Sunday, August 22, 1999
The dwindling days of ‘a heaven on Earth’
BY JOSHUA BENTON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
PITCAIRN ISLAND, South Pacific Ocean – Forty people is a crowded commuter plane.
Forty people is a football team, or a Cub Scout pack.
On two square miles of dead volcano in the South Pacific, 40 people is a country.
Forty people is the population of Pitcairn Island, the number of people who, against all odds and perhaps all reason, have chosen to live on this rock hundreds of miles from the nearest human being.
Their ancestors were criminals: mutineers fleeing the law after setting their infamous Captain Bligh adrift in a tiny open boat in the ocean. They knew the British navy would come looking for them, and they went searching for a place to hide forever.
They found Pitcairn, and this lonely island – where fruit trees grow like weeds, where everyone is everyone’s cousin or sister or uncle – is the legacy of their existence.
When the mutineers landed 200 years ago, there was such a thing as “the known world,” and Pitcairn was on the edge of it. Maps were guesswork; they showed great holes marked “uncharted.” Vast swaths of the globe were inaccessible to the outside world.
Back then, it was hard to get to Pitcairn, but it was hard to get just about anywhere.
Now, with one call to a decent travel agent, you can be in Timbuktu in a week. Planes fly daily to the South Pole. Tourists with enough money can climb Mount Everest or dive to the wreck of the Titanic.
But Pitcairn is still almost impossible to reach: no airstrip, no harbor, no safe anchorage. The islanders might go months without seeing any faces but their 40.
And now this settlement is dying.
The young people see the outside world and sail to it, and the population keeps dropping. Just decades ago, more than 200 Pitcairners lived here. The mutineers escaped to Pitcairn; their descendants escape from it.
“We’re shrinking,” admits Tom Christian, 63, great-great-great grandson of Fletcher Christian. “Pitcairn isn’t what it used to be, a real community where everyone got along. That’s been lost.”
Tom’s wife, Betty, is more pessimistic: “I doubt there’ll be anybody left in 50 years.”
Two hundred years ago, Pitcairn’s isolation was its biggest drawing card. Thousands of miles from the nearest anything sounded good to the most-hunted criminals in the world.
Pitcairn’s isolation isn’t just a function of distance. It lies in the middle of two wind belts, the Trade Winds and the Roaring 40s, which means winds and seas can change hourly. Pitcairn doesn’t have white sandy beaches or peaceful lagoons to make landing easy. It’s a big volcanic rock, with one small beach and no coral reef to protect the island from crashing waves.
It’s about the closest nature has come to building a fortress.
Pitcairn accumulates a fan club
But for such an isolated place, Pitcairn has accumulated quite a fan club. Around the world, thousands of people love the idea of Pitcairn, consider it their own vision of heaven.
The mutineers arrived on Pitcairn in 1790 and went unnoticed until 1808, when a passing American ship discovered it was inhabited. By that point, only one of the 15 men who had landed on Pitcairn 18 years earlier was alive; the rest had mostly killed each other.
The one man who remained, John Adams, was understandably worried about what might befall him. The penalty for mutiny in the British navy was hanging, and there was no statute of limitations. Three of the mutineers who had been caught on Tahiti had been hanged.
So he took pains to tell the ship’s captain – and all the captains who would visit over the next two decades, until his death – about what a wonderful, peaceful place Pitcairn now was, despite all the killings in its first few years. Adams had taught all the children the ways of Christianity, and the island was now a true community, where everyone got along in perfect harmony. Adams was raising the entire island as one family and had turned them all to God.
It was a great story, filled with images of redemption, harmony, and goodwill. A band of wanted criminals, escaping to a South Seas island and forming a perfect society; no wonder Hollywood has been drawn to it.
Much of it was no doubt true too, although the captains had only Adams’s word for it. He was the only man left, after all, from the early days, and the women could not speak much English. Adams told different and sometimes contradictory stories, minimizing his role in the mutiny and in the bloody early days on Pitcairn.
But he was convincing enough that the captains took his tales back to England and told them to the press.
Consequently, the navy decided Adams had paid the price for his crimes and decided not to bother to take him back to England for trial.
Then preachers all across England started telling their congregations that Pitcairn was a model community, that all towns and cities should be more like this distant outpost of civilization.
Then came the hundreds of books, poems, and songs. Lord Byron even wrote a (rather bad) poem titled “The Island, or Christian and his Comrades.”
Fan clubs were founded around the world and still exist in at least five countries. People became inspired by the Pitcairn story and became devoted to a place they would never see and thus never be disillusioned by.
Soon, Pitcairn entered the popular culture as the new Eden, where everyone got along, shared what they had, and worshiped God with a true heart. Ever since, Pitcairn has been as much symbol as real place.
In the 18 months it took me to arrange passage to Pitcairn, I communicated by e-mail with more than 100 fans of the island. Some were hard-core aficionados, collecting Bounty memorabilia and forever tracking down Pitcairn lore.
“Pitcairn’s history has been an inspiration to me all my life,” one woman wrote. “Whenever I have been nervous about taking a risk, I am motivated by Fletcher Christian and the mutineers. I say to myself, ‘If they could do it, so can I.’ ”
“My message for the islanders,” a man from Japan wrote: “Whenever you feel isolated and discouraged, remember the rest of the world needs you more than you need them.”
But one man from the Netherlands was more realistic:
“I’m afraid that visiting the island would be a disappointment to me,” he wrote. “It is just an island with a western population, carrying nothing but a memory of what life used to be in the times of the mutiny.”
Getting to Pitcairn
Getting to Pitcairn and back took 31 hours of plane rides and 103 hours on the open ocean. I flew from Detroit to Los Angeles, took a midnight flight to Tahiti, then caught the once-a-week Air Tahiti flight to Mangareva, a tiny island in French Polynesia 300 miles from Pitcairn.
Mangareva, population 600, is Pitcairn’s closest inhabited neighbor, and from there a 67-foot chartered yacht, the Dione, took me and two other passengers on the final leg of our journey. Within a few hours of departure, Mangareva had disappeared off the horizon, and we knew we wouldn’t see land again for two days, until Pitcairn.
The South Pacific is one of the few places left where man has made no visible changes: no air pollution, no floating litter, no distant skyline. It was as untouched as untouched gets: just water and sky and stars.
On the morning of our third day out, we spotted Pitcairn, a gray smudge on the horizon. In a few hours, we had drawn close enough that I could make out a few details. It’s a tiny island – about the size of Wildwood Metropark, half the size of Ottawa Hills – but rugged. In its less than two square miles, the island reaches a height of 1,200 feet.
For such a small place, its landscape is remarkably diverse. The center is densely forested with dozens of varieties of fruit trees. To the west are bare rock cliffs along the shore; to the east, landslides have carved bright red gashes into the hillsides.
As we approached from the north, I began to make out a few white houses dotting the area the islanders call The Edge. Together, they form Adamstown, the one settlement on Pitcairn. To call it a town is a bit of a joke; only 13 occupied homes are on the entire island.
As we got closer, we spotted a longboat filled with a dozen island men and boys, cutting out to us. (Because there is no place to dock at Pitcairn, islanders fetch visitors in one of their three aluminum work boats.) Alongside the longboat were two men in a small speedboat.
“Hello! Have a good trip?” yelled one of the men as they approached us. He was in his 40s and looked every inch an islander – graying stubble on his face, frayed T-shirt, no shoes.
We reflexively yelled back, “Yes!”
“Quit your lying!” yelled back the other man, younger, with a ponytail.
The men, who we later learned were named Dave Brown and Pawl Warren, grabbed our bags and then us. They motored us out to the longboat, named Tin, and executed a perfect midsea transfer of luggage and passengers. Tin then jetted us back to Bounty Bay, and within seconds I was setting foot on Pitcairn.
It was an odd moment. Suddenly I realized, after all my planning and traveling, I was finally here. I climbed onto the concrete jetty the islanders had built, flush with excitement.
Nearly the entire island was there; the arrival of a boat is a big deal on Pitcairn. They didn’t look very different from small-towners in America. Most were in T-shirts and shorts, like people headed for a Lake Erie beach. The teenagers paid a little more attention to how they looked, wearing typical mall gear. The only things missing were shoes. Most Pitcairners go barefoot.
As descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian women, the islanders had a mix of Caucasian and Polynesian characteristics. Some had the tightly-curled hair, dark skin, and large frame of a Samoan; others looked like white suburbanites.
I had plenty of time to look around, because the islanders were busy looking at us. There was no “Hello,” or “Welcome,” or “How was the trip?” When visitors arrive, the Pitcairners spend their first few minutes sizing them up; it’s how they decide with which families each visitor will stay. It is awfully intimidating.
Eventually, Tom Christian – the most famous Pitcairner, because his job as radio officer has him communicating with the outside world almost every day – spoke up and decided I should stay at Big Fence.
Discovering Big Fence
I didn’t know what Big Fence was, but it sounded fine to me. My two bags were loaded onto the back of one Honda four-wheeler, and I was loaded onto the back of another. We both went up the steep incline the islanders call the Hill of Difficulty. It was easy to understand the name; this was the hill all supplies from ships had to be taken up, and it was a doozy. The four-wheeler strained up the dirt road, rumbling over the enormous veins carved in the path with every rainfall.
At the top of the hill was Big Fence, a house built on the spot where, decades ago, a big fence once stood.
Big Fence is one of the newer homes on the island, built in 1984 after the previous one was destroyed by fire. It was huge: 14 bedrooms on two levels. Most rooms are used for storage, though, because only four people live there.
The head of the household is Dobrey Christian, a cranky but lovable woman in her 70s. Staying with her were her daughter Brenda, son-in-law Mike, and Brenda’s 13-year-old son, Andrew.
Like most of the homes on Pitcairn, Big Fence is basic but homey. Its walls are wooden sheets without insulation; it never gets cold enough on tropical Pitcairn to require much heat. The roof was corrugated iron, which was also used to collect rainwater in storage tanks; there is no other fresh water on the island. From the back porch, an amazing view of the turbulent Pacific stretched for miles.
Inside were the modern comforts of a western home: TVs, VCRs, electric oven, microwave, stereos. Out back was a washer and dryer. The island’s electrical generators run only nine hours a day, during the morning and from late afternoon into the night, and the islanders all have lots of things that plug in. But attached to the house, in a shed, was a traditional wood-burning Polynesian oven and grill.
And Big Fence has one thing most homeowners on Pitcairn envy: a working toilet. But not far from the washer and dryer, it also has the more traditional outhouse, called a duncan.
I unloaded my things and met the people I would be staying with. Brenda, Mike, and Andrew are the newest additions to Pitcairn’s population.
Brenda was born and raised on Pitcairn but left in 1972 when she married a Welshman. Except for a year in the mid-1980s on Pitcairn, she has spent her adult life in England. It was there, almost a decade ago, after her first marriage ended, that she met Mike, an Englishman who managed stores for the British armed forces.
They were married in 1997. At the ceremony, Mike announced he had a surprise for his bride: he would change his last name, from Lupton to Christian. It was a present to his wife: to give her back her “Christian” name.
When Mike was offered early retirement this year, they decided it was time to try Pitcairn. Mike was a self-proclaimed “armed forces brat,” so he’s used to moving around. They took the plunge in May.
“We’d been talking about it for years, but there always seemed to be something in the way,” Mike said. “So finally, we just decided to do it.”
“This is home,” Brenda said. “I knew I wanted to come back.”
A typical Pitcairner starts the day with the sunrise. The island’s generators don’t kick on until 9 a.m., so alarm clocks are one of the few electronic gadgets not to have made a big impact on the island’s way of life.
For all their remoteness, the islanders seem to have a real love affair with outside goods. Pitcairn, as a British colony, is governed by a high commissioner based in New Zealand, and two or three times a year, the government arranges for a freighter to take supplies from there to Pitcairn.
So the islanders can order up anything they want from New Zealand – 3,300 miles away – or by mail order from around the world. (The islanders have a single satellite phone that enables them to call in orders, at rates of up to $10 a minute. A passing ship brings mail about six times a year.)
It might take longer than a drive to the mall, but the Pitcairners can get just about anything they want. The one general store on the island – open three times a week, for about half an hour each time – stocks lots of New Zealand junk food, with names like Crunchies and Bigguns.
Pitcairners, as a rule, eat a lot: seconds and thirds of almost everything. Perhaps it’s a holdover from earlier days, when food supplies were uncertain, but the result is that the Pitcairners are now a hefty group. (It also doesn’t help that they use their four-wheelers to get around, even for trips of 50 feet. The steep hills of Pitcairn could trim fat pretty quickly.)
In fact, the everyday lives of the Pitcairners are not too different from what you might expect in an Appalachian community. And as in those small villages, the number of residents is dropping.
Only 40 Pitcairners live on the island now, not including the schoolteacher, pastor, and their families, here for paid two-year stints. The demographics aren’t heartening for Pitcairn’s future.
There’s no one between the ages of 20 and 35.
Only one woman is of childbearing age.
Almost a third of the adults are over 70, almost ninety per cent over 40.
There are nine children. But children of Pitcairn now make a habit of leaving as soon as they can. Most go to New Zealand.
The result is a population rapidly aging, with little fresh blood. Before World War II, there were enough people that natives could find a wife or husband on Pitcairn. But now, anyone seeking a spouse has to go abroad, usually for good. Only five family names are left on the island.
“There’s going to be a lot of old buggers around here soon,” Jay Warren, the island magistrate, said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”
Jay, 43, remembers Pitcairn when he was a teenager. “There were three houses up the road here, and a house around the corner, and another there,” he said, gesturing. All those houses, and the people who lived in them, are gone now. Stand outside Jay’s front door today and you won’t see a single other home.
“We don’t have the younger generation to keep things going,” Jay said. “It might get to the point where the island doesn’t work anymore.”
Eventually, after John Adams died in 1829 and passing ship captains started teaching a bit more about Christianity to the Pitcairners, islanders became more curious about religion. In 1886, a Seventh-day Adventist missionary named John Tay arrived on the island. Within six weeks, he had converted everyone.
Ministering to Pitcairners’ spiritual needs
Ever since then, the SDA church has sent pastors for two-year stints to minister to the Pitcairners’ spiritual needs. They also handle their physical needs: the pastor’s wife is required to have training as a nurse and becomes island medical officer on arrival.
The day after I arrived was a Saturday, the Sabbath to SDAs, so I headed with Brenda, Mike, and Dobrey to the public square to go to church.
The square is where almost all the public buildings on the island sit, including the courthouse, the library, and the post office. The church looks almost exactly like the other buildings: a plain, white, wood-frame structure with a fresh paint job.
Inside are about a dozen rows of pews. Above the altar is a painting of the island, with the legend “The Lord is my rock and fortress.” An old-looking speaker system hooks into the small organ Betty Christian plays during services.
The church’s major attraction sits to the right of the altar, in a locked glass case: the original Bible from the Bounty, the one John Adams used to teach his flock about Christianity.
Designed for the more than 200 people who used to live on Pitcairn, the church would look empty even if the entire island was there. But on this day, only 12 Pitcairners were present.
Religion, once the bulwark of the island, has faded. Only a decade ago, nearly everyone on the island went to church every Saturday.
SDA doctrine forbids the drinking of alcohol and the eating of pork and shellfish. But now about half of the island drinks: the younger crowd, which on Pitcairn means anyone under 50. Quite a few chow down on pork chops once in a while. And the enormous crawfish that live just off the island coast, once only used as bait, are now people food too.
These differences are a source of tension. Some of the younger folks call the older Pitcairners “the Hallelujah crowd.”
Indeed, the dozen islanders at church looked like the churchgoing crowd at many small-town churches: almost entirely seniors, with a sprinkling of middle-aged. Churchgoing, which used to be one of the few communal experiences on Pitcairn, is now for only a small segment of the population.
The pastor is named Neville Tosens, but everyone just calls him Pastor, just as they’ve called all the previous men in the job.
He starts out the service with a hymn. The Pitcairners were once famous for their church singing; the multiple harmonies of their Polynesian heritage, mixed with the rhythms of a good hymn, were said to be magical. Now, with only a dozen voices, each one seems to be slightly off-track.
Then Pastor begins his sermon, which is a bit of a blisterer. He asks the remnants of his flock why they even bother coming to church: “Is it just a habit? Is it just to show off your nice clothes? Why do you bother?”
He begins to quote from Isaiah chapter 1, in which God lectures the Israelites about their sinful habits. But it sounds like the older, religious islanders talking about younger ones who have either stopped coming to church or moved off the island:
“Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.
“Ah, sinful nation! A people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly!
“Why will you still be smitten, that you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.”
Pastor is usually a quiet man, but his voice is filling with passion now. He tries bringing the Bible’s language home to the Pitcairners. “There’s never been a saint in this church, and there never will,” he says. “People are estranged from God. How people limp along without God!”
He concludes by saying that God doesn’t want the worship of those islanders present, unless they first learn to get along with one another.
On Pitcairn, feuds are long-lasting
After the service, I go to Pastor’s house to talk about his job, which he had held for about six months. He admitted that religion no longer played a large role in the life of the island.
“I don’t have very big goals for my time here. If I can get one or two of the nominal Adventists to become practicing Adventists, that would be good. And there’s some work that needs to be done on the church and the mission house . . . but otherwise, I don’t have any other real plans.”
When asked about it, he admitted that the day’s sermon was specifically intended for two of the islanders who were feuding. If one showed up for church, the other would refuse to go, refuse to be in the same room.
On Pitcairn, feuds are long-lasting. There’s no way to get away for a few days to allow tempers to cool. With only 40 people, all interrelated, tensions and feuds are constant. Siblings have not spoken for years, and arguments have lasted generations.
Back at the church, a few of the islanders were discussing their Bible study session for the week. Usually, only four or five turn out for the sessions. This month, they were discussing the book of Daniel.
Daniel is a book of apocalypse, a story that predicts how the world will end. Daniel says mankind will be tempted by a false idol. When that happens, it says, the end is near.
The 20th century arrived at Pitcairn in the mid-1950s, when the first electrical generators were installed. A tanker from British Petroleum called at the island and unloaded the first drums of diesel fuel.
The island magistrate, John Christian, paid for it with a literal sack of money, filled with dollars, guilders, pounds, lira, and whatever else had been left over the years by visitors. Before that transaction, money was almost a novelty; for the most part, the islanders lived off the land, eating what they grew and blissfully ignorant of the gadgets of the outside world.
But with electricity arrived all the things that use it, and all of those totems of outside materialism cost money. The islanders have traded in their once communal ways of living for a near-constant quest for money.
It is the source of much conflict between islanders. During my week on the island, I heard almost 20 islanders complain about the money habits of one of their neighbors: how someone was keeping property meant for the entire island, or intentionally forgetting to pay out money owed, or lifting a few dollars from the general store’s till.
The Pitcairners make most of their money off the island’s history. They sell stamps, curios, and trinkets they make, which gain their value mostly from the words “Pitcairn Island” on them. They sell wood carvings of sharks, birds, and the Bounty. They sell painted leaves from local plants and baskets woven from the long, sturdy leaves of the pandanus palm tree. Their buyers are passengers and crew on passing ships, the occasional visitor, and Americans via mail order.
But since all the islanders sell the same things – all the men carve, all the women weave – the urge to find something new to sell is very strong. And when someone does, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon.
A few years ago, one of the women ordered a dehydrator and began using it to dry some of the island’s wonderful fruit, with an eye toward selling it to New Zealand. She became the envy of the island, and within a few supply ships, nearly every house had an expensive dehydrator, and now more than a dozen sell dried bananas and pineapples, without much profit.
Two years ago, a visiting scientist did some tests on Pitcairn’s bee population and found that they were entirely disease free. And because they have a variety of the world’s best fruit to pollinate, their honey is sweet, complex, and delicious.
Since then, about a dozen of the islanders decided they would invest in hives and try to sell Pitcairn honey. And because the island’s administration back in New Zealand wants the colony to succeed, they made the islanders an impressive offer: if they would form a cooperative and sell honey together, the administration would take care of bottling, marketing, and distribution. It was a gift worth thousands of dollars.
Forming a cooperative makes sense, because one or two islanders simply could not produce enough honey to make it efficient to sell halfway around the world. And it certainly wouldn’t make sense to have 15 brands of Pitcairn honey competing on New Zealand shelves.
But that’s exactly what the islanders wanted. “No one wanted to go with a co-op,” Jay, the magistrate, said. “Everyone wanted to go private.”
As Dave Brown, who has more beehives than any other islander, said, “Why should my work help someone else? If I can do better than them, I should get more.”
It’s a capitalist concept that might serve these people well in America. But on a tiny place like Pitcairn, there isn’t much room for competition.
The islanders held a meeting that Sheils Carnihan, as government adviser, ran. “Everything is up to you,” she said. “No one is trying to force anything on you.” She proposed a compromise, saying that people could contribute honey to the cooperative and still sell private-label honey on the side.
The meeting ended without agreement. Dave was already preparing to sell his own brand of honey, “Tautama Gold,” over the Internet.
Afterwards, Dave returned to a back room of the public hall, where the islanders keep their ancient 16mm film projector. They don’t use it much anymore, with VCRs all over the island, but as Dave said, “It’s good to check and see if it still works every once in a while.”
After a few minutes, Dave puts on one of the first documentaries ever done on the island: Miracle On Pitcairn. The Seventh-day Adventist church made it in 1963 to show the world how holy the Pitcairners were.
“Money is of little use on Pitcairn,” the narrator says, “for there is no corner store where you may spend a dime or two. . . . Their fingers are always busy, for a few baskets sold can mean a new dress, maybe . . . their children have to be clothed.”
The latest idea for how to make money on Pitcairn comes from an outsider named Vaine Pau. Vaine (pronounced “Wayne”) is from the Cook Islands but lives with Charlene Warren, the island’s only woman of childbearing age. Their two children, 2-year-old Ralph and infant Jayden, are the youngest people on the island.
Not long after he arrived on Pitcairn a few years ago, Vaine noticed coffee beans grew wild all across the island. One day, he decided to make coffee from them. It was delicious. (The other islanders, used to weak imported instant coffee, think it is too strong.)
Now, Vaine is trying to find a way to produce enough to sell some in New Zealand. But he wants to figure out a way to help everyone on the island.
“There’s a lot of greed here,” Vaine said. “I want to do something that will let everybody get something from this. There needs to be some more cooperation.”
Later in the day, Mike told Dave Brown he thought Vaine had a very marketable product with his coffee.
“Well, then let’s get in on that,” Dave said. “Let’s make some coffee.”
The Pitcairners were once renowned for their cooperation and communal living. Take, for example, the old Pitcairn ritual of the “share out.” In nearly every film, article, or book about the Pitcairners, the author or narrator speaks approvingly of it, saying it shows what a true community the island was.
Whenever a passing ship visited, all the islanders would pool together all of the fruit their trees had produced, huge mounds of bananas, passion fruit, oranges, grapefruit, along with some of the vegetables they grow.
The communal pile of fruit would be brought aboard the ship, Brenda told me, and would be offered to the captain, who would give in return whatever food or supplies he had to offer.
Then, all that the island received for the fruit would be divided equally among all the families of the island.
“We don’t do that anymore,” Brenda said. Now, when a ship comes, it’s every islander for him or herself. Each person climbs on board a ship, armed with a basket of fruit.” Whoever gets there first gets to trade first; move too slow, and you might get nothing.
Pitcairn still holds a share out on the rare occasions when a captain makes a blanket gift to all islanders, but the tradition is otherwise dead.
Jay, the magistrate, estimates that an average family on the island makes about $6,000 a year, including more than $2,000 from the many government jobs every islander has. Jay, for instance, is the island’s magistrate, assistant engineer, and conservation officer, three jobs that earn him more than $5,000 a year.
The government admits that many of these jobs require little work and are often unnecessary. As the administration states in its official “Guide to Pitcairn” : “Public appointments and benefits from them are more widely distributed than is warranted by the work to be done.”
During my stay, Brenda and Mike were disappointed to learn they had not been selected to fill the vacant spot of rubbish collector. “Back in the U.K., I dealt with million-pound budgets, and now I can’t get chosen as a rubbish collector,” Mike joked.
Pitcairn isn’t unique in the way it pursues western goods, or in the ways they affect their lives. It has happened to almost every native culture to come in contact with the technologically superior West: The natives start to trade for goods, and their self-sufficient, communal way of life is replaced with a constant fight for gadgets, status, and money.
It’s happened to Eskimos in Canada, Aborigines in Australia, and tribes in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s happened on islands across the South Pacific.
After the mutiny on the Bounty, Captain Bligh made another trip to Tahiti, this time on the Providence. He arrived in 1792, only 15 years after his first visit, with Captain Cook. Upon his arrival, Bligh was shocked at how the island culture had degenerated.
Many of the Tahitians had become alcoholics and wore dirty clothes given them by passing sailors rather than their native garb. Their language had become a patois with a large amount of English mixed in. They were almost entirely dependent on European iron tools, having forgotten how to fashion their own from stone.
Perhaps Bligh, when looking at what his culture had wrought in Tahiti, thought of the words of his mentor, Captain Cook, during his last visit to the island in 1777:
“It would have been far better for these poor people never to have known us.”
Educating new teachers every 24 months
“What makes a person a loser?”
Sheils Carnihan, the island schoolteacher, asked her class. Sheils’s charges are the seven children of elementary school or junior high age. Only five are Pitcairners; two are Sheils’s own daughters.
On Pitcairn, a new schoolteacher arrives every two years, arranged through the New Zealand government. The teacher, his or her spouse, and their kids spend the next 24 months living the life of a Pitcairner. The teacher brings in new knowledge of the outside world; the children provide new friends for the island kids.
The students toss out a few answers to Sheils’s question: “stealing friends,” “being a spoilsport,” “pushes you around.” The children range from 8 to 13, but they all learn together.
At first glance, it seems that might be a challenge, but Sheils doesn’t think so: “I’ve been in a class of 30 kids where some were severely retarded, some could barely read, and some were writing at an adult level. This is nothing compared to that.”
Pitcairn children are taught by the schoolteacher until they reach the equivalent of ninth grade. Then, for two years, they take correspondence courses from New Zealand. Three older kids, aged 14 and 15, are taking the correspondence courses.
After those two years, around age 15, they have a choice: they can remain on Pitcairn and take two more years of correspondence courses, or they can move to New Zealand and finish their education there.
Nearly everyone chooses to move to New Zealand; almost no one ever moves back to Pitcairn. That, in a nutshell, is the source of the island’s population problem: Its young people, realizing that even a high school diploma is next to useless on Pitcairn, decide for the outside world.
On the wall of the Pitcairn schoolhouse, incongruously, is a poster sporting a quote from Donald Trump: “I like thinking big. I always have. To me, it’s very simple: If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”
“I probably won’t be coming back,” said Candace Warren, who got her Pitcairn driver’s license when she turned 15 this year. “I like New Zealand.”
Candace wants to become a professional singer. That’s not an easy career path on Pitcairn, where the fullest house possible is 40 people.
The future will likely not be kind to Pitcairn’s little school. Seven children are enrolled, plus the three doing a correspondence course. In three years, if everyone stays, there will be only three students, plus one doing correspondence.
“The kids will get a lot of attention, but how are they going to learn interaction?” Sheils asks. “How to you play a game with three people?”
Growing up on Pitcairn is a mixed bag. On one hand, you live in an enormous playground; for an outdoors-loving kid, it’s heaven to be able to roam around the cliff sides, swim in St. Paul’s Pool, or pick oranges from the tops of trees.
And, if it takes a village to raise a child, the entire adult population of Pitcairn plays its part, watching out for each other’s kids whenever they can.
The downside of communal parenting is that parents, on the whole, give their kids less attention than western parents. Kids have to fend for themselves, which builds self-reliance but also makes it easier for them to imagine living on their own off-island.
A boy ostracized by two or three kids can’t just find new friends on Pitcairn. It can become very lonely very quick, for the adults as much as for the children, if disputes get in the way of friendship.
And let’s say you want to learn to play the trumpet, or design Web pages, or join a sports team. On Pitcairn, you’re out of luck.
Once a week, Pastor takes aside the three oldest kids who are about to go to New Zealand to tell them what the outside world is like. Yet these kids have all been to New Zealand and know the basics about cars, TV, and other objects of the modern age.
“It’s frustrating sometimes,” Pastor said. “There are some things you just cannot get them interested in. I talked about AIDS one day, and they could not have been less interested. ‘That’s not something we need to worry about,’ they think.”
While I was there, Pastor’s weekly lesson was about culture shock. He and the students enumerated some of its forms: climate, language, food, dress, religion, standards of cleanliness. A South African who has done missionary work throughout the Pacific, he had plenty of examples.
Comparing New Zealand life
Tony Warren, 14, was raised on New Zealand and came to Pitcairn recently to live with his grandmother, who thought it would be a nice change of pace for him. He’s the expert on New Zealand life.
“It’s really different from here,” he said. “They’ll see cars and get used to closing doors.”
“I hate cars!” said Adelia Brown, also about to head to New Zealand and the child most likely to move back to Pitcairn when her schooling is over.
Pastor concludes his lesson by offering ways to deal with culture shock: “Take it as it comes, one step at a time” ; “Figure out what it is I don’t like, and think: I have to adapt to it.”
After class, I talked to Adelia, who will be heading to Auckland at the end of the year for her last two years of high school. “It’ll be a change,” she said. “I wanted to see what it’s like.”
She’s visited New Zealand before, and “it was OK. There were different things you could do. You could go to the park and play if you wanted to.”
She listens to New Zealand rock music and wants to become a kindergarten teacher. “It’s always been a dream of mine,” she said.
But she says she plans to “hopefully” return to Pitcairn in two years: “I’ll miss the island too much.”
The “hopefully” is important. The decision to live on Pitcairn or New Zealand is entirely hers, and if she wants to move back, no one will stop her. But over the years, lots of people have said they’ll come back, only to change their minds once they’ve lived outside. The “hopefully” means she knows the outside might be too attractive a few years down the line.
What will she do if she does come back? “I’ll start all my old chores again. I’ll probably start weaving the baskets,” she said without enthusiasm.
Then she switched to what she considered the best thing about New Zealand: “There’ll be new people to talk to.”
The Pitcairners never asked to be made into symbols of good, of course. That’s just the way it turned out: a few dozen normal human beings, made into symbols of perfection.
As a result, many of the islanders have nothing but anger for the writers who, over the years, have created that impression. The story of the Bounty and Pitcairn have been the subject of almost 3,000 articles, hundreds of books, dozens of documentaries, and five feature films.
“It’s difficult to have people writing about you and all your family, just because of where you live,” Brenda said. “It makes some people mad, that writers are making money off of writing about us.”
Brenda points to one example in her life, in the early 1970s, when a man named Ian Ball came to the island to write a book, Pitcairn: Children of Mutiny. He singled out four Pitcairners to profile; the 18-year-old Brenda was one.
“Brenda Christian is Fletcher’s loveliest descendant,” he gushed. “She has impressive cleavage and no wish to conceal it from the dour little commune. . . . She is a pocket Venus.”
One day, I asked Dobrey who was the last person to write something about Pitcairn that the islanders liked. “Rosalind Young,” she answered.
Rosalind Young was an island native who wrote a book about Pitcairn in 1894.
It’s an odd relationship, Pitcairn and its chroniclers. On one hand, Pitcairners have had more ink spilled on their behalf, per capita, than any other people in the world. Tom Christian, for instance, has probably been mentioned in more magazines and newspapers than many congressmen. And because most of the writing about Pitcairn comes from people who have either never been there, or have been there for only a brief time, they are easily stereotyped.
On the other hand, the Pitcairners owe their lifestyle – and probably the island’s continued existence as a populated place – to the legends.
An average island family makes most of its money selling tourist trinkets, to passing ships or via mail order. If Pitcairn didn’t have the image of romance and paradise, a lot of those ships wouldn’t bother to stop.
Next year, the island is expecting three large cruise ships, each carrying hundreds of passengers. Those people probably will buy tens of thousands of dollars worth of trinkets, and none would care if the Bounty and Pitcairn didn’t have such a hold on the imagination.
The South Pacific is dotted with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of beautiful islands with fewer than a hundred people on them, but their residents don’t have VCRs and stereos and microwaves and nice homes, like the Pitcairners.
The latest writer to receive the islanders’ ire is Dea Birkett, a British travel writer who visited the island for four months in 1991. In 1997, she wrote a book titled Serpent in Paradise, in which she portrays the islanders as having many of the standard flaws of small-town life: gossip, occasionally flaring tempers, and a love of material goods bordering on fetish.
Serpent in Paradise does include a few low blows. She writes about the one-night stand she had with one of the married island men. (He has since moved to New Zealand.) And Ms. Birkett seems to have a paranoid streak; at one point, she thinks the islanders are plotting to kill her. But for the most part, it is an honest, if subjective, account of life on Pitcairn.
Immediately after it was published, the island’s many fans around the world were enraged: The island they had been dreaming of had been uncovered as a place with normal human failings. At a book reading in London, Brenda Christian decided to confront Ms. Birkett about her book.
Brenda found Ms. Birkett’s responses unsatisfactory. Brenda told a British newspaper: “I’d like to see her hanged.” (She told me, “when a Pitcairner says someone should be hanged, it doesn’t mean she should hang, literally.”)
Even though no actual copies of the book appeared on the island for almost a year, the response on Pitcairn was anger and a feeling of betrayal. Since Serpent, the islanders had not let any writers on Pitcairn; because of the difficulty reaching the island, Pitcairners can effectively decide who visits and who does not.
No writers, that is until me, and my application was the object of considerable debate, Dave Brown told me on the day I arrived.
“We weren’t sure if we wanted to be written about again, but we thought you might be able to undo some of the lies in Birkett,” said Dave, who sits on the island council.
And if the islanders didn’t like my story? Then you might be the last writer we let on,” Dave warned.
Sheils and her husband, Daniel, hadn’t read Ms. Birkett’s book when they arrived on the island a year and a half ago. But they have since.
“We read it and kept saying, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly right,’ ” Sheils said.
Daniel is more direct: “Every single word of that book is true.”
The Carnihan family is easy to pick out of any photo of the islanders: their red hair and pale skin clearly don’t betray any Polynesian ancestry.
But they’ve lived on Pitcairn for a year and a half and are in a unique position to talk about the island.
An island of individuals?
“When people come to visit Pitcairn for one day or a few days, the islanders do a terrific job,” Sheils said. “They smile, and they tell their stories, and they’re very generous. Pitcairn is a dream for so many people, and why just kill the dream?”
She paused: “It only takes three or four months here to have the dream taken away.”
“There’s a lot of selfishness,” she said. “It’s an island of individuals. There’s no community at all, unless there’s someone to oppose, and then they unite. I hate to say it, but it’s true.”
Daniel, who makes no bones about his dislike of Pitcairn, is blunt, and perhaps a bit extreme: “There’s not an honest person here.”
As schoolteacher, Sheils holds the position of government adviser, meaning she conveys information from the New Zealand administration and helps to run meetings and present the government’s opinion.
The insurmountable challenge is that “the islanders hate outsiders. There’s an island way of doing things, and if you try to tell them there’s a better way of doing them, you get the stare and get blackballed. Anything negative that’s said is taken so personally.”
“We thought it would be an adventure,” Sheils said. “But the best thing to come out of this is that our marriage has gotten a lot stronger. There’s no one else I can talk to.”
Brenda and Mike say some of the same things as Sheils and Daniel. They are trying their best to fit into the island culture, but Mike in particular shows signs of being exasperated.
Because of his experience managing shops in England, Mike was named chairman of the island general store not long after his arrival. He set about redoing the books and found that some island families who had bought items five years ago had never paid for them and never been asked to pay for them. The books had never been balanced.
He went so far as to burn all the store’s books from before 1996 in the stove at Big Fence, because he didn’t want to ever be asked about them.
He’s even started referring to the store as “PIGS.” The letters stand for Pitcairn Island General Store, but he admits it is calculated to see whether he can get a rise out of the non-pork-eating islanders.
I ask Mike whether he worries that, as an outsider, one bad move could turn the islanders against him.
“I worked in shops for more than 20 years,” he says. “I had to learn how to deal with angry customers, suppliers, bosses and satisfy them all. This sort of thing is my skill.”
The islanders know that the trends are all in the wrong direction and that if they don’t act quickly, Pitcairn could someday be an empty rock again.
Tom Christian thinks he has the answer. He wants to end Pitcairn’s isolation, build an airstrip, and bring in tourists by the dozen.
“The young people move away because there’s no way to make money on Pitcairn,” he says. “If we could provide them with a steady source of income, a good job, then I think they would come back.”
Tom’s plan: Have a weekly flight service from Mangareva, so 15 to 20 tourists could be on the island at all times. Those tourists would be buying carvings, baskets, coffee, and honey, not to mention paying a premium to stay in island homes. Throw in some profit from the flight service – Tom already has the name Air Pitcairn picked out – and you’ve got tons of money coming in, he thinks.
Presumably, the New Zealand Pitcairners will leap at the chance to come back if they can get a job cleaning up after the tourists.
The idea of an airstrip has been debated for generations, particularly since 1945. “The shipping industry is declining, and we’re getting fewer and fewer ships stopping every year,” says Jay, the island magistrate. “It used to be that everyone was against an airstrip, and some of the older folks still don’t want it, but we need some sort of contact.”
In the last two or three years, local public opinion has finally, grudgingly decided that ending Pitcairn’s isolation through an airstrip wouldn’t be a bad idea. And Tom has talked with Australian electronics billionaire Dick Smith, who has agreed to lead a fundraiser to pay for construction if that’s what the islanders want.
But there are problems with their airstrip dream. The biggest one is that it may be physically impossible.
Surveyors have determined that a site on the island’s southeast side would be suitable for a grass airstrip 1,800 feet in length. That’s perilously short. The main runway at Toledo Express Airport, in contrast, is 10,600 feet, or six times as long.
On one end of the proposed Pitcairn runway is a large hill. On the other is a cliff, and the Pacific Ocean. And the winds change direction so quickly and so powerfully on Pitcairn that it is likely that many pilots would face a disastrous crosswind or tailwind.
Even if it did work logistically, there’s no denying the impact that sort of change would have on the islanders.
“I think it would be hard on the islanders to have that many people to deal with,” Jay says.
“It’s going to change the entire way of life,” Jay’s wife, Carol, says. “The Pitcairners are famous for our hospitality to visitors, and that’s going to wear thin after a while. Constant pressure to smile for camera-toting tourists could be too much.
But Carol is hopeful that an airstrip might bring young people back. “They don’t stay because there’s nothing for them here. Maybe with an airstrip, they’ll see something for them.”
Despite the optimism of people like Carol and Tom, Sheils isn’t convinced that bringing in hundreds of tourists can do much good: “They think that money will solve the problem. It won’t. It’s a community in crisis. It’s decaying from the inside.”
Everyone, it seems, has ideas on how to “save” Pitcairn. Some say turn it into an offshore banking haven. Some say make it a huge coffee plantation or honey farm.
A decade ago, a satellite discovered what could be millions of tons of minerals encrusted on an undersea mountain, 50 miles southeast of Pitcairn. If underwater mining technologies improve, it may be reachable in a decade, and some of the islanders are happy waiting until then for a potential windfall.
Pitcairners have no shortage of dreams. But none of their previous ideas convinced young people to stay.
Tom is one of the island’s most religious residents, and before I ask him about the airstrip, he reads a verse from 1 Timothy, Chapter 4:
“Let no one despise your youth, but set believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
As he was reading that, the Sabbath began; it starts at sundown Friday for Seventh-day Adventists. Across the island, the younger half of the island was preparing to crack open a few beers and have their usual Friday night drinking party. Their parties are nothing outrageous by western standards – a few beers, some darts, country music – but to much of Tom’s generation, it qualifies as an affront.
Meeting the oldest couple
I walked up the hill to Pulau, near the school, to meet the oldest couple on the island.
Millie Christian is 91; her husband, Warren, is 84. Neither one gets around the island much, but both are, by western standards, in fine shape for their ages.
(Pitcairners have long been noted for their long lives and the strength they maintain late into them. The islanders like to tell of the late Andrew Young, the last fifth-generation descendant of the mutineers. When he was 83, a neighbor teased that he was getting old. Angered, he went down to Bounty Bay, climbed into his one-man boat, and proceeded to paddle all the way around the island in a hour.)
I spotted Mr. Christian struggling around in his walker outside Tom’s house. I introduced myself, and he happily invited me in. We sat and chatted for a while, and he told stories of the old days on Pitcairn, like the time the men had to go to neighboring Henderson Island during World War II to clear an airstrip if Allied planes ever needed one. He seemed to be the best of old Pitcairn: friendly, open, generous.
Millie suffers from a variety of ailments and is in pain much of the time. In New Zealand or the United States, she’d be making regular trips to doctors; here, she has to settle for regular visits from the pastor’s wife and hope that medications don’t run out before the next supply ship.
But she too can tell stories. She talked about how different hymns used to sound: “There used to be all these beautiful voices, tenors and altos and basses and everyone singing harmonies. Now, it’s not so good.”
Mr. Christian was born in 1914, so he had seen the island’s population soar past 200 and drop to its current level. I asked him what he thought about the ideas other people had on how to draw young people back, about the airstrip and tourists and money. I asked him whether he thought the grand plans would work.
“Oh, no, I don’t think so,” he said matter-of-factly. “Once you see New Zealand and the world, you want to stay there. You don’t want to be here.”
My final day on Pitcairn was the island Sabbath, so we went to another church service. It was time for one of the biggest events on the SDA calendar: the foot-washing ceremony.
Every three months, the religious of Pitcairn separate into men and women, go into rooms, and wash each other’s feet. “It’s a very important symbol,” Pastor said. “It shows that we are a community and that we are willing to help each other, to wash each other’s feet.”
I followed the men. Only four island men were willing to perform the traditional brotherhood ceremony: Jacob Warren, Michael Warren, Tom, and Mike. (Mike, a lapsed Roman Catholic, freely admits he’s not a Seventh-day Adventist but wanted to participate anyway.) Pastor participated, too, but had to recruit one of the other visitors to make the numbers even.
After the ceremony, the pastor gave a sermon on the importance of a spiritual education. The dozen parishioners enjoyed it.
It was time to leave. I gathered my things and headed down the Hill of Difficulty to the landing at Bounty Bay. Most of the island had gathered to send us off; some would be manning the longboat to take us back to the Dione, which would be taking us back to Mangareva, Tahiti, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Toledo.
There were hugs and good-byes. A few of the islanders appeared at the landing to complete business deals, selling jars of jam or bags of dried fruit before their customers left.
Then Tom quieted the Pitcairners and started them in “The Good-bye Song.” Written by an island woman in the 1800s, it’s the song they sing every time someone leaves Pitcairn.
With few exceptions, people visit the island only once; there’s little reason to return, once the stamp is in your passport and you have a few stories to tell the folks back home.
But if life on the island continues as it is – divided among young and old, drinkers and teetotalers, religious and secular – and the number of Pitcairners keeps dropping, it might not be long before they sing their song to the island itself.
Now one last song we’ll sing – good-bye, good-bye,
Time moves on rapid wings – good-bye,
And this short year will soon be past,
Will soon be numbered with the last.
But as we part to all we’ll say –
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.
But as we part to all we’ll say –
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.