Real-Life Lord of the Flies: The Strange and Violent History of Pitcairn Island
Pitcairn Island is a place so remote, and with a history so bizarre, that until recently it was viewed almost as myth rather than reality. But the events that took place on this tiny island in the Pacific Ocean were very real. Settled by a pack of mutineers of the HMS Bounty in 1790, along with a small group of Polynesians, the island soon became like the famous 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, in which a group of boys stuck on an uninhabited island descended into savagery and immorality. Faced with physical, social, and psychological isolation, along with struggles for power, the Pitcairn population rapidly diminished due to murder, suicide, and madness, and the remaining inhabitants descended into incest, sex abuse, and delinquency. Today, 47 inhabitants from just four families remain on this ill-fated island that carries with it a dark and evil history that has been retold in countless films and books.
A Remote Land
Pitcairn Island is one of four volcanic islands in the southern Pacific Ocean that make up the Pitcairn Group of Islands. Located more than 3,000 miles (4830 km) from any continent, approximately halfway between New Zealand and the Americas, it is one of the remotest inhabited islands and the least populous national jurisdictions in the world. It is also the last British Overseas Territory in the Pacific.
Measuring just 2.2 miles (3.6 kilometers) from east to west, the island is not much larger than New York’s Central Park. Yet this tiny dot in the ocean has a long and varied history, culminating in the dramatic events beginning in the 18 th century.
The history of the Pitcairn Islands stretches back at least nine centuries, when the islands were colonized by Polynesians. Their culture flourished there for four centuries before mysteriously disappearing. Archaeological findings also suggest that different people from various points of origin came to Pitcairn at different times in the past.
When Europeans first landed on Pitcairn and nearby islands, they found many artifacts and traces of former inhabitants, including roughly hewn stone gods guarding sacred sites, representations of animals and humans carved into cliff faces, petroglyphs, burial sites with human remains, earth ovens, stone adzes, gouges, and other relics.
Although the origin and subsequent destination of the Polynesians is not certain, it is generally believed that they came from Mangareva, some 490km to the north west in French Polynesia.
Wooden carving from Mangareva (Wikimedia Commons)
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Mutiny on the Bounty and Settlement
In 1788, the HMS Bounty sailed from England to the Pacific to collect breadfruit plants to supplement the diet of slaves in the West Indies. Having stopped in Tahiti for some 5 months, the crew of the Bounty became attached to the sexual freedoms and paradisiacal ways of the Tahitians, and were reluctant to leave. When Lieutenant William Bligh instituted harsh punishments for lack of discipline among his crew, Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian gathered a band of disaffected crew members to launch a mutiny against Bligh.
On 28 th April 1789, just 23 days after leaving the sensual pleasures of Tahiti, the mutineers seized control of the Bounty and set William Bligh and 18 loyalists adrift in an open boat.
Fletcher Christian and the mutineers turn Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 others adrift; 1790 painting by Robert Dodd (public domain)
William Bligh completed a voyage of more than 4,000 miles (6,500 km), eventually reaching England in April 1790, and immediately despatched the HMS Pandora to apprehend the mutineers. Meanwhile, Christian, along with 9 of the mutineers and 18 Polynesians – 6 men, 11 women, and 1 child – sought out a new home where they would be safe from capture. They arrived on Pitcairn island on 15 January 1790, where they burned and sank the Bounty, (still visible today underwater in Bounty Bay). To the rest of the world, the mutineers had seemingly vanished from the face of the earth.
‘Lord of the Flies’
The settlers initially survived on Pitcairn by farming and fishing. However, like the famous novel Lord of the Flies, it was not long before isolation, along with lack of government and societal rules, led to the emergence of jealousy, treachery, and murder.
Many of the tensions revolved around the lack of women on the island. Five of the mutineers were murdered by Polynesian men, who believed the British crew members were treating them as slaves and taking their women. In retribution, the remaining mutineers killed the Polynesian men. Two mutineers, Edward Young and John Adams, believing their lives were in danger from mutineer Matthew Quintal, executed him for the ‘well-being’ of the community. Another mutineer, William McCoy, committed suicide while drunk on locally distilled beer. A few more of the island’s inhabitants died from illness.
By 1800, just ten years after settlement, all the Polynesian men had been killed, and only one mutineer remained (John Adams), as well as 9 Polynesian women and 19 children.
John Adams turned to the scriptures for a new and peaceful society and brought up the children according to strict Puritanical morality. He lived on Pitcairn island until his death in 1829 aged 65. He is the only one with a known burial site. However, researchers began searching for the remains of other inhabitants in 2016. They started their search under the town hall in Adamstown because local legend suggests there may be an old cemetery there. Locals were especially interested in finding the bones of Fletcher Christian. The possible remains of Edward Young may have been unearthed already; bones were found while an electric cable was being laid, however no DNA analysis was completed at the time to find out if they really belonged to the mutineer and the grave was covered over again.
John Adams' house and grave Pitcairn's Island, August 12th 1849'. (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1808, following 18 years of isolation, Pitcairn and the mutineers’ presence on the island was rediscovered by the American sealing ship Topaz. Six years later, British ships HMS Briton and HMS Tagus unexpectedly called at Pitcairn. After the rediscovery of Pitcairn, John Adams was granted amnesty for his part in the mutiny.
The population of the island began to expand as visitors arrived and settled on the island, while others became shipwrecked and marooned on its shores and decided to stay.
HMS Briton at Pitcairn Island (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1838, Pitcairn Island became a British colony, and by this time was following the beliefs of the Church of England. However, in 1886, the Seventh-day Adventist preacher John Tay visited the island and converted the islanders, including the Polynesians, to accept his faith. To this day, the islanders of Pitcairn remain dedicated Adventists.
Pitcairn Islanders, 1916 (public domain)
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The new religion brought peace to the island and it seemed the violence and treachery of Pitcairn had come to an end. However, an investigation just over a decade ago revealed that evil still resided on the ill-fated island.
In 2004, 7 men – more than half the adult male population of the island – were charged with 96 counts of abuse, including rape and sexual assault, mostly against children. Some of the charges dated back four decades. The month-long trial revealed a deep-rooted culture of abuse, incest, and gross indecency on the island. After extensive trials, most of the men were convicted, including the island's mayor at the time. The British Government set up a prison on the island and the men began serving their sentences in 2006.
Today, just 47 people remain on Pitcairn, most of them the descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian consorts. The majority carry the surname Christian, after the mutiny leader Fletcher Christian, who fathered numerous children before his murder.
What was once seen as a safe haven and island paradise, still carries a dark cloud for its long and sordid history.
Featured image: Pitcairn Island Map (public domain)
Pitcairn’s History – The Government of Pitcairn Islands. Available from: http://www.government.pn/Pitcairnshistory.php
'We sensed a dark side to this teetotal, God-fearing little society' – The Telegraph. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/pitcairnislands/1475509/We-sensed-a-dark-side-to-this-teetotal-God-fearing-little-society.html
Pitcairn Islands Guide – Pitcairn South Pacific. Available from: http://pitcairn.southpacific.org/pitcairn/history.html
I Found the Bones of the Bounty: Lonely Pitcairn Island, Home of the Descendants of History’s Most Famous Mutineers, Yields Its Secret to a Diver By Luis Marden, National Geographic. Available from: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/1957/12/pitcairn-island/marden-text
Pitcairn's Earlier History: Before the Mutineers – Pitcairn Islands Study Center. Pacific Union College. Available from: http://library.puc.edu/pitcairn/pitcairn/history-pre-mutineer.shtml
History of Pitcairn Island – Pitcairn Islands Study Center. Pacific Union College. Available from: http://library.puc.edu/pitcairn/pitcairn/history.shtml