Tag Archives: culture

The settlers from Pitcairn

Cows have right of way on Norfolk. There used to be free-roaming horses, too

The third wave of immigrants to Norfolk Island were the people from Pitcairn Island, and they form the basis of most of the permanent population. The mutiny on the Bounty is part of their family history. It’s how their ancestors came to Pitcairn Island, a remote 2 square miles in the South Pacific. I suppose everybody has heard of the mutiny, if only because of the movie starring Marlon Brando. But we Australians maybe know a little more. Bligh was forced into the ship’s longboat with eighteen companions – more would have gone with the captain had there been room. In an extraordinary feat of seamanship, Bligh navigated the overloaded long boat across to Timor, then on to Batavia. Bligh became one of Australia’s early governors. [1]

For the people of Norfolk Island what happened to Fletcher Christian and the ‘mutineers’ is much more important. Christian eventually took those men who had not supported the mutiny to Tahiti, then, knowing the Admiralty would come looking for them if the mutiny was discovered, he set sail for a safe haven, taking with him eight mutineers, six Polynesian men, twelve women, and a baby. 2

Pitcairn was safe enough, but very small; there was increasing tension between the white men and the Polynesians, and eventually all but one of the men was killed. John Adams had turned to religion and led his remaining flock well. But the island was soon overpopulated. In due course the islanders wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, begging her for a new home. Now I’m something of a cynic: I think that request happily coincided with the decision to close the penal settlement on Norfolk. There were good economic reasons for closure – but it did offer an opportunity to those pesky French if the island was abandoned. I imagined a scene from “Yes Prime Minister”, with Sir Humphrey explaining the value of handing over the island to the Pitcairn folk, who could be left to it with very little further impact on the English purse. And they’d keep the dreadful Froggies out. Win win win.

Ahem. Back to Norfolk. Two local artists have created a cyclorama that illustrates the history of the Pitcairn islanders from the Bounty’s departure from Portsmouth through to the mutiny, settlement on Pitcairn and then the first landing on Norfolk in 1856. The cyclorama is a series of stunning, realistic paintings set in a circle. As you walk from one scene to the next, you listen to music and sounds to accompany what you’re looking at. Documents explaining the history are on the opposite wall. It’s a spectacular historical experience. No photos are allowed, but here’s the website. Click through the header to get some idea of this very special place.

The Pitcairn Islanders were confronted with a very different environment to the one they’d left. I can’t do any better than their own description, so pop over here and read it. It’s not very long, and I’ll wait for you to catch up.

Welcome back. The Norfolk Island people are proud of their heritage and are very happy to share. We visited the Pitcairn settlers’ village to learn a little about the lifestyle of the earliest settlers. In fact, much of what we were shown was the result of the industry of George Bailey, who joined the community from outside. He was a blacksmith, a skill the earlier settlers would definitely need.

The still-working forge

The boys leaning over the engine of the 1929 Ford

Norfolk has a sub-tropical climate, so many different varieties of plants can be grown. The exceptions are anything that needs a cold winter, like berries and apples. The Pitcairners grew the plants they knew – many types of bananas, guavas, arrowroot, corn, and kumara. Pretty much everybody has a vegetable garden to this day. We went for a short drive in a 1929 Ford which had been the island’s very first tourist ‘bus’. It’s fun, but my back was not impressed. Once again, the locals have done a better job of describing the Pitcairn Settlers’ Village than I can, with details I’d forgotten, so here’s the link. We spent some time in Jane Evans’s shed in Music Valley. Jane is the descendant of a whaler, and proudly displayed his telescope. She grew up here in this little piece of paradise. If she wanted a fishing rod she cut a length of golden cane bamboo, tied a short line to the end so that it hung down to her waist level, slung her catch bag over her shoulder, and strolled the short walk to the sea. When she caught a fish it hung at waist level when she raised the pole, and she could easily slip the fish into her catch bag. She showed us two uses for bananas – which she called plun. The first, from overripe bananas, was a delicious banana bread. The second was made from green plun almost ready to ripen. She skinned the plun using a knife, then grated it. The grated plun is formed into little dumplings and fried in oil. She served it with a sauce made of cream mixed with a little bit of golden syrup. She demonstrated a wonderful contraption that removes the kernels from dried corn, then returns the core to the operator. And she showed us a number of hand woven Norfolk Island hats, with a brief demo of the techniques used.

Jane showing the corn-kernel-remover. The cores are used as fire lighters. Waste not, want not.

Later in the day we were treated to a detailed demonstration of the art of hat-weaving using several different local materials, each requiring different preparation. These were all techniques the Islanders had learnt from their Polynesian forebears.

That fusion of cultures is so important. Early in our visit we heard one example of how the British got it very, very wrong. I mentioned in a previous post that Cook had noticed a plant he’d identified as flax, which was used to make sailcloth. It was actually a lilium, so techniques used in Europe to process flax didn’t work. However, it was known that the Maoris in New Zealand used a similar plant to weave cloth, so the enterprising Europeans with their incorrigible feeling of entitlement kidnapped two Maoris so they could explain how to process the plant. But white entitlement actually meant white male entitlement. The women did the cloth making so the Maori warrior and his cleric mate the English had kidnapped couldn’t help them. (Haha) The two men were taken back to New Zealand after their kidnappers explained they just wanted to know how to make flax. [3]

We had an opportunity to sample Norfolk Island food at the fish fry – a fun outdoor gathering involving deep fried fish nuggets Norfolk Island style, salads, a number of local dishes, alcohol, and an entertainer, all while the sun sank into the Western sea.

The Norfolk Islanders have developed their own spoken language, which is a kind of pidgin mixed with Tahitian words. On one of our tours Kath taught us a little song in Norfolkese (the chorus, anyway), accompanying the singing with her home made ukulele.

Kath’s little song

There was so much to see and do on this little island. I’ve barely scratched the surface. So much to follow up on, and read about. And to think about. It’s interesting to look at human impact on this tiny piece of nature. I’ll do that next time. I’ll finish with a few more nature pics. Because I can.

The view from Mt Pitt

Sunset into the sea