Imagine this. You’ve woken, as if from a dream, on an island. You’re one of twelve women of your race now facing a future on a strange place in the midst of a vast ocean. And it’s not that you are unfamiliar with the sea or island life, but with you are fifteen men, most of whom are a motley crew of white men you first met last year, and who have now brought you with them on their ship. But now that ship, so much bigger than the canoes with which you’re familiar, has been destroyed. The nervous realisation dawns on you that this is the beginning of a very new and different life far from the routines of your upbringing. Yet somehow, the Pareu you’re wearing brings back memories of days spent with your mother learning the skills of gathering the mulberry tree bark, preparing it and beating it into a piece of tapa cloth. You feel stronger and perceive a small glimmer of hope for the future.
This is precisely the situation faced by the Tahitian women who went with the Bounty mutineers in 1790 to found the remote settlement on Pitcairn Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It had been a calculated move by the leader of the British sailors, Fletcher Christian, to find somewhere they were unlikely to be discovered and brought to justice. Of course, to have any chance of creating a society he needed the women and the children they would bear.
Within ten years, 23 children would be born and all but one of the men would be dead – yet most of the women survived. Not that they were necessarily happy. There had been attempts at escape, and killings, as suspicion and jealousies arose. And yet survive they did. The women had formed a tight-knit community who had reared children and kept alive many of their customs. Due to their knowledge of the physical environment they were able to keep themselves fed and clothed. But why is it that we know so little about these women?
The men of the Bounty have been mythologised and made the stuff of both popular fiction and academic writings. Their story and names are relatively well known because they were accorded a voice through documentary records. And yet the women have been silent – until recently. It is only with the advent of a new approach to history where objects are seen for their role in making history real that their feminine agency has begun to gain credence amongst scholars.
The bark cloth (tapa) that these women made reveals much to those who know how to look. It had not just utilitarian or even ceremonial value: it was gifted and became a form of interaction with outsiders while also revealing their social origins. Methods of manufacture were adapted to local conditions and they innovated with dyes and patterns.
These Polynesian women were assertive custodians of their own culture. They not only provided the social glue for the fledgling society but took their destiny into their own hands. They deserve to be heard.