A Paradise Lost: Breadfruit Bligh and the plight of Pitcairn

“The mind is it’s own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, hell of heaven” -Milton.
Pitcairn Island. A place today with no airstrip, no medical or shipping services and no safe harbour. Who would be so possessed to travel to such an island? To travel to ‘paradise’, one must hitch a lift in a container vessel, travelling through the Pacific or embark on a thirty hour voyage by boat to the rugged lump of rock, situated between New Zealand and Chile.
Surely Heaven is closer?
For two centuries, this land has lured adventurers and rogues to explore its mystical land, ever since Fletcher Christian and his mutineers hid on Pitcairn from the British Navy exploring a place and people which were so remote (and still are geographically), lost in time and tradition. The island itself has believed to have been inhabited by Polynesians for hundreds of years, when Pitcairn was first stumbled upon by Captain Phillip Carteret aboard HMS Swallow in 1767. It was not until twenty-two years later when the HMS Bounty arrived to Pitcairn led by Christian…without Bligh!
Let us rewind back to 1789 and the events that led to the exploration of Pitcairn…

Captain William Bligh in 1789 set sail on the Bounty, for its second journey with a cargo of some thousand breadfruit saplings. No more than three weeks later, supposedly situated close to the Island of Tonga, a mutiny was staged by Christian against Bligh, whom they claimed to have suffered under his tyrannical behaviour. Following a court martial which heavily criticised Bligh’s conduct, Bligh and his loyal sailors were forced off the Bounty and set adrift, but survived their 3,600 mile voyage, reaching the island of Timor. From there, he travelled back to Britain. The events surrounding the Mutiny, before and after, are well-documented Bligh’s log-book. Christian returned to Tahiti, where along with sixteen men from the Bounty, another eight joined with their women and Tahitian men. He, and his outlaws, decided to sail west in search of a paradise. It was due to a longitudinal error, which contributed to the mutineer’s decision to settle on Pitcairn in 1790. The Island was described as being isolated and 1,350 miles southeast of Tahiti and was first sighted in 1767. The reason for its ideal habitation by Christian, was due to it being incorrectly chartered by Carteret. The mutineers set up camp and avoided detection by burning the ship and sinking it. They gave the impression they had disappeared from the face of the earth, whilst British Naval ships scoured hopelessly for months for the rogues. Those who stayed at Tahiti were captured and brought to trial in England where three were charged and seven exonerated. The island proved to be what it had been imagined; a fertile land, water and plenty of women!
The women and their silent traditions went unnoticed in literature and scholarly articles; however, their power is recognised through the unique production of Tapa cloths. These reveal much about their efforts to maintain their traditional customs of their homeland. The designs are imbued with a uniqueness and tells of the history of the women on Pitcairn Island as ‘founding fathers’. Their knowledge passed down, through generations, to their daughters led to a burst of creativity and innovation during the 1820s as Tapa began to be used for more than just clothing. What was once a male-dominated narrative which revolved around the traditional literature now has exposed several engrained traditions?
Links helpful to understanding the Bounty and the women of Pitcairn.

One thought on “A Paradise Lost: Breadfruit Bligh and the plight of Pitcairn”

  1. “Fa’aro ‘o! ~ Reo Maru Tupuna Vahine” ( Listen to the soft voices of our female Tahitian ancestors) is a work in progress(expected to come out this year) which aims to give back voice to the Women of the Bounty 3 of whom (Teio, Toofaiiti and Tevarua) are my ancestors. The work comprises a general updated history of Polynesia and its culture at the time of first contact and what it is like “being Polynesian” and reviews the external pressures experienced by the women to suppress and subdue their precious culture The aim of the book with an accompanying Tahitian Music album of ancient ( Including Himene Tarava and a Tapa-making chant) together with popular contemporary music originally transcribed and arranged – is to assist Norfolk Island with what it is hope will be a move towards a broader Polynesian Cultural Renaissance as is seen elsewhere in Oceania. Jacqui Chapman Shone – jmcshone@yahoo.com 30 August 2017

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