On this day, in 1789, a revolution happened. It was (almost) bloodless in the beginning, but like any revolution it sowed discord, resentment, tragedy and eventually the birth a new state.
Like in a revolution textbook, it began with a tyrant, a disgruntled people, a reluctant hero and sacrifices imposed by said tyrant on said people for a goal perceived as futile. But this specific revolution had something unique.
Virtually in every revolution there are promises of paradise and better life for oppressed people. The one begun on April 28th 1789, happened *after* the oppressed people had lived an actual taste of a veritable earthly paradise. Easy life, fresh food, warm climate and great sex.
But when oppressed people taste rights, paradise and happiness, they don’t accept easily to revert to their old miserable life. They could, for a greater good, but not for a mission they couldn’t care less, which aimed to enforce even more oppression on someone else.
And so it happened: #OTD, in Southern Pacific, Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian led a mutiny against his captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, and seized their ship, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel “Bounty.”
After abandoning the captain and most of his loyalists at sea, the “Bounty” sailed back to Tahiti, disembarked the remaining loyalists, picked up the crew’s Polynesian girls and disappeared forever into the vast Southern Sea.
Or so the mutineers thought… Nothing is forever, not even at sea, not even in paradise, at least in an earthly one. Moreover, every revolution devours its own children, and this was proven right for the micro-revolution on the Bounty too.
So the #Bounty went back to Tahiti and disappeared, captain Bligh and some loyalists drifted away in a boat and the mission was abandoned. What mission? An odd and despicable one. Botanists thought that breadfruit trees, native of Polynesia, could be cultivated in West Indies.
Laborers of British Caribbean islands plantations were slaves. Someone thought that breadfruits could be cheap food for slaves, increasing profitability. #Bounty’s ill-fated mission was to pick breadfruit saplings in Tahiti and to take them to Jamaica to increase slavers profits.
When Bligh was abandoned at sea mutineers gleefully threw the saplings overboard: maybe Bligh didn’t prioritize trees over men with the scarce fresh water but surely saplings had privileges. Christian gave his sextant and a compass to Bligh, who did his best to make him regret it.
After that pivotal moment, 3 amazing stories began. Bligh went trough one of the most amazing seafaring deeds ever, unparalleled until Shackleton. Then he resumed his service in the Royal Navy, and eventually became governor of New South Wales. Until he was overthrown by a revolt.
The Bounty and her mutineers were not welcome in Tahiti and Christian was aware that with his sextant Bligh could make it back to England (he didn’t: he made it to Timor, though). He knew that the Royal Navy would chase the mutineers to the end of the world. So he went farther.
The few loyalists (and some not-too-smart mutineers) stayed in Tahiti. Mutineers on the Bounty and their Tahitian girls looked for an uncharted island. What they found was even better, the most remote island on an Admiralty chart-with wrong coordinates. What they saw: Pitcairn’s Island.
They settled on the tiny island. They salvaged anything they could from the Bounty -interestingly, not the guns- and climbed what they called Hill of Difficulty. The ship was impossible to hide to the spyglasses of the inevitable Royal Navy ships after them so they burned her -here.
So the Bounty ended-burned in the aptly named Bounty Bay. The mutineers had a paradise with their Tahitian girls -but it didn’t last. They were sons of their era. They had “shanghaied” Tahitian men, treated as subordinates, if not slaves, to man the ship.
Fletcher Christian did not enjoy his time on Pitcairn. Maybe out of guilt, regret or fear of retribution, he spent long hours in a cave overlooking the island, now called Christian’s Cave, watching for British ships sent after him. The ships never came -but he didn’t grow old.
Revolutions devour their own children. Apparently, mutinies too. The Tahitian men revolted and killed most of the original mutineers, including Christian. Eventually the surviving mutineers, helped by their women, killed all the Tahitian men. But more tragedies were to unfold.
Two mutineers learned to distill a local plant and quickly became alcoholics. One died soon, the other became so violent that to save the community the two surviving mutineers executed him. Women and children found peace at last. The mutiny had given birth to the tiniest nation.
So the story of the Bounty ended and that of Pitcairn began. Tomorrow I’ll tell you of my visit to the island and (if I find the tapes) what Pitkerners told me of their life. More tragedies, to these days, plagued the tiniest island nation of the world. But what happened to Bligh?
Proving his navigational and command skills, William Bligh sailed 3,618 nautical miles on a tiny, overcrowded boat only with a quadrant, a compass and memories of his voyage as captain Cook’s officer. He made it to Portuguese Timor, and from there to England.
To lose a ship of His Majesty, even a chamber pot like the Bounty, because of a mutiny was no joke: Bligh was duly court martialed, as duly absolved and commended for his exceptional boat voyage. A frigate, HMS Pandora, was dispatched to the Southern Seas to apprehend the mutineers.
The voyage of the Pandora -another ill-fated one- deserves a thread of its own but while the frigate quickly sailed to Tahiti, quickly apprehended both loyalists and not-so-smart mutineers who had stayed behind and as quickly sank on the Great Barrier, Bligh was given a new command.
In true British Admiralty stubborn fashion. Bligh was given not one but two merchant sloops and ordered to sail *again* to Tahiti to get more breadfruit saplings and complete the mission, taking them to the presumably hungry Caribbean slaves. Tahitians must have been truly baffled.
This time the mission was accomplished. The friendly and probably exasperated Tahitians provided the saplings once again, and while the mutineers slayed each other on Pitcairn, Bligh sailed to St.Vincent to deliver the goods. Slave owners must have been delighted, but not for long.
In a hilarious twist, the slaves of British Caribbean plantations turned out to be not that hungry to be fed anything the masters decided: disgusted by the alien, tasteless breadfruits, they literally threw them to the pigs. The British only abolished slavery 40 years later.
Eventually breadfruit became a typical Jamaican food, proving to be more tasty to free people’s palates. It was the second lasting effect of the whole mess, brainchild of botanist Joseph Banks, presumably on top of endless “Karma is a bitch” memes on satirical magazines of the era.
The story of Pitcairn went on. Descendants of mutineers were discovered by an American whaler and then again by British warships. The Pitkerners, as they style themselves, endured many more sufferings but they had the honor of being in a Mark Twain’s story
The thread will continue tomorrow, with the story of my visit to the island. Before sailing to Pitcairn, I researched anything I could, and even got in touch with a young Pitkerner. And this did not prevent me from the most stinging gaffe I ever made, I still want to kick myself.
Back to Pitcairn, after a day hiatus for quarantine needs that Pitkerners would understand: refueling, resupply, check batteries, meet rare visitors. Fair to say that the Bounty mutineers invented social distancing, definitely to preserve their health from, ehm, throat ailments.
In 2005, during what I remember as “The Pacific Job,” I sighted and then landed on Pitcairn. The island can only be reached by boat: too small for an airport, too far for helicopters or small planes, no harbor for ships, that anchor offshore. Islanders launch boats to reach them.
Before saying anything of modern Pitcairn, I must remind that its history has been overshadowed by a scandal and abject crimes. It exploded in 2004 and for obvious reasons I had to ignore it when I met then alleged perpetrators. Sociologists and criminologists can deal with it.
Before leaving for French Polynesia and during the long sea voyage I researched what I could on Pitcairn. Surprising, there were very few sources but the best one unexpectedly came from Thor Heyerdahl, whose book “Aku-Aku” I read to learn about the next destination of my voyage.
The Norwegian explorer visited Pitcairn in 1955 to perform archaeological probes on the island, once visited or inhabited by Polynesians, and what was probably the first scuba dive on Bounty’s wreck. Heyerdahl was hosted by Parkin Christian, Fletcher Christian’s great-great-grandchild.
But I lived in the internet era: before leaving I managed to find, in a Google’s forsaken corner of the web, the personal website of Andrew Christian, great-great-great-great-grandchild of Bounty’s mutinous first mate. We exchanged emails and then we met in person 25,000 km later
Traditionally Pitkerners sell their craftworks onboard. It’s their main source of income. Andrew Christian turned out to be a very skilled craftsman. And then, despite all my research on the island, its history, its traditions, Mark Twain etc, I made the gaffe of my life.
When I invited him for a beer, he politely declined. And I asininely insisted. He declined again, in a strangely awkward and sincerely embarrassed way. Only back home, a month later it dawned on me. I still want to kick myself: of course I knew why.
I should have known better, but apparently the words “Seventh Day Adventists” were only a footnote on a big “BOUNTY MUTINEERS!” picture in my twisted mind. Fortunately I didn’t realize it then, so I didn’t jump overboard in shame and I moved on to interview Charles James Bert Christian.
Mr. Christian, who sadly passed away in 2013, was with his American wife Barbara. He was Fletcher Christian’s great-great-grandchild and we had a drink (non alcoholic *of course*) and a long nice chat, on record. He was born in San Francisco but soon moved back to the island.
He loved life on the island. “I lived in America, I tried in Australia, but nowhere else is like here. It’s hard, a lot of work to do, but it’s unique.” He liked sailing and while I kept asking about Bounty and Pitcairn he understandably preferred to chat about the America’s Cup.
He was a strong supporter of his great-great-grandfather’s actions: “Of course I think he was right. If he didn’t seize command I wouldn’t be here, and our island would be still uninhabited.” He was too polite to say anything of Bligh but he clearly shared his ancestor’s opinion.
Surprisingly, his favorite film version of the story was not, as I expected, the most historically accurate one but the most romantic one: MGM’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935). He explained that Clark Gable became his childhood favorite actor because of it.
He remembered Thor Heyerdahl bonding with then mayor Parkin Christian. He had fond memories of his older cousin “A big man, the best sailor who ever lived.” Once he asked him to build him a canoe, but he refused: “You have your axe. I will teach you how to make your own canoe!”
He stayed aboard selling craftworks and I went ashore. We made a deal: he invited me to return and stay at his place if I managed to bring him some pizza, the only thing he missed. I looked at his aloha shirt but didn’t have the heart of asking *the* question. I moved to Turkey instead.
And I went ashore. The island is gorgeous but surrounded by rocky cliffs. Bounty Bay is the only possible landing, and the islanders’ “long boats” must be hauled every time.
I didn’t have a chance to dive on the wreck, but I was told that there is very little to see. Many artifacts have been recovered and are in Pitcairn’s tiny museum. The rudder was found and recovered by Parkin Christian in 1933 and is preserved in a Fiji Museum.
The mutineers had such a hard time to haul what they salvaged from the Bounty up the steep hill overlooking Bounty Bay that they named it “Hill of Difficulty”. Photographers on a month long video&photo assignment in the Pacific carry a lot of gear but… sometimes they are lucky.
In the most exciting interaction with a quad until the day @AylinAsLIM almost killed me in Kaş , I was offered a ride by a direct descendant of John Adams and happily up we went on the Hill of Not-So-Difficulty on Pitcairn Island…
My new friend (I just can’t find his name!) took me to the museum, where he was the curator (and the postmaster too: stamps are an important source of income) where he showed me his ancestor’s portrait. John Adams, the last of the mutineers, the true founder of the community.
He told me the story of Fletcher Christian’s first son, a pivotal and charismatic figure of Pitcairn’s history, who was able to keep the islanders together in difficult times. His father’s motives to mutiny have long been debated and some suspect mental illness played a role.
I don’t have an opinion but a man who quit a naval career, became a wanted pirate for the love of a vahine and settled on a tropical islet out of the world, called his firstborn Thursday October because, guess: he was born on Thursday, in October. On top of it,the date was wrong.
Adamstown is in the Guinness of Records as the smallest capital city in the world and that is one of the reasons that make it almost impossible to get lost there. The other one is that, of course, there are signs.
Time on Pitcairn was short and I said goodbye to my new friends. I left them to their amazing and somehow weird lifestyle, and to the trial that a year later projected Pitcairn on unwanted international headlines. It was one of the most peculiar human communities I ever visited.
The micro-revolution of April 28, 1789 did not change the world like the July 14th one. It triggered tragedies that go on to this day, like virtually any human deed. But it still stirs emotions, as an act of rebellion of men and women who just wanted a better life, together.
To visit Pitcairn is not as difficult as it was, and immigration is encouraged. Alcohol is now allowed and I feel vindicated. You can visit Andrew’s parents, Brenda & Mike Christian’s website and buy their products, including the purest honey in the world http://christian.pn/index.html
A priceless resource for anything about Pitcairn is on the Seventh-Day Adventist Pacific Union College website: https://library.puc.edu/pitcairn/pitcairn/index.shtml
Originally published at https://threadreaderapp.com.