Pitcairn Island was discovered in 1767 by the British and settled in
1790 by the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian companions. Pitcairn was
the first Pacific island to become a British colony (in 1838) and today
remains the last vestige of that empire in the South Pacific. Outmigration,
primarily to New Zealand, has thinned the population from a peak of 233
in 1937 to less than 50 today.
Stone axes, remains of carved stone pillars similar to those of Easter
Island, and skeletons with a pearl-mussel beneath the head have been found
in the island, though it was uninhabited when discovered by Philip Carteret
in 1767. Pitcairn was the name of the midshipman who first observed it.
The island was destined to become the scene of a curious social experiment.
On the 28th of April 1789 a mutiny broke out on board the ship the Bounty,
then employed by the British government in conveying young bread-fruit
trees from Tahiti to the West Indies. The commander Lieutenant William
Bligh, was set adrift in the launch with part of the crew, but managed
to make his way to Timor in the Malay Archipelago. The twenty-five mutineers
at first all returned to Tahiti. Some remained, and six of these were ultimately
court-martialled in England, three being executed in 1792. Meanwhile in
1790 a party consisting of Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutiny,
eight Englishmen, six Polynesian men and twelve Polynesian women had taken
possession of Pitcairn Island and burned the Bounty.
Treachery and debauchery filled the first years of the annals of the
beautiful island. By 1800 all the men were dead except Alexander Smith,
afterwards known as John Adams, who rose to a sense of his responsibility
and successfully trained up the youthful generation left in his charge.
An American vessel, the Topaze, discovered the strange colony in 1808;
again, by accident, it was visited by the Briton, Captain Sir F. Staines,
and the Tagus, Captain Pipon, in 1817; and by the exploring ship Blossom
in 1825. On the death of John Adams on the 29th of March 1829 George Hunn
Nobbs, who had settled at Pitcairn in 1828, was appointed pastor and chief.
Through fear of drought the islanders removed to Tahiti in 1830, but
disapproved of both the climate and the morals of this island, and returned
to Pitcairn in 1831. Shortly after this an adventurer named Joshua Hill
appeared, and, claiming government authority, tyrannized over the islanders
till his removal by a British man-of-war in 1838. In 1856 the whole of
the islanders 60 married persons and 134 young men, women and children
were landed on Norfolk Island, but in 1858 two families chose to return,
and their example was afterwards followed by a few others. Visited in 1873
and 1878 the colony was found in excellent order, but by the end of the
century it was stated that intermarriage was bringing a deterioration of
intellect, morals and energy, and that the islanders would probably drift
into imbecility. Later accounts made it appear that this was an exaggeration,
although the standard of morality was unquestionably low on the whole.
This is Britain's most isolated dependency; only the larger island of
Pitcairn is inhabited but it has no port or natural harbor. Supplies
must be transported by rowed longboat from larger ships stationed offshore.
The inhabitants of this tiny isolated economy exist on fishing, subsistence
farming, handicrafts, and postage stamps. The fertile soil of the valleys
produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including citrus, sugarcane,
watermelons, bananas, yams, and beans. Bartering is an important part of
the economy. The major sources of revenue are the sale of postage stamps
to collectors and the sale of handicrafts to passing ships. In October
2004, more than one-quarter of Pitcairn's labor force was arrested on sex
crime charges, putting the economy in a bind, since their services were
required as lighter crew to load or unload passing ships.