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Important Pitcairn Events

July 1767 First known European sighting of Pitcairn Island is made by Robert Pitcairn, a midshipman on HMS Swallow. Captain Philip Cartaret, the ship’s commander, names it Pitcairn’s Island honoring the one who first sighted it.
December 1787 HMAV Bounty, under the command of William Bligh, sails from Spithead in England. Her mission is to collect breadfruit from Tahiti to be taken to the West Indies to feed slaves on plantations there.
March 1788 Fletcher Christian, master’s mate of the Bounty, is promoted to acting Second Lieutenant.
October 26, 1788 HMAV Bounty arrives at Tahiti. It will be at the island for 5 ½ months.
April 28, 1789 Under Fletcher Christian’s leadership, many of the Bounty’s sailors mutiny and cast Captain Bligh with 18 sailors loyal to him adrift in the ship’s cutter.
May 1789 The Bounty, with the mutineers sailing her, arrives at Tubuai, but leaves after just three days at the island.
June 6, 1789 Returning to Tahiti, the Bounty takes aboard a number of Polynesian men, women, and a baby. Livestock is also put aboard.
June 23, 1789 With it’s mutineer crew and Polynesians aboard, the Bounty returns to Tubuai.
September 22, 1789 The Bounty returns to Tahiti again. A decision is made to search for a safe hiding place. A total of 16 of the mutineers decide to take their chances at safety at Tahiti. Nine others, along with six Polynesian men, 12 women, and a baby girl set sail to seek a safe haven.
January 1790 Pitcairn Island is sighted. After inspection of the island by Christian it is decided to settle there. A factor in the decision is that the island has been misplaced on Admiralty maps and would thus be hard to find.
January 23, 1790 Whether by plan or by accident, HMAV Bounty is set afire. The unburned portion of the ship sinks in what is now called Bounty Bay.
1790 Two of the Polynesian men brought to the island - Puarei and Tinafanaea -die. Two others - Oha and Tararo - are murdered.
September 1793 In one day four of the mutineers - Fletcher Christian, John Mills, Isaac Martin, John Williams - are killed by Polynesian men.
1798 Drunk on a locally distilled brew, mutineer William McCoy commits suicide.
1799 Mutineers Edward Young and John Adams, believing their lives are in danger from the man, kill mutineer Matthew Quintal.
December 1800 When Edward Young dies on Christmas Day, John Adams becomes the last of the mutineers alive on Pitcairn Island.
February 6, 1808 Pitcairn is re-discovered along with the mutineers’ presence on the island by Captain Mayhew Folger of the American sealing ship Topaz.
September 17, 1814 HMS Briton and HMS Tagus unexpectedly call at Pitcairn. Captains of the ships correct the calendar error made when the Bounty crossed the international date line.
March 5, 1829 John Adams, last of the mutineers on Pitcairn, dies. He is 65 years old. His wife, Teio (Mary) follows him in death nine days later.
March 1831 The people of Pitcairn move to Tahiti for resettlement. Disease strikes quickly with death felling 12 of the Pitcairners, including Fletcher’s eldest son, Thursday October Christian. The people decide to return to their Pitcairn home.
September 3, 1831 The 65 Pitcairners arrive at their island home on the American ship Charles Doggett, Captain William Driver. On his ship flies the U.S. “Stars and Stripes” flag to which Driver gives the name “Old Glory,” a title that will be adopted nationally in America.
June 1856 The Pitcairners - all 193 of them – immigrate to Norfolk Island - in the ship Morayshire. A baby is born during the voyage.
1859 Homesick for Pitcairn, 16 of the Pitcairners are brought back to the island in the Mary Ann.
1864 Four more families return to Pitcairn from Norfolk.
1886 After learning the tenets of the faith, most of the Pitcairn people embrace the Seventh-day Adventist faith, setting aside the Church of England faith they had embraced from earlier times.
1890 The missionary schooner Pitcairn, with Adventist missionaries who would carry their faith to many islands of the Pacific aboard. Most of the adults on Pitcairn are baptized, formally making them members of the Adventist faith.
1914 Pitcairn becomes a stopping point on the direct Panama to New Zealand shipping route when the Panama Canal opens.
1940 The first issue of Pitcairn Islands stamps. Income from the world-wide sale of these popular postal adhesives will begin to fund operations and provide subsidies for Pitcairn and her people.
1957 An anchor of HMAV Bounty is raised from Bounty Bay, Pitcairn Island.
January 1990 Celebrations marking the bicentennial of the settlement of Pitcairn are held.
January 8, 1999 What could be the last of the few cannons that were aboard HMAV Bounty is raised from the wreck site.
--Adapted from Guide to Pitcairn, available for purchase through the Study Center.

History of Pitcairn Island

Part One: The First Ten Years (1790-1800)

The Pitcairn Islands are situated lat. 25Deg. 04 minS Lon. 30deg. 05'W (for you boatie buffs). They are about 4,800 Km. from New Zealand lying towards South America.

The first inhabitants to settle the Islands were Polynesians of unknown origin. Someone reckoned from Mangareva some 490 km to the NW. The evidence are rock carvings, found by the early European settlers. The carvings are made up of roughly hewn stone gods, humans, animals, birds, starfish, and several objects that look like wheels with spokes. These could represent islands or moon and stars. There has been found mizens, earth ovens, and burial sites with human remains.

The main Island was named after the son of a marine, Major Pitcairn, on board Capt. Carteret's vessel HMS Swallow, who was the first to sight the island in 1767. The original name given was Pitcairn's Island. Never the less Capt. Carteret did not put a landing party on the island due to bad weather conditions. Capt Cook went looking for these islands. But his expedition was thwarted by some of his men going down with scurvy. A pity he did not land, he may have been able to supply his men with fresh fruit and greens.

It was the mutineers of the Bounty that finally settled the island with their Tahitian companions on 15 January 1790, after two months sailing around the Cooks, Tonga, and the eastern islands of Fiji looking for a home. Fletcher Christian remembered the existence of Pitcairn Islands and set sail for them. After landing on the island Christian returned to the ship to tell his companions that there were coconuts and breadfruit to be had. They had found an ideal home. It was lonely and it was warm. There was plenty to eat. With pigs, chickens, yams and sweet potatoes from the ship's stores. The ship was stripped of all it's removables. To remain invisible from any passing vessel looking for them they ran the Bounty ashore and set her alight burning it to the water line. It sank in what is now known as Bounty Bay. The community remained undetected for many years.

Of the other mutineers, Midshipman Edward Young who was well connected and devoted to Christian, whom he succeeded as leader; "reckless Jack" Adams, later to become patriarch of Pitcairn, was a cockney orphan; Mills, Brown, Martin and Williams were killed within four years of arrival; and of the other two, the Scotsman William McCoy and the Cornishman Matthew Quintal little good can be said, except that they were neither better nor worse than the average seamen of the times.

The Tahitians were treated poorly. This led to them revolting, killing some of the mutineers. They themselves were killed. Leaving in 1794 only Young, Adams, Quintal and McCoy, leading households of ten women and their children.

The next four years were peaceful except for occasional outbreaks by women. It was not an happy time for the womenfolk. Some tried to leave the island but were prevented by the men. As Young recorded in his diary, "building houses, fencing in and cultivating their grounds and catching birds and constructing pits for the purpose of entrapping hogs, which had become very numerous and wild, as well as injurious to the yam crops", kept the settlers busy. Gradually the men and women grew reconciled to their lives and each other, all might have remained harmonious had not McCoy who had once worked in a distillery, discovered how to brew a potent spirit from the roots of the ti plant (Cordyline terminalis). By 1799, Quintal had been killed by Young and Adams in self defence and McCoy had drowned himself. Then in 1800, Young died of asthma, leaving John Adams as the sole male survivor of the party that landed just ten years earlier.

Part Two: The End to Isolation (1800-1830)

In the year 1800 as leader of the community of ten Polynesian women and twenty three children, the former able seaman, John Adams, showed himself to be a capable, kind and honest as he had formerly been loyal and helpful to Christian and Young.

John Adams could barely read and write, but was a gentle man who humbly discharged his responsibilities for the community. He was revered and all took pleasure in following his example, which he patterned on virtue and piety and regulated by the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, on Sunday services, family prayers and grace before and after every meal. Adams saw to it that every young person cultivated the land, cared for the stock and were not allowed to marry until they could support a family.

The end of isolation came in 1808 with the arrival of an American sealing captain, Captain Mayhew Folger, His visit was brief and his report aroused little interest in England at that time. England was too occupied by the Napoleonic wars.

It was six more years before the little community was rediscovered by two British Navy vessels the HMS Briton and Targus, on 17th September 1814. The commanders were charmed by the physique, simplicity and piety of the islanders. Favourably impressed by Adams and the example he set, they agreed that it would be "an act of great cruelty and inhumanity" to arrest him, and so began the long association between Pitcairn and the British Navy which was to influence the development over the next century.

Increasing visits were made by passing ships sailing from Australia, India to south America, or to England via the Horn. The reports brought back stimulated much interest, not least the English Missionary Society, and gifts of bibles, prayer books and spelling books were sent to the island, as well as crockery, razors, tools and guns.

Nearly every visiting ship made generous gifts and bartered surplus stores and provisions, and it was at this time that the orange was introduced; that the houses were improved with aid of saws and planes; and clothes and living became more European in character.

As he grew old, Adams worried about the future of his flock but appeals to the British government and missions for a successor to lead and educate them were not met, and it was to voluntary exiles that succession fell.

The first was John Buffett, a shipwright from Bristol (UK) who landed on the island with John Evans a Welshman, in 1823. Both married island girls and founded families. Buffett taught the children and took over the church services.

The population had increased to 66 from the 35 of 17 years earlier. Adams concerned that the land was not yielding as much and the timber was running out, and was concerned the water supply would not be adequate for a growing population, sought removal of the population to Australia.

Meantime, in 1828, another settler arrived. George Nobbs, alleged to be the illegitimate son of a marquis, as well educated and had served both in the British and Chilean Navies. He had a strong character and soon ousted Buffet from the role of schoolteacher and pastor. Then, on 5th March 1829, John Adams, venerable and corpulent, died at the age of 62. The dramatic regeneration was virtually Adams work alone, and he was mourned as "Father", the name by which he had been known to every member of the community.

Part Three: The Moves to Tahiti & Norfolk (1830-1856)

Meanwhile Adams's request for emigration was being sympathetically supported in London and, although later naval reports discounted his fears, it was decided to re-establish the islanders in Tahiti, It was not a popular move with some of the islanders but never the less all set sail on Admiralty vessels in March 1831.

The Pitcairners did not feel at home on Tahiti. The Tahitians moral standards were not their standards, sexually, then they were more European than Polynesian in their ways and dress. They longed to return to their own habits in their own island, all the more so when infectious diseases, to which they had little immunity, began to kill them. The first to die was Fletcher Christian's son Thursday October Christian, the first child born on Pitcairn. His death was followed by the youngest member of the community Lusy Anne Quintal; and during the next two months there were ten more deaths and only one birth. This heavy toll of deaths more than the general unhappiness, moved everyone on Tahiti to pity for their plight. A number of attempts to return them to Pitcairn failed for one reason or another, until Captain William Driver of the Salem whaler 'Charles Doggett' arrived at Papeete and offered to take them back to Pitcairn for a total of $500. This sum was raised by donations from Tahitian and the selling by the islanders of their blankets and other necessaries, so anxious were they to get back to their island. Captain Driver sailed from Papeete on 14 August 1831 with the remaining 65 islanders to arrive on 3 September.

Inevitably the little community had lost some of its innocence. It was leaderless too, for Nobbs had not been accepted as Adams successor, and they could not agree on a local head. there was a period of anarchy and drunkenness but the vacuum was soon to be filled. In October 1832 a puritanical busybody, by the name of Joshua Hill arrived on the island claiming to have been sent by the British Government. He was welcomed and, supplanted Nobbs as pastor and teacher, at once appointed himself as President of the Commonwealth of Pitcairn.

Hill abolished distilling of liquor but he also introduced arbitrary imprisonment and other severe punishments for the smallest misdeeds. He secured the expulsion of Nobbs and other "lousy foreigners" who form an intimidated opposition, but their departure caused a reaction and his power gradually declined until, 1838, his claim to represent the British Government was exposed and he was forcibly removed from the island. Nobbs returned from 'exile' and by a general vote was reinstated as pastor and teacher. One has only to read Hill's literary effusions to surmise that he was probably mentally unstable throughout his six years on Pitcairn.

Following on from Hills dictatorship and increasing visits of American whalers lead the islanders to recognise the need for protection, and they prevailed upon Captain Elliott of the HMS Fly to draw up a brief constitution and a code of laws selected from those already in force. A Magistrate (native born) was to be elected annually "by the free votes of every native born on the island, male or female, who shall have attained the age of eighteen years, or of persons who shall have resided five years on the island". He was to be assisted by two councillors, one elected and one appointed by himself. Not only was it the first time female suffrage was written into a British constitution but it also incorporated compulsory schooling for the first time in any British legislation.

Whatever the precise legal significance of Capt. Elliott's action the Pitcairn Islanders date there formal incorporation into the British Empire from 30 November 1838.

The years 1838-1848 were peaceful ones. Except in 1845 the worst storm in the islanders memory did immeasurable damage to the islands vegetation and boats, the land slides into the coastal waters frighten most of the fish away. Periodic epidemics of influenza, accidents recorded in place names such as "Where-Tom-Off"; and birth, marriages and deaths alone disturbed the placid life.

The population topped over the hundred mark; Nobbs was firmly in control; and Buffett taught the young men navigation, carpentry, how to fashion curios of the type still sold today from local woods. Adapting themselves to the needs of the visiting seafarers the islanders became skilled market gardeners, producing potatoes, yams, coconuts, oranges, limes and chickens, for which they accepted in return clothing, tools and money. And largely because they sold their produce for fixed prices, they acquired a reputation for strict honesty.

By 1850 the islanders numbered 156 and were increasing rapidly. The question of moving the entire population to another island was being mooted. This time the islanders were insisting on an uninhabited island. In 1856 the majority of islanders decided to move with British government help to Norfolk Island, which had become vacant a little earlier when the penal settlement had been withdrawn. It was larger than Pitcairn, and after sixty years of convict labour it had large areas of cultivation, roads, houses and was well stocked with domestic animals. So in 1856 when the HMS Morayshire arrived all 194 islanders boarded her.

Part Four: Return to Pitcairn & Religious Conversion (1856-1864)

Not all the community now on Norfolk Island were happy. Many of the islanders were homesick and pined for their old home, they wanted nothing more than to return. By this time no matter who was appointed chief magistrate the real leader was George Nobbs, who had been ordained priest in the Church of England in 1884. In spite of his earlier failings he had won great affection for his long selfless service to his adopted home. Had he opposed the migration few would have left Pitcairn. But even he could not over come the nostalgia.

Late in 1858 an opportunity arose when the Mary Ann, en route to Tahiti, offered passages, and 16 of the islanders led by Moses and Mayhew Young boarded her. Characteristically, those who stayed behind voted to pay the costs of the journey from communal funds.

The return to Pitcairn stopped the French, who thought the island abandoned, from annexing their home.

In 1864 a further four families returned to Pitcairn lead by Simon Young who, with Nobbs' final blessing was to become the community's new leader. It was a different Pitcairn now 43 people and only five families - the Youngs, Christians, McCoys, Buffetts and the American Warrens. And of these, the male lines of the McCoys and Buffetts were to die out.

This third wave of settlers knew how to make the best of their resources, but they were worse off than the original mutineers having no sail cloth to make cloths for instance, no means of lighting their homes other than by candlenut. What was more there were far fewer ships calling for them to exchange goods. The peak period of whaling in those latitudes was past and, of these there were only about a dozen.

The occasional vessel that did stop was likely to be a steamer carrying passengers. The islanders therefore put Buffett's lessons into practice and made curios selling them in place of food they sold to the whaling crews. Their limited resources were fortunately supplemented by a succession of shipwrecks which brought them a new 'bounty' from the outside world. The kindly community fed and clothed the shipwrecked sailors who, after they returned home, rewarded their rescuers with gifts of crockery, clothes, flour, books and even an organ.

Renewed visits from the Royal Navy in the Pacific revived interest in the children of the mutineers of the 'Bounty'. Queen Victoria sent another organ as a personal gift in appreciation of the islanders' "domestic virtue".

Part Five: Toward Modern Pitcairn (1864-1940)

Fresh settlers in 1882 brought trouble with their new ways and ideas. One incident was when one fell in love with a girl who was already engaged to a Christian. Strong passions were aroused and the commander of the visiting HMS Sappho was induced to approve a law forbidding strangers to settle on Pitcairn. The law was later amended but only to permit settlement by those whose presence was considered of benefit to the island.

A change of religion; 1887. With the passing years and no strong leader, reports of social deterioration grew. Simon Young, loved and respected, and his gentle and talented daughter Rosalind, were too humble and tolerant of frailty to impose their will, and family factions inhibited cohesion.

From the days of John Adams, the islanders had been staunch adherents of the Church of England. They read and studied the Bible, which was for many of them their only reading matter, and its texts were truth. Not unnaturally, therefore, they read with increasing interest the contents of a box of Seventh Day Adventist literature sent to them from the United States in 1876. And when a missionary arrived ten years later he was allowed, by unanimous vote, to stay and argue his case.

The result was recorded in Mary McCoy's diary in March 1887. "The forms and prayers of the Church of England laid aside. During the past week meetings were held to organize our church services on Sabbath". So Saturday again became the day of rest as it had been until 1814 when Fletcher Christian's omission to correct the date was rectified.

Conversion was greeted with great pleasure by the Seventh-day Adventists in America and in 1890 they raised funds to send a missionary ship to Pitcairn. The islanders were baptised in one of the rocky pools by the shore. But few other changes were needed; all were already total abstainers, most were vegetarians, except for occasional meals of goat, which is not forbidden by the Adventists. discipline; pork is not allowed.

Parliamentary Government in 1893. The missionaries relieved the ageing Simon Young in the school and, energetically introduced history, grammar, cooking and nursing; began a newspaper and a kindergarten; and opened a public park. The islanders began to question their social inertia and, putting it down to weakness in their leaders, asked Captain Rooke of HMS Champion to reorganize their system of government. An elected Parliament of seven was introduced and, for the only time in the history of Pitcairn was executive and judicial functions separated. The legal code was also revised to create penalties for, amongst other things, adultery, wife beating, cruelty and "Peeping Toms"; and the system of public work of pre-migration days was restored. Society was a long way from the simple order of John Adams!

But the reports of the naval officers who visited Pitcairn towards to end of the nineteenth century still continued to reveal how society had deteriorated since the return from Norfolk Island. There was lawlessness and a lack of unity and purpose; and, in 1897 murder. That the community did not deteriorate still further was due largely to the influence of James Russell McCoy, a great grandson of the mutineer.

In 1870, at the age of 25, McCoy had been elected Magistrate and during the next 37 years he was executive no less than 22 times.

A native of Pitcairn McCoy had spent some time in London and Liverpool and, autocratic though he was, he was also, in a real sense, a link between the old Pitcairn and new. By the turn of the century he had restored purpose to the community by enforcing the recently revived laws of public work; and his personal courage and example, which won him respect if not popularity, secured improvements until he began to spend much time overseas on missionary work.

In 1904 R.T.Simons, the British Consul at Tahiti, paid his first visit to Pitcairn and found the parliamentary system too cumbersome for such a small community. He reintroduced the time-honoured post of Chief Magistrate and two committees to take charge of internal and external, that is marine, affairs. All the posts were made subject to election and an additional office of Secretary-Treasurer was created. What was more, the days of representation without taxation were ended; an annual licence fee for the possession of firearms was introduced which, until 1968 when motor vehicle licences were introduced, was for so long Pitcairn's only tax.

The twentieth century brought the end of European rivalry in the Pacific and naval visits gradually diminished. Fortunately the mission ship Pitcairn, and her successors maintained contact with Tahiti and merchantmen again began to call with increasing frequency, until 1914, the opening of the Panama Canal placed Pitcairn on the direct run to New Zealand. Many of the new visitors were liners carrying hundreds of passengers anxious to have mementoes of the island, halfway rock on the longest regular service in the world. A ship a week, and Pitcairn's isolation was over.

The pattern of life changed, inevitably. More and more men developed an urge to see the world, which money and the visiting ships made possible, and communications grew up in Wellington and Auckland from which some moved to Australia. But even so, the public economy of Pitcairn languished and it was not until postage stamps were issued in 1940 and philatelists came to the rescue, That "shanty town" became the Adamstown of today.

by Horace A. Basham -

Reproduced from the Guide to Pitcairn published by the Government of the Pitcairn Islands. To order: $20.00 plus $3.00 packaging & shipping in the U.S.; $5.00 packaging & shipping overseas. Only U.S. dollars, checks in U.S. dollars or VISA, MasterCard or Discover credit cards accepted. Phone credit card orders to 707-965-6625, or 707-965-2047. FAX orders to 707-965-6504. Send orders through mail to:

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