The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Bounty of History

I saw in today's Times that Tom Christian, known as the "Voice of Pitcairn," the South Pacific Island settled by the mutineers of HMS Bounty, died in July.

I must admit that one of my favorite books when I was a boy was The Bounty Trilogy by Nordoff and Hall, comprising the three novels Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, and Pitcairn's Island. I had my 1935 copy, bought used from Barnes and Noble's Sales Annex when I was about 12 or so, until two years ago, when, realizing it was falling apart, I bought one of the same vintage at the Schroon Lake Library Book Sale (which I missed this year, because my vacation plans turned into fine, fine dust). The books were the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the story of the Bounty, and I have a small trove of books relating to it. (A really first rate recent one is Caroline Alexander's account). For years I wanted to go to Pitcairn, and if I ever do hit the South Seas, why, that'll be the prime destination.

The history of the place is, fascinating, a small insular community surviving for over two hundred years, with sporadic contact with the outside world, occasional efforts to resettle elsewhere, and a secluded, peaceful existence. The basic pattern was described by Mark Twain:
Nearly a hundred years ago the crew of the British ship Bounty mutinied, set the captain and his officers adrift upon the open sea, took possession of the ship, and sailed southward. They procured wives for themselves among the natives of Tahiti, then proceeded to a lonely little rock in mid-Pacific, called Pitcairn's Island, wrecked the vessel, stripped her of everything that might be useful to a new colony, and established themselves on shore. Pitcairn's is so far removed from the track of commerce that it was many years before another vessel touched there. It had always been considered an uninhabited island; so when a ship did at last drop its anchor there, in 1808, the captain was greatly surprised to find the place peopled. Although the mutineers had fought among themselves, and gradually killed each other off until only two or three of the original stock remained, these tragedies had not occurred before a number of children had been born; so in 1808 the island had a population of twenty-seven persons. John Adams, the chief mutineer, still survived, and was to live many years yet, as governor and patriarch of the flock. From being mutineer and homicide, he had turned Christian and teacher, and his nation of twenty-seven persons was now the purest and devoutest in Christendom. Adams had long ago hoisted the British flag and constituted his island an appanage of the British crown.

To-day the population numbers ninety persons--sixteen men, nineteen women, twenty-five boys, and thirty girls--all descendants of the mutineers, all bearing the family names of those mutineers, and all speaking English, and English only. The island stands high up out of the sea, and has precipitous walls. It is about three-quarters of a mile long, and in places is as much as half a mile wide. Such arable land as it affords is held by the several families, according to a division made many years ago. There is some live stock--goats, pigs, chickens, and cats; but no dogs, and no large animals. There is one church-building used also as a capitol, a schoolhouse, and a public library. The title of the governor has been, for a generation or two, "Magistrate and Chief Ruler, in subordination to her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain." It was his province to make the laws, as well as execute them. His office was elective; everybody over seventeen years old had a vote--no matter about the sex.

The sole occupations of the people were farming and fishing; their sole recreation, religious services. There has never been a shop in the island, nor any money. The habits and dress of the people have always been primitive, and their laws simple to puerility. They have lived in a deep Sabbath tranquillity, far from the world and its ambitions and vexations, and neither knowing nor caring what was going on in the mighty empires that lie beyond their limitless ocean solitudes. Once in three or four years a ship touched there, moved them with aged news of bloody battles, devastating epidemics, fallen thrones, and ruined dynasties, then traded them some soap and flannel for some yams and breadfruit, and sailed away, leaving them to retire into their peaceful dreams and pious dissipations once more.
The population is down to 51 now, according to Tom Christian's obituary in the NYT; the obituary is fascinating reading both for Mr. Christian's pivotal role in the community, but in updating the Pitcairn story to the Twenty-first Century. A rather nice grace note:
Mr. Christian went about his life, tending his garden, working his radio and continuing to travel and lecture.

At a talk in London in 2005, he had the joy of catching up with an Englishman he first met in 1971.

That November, a cargo ship on which the Englishman was traveling stopped at Pitcairn and, disembarking, he was introduced to Mr. Christian.

The Englishman was Maurice Bligh, the great-great-great-grandson of Capt. William Bligh.

From that day forward, Mr. Bligh and Mr. Christian were fast friends.

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