In 1787, the HMS Bounty was sent to Tahiti to bring back bountiful breadfruit trees, but had to wait five months for them to grow large enough for transport. After five months on an island paradise, the crew was something less than excited to return to a life of hardtack, motion sickness, and ceaseless poopdeck swabbing.
It was probably this taste of island life more than the castigations of Captain Bligh that led to the famed mutiny— he wasn’t shy about administering floggings, but that didn’t make him unique. Bligh and 18 compatriots were set adrift on a small boat, and whatever Bligh’s shortcomings as a leader of men he did not have any as a seaman: without charts or maps he navigated the 23-foot boat more than 4,000 miles to the Dutch East Indies. The mutineers, meanwhile, returned to Tahiti. A few stayed there; they were arrested a year later. A second group of nine, along with six Polynesian men, kidnapped 18 women and absconded to Pitcairn Island, some 1400 miles away. Here’s where I remind you that the film version depicts Marlon Brando, the head mutineer, as the heroic party.
When they landed, the 1.8 square mile Pitcairn Island was empty. But from the 10th to the 15th centuries, Pitcairn was just one part of a group of four volcanic islands inhabited by thousands of Polynesian people. These were the sea-conquering “wayfinders,” who probably got to Pitcairn via Tahiti (here is a cool article about them). About 120 miles away from Pitcairn was Henderson Island, later to be the landing spot of castaways from the whaleship Essex, having come out on the losing end of a skirmish with sperm whale. They were rescued after six months, but at one point they found a cave filled with skeletons, which can’t be a big confidence booster when you end up stranded on a remote desert island.
The central hub of the island culture was Mangareva, several hundred miles to the west, larger, forested, and encompassing a lagoon filled with shellfish. The Mangarevans sent trees and mollusks to Pitcairn and Henderson, in exchange for stone and volcanic glass—trades that required several hundred mile canoe trips over open ocean. These islands are remote now, it’s almost impossible to imagine them as a thriving culture a millennium ago.
In fact, the culture thrived too much: the population peaked in the several thousands, which far exceeded the land’s capacity to sustain. By the 15th century, Mangareva was deforested, and the culture disintegrated, died out or escaped to somewhere else. The islands were, so far as anyone knows, untouched for centuries until blundered into by globe-trotting Europeans.
The mutineers and their captives arrived on Pitcairn in 1789. This was not a social experiment in egalitarian, utopian communal living; it was British guys running a personal fiefdom. By 1800, eight of the nine original mutineers were dead, six at the hands of rebellion, one by asthma, and one who figured out how to make alcohol and drank himself to death. It wasn’t until 1808 that the islanders had any contact with the outside world. The current population of 56 is mostly descendants from that initial settlement; all are seventh-day adventists thanks to a successful 19th-century mission. The British government just spent $14.1 million on a massive criminal trial in which virtually every adult man on the island was convicted of sexual abuse.
appeared in: island trivia roundup