About 1,300 miles southeast of Tahiti is a volcanic island with fewer than 50 residents, limited electricity and only four trips a year to and from New Zealand by boat. Author Brandon Presser calls it a “caravan park at the end of the world.”
But as Presser writes in his new book, The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania and Mutiny in the South Pacific (Public Affairs), out March 8, Pitcairn Island also has a remarkable story: the 48 people who who live here There are mostly direct descendants of the notorious mutineers who took over HMS Bounty in 1789.
Modern residents eat the island’s fruits, vegetables and seafood, but the bulk of their diet consists of canned goods, delivered by cargo ship every three months. The dilapidated houses have no front doors and are overgrown with trees and plants. There is a school for students up to the age of 12 with currently three students.
And while two large families currently live on the island – the descendants of rebel leader Fletcher Christian and the descendants of a seafarer named Warren – the two ignore each other in a low-level feud that has been going on for years, though the family lineage is intertwined.
Pitcairn is so far from civilization that Presser had to buy $1,000,000 in insurance just to visit. There is only one small medical clinic that takes care of the health care and is currently run by a retired doctor from Australia – the rare immigrant – who wanted to spend his old age somewhere exotic. When a resident’s appendix ruptured, she died at sea before making it to a hospital. After that, the entire population was deported from the island to have their appendix removed as a preventive measure.
There is no electricity on the island from 10pm to 6am every night when the sole generator is shut down to conserve diesel. Wi-Fi and cellular networks have only recently become available, but residents have always communicated with each other and the outside world via VHF radio. Visitors must stay at the homes of local families as there are no resorts, hotels, restaurants or bars. The only “bar” open during Presser’s visit was the living room of a local couple who were willing to sell the author a drink.
But a few years ago, islanders took a new interest in raising tourist funds and hired a marketing consultant who recruited Presser, a travel writer.
Tourism is not an entirely alien concept to the islanders, as some are surprisingly well-travelled. Because of his famous ancestor, Steve Christian – the local who, along with his wife and “fifth or sixth cousin,” Olive, housed Presser – has long been of interest to historians, who view Pitcairn residents as a kind of “museum people”. ‘ Presser writes. They were received by the Royal Geographical Society in London and even had high tea at Buckingham Palace.
Commanded by Captain Bligh – known for harassing his men and frequently whipping them – the Bounty left England for Tahiti in January 1788 to collect a boatload of breadfruit. A late start meant the 90-foot vessel could not navigate through the Cape Horn winter, so Bligh steered around Africa, adding 10,000 miles to the voyage. The crew of 46 suffered, battling rough seas and surviving on maggot-covered biscuits and salted meat.
Arrive in Tahiti in October, the Boot was greeted by welcoming natives and succulent fruit. But when the disadvantaged sailors found the women sharing their bodies liberally, the Bounty was doomed.
The English quickly became “native”, tattooed and danced naked. Only Bligh, determined to sail his cargo to Jamaica, was undeceived. In April 1789 he put his crew back to sea, but they quickly missed island life. Christian, fed up with being put down by the captain, snapped, seizing the ship’s muskets and taking command.
Bligh and 18 followers were forced into a longboat and wheeled into the Pacific, where, Presser writes, he “directed one of the most incredible feats of navigation ever recorded as he sailed the tiny vessel 4,000 miles to Indonesia.”
Meanwhile, Christian provided the Bounty with cattle and friendly Tahitians – 30 men and 9 women – and sailed to Tubuai to build a Pacific paradise. But he quickly learned how difficult it is to hack a living from the lice- and mosquito-infested jungle guarded by spear-wielding warriors, and how lazy his fellow mutineers were.
Eventually they resettled on Pitcairn. The fresh water and farmland of the isolated, uninhabited island made them suitable, but within three years “nearly all the mutineers would be dead,” writes Presser. Some, including Christian, were killed by Polynesians brought over with the crew, others by jealous infighting.
By 1800 the sole survivor of the Bounty was Alexander Smith, who for the next eight years lived as the peaceful patriarch of an extended family of Tahitian women and countless children, including those left behind by the mutineers who had died.
When an American seal fishing vessel landed on the island in 1808, the only Englishman found there claimed to be ‘John Adams’, but admitted the wrecked Bounty could be seen in the shallows off the Pitcairn coast.
The boat’s discovery was briefly a world first, but Pitcairn did not return to the headlines until 1998, when a visiting minister accused 19-year-old Shawn Christian – Steve and Olive’s son and an 8th-generation descendant of Fletcher – of his 11th -year-old daughter sexually abused. Shawn didn’t deny the allegations, instead saying he and the tween are “in love,” Presser writes.
A lawsuit was eventually filed accusing 13 Pitkerner men of child molestation, sexual molestation, molestation and rape, with six eventually jailed.
After the scandal, however, locals were not particularly remorseful and did not call the statements of various young women damning evidence, only “bedroom stories,” writes Presser. On Pitcairn, residents apparently believed that the age of consent was 12 or less.
The scandal confirmed to many residents that they didn’t want to be disturbed by the outside world. That’s probably why Presser was approached on the town deck by an angry local a few minutes after arriving in Pitcairn.
“I don’t want you to talk to me, approach me, or look at me while you’re here,” the man scolded. “Got it?”
Presser also found that while islanders are interested in tourism dollars, they don’t seem to care about outsiders.
Some Pitkerners described to Presser a philosophy of hospitality that they call “hypocritic” or behave in a sociable and welcoming manner without really meaning it.
When Presser got to the island, he heard Steve yell, “There’s the bastard!” at the freighter that had just dropped him off.
It was strange, writes Presser: “The freighter was Pitcairn’s only connection to the rest of the world, and yet Steve resented its presence.”
The writer stayed on Pitcairn for a month, but because of the reticence of the residents, he often spent his days alone.
One day Presser was walking alone through the Pitcairn woods, convinced that he was being followed.
Hearing a rustle in the bushes, he freaked out and fled to the safety of a beach. But then Presser cut himself on a rock, bleeding profusely, he had to return to the city.
The author writes how the original mutineers suffered “prolonged bouts of…paranoia,” resulting in killing one another by gunshot and stabbing, bayonet and hammer blows, and occasional splitting of the head in half. On that day in the jungle, Presser understood how isolation could make you imagine things.
Still, it turned out he was right about being followed: out of the undergrowth waddled Miz T, the island’s resident Galapagos giant tortoise.