The Plough Boy Journals

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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

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Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms








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      South-eastward of the Tuamotu group proper lie the four south-eastern islands, Ducie, Henderson, Pitcairn, and Oeno, which, from their positions, will be first described.

      DUCIE ISLAND,* in lat. 24° 40' S., long. 124° 48' W. approximately, was discovered by Captain Edwards, H.M.S. Pandora, in 1791. It is an atoll of coral formation, If miles long, N.E. and S.W., and one mile wide.

      The lagoon in the interior is partly enclosed by trees and partly by low coral flats scarcely above the water's edge; the lagoon appears to be deep and had a boat entrance on the south-eastern side, but, in 1882, a sandy ridge extending right across the bar, with a heavy surf, completely blocked the entrance.

      The height of the soil above the water is about 12 feet,, and the trees about 14 feet more, making the tops of the trees about 26 feet above the sea.

      No living things but birds were seen on the island, and great numbers of fish and sharks abound in the vicinity.

      In 1882, the hull of the Arcadia, a large vessel wrecked there in June 1881, was lying on the north-western side, and in 1897 when visited by

      * See chart, No. 783. Also plan of Ducie island; on sheet of plans, No. 1,176.


      H.M S. Comus the remains of apparently the same wreck were still visible.

      Though the wind was from theā€¢ North, force 4, a boat was enabled to land on - the northern side, but it was necessary to wade as the coral beach runs out shallow.

      Breakers extend half a mile southward of the island.

      HENDERSON ISLAND,* also called Elizabeth island, about 190 miles W. 1/2 N. from Ducie island, and in lat. 24° 25' S., long. 128° 19' W., was discovered by a boat's crew from the whaler Essex, which was wrecked in 1820; it was afterwards seen by Captain Henderson of the ship Hercules. According to Captain Beechey, the island is 5 miles long, North and South, 2\ miles wide near the northern end, but tapering off to a point towards the South, and has a flat surface nearly 80 feet above the sea. On all sides except the North it is bounded by perpendicular cliffs about 50 feet high, composed entirely of dead coral, which are considerably undermined by the action of the waves. It appears to be steep-to at a short distance all round.

      The island presents the appearance of having been raised by some subterraneous convulsion, and is so thickly interlaced by shrubs as to make it very difficult to walk over the summit, the vegetation concealing the cavities in the coral.

      There is no spring of fresh water, but rain water sufficient to sustain the two men of the Essex who were eventually rescued from the island, was found in small pools.

      Landing is extremely difficult on account of the heavy sea rolling in on the coral ledges.

      PITCAIRN ISLAND is a British settlement; it was discovered and named by Carteret on 2nd July 1767. The island derives its interest from being associated with the mutiny of H.M.S. Bounty in 1789. That vessel left England in December 1787, with the object of conveying breadfruit trees to the West India islands from Tahiti, where she arrived in October 1788, and remained six months collecting trees. The mutiny occurred at sea on 28th April 1789, when the Lieutenant in Command (Mr. Bligh, afterwards Governor of New South Wales) and 18 others were set adrift in the launch (23 feet long), in which boat they made their way to Coepang in Timor in 42 days, a distance of upwards of 3,600 miles, where they all arrived alive after enduring intense hardship and suffering.

      Mr. Christian, Master's mate, three Midshipmen, and 21 others remained with the Bounty.

      * See chart, No. 783. Also plan of Henderson island; on sheet cf plans, No. 1,176.

      See Admiralty plan: – Pitcairn island, No. 1,113; scale, m = 6-0 inches.


      After the mutineers had set Bligh and the rest of the crew adrift they bore away in the Bounty, intending to return to Tahiti, but first reaching Tubuai, attempted to settle there, but were obliged to leave on account of quarrels with the natives; this was the first intelligence gained of them. They next went to Tahiti, where Christian, after some of the party had landed, cut the cable, put to sea, and was no more heard of for many years, the Bounty having been eventually run ashore at Pitcairn island and burnt by Christian and his followers.

      Captain Mayhew Folger touched at Pitcairn island in February 1808, to procure seals (supposing the island to be uninhabited, from the account given by Carteret), and then discovered it to be inhabited, and by some of the crew of the Bounty with their families. As proofs of his discovery, he obtained an azimuth compass and a timepiece which had belonged to that vessel, the former was sent to the Admiralty in 1813. Shortly afterwards, Vice-Admiral Dixon sent intelligence of their existence to Europe, H.M.S. Briton, Captain Sir Thomas Staines, having touched at the island on September 17th, 1814.

      Subsequently, the island was frequently visited and described, and it was also proved that the Bounty's crew were not the first inhabitants, for several burial places were discovered containing skeletons, having a pearl shell (not found on the island) placed under the head; stone hatchets and other warlike implements were also among the remains.

      The community having gradually become too numerous for the produce of the island to support them, it was necessary that some measure should be adopted for their relief. Norfolk island was therefore offered them as a gift, and accepted, and in June 1856 the whole of the descendants of the mutineers, numbering 192, were conveyed there in the transport Morayshire.

      In December 1859, two families, numbering 16 people, returned to Pitcairn island in the brig Mary Ann, preferring the old to the new home. They found the island abounding in live stock, goats and fowls innumerable, sheep, and 52 head of cattle; the latter they unwisely destroyed.

      In February 1864, 24 more people returned from Norfolk island; and in July 1884 the population numbered 130. In August 1889, the population numbered 125, comprising 58 males and 67 females, and in February 1896, when visited by H.M.S. Wild Swan, it amounted to 130. From 50 to 60 vessels besides missionary vessels now visit the island annually. The islanders appeared to be in fair condition and without any serious form of sickness, but' from their more frequent contact with the outer world have lost much of their primitive simplicity of character.

      See chart, No. 783; also plan, No. 1,113.


      Some years ago, they unanimously abandoned the ritual of the Church of England, and adopted the forms of a sect called "Seventh Day Adventists," by which the seventh day (Saturday) is kept holy, and there is no form of baptism.

      Pitcairn island is about 2\ miles long East and West, and one mile wide; the entire circuit of the island, with one or two exceptions, is perpendicular. The highest part being about 1,000 feet above the level of the sea renders it visible 40 miles distant. The soil is very rich and fertile but porous; a great proportion is decomposed lava, the remainder, a rich black earth. The island is thickly clothed to the summit with luxuriant verdure, terminating in lofty cliffs, skirted at their bases with thickly branching evergreens.

      The inhabitants state that there are no hidden dangers lying off the island, and that a vessel can with safety steam right round it beyond a quarter of a mile from the rocks.

      Adamstown is situated on the north-eastern side of the island westward of Bounty bay, and, according to Captain Beechey, is in lat. 25° 3' 30" S., long. 130° 8' 30" W.

      Anchorage. – The most convenient anchorage from which to communicate with the shore at Bounty bay, where the natives always prefer to land except in very bad weather, is in from 13 to 17 fathoms, sand, with rocky patches, about 5 cables from the shore, with St. Paul's point on with or just open eastward of Adams rock; and Young rock from West to W. 1/2 N.

      This is an uncomfortable anchorage with easterly winds, in consequence of the ship's knocking about so much. The best anchorage with easterly winds of any strength is off the western end of the island about 2\ cables from the shore in about 12 fathoms, with Young rock bearing about N.E., and point Christian S. by E.

      Sailing vessels almost invariably stand off and on, and the liability to sudden changes of wind renders it injudicious for them to anchor except when set towards the land in a calm.

      Landing. – The precipitous coast of Pitcairn presents insurmountable obstacles to landing except at two places, viz., at Bounty bay, on the north-eastern side; and at a little cove on the western end of the island; the latter is a good one with winds from the eastward, but the ascent of the cliffs afterwards is a matter of considerable difficulty, and it takes at least an hour to reach the settlement by this route. Lending at Bounty bay in ship's boats is somewhat dangerous, and the islanders' boats are nearly always used; in any case, the services of an islander to pilot a boat in to the landing should be secured.

      See chart, No. 783; also plan, No. 1,113.


      Supplies. – The surplus produce of the island, which in 1889 was considerable, allowed of fowls, bananas, sweet potatoes and other semitropical fruits and vegetables being sold in moderate quantities and at reasonable prices, but the greatly increased frequency of the visits of shipping must have reduced the power of supply to a minimum.

      Water is at times scarce, there are no springs on the island; but generally there is an abundance of rain.

      Winds. – There are no regular trade winds at Pitcairn island. In the summer months the wind prevails mostly from E.S.E. to North. Northerly winds are generally light, often accompanied by rain or fog; from North the wind invariably goes round to the westward, from which quarter and from S.E. are the strongest gales; when the wind is from the S.W. the weather is generally clear with moderate breezes. During the winter season, the prevailing winds are between S.W. and E.S.E.

      Current. – There is generally a westerly current running past the island which is frequently of considerable strength.

      OENO ISLAND * is an atoll and was discovered by Captain Henderson of the Hercules, but was named after a whaler, the master of which had not seen it before; it lies 65 miles N.W. by N. from Pitcairn island, in lat. 24° l'S., long. 130° 41' W.,** and is low and dangerous; coral reef completely surrounds the lagoon, near the centre of which is a small island covered with shrubs, and towards the northern extreme are two sandy islets a few feet above water. The lagoon is fordable on the western side as far as the wooded island, but in other places appeared to be 2 or 3 fathoms deep. Landing is extremely dangerous, even when practicable, and the island is uninhabited.

      Minerva Or Ebrill reef, upon which it was assumed that the ship Sir George Grey was lost, in 1865, was searched for by H.M.S. Alert in 1880, in the position assigned to it, viz., between the parallels 22° 32' S. and 22° 45' S , and meridians 133° 20' W. and 134° W. No breakers being observed, nor shoal ground found, the reef was for a time expunged from the Admiralty charts; but in the year 1890, the German barque Erato having passed over a shoal in lat. 22° 44' S., long. 133° 35' W., it was considered to be identical with the Minerva reef, which was then replaced on the charts in this latter position and under the same name.

      PORTLAND BANK. – In the year 1853, H.M.S. Portland sailed over this bank at mid-day, on a N.E. course, for 4 1/2 miles, when the bottom was clearly seen, and soundings of 7, 13, and 15 fathoms

      * See chart, No. 783. Also plan of Oeno island on sheet of plans, No. 1,176.

      ** The captain of the German ship Schiffbock states (1899) that the correct longitude of this island is about 130° 56' W., which longitude being contrary to previous authorities, is not accepted without further corroboration. – E. H. H.


Pacific Islands, Vol. III: Sailing Directions for Tubuai, Cook, and Society Islands; Tuamotu or Low Archipelago; Marquesas; Line Islands or Scattered Islands Near the Equator; Sandwich or Hawaiian Islands, &c. Third Edition. London: Hydrographic Office, Admiralty, 1900. pp.106-110.