Samuel Topliff Jr.

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Pitcairn Island.

By Samuel Topliff Jr.

Salem Gazette, January 16, 1821.

Pitcairn Island.

[The ship Sultan, Capt Reynolds, of Boston, which returned from Canton in September, 1819, during her voyage touched at Pitcairn Island. Mr. Topliff, aware of the public curiosity in regard to this island, on account of the extraordinary manner in which it became peopled, procured from the private journal of Mr. Newell, the first officer of that ship, a circumstantial account of their observations during their stay there, which he published in the New-England Galaxy of the 12th, inst. and from which we make the following extracts. It is known to our readers, that the settlers on Pitcairn Island were part of the mutineers of the English ship Bounty in 1789, and were first discovered in their place of refuge by Capt. Folger, of Boston, in 1808, nineteen years afterwards; and again by the British frigates Briton and Tagus (knowing nothing of Captain F's dicovery [sic]) in 1814; and thirdly they were visited by the Sultan, above mentioned, in 1817]

      Oct. 17th, 1817. – At 2, P.M. made Pitcairn's Island, bearing E. by N. 7 leagues distant. At 5, P.M. hove to off the North side the Isle, where we discovered a small village situated among a grove of cocoa nut trees. I went in with the boat, but could not land on account of the surf, which beat with considerable violence on the shore. As soon as the boat was discovered by the people on shore, they all hastened to the beach to receive us, when finding we were not disposed to land, ten young men leaped into the surf and swam off to the boat. When they had arrived within hail, I saluted them with, How do you do, friends? to which they immediately answered, to my great surprise, Very well, I thank you, how do you do? then approached, and taking hold of the boat's gunwale, said, I will come into your boat, if you please; to which I readily consented, nor would one make an attempt until they had obtained my permission. They then asked what ship that was, where we were going, and likewise our business in calling upon them; when, on being informed that our only motive was to get some refreshment for the ship's crew, they assured us that they would supply us with every thing their Island afforded, which was hogs, goats, tarro, cocoa nuts, bananas, &c. It now began to grow late, I intimated that I must return on board the ship, and if four of their number wished to go on board, I should be glad to take them. They all expressed a desire to go, but as I had limited the number they immediately proposed to cast lots for a decision, in which they all cheerfully acquiesced; those who were to go on shore, said, Well, since we cannot go on board the ship to-night, we will go on shore and get your hogs and cocoa nuts ready, and perhaps we may to-morrow; then jumped overboard, and swam to the shore. At 6,. P.M. I returned on board the ship with the four natives, who agreed to remain during the night. We stood off to the N.E. under short sail for the night, in hopes of getting a supply of hogs and vegetables in the morning, but the weather came on thick, and the breeze freshening at midnight, reduced us to close reefed topsails, and from 7 to 10 P.M. it increased to a hard gale from N.N.W. furled the topfails and courses, and hove to – saw the Isle bearing W. 1/2 S. 4 leagues distant. The conduct of the natives while on board was such as excited the admiration of every person on board the ship, and I believe, I may with safety declare that, for, good morals, politeness of behaviour, an open undisguised manner of conveying their sentiments on all occasions, with a strict adherence to truth, and the principles of religion, there are not their equals to be found on earth; and for all this, they are entirely indebted to one white man, an Englishman, who, to use their own words, as they would frequently acknowledge, had taught them all good things, & to shun every thing that was naughty.

      Mr. John Adams (for that is the name of the person who has devoted the greater part of his time to the education of these young people) is the only survivor of the mutineers of the English ship Bounty, who, after setting Capt. Bligh, with twenty others, into the launch at sea, returned to Otaheite, where, disagreeing among themselves, nine of them, after taking each a wife, two other females and six males, natives of Otaheite (in all, 26 persons,) and securing them under hatches, cut the cables and put to sea, steering for this island. Here they arrived in a few days, and after having taken every thing on shore that would be serviceable to them, they set fire to the ship & burnt her to the water's edge, 1789. Some of her guns and anchors may be seen in 2 1-2 fathoms water along side the rocks.

      Here they had remained but a few years, when their tyrannical behaviour towards the Otaheiteans whom they had stolen from their country and friends, was such as to induce the latter to attempt to destroy the whites altogether. They secretly obtained possession of all the muskets on the Island, and embracing the opportunity when the white men were at work in the fields, they sallied out and killed five of them; the others took the alarm, and three made their escape to the bushes, where they concealed themselves; – the other, Mr. Adams, who now lives, received a musket ball through the neck; and a blow with the breech of the musket, was aimed at his head, but in raising his hand to defend himself, he received it across the fingers, which saved his life, for at that moment a native arrived who had always been his friend, and begged his life might be spared, if the wounds should not prove mortal, which, after some debate, was complied with. After they had subdued the whites, they (the Otaheiteans) began to quarrel for superiority among themselves, and had recourse again to their muskets, and the result was, that every one was killed, or afterwards died of his wounds. After this the three whites returned from their concealment, but did not live long to enjoy the happy land; one run mad and died; and the other two sickened and died a few years after; consequently Mr. Adams was the only man left on the Island, to be the father and protector of the children descended from his fellow shipmates; and from what I have seen, I believe he has done his duly towards them. Mr. Adams, at this time, reflecting on the vices and follies of his past life, determined on a sincere repentance; and his conduct since then shews clearly that he has lived up to it. Since that time, which was in the year 1800, he has been constantly employed in the duties of religion. He never eats without first saying grace, and always repeats half a dozen prayers before lying down to sleep; and every person on the Isand, young or old, observes, invariably, the same practice. There are feveral of their offspring, nine of whom are grown up; the eldest about 25 or 26 years of age. There are thirty-seven in number on the Island, and all speak English. They are, perhaps, the happiest people on the face of the globe; they know nothing bad, but live all together under the care and direction of Mr. Adams, and much credit is due to him. He has taught them prayers, to which they pay great attention; and perform that duty every time they eat, on going to rest, and rising in the morning.

      After our arrival on board, they were very anxious to obtain a spelling book, that they might learn to read; for said they, all that we now know, is what Mr. Adams has told us, and if we can get a spelling book we can read all the good things ourselves; but unfortunately we had not one on board. I frequently asked them if they would not like to go to America, when one would say, he should like to go if he had no mother, provided he could return to live on his little island again; another would say, his sister would not like to have him go away unless she could likewise. In fact they all had some reasonable objection to going away, but nothing would induce them to leave their island forever, as they observed, we have no king, nor lord, to obey here, and every one is his own master; but said they, we mind what Mr. Adams tells us, because he knows best. In truth, they live together in the greatest amity and brotherly love.

      18th. At 11 A.M. being 3 or 4 miles from the shore, two boats were sent ashore for refreshment, in one of which I went, accompanied by two of the young men belonging to the island, and soon had the boat loaded deep with yams, hogs, &c. when I returned on board the ship, taking with me Mr. John Adams, as passenger. After discharging these cargoes, the boats were sent in, and brought off some more hogs, yams, &c. and a quantity of copper bolts.

      19th. At 7 P.M. the jolly boat was sent in for vegetables, and I again went ashore. As the landing was tolerably good, I accepted of an invitation to go up to the village, which was situated about half a mile from the boat, having first loaded the boat with yams, hogs, sugar cane, &c. and despatched her for the ship. We arrived at the village about 9 A.M. which I found to be delightfully situated on a small eminence, overlooking the sea, about 300 yards from the beach, and consisting of six dwelling houses, out houses, sheds, &c. Each house has in front an enclosure of about half an acre of ground, which forms a beautiful yard – these yards are most abundantly stocked with fowls of a very large size. The hogs are numerous, but rather small, yet they are remarkably sweet and good – they are all closely confined, as well as the goats, which are likewise very numerous, and care is taken to feed them on the best the island affords. Their dwelling houses are very neat and clean, and every thing within bespeaks domestic tranquillity, peace and happiness. The large groves of cocoa-nut trees, which are disposed in rows, at the distance of 10 yards from each other, the Plantain and Banana trees, the large fields of tarro, and the tea root, all serve as ample testimony of their indefatigable industry in the cultivation of the soil. We obtained from these happy people 18 pigs, 5 goats, 3 dozen fowls, some eggs, and a large supply of yams, cocoa nuts and some sugar cane, &c. all of which they have in great abundance. We also got some copper bolts, and a rudder brace, some of the remains of the ship Bounty, and gave them in return, some bar iron, several tools useful to them, and a small boat useless to the ship. After meeting with the most generous and hospitable treatment from these good people, we all returned to the beach, when I took my leave and was conveyed to the boat in one of their canoes, not, however, without feeling the deeped regret at being obliged to part, perhaps forever, from a people for whom we had conceived an affection bordering on adoration.

      The principal produce of the island is yams, tarro, bread fruit, cocoa nuts, bananas, sugar cane and the tea root, all of which they found on landing – they also found great numbers of rats. Hogs, goats, fowls and cats, were brought in the ship.

      20th. At 3 P.M. we reached the boat, when, after having presented Mr.Adams with our jolly boat, as likewife a number of other valuable articles, he with the two young men belonging ashore, bade us an affectionate farewell, and went into their boat, then gave us three cheers, which we returned, and bore up to the E.S.E. under all sail, the wind at N.N.W. at 6 P.M. the isle bore N.W. by N. 4 leagues distant, the latitude 25 deg. 6 m. S. long. 130 deg. 25 m. W."

      In addition to what is stated in the above journal, I learned from Mr. Downes, 2d officer of the ship, that when the young men first came on board, they were taken into the cabin, and the best the ship afforded, either to eat or drink, was set before them; but they would not touch a morsel of any thing, until they had first raised their hands in a posture of devotion, and supplicated a blessing from on high, on what the bounty of Providence had set before them – this was their invariable practice; they were perfectly chaste in their conduct and conversation at all times, whether on board the ship, or on shore. He also informed me, that Mr. Adams was quite elated when be came on board the ship, pulled the rigging, and sung several songs, and appeared perfectly happy. He was asked if he had any inclination to visit his native country, and he answered, he should like to visit it once more, provided he could return; but would not on any account leave the island forever. Mr. Downes represented him as a fat, stout man, with a bald head; his beard had been extracted. I also learned from Mr. Downs, that Mr. Adams presented Capt. Reynolds with an old spy-glass, & two blank books which belonged to the Bounty, & on enquiry concerning them, ascertained that Capt. Reynolds had presented one of the books to Mr. Greenwood, proprietor of the N. England museum, to whom I applied, and he politely loaned it to me.

      It appears by the account given by Capt. Folger, that when he visited the island, the only survivor of the mutineers then went by the name of Alexander Smith; but when Sir Thomas Staines visited the island, he passed by the name of John Adams, which name, it appears by the above journal, he still held when the Sultan visited the island. I think, however, there can be no doubt, that the name of Adams was assumed by him, for reasons best known to himself, and that his real name is Alexander Smith. I find in the book now in the possession of Mr. Greenwood, that Smith had attempted in four places to write a history of his life; but finding himself unequal to the task, gave it up. Mr. Downes assured me, that the writing was in Smith's own hand, and to show that he was incapable of writing his own history, as well as to remove all doubts concerning his name and place of birth, I here introduce a copy, verbatim et literatim, of all I find in the book relative to the subject.

      "Alexander Smith Elias Adams I was Born at Standford Hill, in the parrish of St. John Hackney Middelisex of poor But honast parrents My farther Was Drouned in the Theames thearfore he left Me and 3 More poore Orfing Bot But one Was Married and of of All harmes."

      "In another part of the book he writes as follows.

      "The Life Of John Adams Born November the 4 or 5 in the Year Sixty Six att Stanford Hill in the parrish of St. John Hackney My father Was Sarvent To Danel Bell Cole Marchant My father Drowed in the River Theames."

      After our arrival on board, they were very anxious to obtain a spelling book, that they might learn to read.

      The book also contains an imperfect history of the life of Mathew Quintrell, another of the mutineers, as also his family record. Quintrells family record is as follows: "Mathew Quintrell, jr. born on Pitcairn Island, South Seas, June 20th, 1791; John Quintrell, born February 1st, 1783, and died in March following; Sarah Quintrell, born November 25th. 1794."

      Mr. Downs also, informed me, that they received on board the ship, an old woman, who was very desirous of returning to her native place, Otaheite; and as she was very earnest in her entreaties to be taken away, and having neither husband, nor children, nor any thing else to attach her to the island, Capt. R. consented to take her on board. The Sultan proceeded, from Pitcairn's Island to Coquimbo, where she arrived 19th November; sailed thence, April 18th. 1818, and arrived at Nooaheevah 31st May following, where the woman was landed. It was from this woman, that the account was obtained, which was published in the Sidney (N. South Wales) Gazette for July 1818, republished in the London Morning Chronicle of Nov. 26th, 1819, and Boston Daily Advertiser February 19th 1820.

      Some time in the months of April or May, 1819, the English ship Hercules arrived at Calcutta from the coast of Chili, having touched at Pitcairn's Island on the passage, (which must have been early in that year;) and soon after her arrival a subscription was opened, for the purpose of raising money to purchase such books, tools, &c. as it was thought would be most serviceable to the inhabitants of that island, it having been stated at the time, that the commander of that ship intended to touch at the island again on his return, and would take such articles. I find in looking over a file of Calcutta papers, that the ship sailed on the 12th July, of the same year, for Valparaiso; and in the "Oriental Star" of the 17th of the same month, I find the following –

      "A selection of religious books has been sent from the depository of the Society, for promoting christian knowledge, on board the Hercules, capt. Henderson, for the inhabitants of Pitcairn's Island. Agricultural tools and other articles which have been considered as likely to prove of the greatest utility, have also been forwarded for their use, by this opportunity, to the amount of about three thousand rupees.**

      I have been informed by several gentlemen who were in Calcutta at the time of the arrival of the Hercules, that an account, relative to Pitcairn's Island, furnished by capt. Henderson, was published in the Calcutta Journal soon after his arrival, which account, I have endeavoured to find in a large file of those papers in my possession, for the purpose of having it annexed to the account now furnished, but have been unable to find it.


      ** 1500 dollars.


Samuel Topliff Jr., 1789-1864

      James Clement Topliff's father and mother were Samuel Topliff, Jr., and Jane Topliff. Samuel Topliff, Jr., was born in 1789 and died in 1864. He resided in Boston, Massachusetts.

      On a black November night in 1811 young Samuel Topliff shoved his rowboat into Boston harbor to learn the cause of distant cannonading. He made this perilous trip while the guns of a British fleet were pounding away (the prelude to the War of 1812). Samuel Topliff's venture was the first systematic attempt to get the news.

      Samuel Topliff was an employee, and later, the owner of the reading room at the Exchange Coffee House, located on the second floor of that building, a seven-story structure in Boston, considered the nation's tallest building in 1811. In those days news items for local weekly papers often came from Topliff's "Merchant's Reading Room."

      Historians of this time period agree that his Marine and General News-Book actually hindered development of a daily newspaper in Boston, by supplying its readers for a fee with information that otherwise would have been printed in a newspaper.

      Topliff soon made his agency into one of the most famous sources of commercial news in the world. Here gathered the important Boston merchants of the day to hear the latest gossip of the sea and commodity prices and trends. In a way it was a Lloyds of London on a small scale.

      In 1820 Topliff extended the Boston Harbour telegraph from Fort Independence to Long Island Head. Topliff used a mast with an arm and three black balls, while on a topmast was hoisted the private signal flag of the latest arrival in port. Topliff speeded up his news-gathering facilities by sending men down the harbor to interview captains and passengers. In Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, it was noted that among the first to greet the arrival of the Alert was one of Topliff's men, eager for news from the northwest coast.

      Topliff's activities and correspondence service "led directly to the press news-gathering associations organized during the 1840s," which themselves led to the formation of a news-gathering organization, the Associated Press, which came into being in 1849.


      The source of the transcription is an article in the January 16, 1821 issue of the Salem Gazette, page 2.

      According to Topliff's introduction, the article is an expansion of his earlier article in the New-England Galaxy of January 12, 1821.

Tom Tyler, Denver, February 18, 2014