The Plough Boy Journals

The Journals and Associated Documents

The Plough Boy Anthology

19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


Hand Book of the Pacific Islands








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      Pitcairn Island is an isolated, mountainous island lying about 100 miles to the south-east of the Gambier group, about two miles in length and less than a mile in width, with a fine climate and a fertile volcanic soil. It was here, in 1790, that the mutineers of the "Bounty" settled. Their descendants were removed in 1856 to Norfolk Island, but two years later several families returned. They have since increased to about 150. The Pitcairn Islanders are degenerating and in all probability will continue to do so, inter-marriage having had an injurious ef1ect upon them morally and physically. There is no comumnication with the outside world except by passing ships and the occasional visits of British men-o'-war. Some years ago the islanders unanimously adopted the tenets of belief held by the Seventh Day Adventists, which body has a missionary there.

      A description of the conditions on Pitcairn was given recently by a writer in the Melbourne Argus,, who stated: –

      "Pitcairn is truly a delightful land to live in. It is situated about 25 decrees south of the Equator, and the climate is perfect. There are no extremes of temperature, and it is thereby a very healthy place, and is not subjected to the diseases that are prevalent in most of the islands of the tropics.

of the pacific islands. 285

      The island is of volcanic formation, and appears like several peaks or a range of mountains standing up out of the sea. The highest point is about 1,000 feet above sea level, and the coastline is very rugged and precipitous. The island is about six miles long, and three across in the widest part. The village, called Adamstown, is situated on the north side. There are 33 houses, built of weather-boards, with thatched roofs, within a radius of less than a mile. For their water supply the people depend on a spring in a valley about 300 feet above the village. The water is brought down in open 'flues,' made from palm trunks, for half a mile, and run into a large vat, from which house-holds draw their supplies. The island produces an abundance of food in return for very little labour. The sweet potato and the bulb taro are the principal crops. Then there are water taro, yam manioca, and arrowroot as the root crops. Pumpkins, water-melons, and rock-melons grow to perfection, and the French-bean and cow-pea do well. There are nine different kinds of banana and some of the finest oranges that the world can produce. I wish that we could send you some. Then there are pineapple, passion fruit, custard apples, snow fruit, mango, alligator pears, and breadfruit.

      The island is of historic interest as the oldest British colony in the southern hemisphere after Sydney and Norfolk Island. The mutineers of the 'Bounty,' from whom the present inhabitants are descended, settled there in 1790. The island was uninhabited when they reached it, but they were not the first to dwell on it. Stone axes, stone pillars, and figures like those of Easter Island, and skeletons, with pearl mussels placed beneath their heads, have been found on Pitcairn. Like the mystery of Easter Island, the problem of how (it may be long before the keels of Magellan's ships furrowed the waters of the Pacific) these people came to inhabit this speck of land so lost in the blue immensites of ocean that it had but one species of land bird, a small tree creeper, when it was rediscovered, will perhaps never be solved. Why they vanished from the island is another mystery to which there is no key. The second colonisation was due to the presence on the "Bounty" of a book describing the voyage of H.M.S. sloop "Swallow" in the Pacific under Phillip Carteret. In 1767 Carteret visited Pitcairn, which he named after the mid-shipman who first sighted it. To escape the long arm of the English law, which did, in fact, afterwards reach out to Tahiti and pluck thence some of their fellow-mutineers, Fletcher Christian and eight others sailed to Pitcairn in the 'Bounty' in 1790, taking with them six Polynesian men and a dozen women. They ran the 'Bounty' ashore, and burnt her, and their retreat remained unknown to the outside world for 18 years. In 1808 the American whaler 'Topaz' touched at Pitcairn, and her captain was, to his intense surprise, hailed in English by some youths in a canoe, the half-caste sons of the mutineers. Of the mutineers themselves but one remained, Alexander Smith, who took, for some obscure reason, the name of John Adams. Indeed, of the 15 men who landed on Pitcairn in 1790 all but Adams were dead in 1800, and with one exception they died a violent death. "Drink and the devil had done for the rest," as the pirate's song in "Treasure Island" runs. Their "drink," by the way, was a spirit, said to resemble whisky, which a Scot named McCoy contrived to extract from the root of the tea-tree. The dangerous secret seems to have died with McCoy.

      Towards the middle of the 19th century Pitcairn became almost a regular place of call for many vessels of the immense fleet of American whalers which overran the South Pacific. In 1844, for instance, 49 whalers, of which 46

286 stewart's hand book

were American, touched at Pitcairn, and the inhabitants did a brisk trade in vegetables and other fresh provisions. In the golden days of 1849, too, Pitcairn came into closer touch with Australia than it has ever been before or since. Australia's age of gold had not yet begun, and there was a "rush" across the Pacific to California. In 1849 eight vessels on this run called at Pitcairn. One story of this period has come down to us. A child fell over-board while a vessel bound from San Francisco to Australia was lying off the island. George Adams, a son of the patriarch, sprang into the water and saved the youngster. The grateful father, a successful digger, pressed a bag of gold upon the rescuer, but the islander refused it, saying: "Why. I have done nothing but my duty."

      Nor were these long-lost subjects altogether forgottgn in their isolation by the authorities. Fears that their numbers were growing too large for the restricted space offered by their little island led to two attempts to drag them away from Pitcairn. In 1831 the "Lucy Anne" was sent from Sydney and moved the whole population, men, women and children, to Tahiti. The islanders do not appear to have been anxious for the change, but they resigned themselves to the will of the British Government. But neither the climate nor the morals of Tahiti suited them. Disease carried off 17 of them in a few months, and in 1832 they all went back to Pitcairn. Again in 1856 Sir William Denison, then Governor of New South Wales, sent the "Morayshire," which removed all the inhabitants, then 194, to Norfolk Island, the one-time "Hell of the Pacific," which had been left empty by the removal of the convicts. Norfolk Island suited the Pitcairners far better than Tahiti, but some of them soon grew homesick. In 1858 two families of Youngs persuaded a passing ship to take them back to Pitcairn, much to the annoyance of Sir William Denison. Others followed, and the descendants of the original Pitcairners are now divided between these two lonely islands, over 3,000 miles apart. Those on Norfolk Island are citizens of the Commonwealth, while Pitcairn is under the jurisdiction of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific. It is governed by an elective body of seven, which chooses its own chairman. A remarkable fact mentioned by R. T. Simons, in a report issued in 1905, is that the Pitcairn Islanders still speak amongst themselves a patois derived in the main from the language of the Tahitian women, whom the mutineers took to the island, though most of them also speak English fairly well.

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      Stewart's Hand Book was first published in 1907. Six editions had been published through 1919, when it bacame an annual publication.


Allen, Percy S.       Stewart's Hand Book of the Pacific Islands: A Reliable Guide to all the Inhabited Islands of the Pacific Ocean . . . . for Traders, Tourists and Settlers. With a Bibliography of Island Works. By. Percy S. Allen. Sydney: McCarron, Steward & Co. Ltd., 1919. pp. 284-286.

Bibliography of Works on the Pacific Islands. pp. 322-352 -->