A Legacy of No Legacy
The Irish fiddler Michael Byrne boarded HMAV Bounty in Deptford on October 15, 1787. He was 26 years old and two thirds blind — a disabled Able Bodied Seaman.
Though William Bligh, the Bounty’s Captain, would have preferred a sighted musician for the three-year voyage ahead, he felt a near-blind fiddler would be better than no fiddler at all.
Did Captain Bligh fear his men would grow belligerent without some form of entertainment? Or did he simply love singing and dancing? We do not know. Nor do we know what songs and tunes Michael Byrne brought to the Bounty and her crew. Michael Byrne is not important to this story. His lack of importance is.
Two Islands Compared
The Bounty’s unknown destination was the then uninhabited Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. Nearly all Pitcairn Islanders today descend from those original settlers who, fleeing the long gaff of the Royal Navy, arrived aboard the Bounty with their Tahitian “wives.”
Previously, I wrote about the importance of music on the South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha. We know what Anglo / Celtic / American songs and tunes were important there because we know which islanders kept them, as if family heirlooms. Of the music of Pitcairn Island, we can only assume that a similar repertoire could have been brought there by Michael Byrne. However, Byrne and his music, thought so important by Captain Bligh, are conspicuous in their absence on the world’s second most remote settlement.
While Tristan da Cunha was founded in 1816 by Corporal William Glass, an instinctual utopian philosopher, Pitcairn Island was founded 35 years earlier by Fletcher Christian, a broken dandy overwhelmed with lust, loss and guilt. Fletcher Christian was the leader of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty.
Both Tristan da Cunha and the Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie. and Oeno Islands (as the archipelago is properly named) are fairly autonomous British Overseas Territories. Today, Tristan da Cunha has a no-immigration immigration policy. That means you cannot move there to Get Away from it All. Nor can I. Pitcairn Island, on the other hand, will welcome you with open arms. The governing power of the island will, in fact, give you land. Free. What’s the catch?
Primarily, you can’t be a burden on the island. You must be able, for example, to afford evacuation insurance in case you need to be air-lifted to the nearest hospital about 1,500 miles away. There’s another catch, however: nobody seems to want to live on this island paradise. The reason for this has nothing to do with rising sea-levels, volcanic eruptions or geographical isolation. It has to do with mass murder and sexual abuse.
Music and the lack of it is my premise for the distinction between these two small remote islands, one of which seems viable and good, the other of which seems tragically corrupt. I shall now relate, as I see it, the tragic tale and describe the terrible corruption it spawned. I think I have my facts straight. The question being: do you agree with my premise?
In the Beginning
HMAV Bounty sailed out of the Thames and through the English Channel to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s three year mission: to boldly collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti and take them where no breadfruit had ever grown before: the West Indies.
Breadfruit could then be fed to slaves at a significant savings to their owners. Ultimately, that was the Prime Directive of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel, the Bounty.
Lieutenant William Bligh [played by Charles Laughton in 1935, Leslie Howard in 1960 and Anthony Hopkins in 1984] was the now infamous Captain of the Bounty. At 33, his experience of command was limited though, as a ship’s officer under Captain Cook, his record was excellent. Bligh’s second in command was the heroic Fletcher Christian, a 23 year-old gentleman and Bligh’s padawan. [played in 1935 by Clark Gable, in 1960 by Marlon Brando and in 1984 by Mel Gibson]
Things did not go well. They tried to take the shortcut round South America to Tahiti. Ferociously bad weather forced them to turn round. Instead, they had to cross the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean eastward, before entering at last, the South Pacific. This added nearly 10,000 miles to the journey. Everyone got a little edgy. There were a few floggings.
At last they arrived in Tahiti where it took them five blissful months to prepare their cargo of breadfruit for the 12,000 mile journey to the West Indies. Not wishing to offend their hosts, most of the crew embraced Tahiti’s ethos of Free Love; some even fell in love with Tahitian women. Discipline, Bligh realized, was lax.
When the Bounty left Tahiti, things got really ugly. Captain Bligh, perhaps because he had not himself embraced Tahiti’s Free-Love ethos, had grown increasingly paranoid. He began to suspect that his young apprentice, Fletcher Christian, was behind all his problems.
Bligh even went so far as to call Christian “a cowardly rascal.”
And then there was the matter of the coconuts. The crew laughed at Bligh and made jokes. But he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt and with geometric logic that Christian had stolen two coconuts. Naturally, Bligh punished the entire crew. He cut off their rum and halved their rations.
What Should We Do With a Sober Sailor?
So, in the early hours of April 28th, 1789, twenty-one sober sailors, led by Fletcher Christian, took command of the ship. Captain Bligh and nineteen men loyal to him were put in a long boat built for ten men, containing only five days worth of food and water … for ten men.
Fiddler Michael Byrne was among the loyalists. But Bligh, whose paranoiac rages were as short-lived as they were brutal, insisted that Byrne be taken back aboard the Bounty because of his blindness. Bligh swore that as soon as he was back in England, he would exonerate Byrne. Noble words. But all parties knew that the longboat that the mutineers were now setting adrift, was nothing more than a large floating coffin for Captain Bligh and his loyalists.
Mutiny, of course, was a hanging offense. But how was the Navy to know about it? Bligh and his loyalists —with 4,000 miles of open sea between them and the nearest outpost of Western Civilization— would surely be dead within a month. The mutineers, enjoying perhaps their last moments of communal glee, threw all the breadfruit overboard.
Christian decided to return to Tahiti which Michael Byrne and some of the mutineers decided to call home. They had tired of the sea. Fletcher and eight others, however, couldn’t exorcise the ghost of Captain Bligh. The fact of his death did not mean that the Royal Navy would not come looking for them.
Not feeling safe on Tahiti, the remaining mutineers turned to completely unwarranted treachery. With great magnanimity, Fletcher Christian told their hosts that the beloved captains Cook and Bligh had discovered a wonderful island where all people could live in peace and harmony. Would their Tahitian brothers and sisters come join them there?
Christian neglected to say that they had actually just killed Captain Bligh and that a decade earlier, a mob of disillusioned Hawaiians had killed Captain Cook.
A group of Tahitian men and women came aboard the Bounty for a celebratory dinner during which Christian promised to tell them more of this New Eden. While they feasted, the HMAV Bounty quietly set sail.
“Captives?” cried the mutineers in protest when their deception had been discovered. “We thought you wanted to join Captain Cook and Captain Bligh! They need you!” The women would be good for… well, what is it that women are good for? And the men could be slaves when at last they reached… wherever it was they were going.
On January 15th, 1790, two years after the mutiny, Pitcairn Island hove into view. But, it was 200 miles off-course! Or rather it was charted 200 miles away from where it actually was. The only way to find Pitcairn Island, they realized, was the way they had just found it: by accident! Their troubles were over. No one could ever find them now. After three years at sea, they were home. Safe at last.
Two months later —though they would never know it— the mutineers’s worst nightmares were realized. Captain Bligh and a few surviving loyalists arrived in England and promptly reported the mutiny.
It had taken them two months in their overloaded longboat to make the 4,000 mile journey to East Timor. Their survival seemed due to the fact that Captain Bligh, when not tyrannizing his loyalists, was leading them in song.
On the second Thursday of October of 1790, the first baby was born on Pitcairn Island. His name was Thursday October Christian. A few days later in England, a court martial acquitted Bligh honorably for losing the Bounty. In November, the HMS Pandora was dispatched to apprehend the mutineers and bring them to trial, if not the highest yardarm, in London.
Meanwhile, the nine mutineers on Pitcairn Island’s 18 square miles, having burned the Bounty in what is now Bounty Bay, were busy procreating and setting up unhappy house-keeping situations on their secret island paradise. Among the first problems they encountered was that they were coveting each other’s ‘wives.’ The singularity of this lusty predicament blinded them to the more pressing problem of their former Tahitian friends; the men whom they had turned into slaves were calmly planning to murder them.
In March of 1791 Michael Byrne, playing perhaps a hornpipe on his fiddle, welcomed the HMS Pandora to Tahiti. He then turned himself in. The other mutineers on Tahiti were quickly rounded up. On the voyage home, the Pandora was herself shipwrecked. Of the ten mutineers put on trial at last in London in 1792, four were hanged. Byrne was exonerated almost immediately. How sweet his fiddle must have sounded then as he disappeared almost entirely from history. I say ‘almost’ because, according to the Spirit Guide Ahtun Re, Michael Byrne reincarnated in 194o as a musician named John Winston Lennon. I can neither confirm nor refute this claim of not-quite Instant Karma.
The killings on Pitcairn Island took place one typical sunny morning a year later. The Tahitian men had been planning and waiting for a long time.
Did Fletcher Christian have any famous last words? They are supposed to have been: “Oh, dear.” He was 27. By mid-afternoon, only one mutineer was left alive: John Adams.
A year after that, in 1794, the widowed Tahitian ‘wives’ then murdered their Tahitian kinsmen. It would be the first of many bizarre acts of loyalty made by the women of Pitcairn Island.
By 1800, only Adams, nine women and nineteen children were left alive. Judged by history to have been a Decent Sort, Adams used the Bounty Bible to teach everyone how to read and behave themselves. And thus paradise resumed on Pitcairn Island. Or so it seemed.
Pitcairn’s true whereabouts was discovered in 1808 by the Topaz, an American sealer. By 1810, then, the Admiralty knew that one mutineer, after 22 years, was still at liberty.
But Britain faced a more pressing concern: Napoleon. The Admiralty took no action against John Adams of Adams Town, Pitcairn Island.
By 1866, most Pitcairn Islanders were Seventh Day Adventists. Seventh Day Adventists it should be noted, have a fine hymnal. They like to sing. But then, so do Tahitians. Yet, googling like a madman, I have found no information on the role of music on Pitcairn Island. We only know that the mutineers left the blind fiddler Michael Byrne behind on Tahiti.
The island population in 1937 was 233. Today, it is only 67. Internet is available perhaps once a week. There is health clinic, a general store, and a school in Adams Town. Students are required to go to the school till age 14; they then attend high school and college 3,666 miles away in New Zealand. Tourism and island honey provide income. The fishing and swimming are fantastic.
Where do I sign up for this free land?
The Haunted and the Hunted
As early as the 1950s, however, allegations of child molestation surfaced on Pitcairn Island. Island women were quick to come to the defense of their menfolk.
They reminded outsiders that they were as much Tahitian as English, if not more so. Tahitian attitudes towards sex —they declared—were far more open and loving than European attitudes, and that the age of consent in Tahiti, and by inference, Pitcairn Island, was 12. ‘It didn’t cause us any problems’ — they were in effect saying.
In 2004, however, eleven men were charged with numerous sexual offenses committed against underage girls. Among the accused was Steve Christian, Pitcairn’s mayor and Fletcher’s great great great grand-something.
Gowned Judges and lawyers from New Zealand presented a strange image, picking their way through abundant tropical foliage to the tin-roofed community hall that served as a court room.
There, the defense team first claimed that since all the islanders were descended from the Bounty mutineers, they couldn’t be tried under British law because they were not, in actuality, British. The capital offense of burning the Bounty in 1790 was in effect a renunciation of British citizenship. This claim was easily refuted.
Next, the defense maintained that the men were being accused of nothing more than behaving like normal Polynesians. As far as sexual conduct was concerned, they repeated, Pitcairn Islanders had always been Polynesian in attitude. They were not in any ways infected by the repressive and predatory sexual habits of their white Christian ancestors. Sex was a beautiful and gentle thing and never a source of guilt or shame.
“If that is so,” asked the prosecution, “why did you tell the girls to keep silent and tell nobody.”
The trial took about a month and all the defendants were convicted of at least some of the charges. But what to do with the prisoners? First, the prisoners had to build the prison in which they were to do their time (It is to be repurposed as a hotel). But how could they lock up 20% of Pitcairn’s work force? Nearly all sentences were served as work release programs. Authorities in New Zealand began to wonder if counseling and arbitration would have been cheaper for the Crown and better for the island than trial and punishments.
Worse yet, the young girls and their families who had won in the courtroom were now pariahs. Thus began the great exodus.
A few years after the trial, Jacqui Christian, one of the victims, working then in London, was interviewed for the 2006 documentary Trouble in Paradise: the Pitcairn Story.
Why did she want to return? “It’s my dream,” she said tearfully. “I know that’s going to be difficult… There’s people there that don’t want to see me. Ever.”
Since 2013, approximately 700 inquiries are made a year about the offers of free land on Pitcairn Islands. Not one formal settlement application has been made, however. Pitcairn Islanders — one of the world’s two populations of Pitkern speakers— are now at risk of going extinct.
There are rumors that nothing would please the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office more. In 2015, the British created a 322 square mile marine protected area around Pitcairn Island. Was this first act of repurposing a trifle aggressive? Had not the islanders learned their lesson?
Apparently not. In 2016, Mayor Mike Warren of Pitcairn was found guilty of storing thousands of images of child pornography on his computer.
In 2019, at the suggestion of the British High Commissioner to New Zealand and Pitcairn Island, the International Dark Sky Association designated Pitcairn Island a Dark Sky Sanctuary, one of only eight on the Earth. More repurposing? There is after all, a nice hotel for future eco and astro-tourists.
The offer of free land still stands, however. And of course, you would have to quarantine before setting foot on coronavirus-free Pitcairn Island. But, you might soon have the island all to yourself. You could fiddle away and sing to your heart’s content. Apply here:
Please send us a postcard.
Mutiny on the Bounty and in the Soul: The Hunted and Haunted of Pitcairn Island
Or the tragic unimportance of a ship's fiddler