“Robinson Crusoe’s Children”

The Strange Story of Nine English Mutineers Who Took Up Their Abode With Their Native Tahitian Wives, on a Desert Island in the South Seas.

Not until 1808 was a trace of the missing men discovered. In that year Captain Mayhew Folger of Boston was very much surprised to find himself hailed in English by the children of the mutineers when he touched at Pitcairn, which he believed to be uninhabited. He learned from the sole surviving male, John Adams (formerly Alexander Smith), that on reaching Pitcairn in 1790 the “Bounty” was destroyed so that there might be no defection. Each of the nine sailors received an equal allotment of land.

Owing to the treatment which the native men received at the hands of their white companions, they soon rebelled. Dissension among the sailors on account of the women and fighting with the native men led to a series of horrible and brutal crimes, which ended in the murder of all the native men and all but four of the sailors. Of these, M’Coy, who in his youth had worked in a Scotch distillery, discovered the intoxicating qualities of a distillation of the ti plant. It was reported that he jumped over a cliff in a drunken frenzy.

A WHALE ON THE SHINGLE

Whaling is still an important industry on Norfolk from July to October. Great strips of blubber are hauled up on the shore by a team of horses to vats where the oil is extracted. 

Photo by H. L. Shapiro

Quintal was murdered by Young and Adams in self-protection. The only natural death was that of Young, who died in 1800, leaving Adams alone with the women and the children of the various unions of the sailors with the native women. Later visitors described Adams as a patriarchal figure, fathering the whole little colony, imparting his small store of learning and religion, and prescribing the line of conduct to be followed by his charges.

So unexpected and dramatic was the idyllic life of the Pitcairn Islanders after the violence which attended its establishment, that this remote island and its inhabitants served many a preacher for a text on the beauties of a Christian life. Rare copies still exist of a small pamphlet distributed among American Sunday Schools early in the Nineteenth Century which related the story of the Pitcairn Islanders for the edification of young readers.

Except for the rare arrival of a ship, the calm of Pitcairn was unbroken. In 1831 the islanders made an attempt to establish themselves on Tahiti, where they might have more room for expansion. This ended in disillusionment and a return to Pitcairn. Nothing more was done about the dread of overpopulation, which motivated the move to Tahiti, until 1855, when they petitioned the British Government to remove them to Norfolk, which was being abandoned as a penal island. Consequently in 1856 the whole community was transferred to its new home on Norfolk, where for the first time they saw stone buildings. Although Norfolk is considerably larger than Pitcairn, and its beauty attracted many of the islanders, some of the colony were homesick for Pitcairn. After a few years several families returned to Pitcairn, where their descendants still live. But the principal group still dwells contentedly on Norfolk. Some years afterward, against the wishes of the islanders, the Melanesian Mission established a station on Norfolk, but recently it was abandoned.

LUNCHING AL FRESCO

Picnics are popular on Norfolk. “Uncle” Cornish, the benevolent guide of the author of this article, is shown here. He is a grandson of Matthew Quintal, a mutineer. 

Photo by H. L. Shapiro

Life on Pitcairn was largely dependent on the fruits and crops of the island. In later years chickens and cattle were added to the resources of the colony. From the nature of its beginnings the colony was, in a sense, a sociological experiment. The sailors found themselves in a milieu which was utterly different from their own environment, and they were forced to make use only of the materials which they could secure on the island.

The only men of education and learning died or were soon murdered. John Adams was almost illiterate, tracing the meanings of words with great difficulty, and he had no knowledge of government or law. Consequently it is remarkable to trace the development of a workable code of self-government and conventions. Almost from the beginning the women had an equal share with the men in the election of the officials who took over the guidance of the colony after Adams’ death in 1829. Property was inherited alike by all the children regardless of sex. Education was compulsory up to the age of sixteen. This consisted in learning to read, write, and cipher, with a great deal of Biblical history. For a time there was a communal fund of food to which all contributed. Later, when trading assumed greater proportions, definite regulations were adopted to govern the methods and standards of exchange.

The houses were built in an original fashion. The planks were placed vertically in grooves cut into large timbers which made the frame of the house. Some were two stories in height and were grouped about a central commons. The clothing was made by the women from tapa manufactured according to Tahitian methods, although later they were able to secure clothes from whalers and others who visited them. The manner of cooking was very reminiscent of Tahitian cooking. A whole pig would be baked in a pit dug in the ground and covered over with a mat of leaves.

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