In September 1808 an American sailing ship, The Topaz was halfway between New Zealand and South America when it came across an uncharted island. Although it was not safe to land the Captain of The Topaz saw a canoe making its way out from the shore toward his ship. To Captain Folger’s astonishment the two youths dressed in native clothing spoke perfect English and claimed to be Englishmen. Before long Folger had unravelled a mystery that had intrigued the world for two decades.
Thirty years before Folger came across Pitcairn island a sailor by the name of Fletcher Christian had led perhaps the most famous mutiny in history – the mutiny on The Bounty. Casting Captain Bligh and his officers adrift in a longboat the mutineers set sail for the tropical paradise Tahiti. Against astonishing odds William Bligh found his way back to England and the British Government dispatched a warship to hunt down the mutineers. When the warship arrived at Tahiti some of the mutineers were captured, but seven of them seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
Those seven knew the British would come after them and set sail from Tahiti with six Polynesian men and twelve Tahitian women they kidnapped. Along the way they picked up another two Polynesian men. Eventually they came to the uncharted Pitcairn island, burned The Bounty to avoid detection, and these fifteen men and twelve women set about making this tiny island their home. Their story is not a pretty one. By the time Captain Folger discovered them in 1808 twelve of the fifteen men had been murdered, one had committed suicide, and one had died of natural causes. Three of the women were also dead.
Soon after the mutineers and their companions arrived at Pitcairn the white men assumed privileged positions and sexual jealousies raged. Coupled with alcohol made from the root of the Ti plant violence and murder exploded on the island.
Yet when Captain Folger arrived in 1808 he found a thriving, peaceful and virtuous community made up of the surviving mutineer, the surviving women and the children who had been born during the community’s short and previously violent life. Indeed, over coming years visitors to the island were struck by how idyllic the community was. What had brought about such change?
Historians debate the causes, but it seems that a large part at least was the conversion of the Pitcairners to Christianity. The last surviving European, John Adams, had assumed the role of chief, and had been converted himself after learning to read the Bible and Prayer Book that had been taken from The Bounty before it was destroyed. Adams set about converting the others and soon after the islanders were living by the principles they found laid down in the Bible. The result was by no means a perfect community, but it was a community marked by peace and the desire to live virtuous lives.
Source: Reported in Trevor Lummis Life and Death in Eden. Pitcairn Island and The Bounty Mutineers (Phoenix 1997) and Christianity Today August 7, 2000