Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

Mutiny in Utopia

Gazetter entry

 

On 17th Sept 1814 two British Navy vessels called at the remote South Pacific Pitcairn Islands. They found a small community of 10 Polynesian women, 23 children and former able seaman, John Adams, who was the last surviving member of the mutineers of the Bounty who had settled the island with their Tahitian companions in 1790. Perhaps the best-known mutiny in British Naval history - HMS Bounty under the command of Capt. William Bligh was on a voyage to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies to provide cheap food for the slave plantations.

Following their stay on the idyllic South Pacific Island, ship's officer Fletcher Christian led the mutiny, setting Bligh and 18 crew members adrift in an open boat to make their epic journey, immortalised in Hollywood movies. The mutineers first returned to Tahiti, but following trouble among the islanders and fearing capture nine mutineers, six Tahitian men, twelve women and a baby set sail looking for a safe haven. After two months sailing around the Cooks, Tonga, and the eastern islands of Fiji looking for a home, Fletcher Christian remembered the existence of Pitcairn Island.

On this remote speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean the mutineers thought they had found an ideal home. There was plenty to eat; coconuts and breadfruit on the island, pigs, chickens, yams and sweet potatoes from the ship's stores. To avoid detection the ship was stripped and sunk in what is now known as Bounty Bay. What probably saved them from detection for over 20 years was the fact that the position of the island was incorrectly marked on official maps. The commanders of the British Navy vessels that finally found them were charmed by the 'physique, simplicity and piety' of the islanders. Impressed by Adams and the example he set, they agreed that it would be 'an act of great cruelty and inhumanity' to arrest him for the Bounty Mutiny. John Adams was a gentle man who could barely read and write, he had patterned a simple communistic way of life in the little colony based on basic Christian values. Adams saw to it that every young person cultivated the land, cared for the stock and were not allowed to marry until they could support a family. That this egalitarian society should have developed at all is surprising given the early events on the island.

For the first year on the island the mutineers and their companions worked hard. Living in tents made from the Bounty's sails they cleared and planted the land, tended their animals and built a small settlement on the north west side of the island leaving a screen of trees between them and the sea. All the cultivatable land was divided among the nine white men. They also claimed the rock pools, essential sources of salt and good fishing places. The Polynesians seemed not to mind this arrangement and the little colony looked to be a perfect island paradise in the making. However the mutineers treated the Tahitians so badly that in the end they revolted. Five mutineers and all the Polynesian men died in the revolt, leaving only four mutineers leading households of ten women and their children. After this things settled into a period of relative peace and all might have remained harmonious had not William McCoy who had once worked in a distillery, discovered how to brew a potent spirit from the roots of the ti plant. This led to another round of murders & suspicious deaths and by 1800 John Adams was the sole male survivor of the party that had landed just ten years earlier. Adams would preside over the community until 1829 when he died aged 62. The passing of the "Father" of the community was mourned by every member. Under his leadership the community had gone from frontier community hell-bent on self-destruction to an island utopia - governed by customs evolved from a combination of seamen's traditions of sharing, Polynesian customs of communal land ownership & generosity and primitive Christianity.

'Such a society, so free, not only from vice, but even from those petty bickerings and jealousies - those minor infirmities which we are accustomed to suppose are ingrained in human nature - can probably not be paralleled elsewhere. It is the realisation of Arcadia, or what we had been accustomed to suppose had existence only in poetic imagination, - the golden age; all living as one family, a commonwealth of brothers and sisters, which, indeed, by ties of relationship they actually are . . . there is neither wealth nor want, a primitive simplicity of life and manner, perfect equality in rank and station, and perfect content.' W.Brodie.Pitcairn's Island. 1851.

The islanders operated a system of barter amongst themselves. Goods from passing ships and ocean bounty were divided up equally between all. 'Ownership' of land was based on the original division of the island by the mutineers. Plots were sub-divided equally to female and male children through inheritance and on marriage husband and wife were given bits of land by each parent. Simple ownership however never bestowed absolute rights. Islanders were free to plant coconut & fruit trees on anyone's land. It was accepted custom that those who cared for crops had rights to the produce. A family's 'trade mark' was chipped on each tree trunk. Increasing population and fear of crop failure persuaded the islanders, disastrously as it turned out, to return to Tahiti. Suffering from culture shock and decimated by diseases to which they had no immunity, which led to 17 deaths, a fifth of the polulation, they raised the money to return to Pitcairn by selling their possesions. Joshua Hill, a puritanical busybody, arrived on the island in 1832 claiming to have been sent by the British Government. Appointing himself 'President of the Commonwealth of Pitcairn,' he promptly abolished the distilling of liquor, which was welcomed by the islanders, but he also introduced arbitrary imprisonment and severe punishments for the smallest misdeeds. In 1838, his claim to represent the British Government was exposed and he was forcibly removed from the island. Following Hill's dictatorship the islanders felt the need for some sort of constitution. When the small sloop the HMS Fly arrived in 1838 on a routine cruise the islanders pleaded with the Captain, George Elliott, to draw up a constitution for the island and officially establish the island as part of the British Empire. This was an awesome request to a low-ranking naval officer with no official instructions. However the commander rose to the occasion and drew up a brief constitution and legal code. The constitution owed little to British precedent and reflected the custom and culture of the community. A Magistrate (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, ....". He was to be assisted by two councillors, one elected and one appointed 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. These were political rights not enjoyed by other British citizens until well into the 20th century.

Longboat landing on Pitcairn

In 1856 facing overcrowding again the island was once more abandoned, this time for a deserted penal colony on Norfolk Island. Not all the community were happy on Norfolk Island and late in 1858 16 of the islanders returned to Pitcairn. A box of 7th Day Adventist literature from the USA resulted in the wholesale conversion of the islanders. The 7th Day Adventists in America greeted conversion with great pleasure and in 1890 they raised funds to send a missionary ship to Pitcairn. The islanders were baptised in one of the rocky pools by the shore. With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 a liner a week carrying hundreds of passengers to New Zealand started to call and the islanders built up an economy supplying gifts & curios. In 1940 Pitcairn postage stamps were issued and supplying philatelists became a major part of the island economy. Since WW2 the benefits of modernization have been available on the island, starting with wireless communications and electricity.The islands population now fluctuate between 40 & 60.
The story of the early years of Pitcairn Island is told in Life & Death in Eden. By Trevor Lummis. Victor Gollancz 1997.

'Mutineers' Island under threat ?
Recent allegations of child abuse on Pitcairn Island threaten to undermine the viability of Islands economy.
For more information on the case(s) see the following websites:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/storydisplay.cfm?thesection=news&thesubsection=&storyID=3547080


Pitcairn Island Websites:
Pitcairn Island Web Site: http://www.lareau.org/pitc.html
Pitcairn Island Government web page: http://users.iconz.co.nz/pitcairn/
Pitcairn Islands Study Centre : http://library.puc.edu/pitcairn/

 

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