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Pitcairn Islands Guide


The Lost Civilization

Although Pitcairn was uninhabited when the nine Bounty mutineers arrived in 1790, the remains of a vanished civilization were clearly evident. The sailors found four platforms with roughly hewn stone statues, possibly smaller, simpler versions of those on Easter Island. Being good Christians, the Pitcairners destroyed these platforms and threw the images into the sea.

Unfortunately, almost nothing remains of them today. The only surviving piece of sculpture resides in Dunedin's Otago Museum in New Zealand.

Sporadic visits by European archaeologists have uncovered traces of ancient burials and stone axes, and 22 petroglyphs are to be seen below "Down Rope." This evidence indicates that Pitcairn was occupied for a considerable period in the past, but where these ancient people came from and where they went remains a question.

European Discovery

Pitcairn was discovered in 1767 by Captain Carteret, on the HMS Swallow. The island was named for the son of Major Pitcairn of the marines, the first to sight it.

An early 19th-century view of Bounty Bay, Pitcairn Island (M.G.L. Domeny de Rienzi).

In 1788 the HMS Bounty sailed from England for the Pacific to collect breadfruit plants to supplement the diet of slaves in the West Indies. Because the Bounty arrived in Tahiti at the wrong time of year, it was necessary to spend a long five months there collecting samples, and during this time, part of the crew became overly attached to that isle of pleasure. On 28 April 1789, in Tongan waters, they mutinied against Lt. William Bligh under 24-year-old Master's Mate Fletcher Christian. Bligh was set adrift in an open boat with the 18 men who chose to go with him. He then performed the amazing feat of sailing 3,618 nautical miles in 41 days, reaching Dutch Timor to give the story to the world.

After the mutiny, the Bounty sailed back to Tahiti. An attempt to colonize Tubuai in the Austral Islands failed, and Fletcher Christian set out with eight mutineers, 18 Polynesians—men, women, and one small girl—to find a new home where they would be safe from capture. In 1791, the crew members who elected to remain on Tahiti were picked up by the HMS Pandora and returned to England for trial. Three were executed. The Bounty sailed through the Cook Islands, Tonga, and Fiji, until Christian remembered Carteret's discovery. They changed course for Pitcairn and arrived on 15 January 1790.

Colonizing Pitcairn

After removing everything of value, the mutineers burned the Bounty to avoid detection. Right up until the present, each January 23 on the anniversary of the Bounty's demise, a model of the ship is launched and burned at Bounty Bay.

For 18 years after the mutiny, the world knew nothing of the fate of the Bounty, until the American sealer Topaz called at Pitcairn for water in 1808 and solved the mystery.

The first years on Pitcairn were an orgy of jealousy, treachery, and murder, resulting from a lack of women after the accidental death of one. By 1794, only four mutineers remained alive, and all of the Polynesian men had been killed. Three more men had died from a variety of causes by 1800, leaving only John Adams, nine women, and 19 children. Adams brought the children up according to strict Puritanical morality, and later the British Admiralty chose—all things considered—not to take action against him. Adams lived on Pitcairn until his death in 1829 at the age of 65; of the mutineers, he is the only one with a known burial site.

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