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.

“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.

Women of the Bounty

In 1789 one of the most famous mutinies in western naval history occurred. A ship named The Bounty, captained by William Bligh, experienced a bloodless and effective mutiny, which ended with Bligh and his supporters deposited into a small dinghy.
The root of the mutiny lay deep, but one of the instigating factors was an extended six month layover at Tahiti, during which the men of the Bounty struck up many short lived friendships and indulged in many of the luxuries available to them. Afterwards Bligh could not reconcile the discipline of the British Navy with the freedom the crew had enjoyed in Tahiti, and was soon deposed.
Historians and artists have debated the morality of William Bligh and mutineer leader Christian Fletcher, but that isn’t the focus of this exhibition.
In fact the only reason to mention the Bounty at all is so that you might understand how these mutineers returned to Tahiti, and why they might have been able to use the authority of the ship and their connection with William Bligh to convince several Tahitian Women and men to come with them to Pitcairn Island, a then uninhabited place far from the grasp of the British Navy.
Many other works of history and fiction have documented the fates of these men, and the consequences that some were forced to meet and that others avoided.
There are far fewer accounts about the women who accompanied the mutineers, who bore their children, suffered their abuses and helped to nurture Pitcairn Island into its future form. And so it is our aim to examine their role in the founding of Pitcairn Island and the ways in which they shaped its’ development and evolution.
We will establish a basic timeline of events, so that you might better understand the facts of history as they stand, and be able to apply the general details of the narrative to the other exhibits. We will also examine the Tapa cloth in detail, and explore its place in Pitcairn Island and its significance in broader pacific history. You will also be able to listen to an interview given by contemporary residents of Pitcairn Island, and to hear from the women of Pitcairn themselves what it means to be a resident of the island.
And finally, we will give you a crash course in Historiography, and teach you how to apply narratives of history to physical objects rather than literary sources, so that you might better understand how to analyse history.
This won’t be the last word on the subject, and it is our hope that this is the first of many examinations on the Women of the Bounty. And through this exhibition we might understand better how women are portrayed in historical accounts, and how we might focus on them. From its beginning to the present day, Pitcairn Island wouldn’t be the same without the often opposing forces of European colonisation and Tahitian culture, and now we get to see this clash up close.

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…

Continue reading “A Paradise Lost: Breadfruit Bligh and the plight of Pitcairn”

Breadfruit, the Bounty and the silent tradition of the women of Pitcairn

Have you ever heard of breadfruit? Would you believe me if I told you that this species of fruit that grows in the Pacific was at the heart of colonialisation during the 18th century? Pitcairn is synonymous with mutiny, breadfruit, cultural reprisal, integration of culture and cultural hybridity. To tell a history of colonization, one must mention the role of breadfruit in accomplishing trade routes and networks of colonies in the South Pacific to the West Indies. The dispersal of breadfruit (a name derived from the Oceania fruits texture and described taste of being like ‘baked bread’!) is strictly correlated to human seafaring activities.
Colonization; the word itself invokes images of ships, immense cargos, rendezvous sailors, exotic islands and flourishing trade routes and networks. Colonization is racial and discriminatory in theory, and cruel in practice. The process involves the idea of settling amongst and cementing control over the lives, cultures and areas of land of indigenous peoples. The repercussions of colonialisation is far and outstanding. In history, trade and colonialisation go hand in hand. Also in this history, the silence of women is apparent.
The Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty is the catalyst in understanding and researching the impacts of colonization on native indigenous peoples in the South Pacific, especially Pitcairn. Pitcairn is an enigma to historicity, a pivotal marker in understanding the history of slavery and empire, and a crucial case study in exploring hybrid and mixed indigenous and western cultures. Pitcairn is a community of Anglo-Tahitian descendants from the 1787 voyage of the HMS Bounty to Tahiti required to collect and transport a cargo of breadfruit plants to the West Indies. Captained by Bligh and manned by history’s and pop-cultures most infamous Fletcher Christian and his band of mutineers, the tale of the Bounty, a seemingly all man driven narrative, is veiled and empowered by the mutineer genre. This genre, can hinder one’s interpretation on the actions and roles of women, particularly the Tahitian women taken by the mutineers for resettlement at Pitcairn.
I know what you are thinking, why would women be important in telling this mutineer tale on breadfruit and colonization on Pitcairn specifically and more broadly the South Pacific? Essentially, the women are crucial in understanding the impact of colonization on mixed-cultures and in understanding the reprisal of traditional indigenous practice and customs on Pitcairn. These Tahitian women adapted their cultural practices in resettlement resulting in aesthetic innovations of tapa making (bark cloth), that are unique to the island of Pitcairn. As the telling of history can be male dominated the roles and actions of women can take a ‘back seat’ in history. This “back seat” in history ignores the role of these women in creating the foundations of settlement and new culture (I would say, ensuring survival as well); and the generations of female descendants (of these Polynesian women and Bounty mutineers) who have struggled to have an historical representation that is representative of the role of the female Polynesian community on Pitcairn and Norfolk.
To tell the early history of Pitcairn, the Bounty and breadfruit are drivers in this narrative. But to generations of female Anglo-Tahitian Bounty descendants, empowering the role of their foremothers through the language of technology and design are just as important. Thee historian can see markers of cultural movement, communication and legacy between the Polynesian Islands through the silent, yet intangibly loud archaeological record of the tapa.
Breadfruit panel:
For more detailed history on Pitcairn: http//

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.

A Bounty of Forgotten Stories

Historically, the women of the Bounty have been relegated to a footnote. They are added on to the ends of sentences, where the active players are the mutineers and the story is one of treason on the high seas. The main focus of these stories is the almost mythological mutiny on the Bounty itself, where in 1789, twenty five crew members, led by Fisher Christian, rose up against Captain Bligh. The captain, along with his loyalist men, were set adrift by the treacherous Christian, who then turned the Bounty to Tahiti, then vanishing off into the vastness of the pacific.
For the women of the Bounty, however, this was just the beginning of the story.
In 1790, the Bounty arrived at Pitcairn. Aboard were twelve Polynesian women from Tahiti, Huahine and Tubuai, six Polynesian men and nine mutineers. Some of these women had come by choice, some had been taken by force, however they were now all forced to make a life together. Though the island was uninhabited at the time of the Bounty’s arrival, previous settlements had left breadfruit trees behind, a gift from the past that allowed the new community to survive.
The women held an active role in both the politics and the survival of this new Pitcairn society. As they came together to make tapa cloth, they exchanged information as well as keeping their culture alive through song and dance. Far from passive bystanders on Pitcairn, this information exchange allowed the women to manipulate the fates of the men on the island. Through working together, the women were able to move against the men, as well as making each other aware of plots against men who they might be loyal to, therefore allowing them to decide whether to act or not.
Just ten years later, in 1800, the population of Pitcairn had changed dramatically. There were now ten women and only one of the original mutineers remaining, John Adams. Whether through murder or illness, every other person from the original arrivals on Pitcairn had perished. However, despite women outnumbering now men, ten to one, the written history of Pitcairn is one focused on the men. John Adams became the mouthpiece of Pitcairn as ships eventually reached its far-flung shores, leading visitors away from the women, suggesting that they did not speak English. Once again though, the tapa cloth became a conduit for communication, even if those receiving it weren’t aware of it. These visitors to the island often left with gifts of tapa, each piece telling a story of the forgotten women of Pitcairn.
The cultural heritage of the women of Pitcairn has not been a topic of focus for historians. Instead, these women seem to get lost in the mythology of the Bounty story, the Pitcairn Project is working to change that.
Further information about the mutiny of the Bounty can be found below: – The Government of the Pitcairn Islands History – Further information on Pitcairn tapa – The trailer for the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty, contributing to the mythology of the event

The Deaths Were Pretty Bountiful

Right, if you want a story about how Fletcher Christian was the misunderstood, brooding hero, against the dastardly William Bligh, please go watch one of the many, MANY terrible movies and TV shows that have been made about it. It’s time for you to find out about what happened after.
Let’s start in the middle, it is 1789, the mutiny has occurred, and Bligh is no longer on board, having been forced into the ship’s launch. The mutineers return to Tahiti, seeking a safe haven from English justice. They have become increasingly desperate as they already have been driven away from Tubai, leaving behind many native men and women dead. While some mutineers decided to stay at Tahiti, others led by Christian began to formulate a plan to seek their own refuge on a remote island, eventually choosing to settle on Pitcairn. It is this decision that leads to the next deaths. To make living on a remote island more comfortable they decided to lure aboard a group of Tahitians. Once they were on board the mutineers set sail, and those Tahitians who were too old or young were thrown overboard. The healthy young men were to act as servants for the Europeans and the women to be the mutineers’ wives. These women were given English names by the mutineers, in remembrance of loved ones far away. It begins a slow process eroding the women’s cultural identity and another death of sorts.
Desolate Pitcairn, scarred with signs of previous Polynesian settlement hundreds of years ago, now had a population of nine mutineers, six Polynesian men, and twelve Polynesian women. By 1808 only one man would be left alive. Of the original women two would have died of natural causes, and all except one would live out their days on Pitcairn, making tapa and caring for their twenty three children.
The violent deaths which reduced the population weren’t as simple as Polynesian against European or man versus man. Instead the first two deaths of Polynesian men by mutineers appears to have been supported by the other Polynesian men and women. The subsequent deaths of five mutineers, including Fletcher Christian was an act of revenge by the Polynesians because of floggings and mistreatment, not for the first murders. This in turn led to the four remaining Polynesian men being murdered by the mutineers, however this act was aided by the Polynesian women. Of the remaining mutineers, Quintal was killed by the mutineers for his extreme drunken violence towards the women. The rampaging violence shows the Polynesian men and women did not see themselves as a united cultural or political group. They often acted as individuals and not because of racial ties. The women had themselves conspired to murder the men, and attempted to escape the island. These unsuccessful attempts reiterates how divided the women themselves were.
We can only speak of these events with a degree of certainty because of one of these women, John Adams’ fear of the noose led him to rework the events of suit the audience when Pitcairn was rediscovered in 1808, if it wasn’t for Teehuteatuanoa (Jenny) there wouldn’t be another account to compare it with, and perhaps we would not what exactly happened in the early years of Pitcairn. Teehuteatuanoa, was the only woman to leave the island. She doesn’t have her gravestone in National Maritime Museum ( , or had a lock of hair displayed alongside Lord Nelsons’ ( . She is barely remembered at all, drowned out by the destructive force of the Bounty.

A story that must be told: The Women of Pitcairn

A story that must be told; The Women of Pitcairn
Deep in the South Pacific, lies 47 square kilometres of remote and secluded island. This island inspires an air of mystery and adventure, with a total of 50 inhabitants today. Its rocky coastline has bared witness to a great betrayal and its foundations are built on the guilt of its original nine mutineers. It is of course, Pitcairn Island.
The story of how this infamous island came to be inhabited does not start with the island, it starts with a mutiny. Cast yourself back to England, 1787, Captain William Bligh and his crew set off to Tahiti on a mission to collect and transport breadfruit from the Polynesian Island to the East Indies. Upon their return from Tahiti, Fletcher Christian the acting Lieutenant aboard the Bounty cried mutiny, instigating the event that would shape Pitcairn Islands future on the morning of 28th April, 1789. Now the captain of the Bounty, Christian returned to Tahiti where he took Tahitian locals, mostly women, on his ship and went in search of a safe place to hide.
On 15 January 1790, Christian found his haven, a rugged, island to hide their guilt, known as Pitcairn. The land was fertile and uninhabited providing the perfect hidden location. After being stripped for living necessities the witness vessel, Bounty was burned along with the evidence of the mutineer’s treacherous act. Initially the co-existence of the Tahitians and Europeans was relatively peaceful. Families were established between the two cultures and Christian, as the leader, bore a son with a Tahitian woman.
The peace on the island was short lived and it appears the familial exchanges were not always consensual with the women being passed from man to man like property. A rebellion began to rise and in September 1793, five of the mutineers were murdered in violent attacks at the hands of the Tahitians. By 1794, many of the Tahitian men had been killed by the widows of the fallen mutineers and Young and Adams took their place as the leaders on the island.
However, this story has key characters that have often had their story stripped of them. The women of Pitcairn were strong and influential in the running of the island. They were actively involved in their culture, even after having been removed from their home. They were fiercely loyal to their role in society, as seen by their rebellion and the negotiations made between the two cultures. The male European story the world has presented for so long needs to be taken apart and re-examined with a different hierarchy in mind. A hierarchy that demonstrates that the women were not the weakest member of the society. They were the impervious link on the island to Polynesian culture, not to be dominated by the male presence. The enormity of the knowledge and culture these women possessed and passed down through their daughters displays another version of the history of Pitcairn that is in desperate need to be told.

Talking Tapa

In the Macleay Museum collection, there is a piece of tapa cloth from Pitcairn Island. It is only small, cut into a roughly rectangular shape. This particular piece of tapa was made by beating down the bark of a paper mulberry tree until it became thin and pliable. Though humble in its appearance, tapa has the ability to talk. When it talks, it betrays the story that is most often told about Pitcairn Island: the story of the Bounty Mutiny, of men and individual power.
Instead, tapa tells us about the lives of Pitcairn women, who are often neglected in the prevailing narrative. They arrived alongside the English mutineers in 1789 from the islands of Tahiti, Huahine, and Tubai. In early settlement, while men were occupied in land disputes, it was the women who fostered the island community. These women possessed a different kind of power to their male counterparts. It was not pent up in individual prestige but instead, could be shared over geographical boundaries and across generations. The story of these women is inscribed in the tapa they produced.
When Pitcairn Island was re-discovered in 1808, the women gave their visitors tapa as a reminder of their stay. Guests were encouraged to divide the cloth and share it with family and friends. Fragments of tapa, found all over the world, tell us that the women were not isolated. Tapa enabled them to forge international bonds, like the friendship between Mauatau and Frances Heywood. Visitors who were touched by their gift, reciprocated with economic goods that were shared with the whole community.
Pitcairn tapa is a genealogical map. The founding mothers made different varieties of tapa. Some made their cloth in vibrant red and orange, like the kind in the Macleay collection. Others adorned their material with plant prints. The foremothers passed their particular methods of tapa-making onto their daughters who, in turn, learnt to make cloths of the same kind.
In the 20th Century, scientists became fascinated with Pitcairn Island. It was seen as secluded site for racial mixing. They wanted to see what characteristics Pitcairn islanders had inherited from their paternal ancestry. In contrast to the clear matrilineal lines, embedded in tapa, these scientists could not reach any conclusions on the impact of miscegenation on inheritance. They merely discovered that ‘Englishness’ was not transmitted in the way they imagined.
The story of the Pitcairn women is harder to tell because requires acute observation and a broad base of knowledge. It contests the written archive, dominated by the voices of literate, European men. In order to understand the story, our class needed to develop an understanding of textiles, Polynesian custom and history. We have grappled with philosophical issues, such as the shifting value of artifacts. Most importantly, we needed to ask what tapa means to contemporary Pitcairn Islanders. For people like Pauline Reynolds, the fibrous strands of tapa link her to her family’s past. She has revived the practice of tapa-making with her sisters, to demonstrate that the legacy of her foremothers outlives the archaic beliefs of colonists and scientists. We are indebted to Pauline because her insight has allowed us to see tapa with a fresh perspective. If you are willing to look in uncommon places, if you ask different questions, then tapa will talk and it will tell you something new.
See the Macleay tapa here: