Daily Archives: 10 October 2004

Pitcairn Events, 1860s to 1960s

In 1856, all 187 inhabitants of Pitcairn were resettled on Norfolk Island after the latter had ceased to be a penal colony. During the 1860s, however, some families began to return to Pitcairn, where life remained rather tranquil.

The one noteworthy event of the era was the conversion of the entire island, in 1887, to the Seventh Day Adventist faith, as the result of the visit of an American missionary of that persuasion. Otherwise, it is interesting to note that a form of parliamentary government, with seven members elected to an executive, was introduced in 1893. Yet this was a token of the changed society’s needs, for the reports of the naval officers who visited Pitcairn towards the end of the nineteenth century all spoke of the community’s deterioration, of lawlessness and lack of unity–even, in 1897, of murder!

The man who stemmed the tide of degeneration was James Russell McCoy, a great-grandson of the mutineer. The direction and purpose he gave the community, as Chief Magistrate and Chief Executive, on and off for thirty-seven years, earned the mutineer’s great-grandson an honoured and secure place in Pitcairn’s history.

In 1904 the British Consul at Tahiti, Mr R. T. Simons, visited Pitcairn and, abolishing the parliamentary system as too cumbersome for the tiny community, reintroduced the time-honoured office of Chief Magistrate, with two small committees to assist the appointees. The system, with some expansion and consolidation of judicial powers and definitions has existed until today.

By then, the only vessels calling at Pitcairn were the Seventh Day Adventist mission ship, Pitcairn, and an occasional merchantman.

Pitcairn was once more a forlorn and forgotten outpost in the Pacific, a curio of history, a small dot–two miles long and a mile wide–midway between New Zealand and Central America.

The sundering of Central America in 1914 by the Panama Canal, however, meant the end of isolation for Pitcairn. The opening of the canal placed Pitcairn on the direct shipping route to New Zealand, and brought a ship a week–many of them liners carrying hundreds of passengers.

Pitcairn was ushered back into the world, and the twentieth century.

In 1938 two Americans gave the island [reliable] radio equipment, and for the first time the Pitcairn community was in direct and permanent contact with the outside world….

Two customs both remarkable and peculiar to Pitcairn are the islanders’ style of cricket, and their public feasts.

The cricket games are spontaneous affairs. Often the morning of the match has to be spent by the younger men in cutting and chopping undergrowth to clear the “pitch” and “outfield”. Once the game is ready to start there is no limit to the number of players and no batting order. In a day, each side may bat up to seven times and by nightfall eight hundred runs will have been scored. In all probability a return match will be staged the next day, with a public dinner as the stake.

While not all may have played cricket, the whole island will be involved in preparing the feast. The Pitcairners’ gusto for eating is hearty , not to say enormous. Held generally out of doors, the feast always begins with a simple grace, round a long table laden with dishes….

The feast progresses to a quiet chorus of appreciative belching, as a complement to the hosts, while digestion is aided by steaming cups of cocoa and bran tea.

For all it is a lively and convivial time, none the less so for the absence of liquor. For Pitcairn has been dry almost since its conversion to Seventh Day Adventism.

When the guests have had their fill the party breaks up slowly. Acknowledgements are few. In such a close-knit community, much is taken for granted–in the best possible sense. “‘So long as you get enough’ is the host’s farewell and no Pitcairner would be so churlish as not to have eaten up to it.”

The last remark is pure Pitcairnese–the island dialect which is spoken by all in a rapid, almost singsong fashion. The idiom is a mixture of English and Tahitian. To visitors, the islanders speak English, softly and slightly slurred, but perfectly understandable. Among themselves, they generally speak the dialect. The same is true of Norfolk Island, where, despite the greater intrusion of outsiders in the community, the dialect has persisted, or been preserved.

In the dialect, one doesn’t say, “Good day”; one says, “Wut-a-way you.” “Goodbye” is “Toby”. “I am pleased to meet you”–“I glaid fo see you.” “How often do ships calls?”–“Now-Humuch shep corl ya?” “What food grows on Pitcairn?”-“Wut wekle groos ana Pitkern?”

“Humuch sullun levan on Pitkern?” This last, “translated”, means “How many people live on Pitcairn?”

In March 1964 there were eighty-five Pitcairners on the island, and ten “strangers”.

There can be few groups anywhere in the world living as tranquilly as the Pitcairn Islanders (except possibly their cousins on Norfolk Island), but five years ago there were 150 souls on the island.

And this today seems to be the final point in the story of Pitcairn Island: the population is gradually declining.

SOURCE: The Pitcairners, by Robert Nicolson (Pasifika Press, 1997), pp. 207-214 (originally published in 1965)

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