Map mistake led Bounty mutineers to settle on Pitcairn

When mutineers from HMS Bounty were looking for a place to hide in the Pacific in the late 1700s, their leader, Fletcher Christian, exploited some sloppy map making to set up home on an island they knew was in the wrong place on British Admiralty charts.

It was an inspired choice that led to the establishment of one of the world’s most isolated communities.

That isolation has been shattered this week, with Pitcairn Island’s population of 47 almost doubling, thanks to the arrival of judges, lawyers and media for a string of sex abuse trials in which seven of the island’s men are defendants.

Five months after setting Captain William Bligh and 18 of his loyal crew adrift in an open boat, eight of the Bounty mutineers—along with six Polynesian men and 12 Polynesian women—landed in January 1790 on Pitcairn Island, a remote volcanic outcrop 14 885km from London.

More than 20 years earlier, British sailors had spotted the island but incorrectly charted it 188 nautical miles west of its true location, according to a history of the island published on the website of the Pitcairn Islands Study Centre.

Believing that glitch meant it was a safe place to hide, the mutineers set up a temporary encampment on the site of the current Pitcairn community called Adamstown.

But on January 23, 1790—a date celebrated by islanders today—the Bounty caught fire and sank, stranding the mutineers. Whether the fire was deliberate remains in dispute.

In a sign of the toll such a harsh life can take, over the next 10 years, most of the settlers—including Fletcher Christian—succumbed to infighting, suicide and disease, leaving mutineer John Adams alone with four Polynesian women and several of the mutineers’ offspring.

They remained alone until 1814, when the island was visited by two British ships. Charmed by the apparently idyllic nature of the remaining islanders’ lives, the ships’ captains decided not to arrest Adams but to leave him there.
He died on Pitcairn Island in 1829.

While it is rugged and remote, the volcanic slopes of Pitcairn are fertile, and easily produce enough crops to feed the community.

The residents of Pitcairn tried twice to abandon their island home and resettle in Tahiti and Norfolk Island, close to Australia.

But both attempts ended in disaster, as several islanders—including Fletcher Christian’s oldest child, Thursday October Christian—died from exposure and disease.

Ultimately, many settlers chose to return to Pitcairn and continue the subsistence lifestyle they had practiced since the mutineers first arrived. There remain several families linked to the mutineers on Norfolk Island.

“It’s a very isolated life,” Herbert Ford, the Director of the Pitcairn Islands Study Centre in Angwin, California, said by telephone on Thursday.

“The truth is it’s a very rugged island. You’ve got to be very self confident on this island, to take care of problems. If your fishing boat breaks down, you can’t run down to the corner shop and have it fixed,” he said.

Over the years, many outsiders captivated by the Bounty story have sought to live on the island. But moving to Pitcairn isn’t so easy. Would-be residents are given a trial year to prove they have what it takes to survive there, Ford said.

“The totality of your life experience in that probationary year, that’s the test,” Ford said. - Sapa-AP

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