Saturday, June 13, 2015

Norfolk Island

A near neighbour of Niue and one of my favourite small islands in the world, so you will have to bear with me if I write more than such a tiny and insignificant place might seem to merit.

Inhabited by "Polynesians" (see the entry on New Zealand for an explanation of why I have put this descriptor in quotation marks) for millennia, it was "discovered" by Captain Cook on his second expedition, and named for the Duchess of Norfolk. Colonisation was considered because of the quantity of flax growing there (the Russian Empress Catherine had placed restrictions on its export from Russia, so another source was needed), but the British preferred to turn the place into a penal colony, trying this twice, first in 1788, and then, after an eleven-year closure, again in 1825; this time it stayed open for thirty years, when they gave up the endeavour in favour of Australia, which now governs it as an "external territory".

When the British left, Pitcairn Islanders came to live here, and this is why I like the place – because these were the descendants of the mutineers on the good ship Bounty, with their Tahitian companions. The very descendants of Fletcher Christian himself, setting out - 
in rather better boats than those in which their ancestors had dispatched Captain Bligh  - on May 3rd 1856, and arriving, all one hundred and ninety-four of them, on June 8th. Why did they leave? Because the Pitcairns are very small, and could not accommodate its population. What happens in such circumstances, always, throughout human history? The ones who have been there longest complain about the newcomers, the immigrants, the aliens, the wetbacks, the gypsies, the Roma, the gays, the blacks, the Jews, or whichever happens to be the group least able to defend itself and most likely to collaborate in its own victimhood. Descendants of British mutineers had no chance, and set out, much as they had made Captain Bligh set out, in his case with just two midshipmen, the surgeon's mate and the ship's clerk, for company. Bligh's story is told in somewhat fuller detail in another of my blogs, The Book Of Days (click here).

How did the mutineers come to be in the Pitcairn Islands in the first place? After abandoning Captain Bligh to the sharks and storms, they sailed the Bounty towards the island of Tubuai, where they spent three months in bloody battle with the natives before abandoning the project and returning to Tahiti. Sixteen of them were left behind there, including the four who had never actually mutinied in the first place, but had now been abandoned with the rest. The mutiny took place on April 28th 1789. In November 1790 the Admiralty sent HMS Pandora to search for the Bounty, in order to arrest the mutineers and bring them back to face a court martial. By March 1791 fourteen of those sixteen were in custody, in what was wrily called "Pandora's Box". They stayed there until August 29th, when the Pandora was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef with the loss of thirty-five lives, including four of the mutineers.

What of the other mutineers? Having dumped the sixteen in Tahiti, Fletcher Christian set sail again, with eight crewmen, most of whom they had kidnapped, according at least to the testimony of one of them - six Tahitian men, and eleven women, one with a baby. The men presumably to help with the crewing and the catching of food, the women because they were women. The aim was to evade the pursuing Admiralty ship. They sailed by Fiji and the Cook Islands, and finally, on January 15th 1790, they dropped anchor off the Pitcairn Islands, the one place where in fact the Navy were never likely to find them, because naval maps of the day had it in completely the wrong location. They stripped what they could from the Bounty, and then set fire to the boat, to make sure they were never spotted, but also, presumably, to stop anyone escaping. The place where the boat was cremated is now called Bounty Bay.

In fact, so inept and incompetent were the mutineers, they didn't even manage to burn the ship thoroughly. One Captain Beechey, of HMS Blossom, spent three weeks in the 1840s on Pitcairn Island. Thirty-five years later one of his crewmen, John Bechervaise, wrote a book about his experiences - "Thirty-Six Years of a Seafaring Life by an Old Quarter Master" – and came home with several planks of wood from the ship which he had made into snuff boxes (ashes to ashes and dust to dust, dare one suggest). And then, in 1957, an American photographer named Luis Marden, working for National Geographic, saw a rudder that was allegedly from the Bounty in a museum on Fiji, and spent several days diving with sharks and even more dangerous eddies off Pitcairn to see if he could uncover more, and found the remains of the ship, which had not been burned at all, or at least it had been set on fire, but it fell apart so quickly the sea put out the fire, and it simply sank. Marden worked as personal advisor to Marlon Brando, who played Fletcher Christian in the 1962 movie.

One last oddity of interest. To make that movie, a ship had to be constructed, and for the next forty years she sailed the world, taking passengers on condition that they did not mutiny, appearing for photoshoots in distant harbours. On October 29th 2012, sixteen of the crew abandoned ship off the coast of North Carolina, when it got swirled up in the tempests of Hurricane Sandy. Amongst those who stayed on board, and died when the ship went down, was the great-great-great-great-great grand-daughter of Fletcher Christian, Claudene.

Marks for: 194

Marks against: Not awarded

Copyright © 2015 David Prashker
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The Argaman Press

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