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19th Century American Whaling

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Pitcairn's Island

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Honorary Member of the Societa Geografica Italiana.






      DUCIE ISLAND was discovered by Capt. Edwards in 1791. It is in lat. 24° 40' 20", long. 124° 48'. It is of coral formation, of an oval form, with a lagoon in the interior, partly enclosed by trees, and partly by low coral flats, scarcely above the water's edge. The height of the soil above the island is about 12 ft., and the trees rise 14 ft. more, making its greatest elevation 26 feet from the level of the sea. The lagoon appears to be deep, and has an entrance into it for a boat, when the water is sufficiently smooth to admit of passing over the bar. It is situated at the S.E. extremity, to the right of two eminences that have the appearance of sand-hills. The island lies in a N.E. and S.W. direction; it is 1| mile long and 1 mile wide. No living things, birds excepted, were seen upon the island; but its environs appeared to abound in fish, and sharks were very numerous.

      By the soundings round this little island it appeared for a certain distance to take the shape of a truncated cone, having its base downwards. The sand mounds raised upon the barrier are confined to the eastern and north-western sides of the lagoon, the south-western part being left low, and broken by a channel of water. On the rocky surface of the causeway, between the lake and the sea, lies a stratum of dark, rounded particles, probably coral, and above it another, apparently composed of decayed vegetable substances. A variety of evergreen trees take root in this bank, and form a canopy almost impenetrable to the sun's rays, presenting to the eye a grove of the liveliest green. The island was lost sight of at the distance of 7 miles.

      ELIZABETH ISLAND, or Henderson Island. -- This island was discovered by the crew of the Essex whaler, whose singular history is briefly related by Admiral Beechey.* It was afterwards seen by Captain Henderson.

      Admiral Beechey's description is the most ample: -- "We found that the island differed essentially from all others in the vicinity, and belonged to a peculiar formation, very few instances of which are in existence. Wateo and Savage Islands, discovered by Capt. Cook, are of this number, and perhaps also Malden Island. The island is 5 miles in length and 1 mile in breadth, and has a flat surface, nearly 80 ft. above the sea. On all sides, except the North, it is bounded by perpendicular cliffs, about 50 ft. high, composed entirely of dead coral, more or less porous, honeycombed at the surface, and

      * The fate of the Essex has been related in a pamphlet by the mate, published at New York. She was struck by an infuriated whale, which, at the third blow, stove in her bows, and she sunk. The crew took to the boats, and, first steering southwards, found this island, where they left two by their own request. Two out of the three boats arrived at the coast of Chili, the third was never heard of; but the wreck of a boat and four skeletons were seen by another ship on Ducie Island, which was probably the boat in question. The two men were subsequently taken off by a ship which had heard of their situation; had they known of Pitcairn Island the whole might have been saved. Its N.E. point is in lat. 24° 21' 20", long. 128° 19'.



hardening into a compact, calcareous substance within, possessing the fracture of secondary limestone, and has a species of millepore interspersed through it. These cliffs are considerably undermined by the action of the waves, and some of them appear on the eve of precipitating their superincumbent weight into the sea. Those which are less injured in this way present no alternate ridges or indication of the different levels which the sea might have occupied at different periods: but a smooth surface, as of the island, which there is every probability has been raised by volcanic agency, had been forced up by one great subterraneous convulsion. The dead coral, of which the higher part of the island consists, is nearly circumscribed by ledges of living coral, which project beyond each other at different depths; on the northern side of the island the first of these had an easy slope from the beach to a distance of about 50 yards, where it terminated abruptly about 3 fathoms under water. The next ledge had a greater descent, and extended to 200 yards from the beach, with 25 fathoms water over it, and then ended as abruptly as the former, a short distance beyond which no bottom could be found with 200 fathoms of line. The sea rolls in successive breakers over these ledges of coral, and renders landing upon them extremely difficult.

      "Insignificant as this island is in height compared with others, it is extremely difficult to gain the summit, in consequence of the thickly interlacing shrubs which grow on it, and form so dense a covering that it is impossible to see the cavities beneath. There is no plant producing fruit on it but the pandanus, which is the largest tree. And from the narrative of the wreck of the Essex whaler, it possesses no spring; the two men left on it finding sufficient for their daily consumption in a small pool, which collected the drainings from the upper part of the island." -- Beechey.

      PITCAIRN ISLAND. -- We have included this well-known island in the present chapter, though its character is essentially different from that of the rest which we have to describe, but its situation places it among the list of Low Islands.

      It was discovered and named by Carteret in 1767, but he gives an erroneous idea of its dimensions. It has been by many supposed to be identical with the Encarnacion* of Quiros, 1606.

      * Encarnacion and San Juan Bautista are two islands placed in these parallels by Quiros in 1606; but they have never been seen in the positions he assigned them.

      Encarnacion was described as nearly level with the water, 12 leagues in circumference, and about 1,000 leagues from the coast of New Spain (South America), hence in about lat. 24" 46' S., long. 136" 40' W. San Juan Bautista was also described as low, 10 to 12 leagues in circumference, in lat. 24° S., long. 139° 10' W. -- W. by N. from Encarnacion.

      If we disregard the fact of their having been described as nearly level with the water, they might be Ducie and Henderson Islands, or Henderson and Oeno Islands; regarding


      Pitcairn Island derived its interest, and that in no ordinary degree, from the mutiny of the Bounty. After the mutineers had set Captain Bligh and the rest of the crew adrift, April 26, 1789, they bore away in the Bounty for Otaheite, but they reached Tubuai, and this was the only intelligence gained of them, for they were obliged to leave on account of warfare with the natives; they then went to Otaheite, where Christian, after some had landed, cut the cable and put to sea, and was not heard of for many pears.

      Captain Mayhew Folger touched on Pitcairn Island, February, 1808, to procure seals, from the account given of it in Carteret's voyage, supposing it to be uninhabited, and for the first time discovered the crew of the Bounty: as a test of this, he procured a timepiece and an azimuth compass which had belonged to the Bounty. The latter was sent to the Admiralty from Nantucket, March 1, 1813. And nearly about the same time Vice-Admiral Dixon sent intelligence of their existence to Europe, H.M.8. Briton having touched there September 17, 1814.

      An interesting account of this first visit of Captain Sir Thomas Staines, in the Briton, is given by Lieutenant Shillibeer, and naturally attracted a very great deal of interest in Europe. The happiness, simplicity, and excellence of this little isolated community was almost unequalled. It has since teen frequently visited and described, and these notices will be found scattered through almost every work on the Pacific. It has been found that the Bounty's crew were not the first inhabitants, either permanent or incidental, for several morals, or burial places, have been discovered, the skeletons having a pearl shell (not found here) under the head. Stone hatchets, and other warlike implements, are also among the remnants. Lady Belcher has given the latest account of the Bounty's crew, supplying in her book many particulars not previously known. Capt. Bligh is buried in the churchyard of Lambeth, opposite the Houses of Parliament, in London.

      The following information is chiefly by Lieut. J. Wood, of H.M.S. Pandora, who was here in 1849 : --

      The soil is very rich but porous, a great proportion decomposed lava, the other a rich black earth with clayey ground; climate temperate, thermometer 59° to 89° in the shade. Spring commences in August, which is the harvest, when they dig their yams and potatoes, which are their principal food. They have two crops of potatoes per year, which are planted in February and July, and dug in June and November.

      Winds. -- No regular trade winds. In the summer months the wind prevails mostly from E.S.E. to North. Northerly winds are, generally light, often accompanied with rain or fog. When the wind is North it invariably

them as described, low, they could be, from their lay, Morane and Ahunui, or Tematangi and Nukutipipi, greatly misplaced, as might well be the case when stated to be a given number of leagues from the American coast.


goes round to the westward, from which quarter and S.E. are the strongest gales; when it is S.W. it is generally clear weather with moderate breezes. During the winter season the prevailing winds are from S.W. to E.S.E.

      The animals are sheep, hogs, goats, and poultry. Vegetables: yams, sweet and Irish potatoes, the api root and taro in small quantities. Fruits: plantains, pines, melons, oranges, bread-fruit, sugar-cane, limes, and the vi or Brasiliau plum. Grain: maize.

      Food: chiefly yams and potatoes. Animal food two or three times a week. Fish is getting scarce. Bedclothes are generally manufactured by the females from the ante or paper mulberry. Wearing apparel obtained from whale-ships in exchange for vegetables, etc. Often in want of cotton cloth, blankets, and woollen articles; soap scarce. Abut 8 ships call annually on their way from San Francisco to Newcastle, New South Wales, or England.

      The community had been gradually getting too numerous for the capabilities of the island to support them, and therefore it became manifest to those who were interested in them that some important measure should be adopted for their relief. This came in the offer of Norfolk Island as a gift, which, after much deliberation, was accepted, and here they could maintain their isolation and simplicity, with abundance of means for support and luxury. They were therefore entirely removed with all the relics of the Bounty by the Morayshire, on May 3rd, 1856, consisting of 90 males and 102 females. Of this number, however, 40 soon returned to their old quarters on Pitcairn Island. In 1873, at the time of the visit of H.M.S. Cameleon, there were 76 inhabitants living in a simple and primitive way, and dependent on the resources of the island for their support. Epidemic or endemic diseases were unknown.

      The island is about 2J miles long, in an E. by S. and W. by N. direction, and about 1 mile broad. The entire circuit of the island, with one or two exceptions, is perpendicular, and will not allow of any landing. Its appearance is very pleasant, and its height, about 1,000 ft., will allow it to be seen 50 miles off.

      There is nothing particular in its appearance on making it; and lying in the midst of the Pacific, it may almost be said to lie in the variables, as the true trade wind does not blow home.

      It is thickly clothed to its summits with the most luxuriant verdure, terminating in lofty cliffs, skirted at their bases with thickly branching evergreens, which afford a welcome retreat from the burning rays of an almost vertical sun. The coast is fringed with formidable barriers, which seem to present insurmountable obstacles to landing, except in Bounty Bay, situated on the N.E. side, and even here it is impracticable when it blows strong. On passing round the East end from the southward, St. Paul's Point is shaped by the most grotesquely formed, tall spiral rocks, and the island called Adams Rock becomes visible. Having passed this rock a cable's length to


the N.W., you are abreast of Bounty Bay, when you must stand on and off, as there is no safe anchorage.*

      Bounty Bay is the only place where ships communicated with the shore, and this not by means of their boats, but by the island canoes, which were very light, and carried up to the top of the cliffs. Adamstown, which is a short distance to the West of Bounty Bay, is the only point where the people used to be congregated. There is another landing place at the West end of the island. It is a very good one, with East, N.E., or S.E. winds.

      There is very generally a westerly current running past the island, and frequently a strong one; this must be taken into consideration in making the island.

      The position of Adamstown, according to the observations of Captain Beechey, is lat. 25° 3' 37", long. 130' 8' 23.

      OENO ISLAND was discovered by Capt. Henderson, in the Hercules, but its name is derived from a whale ship, whose commander thought it a new discovery. It is so low, that it can only be seen at a short distance, and therefore is highly dangerous. The reef completely surrounds the lagoon: near the centre of it is a small island, covered with shrubs; and towards the northern extremity are two sandy islets a few feet above water. The lagoon was in places fordable as far as the wooded island, but in other parts it appeared to be 3 or 4 fathoms deep. The reef is entirely of coral formation, and has deep water all round it. The S.W. part of the reef is the highest, and the lagoon in that part nearly filled up. There are of course no inhabitants. Its North point is in lat. 24° 1' 20", long. 130° 41' W. The American clipper Wildwave, Captain Knowles, was totally wrecked on it in April, 1858. The captain placed it in long. 130° 56', but Capt. Beechey's position is deserving of all consideration.

      Timoe, or Crescent Island, was discovered by Captain Wilson, in the missionary voyage of the Buff. It is exactly 3J miles in length and 1£ miles in width, and of similar formation to Oeno and Ducie Islands. It consists of a strip of coral 100 yards in width, enclosing a lagoon, and generally about 2 ft. above the water. Upon the strip are several small islands, the highest, 6 ft. above the sea, covered with trees nearly 20 ft. high. No entrance; no inhabitants (1861). The South extreme is in lat. 23° 20' 29" S., and long. 134° 35' 8" W.

      Portland Reef was discovered by H.M.S. Portland. It is said to be 3 miles in diameter, of coral rocks, with 5 fathoms water over them, lying S. 54° E., 45 miles from Mount Duff of the Manga Reva Islands. It is said

      * Anchorage off some parts may be had in 30 to 35 fathoms at a quarter of a mile distant, or even more ; hut the ground being foul, it would be injudicious to anchor, unless to avoid being drifted on shore in calms, &c. -- Capt. Worth, R.N.


to be in lat. 23° 39' S. by 134° 21' W. It was searched for unsuccessfully by the Lamothe Piquet, in 1868, and the people at Mangareva know nothing of it, nevertheless it may exist.

      Minerva Reef, or Ebrill Island, placed on the charts in 22° 45' S. and 133° 35' W., is said by Captain Maroq Saint Hilaire to lie a few miles North of that position, and consists of a great bank in which are some very low islets that have at times been inhabited by persons fishing for nacre. It is doubtless the same as Bertero Island, reported as lying 35 miles to the northward. A bank has been reported, with 9 or 10 ft. water over it, lying 45 miles East of Manga Reva. Its existence is very doubtful.

. . . .


This transscription is from pages 554 to 559 of the following work:

Alexander George Findlay,
      A Directory for the Navigation of the South Pacific Ocean with Descriptions of its Coasts, Islands, etc., From the Strait of Magalhaens to Panama, and those of New Zealand, Australia, etc. Its Winds, Currents, and Passages. Fourth Edition. London: Richard Holmes Laurie, 1877.