitcairn Island Museum, a reliquary for ancient artifacts, such as the ship’s salvaged cannon, that will make history buffs’ eyes pop (see:

When you go:

French Polynesia:
Pitcairn Island:

Aranui: (800)972-7268
United Airlines: (800)864-8331

TIURAI TOURS: Vanessa Alvarez Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89513222
Mana Tang Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89527377

Hilton Hotel Tahiti: (689) 40 86 48 48; 1-800-HILTONS
Hilton San Francisco Union Square: (415)771-1400 1-800-HILTONS.
Beacon Grand, A Union Square Hotel: (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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