Fear and Loathing in the Pacific

James Cook was born to a family of Yorkshire farmers on November 7, 1728. It’s odd then, that Cook would go on to join the Royal Navy and become one of the best explorers and navigators in British history.

Cook had only five years of schooling, where he was seen as a decent, but not remarkable, student. When he was 16, Cook became a “shop boy” at a grocer and fabric shop in the seaside town of Staithes. In this, Cook was a complete failure, and in less than two years he had moved on to the nearby port town of Whitby. There he met Quaker brothers John and Henry Walker, who were in the business of shipping coal along the English coast. Cook apprenticed with them, and found that he loved it. Where he had once been indifferent in school, he now quickly absorbed all the algebra, geometry, astronomy and other skills needed to one day command his own ship.

In 1755, Cook volunteered for the Royal Navy as the Seven Years’ War began. He quickly rose up the ranks, especially once his skills as a mapmaker became known. Cook, serving in North America in the war, made some of the first contemporary charts of Canadian waters, maps that allowed General James Wolfe to launch several successful raids during the conflict.

After the war, the Royal Society hired him to sail to Tahiti in 1766 to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun (two other adventurers were sent to other spots on the globe; it was hoped that by triangulation they would be able to accurately measure the distance to the Sun). Once this was complete, Cook opened a packet of “secret orders” he had been given back in England: he was to locate the terra australis incognita (“unknown southern land”) once and for all, and claim it in the name of Great Britain. That Cook did, reaching a bay so teeming with wildlife that he named it “Botany Bay”. Thus, on that day in 1770, modern Australia was born.

Cook would make two more great voyages of discovery. On his last, he got into an argument with some Hawai’ian islanders over a stolen landing boat. Native thefts of European goods were commonplace, and Cook attempted to take some hostages to obtain the safe release of his boat, as was the Polynesian custom. Unfortunately, Cook tried to take Kalaniopu`u, the king of the Hawai’ians, as a hostage, and the natives rebelled. Cook was struck on the head and his body dismembered.

But this post isn’t about James Cook.

One of the junior officers aboard Cook’s ship, the HMS Resolution, was given the unenviable task of collecting enough of Cook’s body parts to give him a proper burial at sea.

His name was William Bligh.

After Cook’s death, Bligh returned to England. He got married on February 4, 1781, and was named master of HMS Belle Poule a few days later. As the ship’s master he saw action in the Battle of Dogger Bank. Following this, he spent time on various Royal Navy ships, and served as a captain in the merchant fleet from 1783 to 1787.

On Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific, he had been introduced to a new type of fruit. Amazingly, it not only looked like bread, but it tasted like it too. Cook noticed that it grew in an area that resembled the West Indies, and so he wondered if the fruit could be transplanted there as a cheap way to feed the many African slaves on Britain’s sugar plantations.

In 1787, the Royal Navy decided to investigate Cook’s theory about breadfruit. To that end, a ship was purchased and specially retrofitted with large glass panes in the deck, a false floor in the hold to allow soil to be placed underneath it, and a system of tubes and pipes to allow fresh water to be taken to the plants. The ship was named HMS Bounty, and her captain was William Bligh.

The ship left Spithead, England on December 23, 1787. The voyage to Tahiti was a rough one, both for the ship and her crew. Storms battered the Bounty, and Bligh’s temper wore out his welcome with his crew. Although Bligh was known for being a lenient captain, flogging his crew less than any other captain in the Royal Navy, his acerbic temper led to discord amongst not only the rank and file of the crew, but also his junior officers. Bligh was forced to stay in Tahiti for five months repairing the ship and preparing the breadfruit plants.

For reasons that remain obscure, Bligh allowed the crew to live ashore. They quickly became accustomed to life in Tahiti. A few members of the crew got tattoos. Most enjoyed the relaxed sexual attitudes of the Tahitian women. All seemed to enjoy the lush surroundings and tropical climate.

So when Bligh ordered the men to get underway for the trip home, many grumbled. And once Bligh’s temper reappeared, talk of mutiny began.

On April 28, 1789, when the ship was 1,300 miles west of Tahiti, 18 members of the crew rebelled in a bloodless mutiny which was led by Bligh’s second in command, Fletcher Christian. The mutineers then placed Bligh and 14 men loyal to him on the Bounty’s tiny launch along with a few hand tools, navigation aids (but no charts), some fresh water and a few provisions. The mutineers then left Bligh and his men for dead.

But the mutineers seriously underestimated William Bligh. In his tiny little boat in the middle of the Pacific, Bligh pulled off one of the greatest feats in navigational history: without any maps or charts, he sailed the little ship some 3,618 miles to Timor, the nearest island with a European presence. During the 47-day voyage Bligh and his men survived by eating dead fish that floated on the surface, the occasional flying fish that fell in the boat, and turtles. Thankfully, it rained enough that the men were able to collect enough fresh water in empty containers and improvised traps. Upon his arrival at Timor, Bligh had lost only one man, and that was to angry natives on the island of Tofua, where Bligh had stopped, hoping to purchase supplies.

Bligh and his men then sailed from Timor to Batavia (now Jakarta) in Indonesia, where they awaited transport back to Britain. Sadly, many of Bligh’s crew died there from malaria. Once back in the UK, Bligh was given a mandatory court martial where he was found innocent of any wrong-doing. In 1791, he was given command of the HMS Providence with orders to try the breadfruit experiment again; this time he was successful, and breadfruit remains popular in the Caribbean to this day. Amusingly, Bligh would later be involved in two more mutinies – one in 1797 at Spithead, where sailors on 16 ships mutinied over living conditions, and again in 1808 as governor of New South Wales, where his abrasive style put him at odds with… well, everyone else, basically.

But this post isn’t about William Bligh.

When Fletcher Christian and his band of mutineers took off in the Bounty, they first sailed for the island of Tubai. They stayed there for three months, being attacked by hostile natives almost constantly. They then returned to Tahiti, where twelve of the mutineers and four Bligh loyalists who had been denied a spot on Bligh’s tiny boat decided to remain. Fletcher, with eight other mutineers and several kidnapped Tahitians – six men, eleven women, and one baby – realized that the Royal Navy was certain to come looking for them, and so left the island. They first traveled to Fiji and then the Cook Islands, but fear of the Royal Navy’s wrath kept them moving. On January 15, 1790, the mutineers “rediscovered” the tiny Pitcairn Islands, which offered some measure of safety, as the islands were located in the wrong place on Royal Navy charts.

Feeling safe, the mutineers unloaded their livestock and other supplies, and on January 23, 1790, they burned the Bounty, both as a way to evade detection and to prevent anyone from leaving. Although the British sailors knew they were stuck on the island forever, and although the kidnapped Tahitians were homesick, their first days on the island went surprisingly well. There was plenty of land for everyone, ample fresh water, and the climate was splendid. Christian was appointed leader of the rag-tag crew, and he earned a reputation for being fair and honest, even towards the Tahitians, who had an equal say in community matters.

Old prejudices would eventually return, and soon open warfare was declared between the British mutineers and the kidnapped Tahitians. Five of the British – including Christian – and all of the Tahitian men were killed. An uneasy peace followed, until a man named William McCoy built a still and began making liquor from native plants. The men began drinking to excess, and the women rebelled against the men several times. By 1800, there was only one adult male left on the island, along with six Tahitian women and dozens of children. The man – Alexander Smith, who went under the name John Adams – established a church and ruled with gentleness and tolerance.

No ship visited the islands until February 1808, when the American merchant vessel Topaz came ashore for ten hours. The ship’s captain, Mayhew Folger, sent word of the islanders to The Admiralty in London. This report was unknown to Sir Thomas Staines, who visited the islands in September 1814 and sent a detailed report of his visit back to London.

In 1825, The Admiralty granted Smith\Adams an amnesty for the mutiny. On November 30, 1838, the Pitcairn Islands were formally made part of the British Empire.

In 1856, the island’s population of 193 was reaching overcrowding levels, so the entire community was moved to Norfolk Island, a speck of land between Australia and New Zealand. A few didn’t like it on Norfolk, and over the next five years, some forty-four would return to Pitcairn.

A few hardy souls remain on Pitcairn Island – which today has a population of around 50 people and is Britain’s last remaining colony in the South Pacific.

In 2004, ugly allegations of sexual abuse of children became known thanks to a police officer who had been transferred from Kent to the Pitcairn Islands for a brief while. It seems that most of the island’s people – whose religious beliefs are a strange mix of Seventh-Day Adventist and native Polynesian – had been tolerant not only of children having sex with each other, but also of adults having sexual relations with children. Records confirmed that most of the girls on the island had their first child between the ages of twelve and fifteen. When a fifteen year-old girl decided to press charges of rape against seven men – including mayor Steve Christian, a descendant of Fletcher – the island exploded in controversy.

The defense first argued that the British government had never formally taken control of the island, and that the original settlers – by their act of mutiny – had renounced their British citizenship… and thus, British laws didn’t apply to them. The Pitcairn Island Supreme Court – created especially for this trial, and consisting of judges from New Zealand appointed by British officials in London – disagreed. Although they rejected the notion that they were British, the accused islanders nevertheless appealed to the Privy Council – a group of senior advisers to the British monarch – who agreed to hear their case, as long as the trial continued.

As you might guess, the allegations rocked the island of 47 people, all of whom were closely interrelated. Many Pitcairn men blamed interloping British police officers for the entire situation; some women agreed with the men. Certain islanders pressed other islanders to withdraw the charges against the men. Olive Christian, wife of accused mayor Steve, held a meeting with thirteen of the island’s women in which they all declared that the Polynesian tradition of early sex had been adopted by the islanders generations ago. Some of the island’s women said that the British police had offered them money to testify. Still others wondered if the whole thing was a conspiracy to shut the island down to save British tax dollars. Emotions were running so high that British police, fearing violence, confiscated the twenty firearms on the island. Lawyers fretted on finding an impartial jury out of 47 interrelated people.

On October 24, 2004, six of the seven men were found guilty of 35 of the 55 charges (only one, Jay Warren, was found not guilty on any counts). But the tale was far from over. Prosecutor Simon Moore said that the trial was only the “tip of the iceberg”, and had only cleared a third of the charges police were investigating. Professor John Connell of the University of Sydney said that the men, if imprisoned, would have to be released frequently to row boats or handle other physical tasks that the women couldn’t. Most everyone involved knew that sending the men to prison would be the end of the island.

On October 29, 2004, the Supreme Court handed down sentences it claimed were “tailored for the unique conditions” of the island. Two of the men were sentenced to community service, as they appeared remorseful during the trial. The others were given prison terms of two to six years. The sentences were then suspended until the Privy Council could rule on the matter. An appeal on the legality of New Zealand judges hearing the case (instead of English judges) was rejected. The Privy Council itself, who had heard the matter in the longest running legal issue before it in 100 years, abruptly ended the appeal in July 2006. All told, the case cost NZ$14.1 million (around $10.7 million US dollars).

And to think, this whole matter – the mutiny, the settlement on Pitcairn, the rape trial – was caused by a fruit!

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