The Pitcairn Islands: Mutineers, Murder, Mayhem, and Incest

A tropical island with a boat on the blue water

A tropical island with a boat on the blue water

Photo by Artem Pochepetsky on Unsplash

In the days of pirates and unknown exploration into the big deep blue, the Pacific Ocean was a land of tribes, kingdoms, and greedy colonialists.

Any spot of land was looked upon as being untouched and ripe for the taking by sailors from the other side of the planet.

Spot an island? It’s the Queen’s now. Don’t worry about the feisty locals, they’ll become new loyal subjects the minute a document is signed.

And Pitcairn Island was no exception to this.

But this desolate island in the South Pacific was certainly an exception to being anywhere near normal — even to this day.

An old drawn picture of Pitcairn Islands

Credit: J. Shillibeer — State Library of New South Wales DL Pd 702, Public Domain, 

Where is Pitcairn Island?

It was initially ‘discovered’ in 1606 by a Portuguese sailor named Fernandes de Queirós. He called the group of 4 islands — La Encarnación (The Incarnation).

A dangerous place, far from any settlements and other lands. The coastlines were wildly rocky and the waves could barely be handled.

It was later occupied, however, by an assortment of British mutineers and their Tahitian friends’ in 1790.

There were only 15 men, 11 women, and a baby that first arrived.

28 years later, there was only 1 remaining man.

Mutiny on the Bounty

In April 1789, a bitter mutiny was instigated on board a British trading ship, the HMS Bounty.

The vessel had originally been sent to Tahiti and other nearby islands to cultivate breadfruit and bring back the plants for growing in other colonies.

This involved mooring the HMS Bounty in beautiful Tahiti for 5 months while the crew made preparations.

So far so good.

Except it was TAHITI — one of the most beautiful places on Earth. And the captain was gracious enough to let the entire crew live on the island for those 5 months.

As often happens when people live on tropical islands for a while — they didn’t want to leave.

After the 5 months were up, the crew was commanded to board and set sail for a journey back to England.

This didn’t sit quite well with many of them. Especially the crewmember who was married during that time.

I wonder what they used instead of shotguns for weddings back then?

No one wanted to leave paradise. They mutinied.

Fortunately for the captain, it was a bloodless coup. The loyalists were arrested but kindly shipped off on a few small lifeboats.

The remaining crew, happy with their victory, went back to living on the beautiful islands.

Perhaps they forgot they were now legally ‘enemies of the crown’. A crown belonging to the largest empire in history.

Talk about getting a royal flush.

Tough times in Tahiti

Thinking they should hide at first, the crewmates first settled on an island called Tubuai.

An occupied island with people that really didn’t want to share their land.

They then made the ‘intelligent’ choice of going back to Tahiti. Surely the royal navy wouldn’t think to check for them there, right?

14 of these 16 sailors on Tahiti were arrested within a few months.

The other group of sailors were slightly more intelligent — and didn’t forget they had a full-fledged naval vessel at their disposal.

This group of whacky rag tags enjoyed a few months of cajoling with the beautiful Tahitians in their island paradise. But they remembered the looming death sentence that surely awaited them in time.

So one of them thought up a great idea:

“Hey guys, why don’t we kidnap these people and bring them with us while we run from the largestt navy in the world?”

And so they did.

A drawn picture of the crew taking supplies off the HMS Bounty

Credit: Robert Dodd — National Maritime Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia

Kidnapping and settling

The small crew and kidnapped passengers traveled to several colonies around the Pacific, continually coming to the conclusion that they’d be captured if they moved onshore.

In January of 1790, to their surprise, they came across the Pitcairn islands.

A completely empty, gorgeously green island with an average year-round temperature of over 20 degrees Celsius and plenty of places to hide?

Sign me up!” one of them undoubtedly said at the time.

And so they and their unwilling passengers moved all of their belongings onto the shore.

They were left with only one remaining thing on their to-do list — scuttle the ship!

They figured if the ship was completely buried beneath the waves, no one would ever realize the mutineers were hiding on the island.

And shockingly, they were right. Sort of.

They were right for about 28 years.

And by they, I mean he — the only remaining surviving mutineer — Mr. John Adams.

Pitcairn Island People

Of all the 15 men (9 mutineers and 6 Tahitians), 11 women, and 1 baby that had arrived — only 2 men managed to survive after 10 years.

Two aggressive men surrounded by 11 women on a remote island in the middle of the South Pacific. Hmm.

John Adams and Ned Young enjoyed a decade full of alcoholism, fighting, murder, and disease.

At this point, they felt it was probably time to turn over a new leaf.

And as one is wont to do, they decided they were now ‘holy men’ and instituted a scripture-based society.

And what do holy men do on a remote isolated island?

They made babies, apparently. Lots and lots of babies.

Coastline on Pitcairn Islands

Credit: Makemake, CC BY-SA 3.0

Discovered at last

In 1808, the UK finally found them, and they weren’t so angry anymore (somehow).

Instead of arresting John, they ended up giving him amnesty for his capital crime of mutiny.

They even went so far as to officially establish the Pitcairn Islands as a colony in 1838.

Weirdly enough, it was one of the first British colonies to enact universal suffrage in the entire world. I suppose not having a hospital wouldn’t require much funding to do that.

Those holy men were pretty serious about their baby-making. By 1956 there were 193 people living on the tiny island!

Too many people, in fact. They requested help from England to move to a larger ‘nearby’ island.

This family reunion of a colony faced a choice — leave or starve to death.

The original drop shipping

So they moved.

All 193 of them.

They shipped out in 1856 to another island called Norfolk Island, where there was more land and resources for them to survive and possibly thrive.

Five short years later, 41 of these Pitcairians were not happy with their new land. They longed for their homeland and ended up moving back.

And — they continued making babies.

If you looked up their GDP at the time, babies would be their main export.

By 1881 there were 96 people living on the island.

Interestingly during this period, HMS ships started stopping by the island out of curiosity. They often left much needed supplies of food, cement, and soap as donations for the people there.

By 1937, just before WW2, the island was finally at its peak population of — 233!

Those ships really should’ve left some contraceptives too.

Pitcairn Island Inbreeding

Since that period, the island population has slowly been declining.

Many of the islanders moved to Australia or New Zealand, as these countries belong to the Commonwealth and often ended up supporting Pitcairn.

These days, the Pitcairn Islands are home to only about ~50 people. 50 people with a strange, strange cultural habit.

With a collective national GDP of only $138,000 USD, there’s not much business going on.

Internet connectivity is by satellite only and extremely expensive.

You can also only leave the island a couple of times a year when the supply ship comes in!

The strange cultural habit? Widespread underage-relations.

Something so terribly ingrained in their society that no witnesses would come forth to help any investigations when New Zealand finally investigated in the early 2000s.

One-third of the entire male population was convicted of sex crimes in the 2004 trial.

This was such a big shock to the culture — most islanders (even the women) denied anything being wrong with it — that the authorities had to seize all of the firearms on the island before the trials.

Also their mayor was one of the people convicted.

And the new mayor in 2016. Yikes.

A photo of the sunset on Pitcairn Islands

Credit: Tony Probst/Mercury Press

Modern world

One of the UK’s last remaining overseas territories, the Pitcairn Islands have been a source of weirdness for centuries.

And you can live there — for free.

Have you ever wanted to live on a tropical island in the Pacific, build a nice hut and spend your days relaxing in warm weather all year round — with a free plot of land?

Well, my friends, the Pitcairn Islands could be the place for you! If you don’t mind an incredibly strange, immoral, and illegal sexual culture likely dating back centuries.

Pitcairn Islands have become infamous in recent years for a massive scandal on the island, and their population has been decreasing at a steady speed ever since.

It’s such a caveat to the offer, that only 1 person has ever actually accepted it.

As beautiful as the islands maybe, they were forever tainted by the stain of humanity.

I wonder if it will return to its natural unoccupied beauty in the next 50 years, I suppose only time will tell.


J.J. Pryor

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