Pitcairn Island

DOROTHY BRANDON January 1 1935

Pitcairn Island

DOROTHY BRANDON January 1 1935

Pitcairn Island



Editor's Note: The irriter of this article is >. Toronto girl, a graduate from U. of T. '2d, now on a cruise around the world as one of a party of sixteen on a small schooner. Pitcairn Island is the home of the descendants of the British sailors who mutinied on the “Bounty” in 1790.

WE HAD BEEN at sea three weeks before we reached Pitcairn, that small island in the South Pacific remote from the rest of the world. They were glorious weeks of easy sailing as, pushed along by favorable trade winds, we cut through the renowned Pacific swells. The days under the tropical sun were hot. but we could always find a cool place down below, and the nights were almost perfect with the moon and stars shining right down at us through the rigging. During these twenty-one days we hadn’t seen another ship, nor had we caught a glimpse of land since leaving the Galapagos Archipelago, 2,700 miles behind.

Suddenly, the day before we were due at Pitcairn, the weather changed and squall after squall blew up, which necessitated the captain’s being at the helm all night and each of the boys at his post. Then at five o’clock in the morning through pouring rain we sighted the island rising majestically from the sea like an impregnable stone fortress a thousand feet high. We could see the waves beating relentlessly on the rocks, and, hove to, we rolled around like a rubber ball.

'Hiere is no anchorage there, and though we strained our eyes we couldn't locate a possible landing place. We had read that the landing is so perilous that it is imixissible for a ship’s dinghy to attempt the feat. So all that we could do was to wait impatiently in the hope that the famous island longboats wóétó brave the storm and come out to meet us.

Suddenly, as if from the very face of the rock, two sails appeared, and we crowded the bulwarks regardless of the torrent to watch the approach of the boats. Halfway between the island and \ he Yankee the sails were lowered and the men took to the oars, seven on a side. As they rowed toward us we saw that the thirty-seven foot crafts were crowded with people. The seats between the oarsmen were filled, while some men were perched on the sides and others even stood in the bows and sterns. They vied with each other to tie up to the yacht, and scratched the paint badly in their haste.

Then they leaped on board like so many frenzied animals, presenting a strange picture in their varied clothes, all dripping with rain. They wore anything from old sailor suits to modem shirts and trousers, and their hats were as diverse as their costumes—the predominating ones being tall straw models made by the women of the island. Unshaven, dark complexioned and lacking in front teeth, they made a fierce-looking lot, and not until they smiled and welcomed us in gentle archaic English did we appreciate that they were friendly.

Descendants of Mutineers

TT WAS HARD to realize that these sixty men were the descendants of Fletcher Christian and seven other Englishmen who had mutinied on the British ship Bounty and settled on Pitcairn Island, which was then unknown to navigators. Safe from British justice, they burned the ship and started a colony, and now 200 of their descendants are still living there. Though little new blood has been introduced into the group and intermarriage has persisted for nearly 150 years, the race does not seem to have degenerated. Except for defective teeth, which might easily be traced to diet, there are surprisingly few signs of mental and physical defects.

We soon learned that the islanders thought ours was a schooner returning seven of their people who had been shipwrecked five months before on an island 300 miles away. They concealed their disappointment remarkably well, however, and urged us to come ashore. It seems that though ships pass frequently nowadays, they merely stop long

enough to dispatch the mails; and as it had been four years since a yacht had arrived and many more years since passengers had come ashore, the Pitcairners were unusually interested in us and plied us with invitations to spend the day and night in their homes.

At breakfast the skipper announced that the three girls and six of the men aboard the yacht could go ashore at once, and those left to man the boat would be relieved by the others in the evening. So, having donned raincoats and sou'westers, we jumped from our bulwarks to the boats below and started on one of the most exciting rides I have ever had in my life.

When we were all crowded in, I counted forty people in our boat; and small it seemed beside the Yankee, with the twenty-five-foot waves rising all around us. Off we started toward the shore, with the seven oarsmen on each side and one man steering with a huge oar in the stern. Soon after we left the Yankee two patched sails were set and we literally tore through the waves, which more than once washed over our bow.

Just as we seemed about to pile up on a fifty-foot rock, the sails were lowered and the men took to the oars again. Along we went, dangerously close to the precipitous side of the island where the surf was roaring loudly and shooting up in phantomlike spray. New as the experience was to all of us and reckless though it seemed, none of us was really nervous because we had perfect confidence in these sailors whose fathers had manned similar boats over this identical route for more than a century.

A Friendly People

"DOUNDING a projection of rock, we saw what must be the landing-place ahead, though we still couldn’t find the beach. As we got closer we spied children clustered on rocks beside the sea’s edge and more children and older people running down the rough path from the town a hundred feet above. Thatched huts which housed the islanders’ seven boats came into sight, and now we could discern cottages on the hillside surrounded by cocoanut palms and other trees verdant after the heavy rains. In a trice we were on the landing-place, and the little beach lay ahead, the approach to which seemed unbelievably narrow.

The landing itself was one of the cleverest feats I have ever witnessed. The man in the stern called, “Silence in the boat” and each man concentrated on his oar. We seemed to balance on the crest of a wave, then, plunging ahead, we rolled in between the sharp-edged rocks and at last the boat was successfully beached. The men jumped out on the shore, and we girls were lifted bodily out of the boat. In a daze, we backed up under one of the huts and watched the crew haul up the longboat over a primitive log runway. The other boat arrived almost immediately, and we were all surrounded by the excited islanders.

The procession up the muddy path was halted every now and then when one of us outsiders slipped. Our running shoes compared very unfavorably with the natives’ bare

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feet —so large and broad after years of being unshod. Not one of the colony had on shoes except the missionary and his wife and two spinsters from New Zealand.

At the top of the ascent the housewives met us—plain-looking women with poor figures, dressed in the simplest of gingham dresses. They also were dark-haired and black-eyed and their teeth were missing, but in common with their husbands they were kindness itself and among them had already decided to which house each of us was to go.

It fell to my lot to be the guest of Ada and Edgar Christian pillars of the community and direct descendants of McCoy and Fletcher of Bounty fame. I was asked to call them by their given names because there are so few surnames on the island, so Ada and Edgar they were to me from the start.

Ada, a woman about fifty years old, had one of the calmest faces I had ever seen. She had a gentle, refined manner, and though her advantages had been very limited, I found lier to be a lady in every sense of the word. She never raised her voice once during my visit: she executed her domestic duties with the greatest of ease and her every thought was for my comfort. In Ada Christian I felt that I had made a real friend, though in all probability I shall never see I lier again.

The family at “Big Fence,” the quaint name of the Christian homestead, consisted of the father and mother: Warren, eighteen, and Ivan, sixteen, Polynesian-looking sons; Bob, an adopted son in his late twenties; Errol, another adopted boy just four years old; and Hilda, a married daughter, with her husband, Robert, and three-year-old daughter, Esma. Quite a household into which to welcome a stranger unexpectedly and say to her, “Please make yourself at home.”

Comfort and Contentment

A DESCRIPTION of their simple and 4*spotlessly clean home will suffice for the rest of the village -called Adamstown after John Adams (Alexander Smith), the last survivor of the mutineers. The house is a one-storied frame structure, with an unrailed verandah facing a garden in the rear. The central living room, sparsely furnished with mere necessities, had religious texts on all the walls. There were no curtains on the windows, nor any rug on the rough wooden floor. Behind the main room was the dining room with a long table, along each side of which was a bench. The bedrooms branched off a narrow hall, where an old-fashioned organ was located. Behind the room which Ada and Edgar had vacated for my use there was a bathroom, where a wooden tub. china pitcher and washbowl were kept. The kitchen was a separate little building, and the islanders still used open fires and mud ovens. 1 spent an hour there with Hilda and was fascinated as I watched her use heavy iron ix)ts and other outdated cooking utensils.

After a welcome hot water bath and shampoo which I had taken at Ada’s suggestion as soon as I arrived—we had been using onlysalt water for weeks at sea I was entertained by a dozen or more women who had congregated in the living room. They were interested to hear about our trip and my life in Canada and I in turn learned a great deal about the island and the quaint oldfashioned customs of its inhabitants.

They are members of the Seventh DayAdventist Church, whose strict dogmas they embrace. They celebrate their Sabbath on Saturday: they eat only those animals which “chew the cud and divide the hoof” and only fish with both scales and fins. They neither drink nor smoke, are not allowed to swear and are most modest in their dress. They have a strong clan spirit and a feeling of brotherliness which I have never seen elsewhere.

Everything is free on the island, each man having his own home and a plot of fertile

land which he cultivates for his family's needs. To earn money for the purchase of clothes, kerosene, sugar, flour and other necessities, the men make wooden boxes and canes and the women weave baskets and hats which they sell to the tourists on passing ships. During our conversation mine were the only idle hands as each woman had her weaving block on her knee. Poor as these l^eople are from a monetary standpoint, they voluntarily donate one tenth of their earnings to the church.

Tropical Beauty

VW"HEN THE RAIN stopped Ada sug’* gested that we go for a walk through the village, so we started off, followed by numerous clean but poorly clad children who jabbered away unintelligibly in their halfEnglish and half-Tahitian dialect. The main street -not more than eight feet wide —was bordered by orange trees whose brilliancy was relieved now and then by white flowering frangipanis and oleanders. Paths led off this main artery up and down the hillside, and nearly all the houses were hidden from view by palms, fruit trees and (lowering bushes. It was my first taste of a tropical village, and its beauty made a lasting impression.

We stopped at several houses, at each of which I was offered a different kind of fruit. The most interesting of the people whom I met were blind Aunt Ann, eighty-two years old, and her sister, the Widow Butler, eighty-six —two charming old ladies who told fascinating tales of the early days on the island: Roy Clark, a middle-aged American who had been there since a lad : and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the missionaries, who had recently come from an exciting post in the New Hebrides.

We climbed up the hill to the fertile, cultivated land. We saw the cemetery and John Adams’s grave, the antiquated arrowroot press still in use, the anvil and rudder from the Bounty, the meeting house and courthouse post-office on a little square with a huge bell in the centre of it, and the simple little school in which the children receive until they are sixteen years of age an elementary education from their elders who have no special academic qualifications.

We arrived back at “Big Fence” at noon, and Hilda, who had been working in the kit:hen all morning, had a delicious meal waiting for us. The table was laid with a patched linen cloth which had “White Star Line” woven into the border -cast off linen from a passing ship— and the meal that followed was a credit to the twentytwo-year-old girl. Needless to say, I did justice to it after three weeks at sea. We started with bean soup served with long bread sticks, this being followed by chicken, both boiled and fried, sweet potatoes, a salad of tomatoes, onions and grated cocoanut. and the lightest of homemade rolls. And for dessert there was a choice between a native arrowroot pudding with cocoanut milk and “Yankee pie,” which turned out to be none other than our old-fashioned pumpkin pie. The meal ended with fruit and a local drink made of burned bran and served with cocoanut milk.

The village bell rang while we were still at the table —a signal for us to gather at the landing-place, where a boat was waiting to return our crew to the yacht. So 1 bolted my last slice of pineapple and joined the parade down to the shore. The boys were laden with all kinds of presents and the Pitcairners were carrying baskets full of fruit—gifts to the skipper, in return for a sail and some kegs of salt beef which he had given them.

As Ada had invited Exv, the skipper’s wife, and me to spend the night ashore, we stood with her and the other islanders and watched the rest of the crew row off in those amazing longboats. We followed them with our eyes until they had rounded the rock,

then returned to the Christians’ home, where we spent a quiet afternoon with the family.

The Result of Religion

AFTER SUPPER at another island 4*home we attended the weekly song service at the meeting house, summoned again by the community bell. To our surprise we were ushered on to the platform with the missionaries and the organist, and this commanded a good view of the congregation. Soon every seat in the room was filled with men and women in their Sabbath clothes, the pews to the right and left of us being occupied by the choir.

Following an opening prryer the singing began, and I have never heard such a wholehearted rendition of good old-fashioned revival hymns. The part singing was excellent, and it was a revelation to see the hardened faces of those tawny men lighten at such tunes as “Jesus Knows Our Every Weakness” and “When We Meet on the Glorious Shore.” We sang at least twenty hymns without excluding a single verse, and I for one was exhausted when “Cod Be With You Till We Meet Again” ended the service.

Outside the church we said good night to our many newly-made friends and followed Ada back to her house, where we had a refreshing drink of lemonade before going to bed. Ada kissed us both good night, and we could hardly suppress a smile when she asked us if we wanted a glass for our teeth.

We woke at seven-thirty to find the men and boys already in the hills and the women busy about the house, so wc slipped into our clothes as quickly as possible and joined Ada and Hilda at a breakiast composed wholly of the bran drink and fruit ---pineapple, watermelon, muskmelon, mangoes, passion fruit, bananas and snow fruit. Afterward we took another stroll through the village and, following another delicious luncheon, returned to the Yankee with gifts of baskets, canes and fruit.

The islanders lingered for a while on the boat and begged us to return their shipwrecked people to Pitcairn should wc come upon them en route. The captain explained, however, that as we were due at Tahiti on a certain date, a return voyage would be impossible.

As the two boats finally rowed away with the men and women standing up and singing a farewell hymn, we bade gcod-by to these kindly, hospitable, isolated people the surprising human result of a mutiny that occurred 150 years ago. And the farther away we sailed from that tiny island, the more wonderful it seemed that in that Polynesian part of the world an English colony has persisted, using the mother tongue and embracing the Christian faith—-a faith which, though dogmatic and almost stifling in its orthodoxy, has produced in the Pitcairn Islanders a genuine feeling of love and kindliness toward their fellow men.