The Women of Pitcairn

In a stolen ship, after initiating a mutiny and returning to Tahiti, nine mutineers desperately searched for an island on which to forge an independent community, free from the repercussions of their deeds. Upon their arrival at Pitcairn, in 1790, they burned their ship. By removing their only form of transport, they completely isolated themselves on one of the world’s most remote islands, demonstrating a confidence (or perhaps sheer determination) that this venture would succeed. This is a story of treacherous betrayal, high-sea adventures and man’s quest to rule his own identity that has become part of the western popular imagination. However, as is often the case in history, there are forgotten protagonists within this story. With the mutineers, nine Polynesian men and twelve women from Tahiti sailed to Pitcairn. In particular, the story of the women, who outnumbered and outlived the men, is far more compelling.
After ten years of settlement, all but one mutineer, John Adams, and ten women survived. With them was a large collection of children whose were raised on the cusp on Polynesian and European traditions and values. Even before the number of men dwindled due to murder, alcohol and suicide, these women had agency. Through material culture and oral history, stories have emerged that paint these women as innovators, strategists and highly capable of seafaring adventures.
Like the men, not all the women were of single mind. Teehuteatuaonoa (‘Jenny’) was determined to return home to Tahiti. She finally managed to bargain her way back on a whaling ship in 1817 where she recounts stories of numerous murder plots that were thwarted and even concocted by the women themselves.
Another of the founding women, Mauatua (‘Isobella’), was highly skilled at tapa making, the practice of making cloth from bark. She could make a cloth as soft as muslin, a skill that reflected her high status. Her genealogy can be traced through the descendants as she passed on her skills. Due to the influences of missionaries, the cultural practice of tapa began to decline in Tahiti during this period and eventually disappeared. However, in Pitcairn, tapa making continued till the 1940s and is part of a current restoration of cultural heritage. Surviving artefacts show us that these women turned to their own cultural practices to help consolidate their new identities and social order.
This project is inspired by a small piece of tapa that is held in the Macleay Museum. This small piece of tapa has travelled nearly 8000kms from Pitcairn to its current resting place. Even now, physically getting to and from Pitcairn, takes a Herculean effort, yet the story of the Bounty and the settlement on Pitcairn has crossed the globe, becoming a part of the western popular imagination as well as the basis of identity for the descendants. This project is just a small effort to ensure that the forgotten and important story of the women travels just as far, if not further.

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