“Come Ye Blessed”

In 1790, eleven Tahitian women and a baby girl departed Tahiti, on board HMAV Bounty, on a journey that would see them settle on the remote pacific Island of Pitcairn. Where they, the women, would ultimately become the dominant agents in the development and creation of a new Anglo-Pacific society and culture. Accompanying them were nine English mutineers, seeking a secure and remote hideaway from the inevitable British Naval search party, with a further six Polynesian men along for adventure and a new life.
By the turn of the century in 1800, all the men except for John Adams were dead along with two of the founding women. Accidental death and disease accounting for a few of the deaths, the majority though were the result of murder and massacre as the European and Polynesian men fought each other over land rights and the favour of the women. Thus, at the start of the new millennium on Pitcairn there was one man, ten women and a growing herd of young children, who needed caring for.
Cleary, you would conclude that the major responsibility for raising and sustaining these children was going to fall to the women. Or so you would think. But somehow or other this logical and obvious conclusion has been subsumed by a Eurocentric male tradition that objectifies the Pitcairn women and denies them agency in the story.
At last the full story of the women of Pitcairn is being revealed in a fresh contemporary way that utilises the material heritage and culture that these women brought with them to Pitcairn and the unique tapa cloths that these women manufactured, designed and decorated on the Island. Cloths and designs that linked their past sustained their present and informs the future.
In this fresh social interpretation, of history, it is the tapa that become our primary source of information. We know the tapa was made in the traditional way, a method that would shortly fall into abeyance on Tahiti, as the influence of the arriving Western missionaries curtailed its use. Obviously, the missionaries dictates would have no effect on Pitcairn. In addition to clothing the new community the cloth would provide: bedding, blankets, towels, nappies, bandages. The women worked together collectively, free to chat and plan, passing on their oral history, songs and cultural traditions to the younger women who in their turn would pass it on to their daughters. On Pitcairn, the women added new designs, inspired by their new surroundings and experimented with new dyes and colours extracted from the vegetation on the island.
Whilst these women may not have been able to grant and give formal interviews to enhance the historical record. What they did leave behind, their unique tapa cloths, continue to give us a unique insight into their world, their social structures, culture and gifting practices. They were not objects their tapas gave them a voice and are continuing witness to the important role that the Pitcairn women played in the formation of a unique hybrid Polynesian society.

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