The Women of Pitcairn and their Descendants

The women of Pitcairn Island were responsible for creating, maintaining, and passing on a number of traditions that were uniquely theirs. Historically, there voices have often been overshadowed by the story of the British men of the Bounty, with whom these women were associated. In 1789 the Bounty set sail from England, crewed by a group of young men, and captained by William Bligh. Their mission was to sail to Tahiti and retrieve breadfruit, to bring back to the West Indies as an economically efficient way to feed slaves. Unfortunately for the men on the Bounty, their journey was not a smooth one.
On their journey to Tahiti, the crew faced inclement weather conditions and illness, and ended up having to stay in Tahiti for five months before it was safe to set out again. During this time, many of the young men came to know the Oceanic women living on Tahiti and the surrounding islands. When they were finally able to set sail again, conditions on board the Bounty did not improve. Indeed, the following events suggest that they worsened. Disgruntled by Captain Bligh’s leadership, a mutiny was organised by Fletcher Christian, a crew member. Christian and his fellow mutineers sent Bligh and eighteen others adrift, and directed the ship back towards Tahiti.
When the group arrived back in Tahiti, they brought on board a number of women and a handful of men from Tahiti and the surrounding islands. While some accounts claim that these women came on board willingly, many suggest that they were captured by force. The British men and Oceanic women then made their way to Pitcairn Island, which was, in 1789, deserted. Pitcairn Island was to become, therefore, a cultural melting pot of sorts. The British and Tahitian cultural traditions mixed in such a way that a unique Pitcairn culture was born.
The community on Pitcairn Island in 1789 was a small one, and the community remains small today. For the people from Pitcairn, this often makes it easy to trace their lineage, and find a sense of pride that comes from both their British ancestors and their Tahitian mothers. Mauatua, for example, was one of the founding mothers of the Pitcairn community that exists today. She was the oldest woman brought from Tahiti, and she married Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutineers. Later, she partnered with Edward Young, another mutineer, so many people from Pitcairn with the named Christian and Young can trace their ancestry to Mauatua.
Along with the other Tahitian women, Mauatua helped to bring the tradition of the tapa cloth to Pitcairn Island. The tapa is a type of cloth made by beating and decorating tree bark in very particular learned ways. When they arrived on Pitcairn, the Tahitian women found that there was a different variety of materials available to them for tapa-making, and so the practice evolved. The women used tapa for many day-to-day purposes, including clothing and bedding. The knowledge of tapa-making is passed down through the matrilineal line, meaning from woman to woman. Pitcairn tapa is found around the world today. Mauatua’s tapa is found in London, as is her great-granddaughter, Helena Beatrice Young’s, while Mauatua’s daughters, Polly and Dolly, made tapa that is found in New Zealand and Oxford. These pieces of tapa clearly demonstrate the matrilineal process, as they all resemble one another, being fine, pale pieces of cloth. The matrilineality of tapa leaves the power of cultural transference in the hands of the Oceanic women and their descendants, many of whom still practice, or are trying to revive the art of tapa-making today.

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