American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

PITCAIRN ISLAND. Discovered by the British in 1767, Pitcairn is a tiny volcanic island (2.5 square miles or 6.5 square kilometers) located in the South Pacific at 25° 4' S., 130° 6' W. The island was colonized in 1790 by nine mutineers* from the British naval vessel H.M.S. Bounty, six Tahitian men, nine Tahitian women, and a baby girl. The colony was discovered in 1808 by Nantucket* sealing captain Mayhew Folger aboard the Topaz of Boston and became a British possession in 1839.

The story of its discovery was first published in the United States in Amasa Delano’s* Narrative (1817). The best modern account of Folger’s discovery is Walter Hayes’ The Captain from Nantucket* (1996). The first comprehensive account of the Bounty mutiny and Pitcairn was by Englishman John Barrow (1831), first published in the United States as A Description of Pitcairn’s Island (1833). Other early accounts are Thomas Boyles Murray’s Pitcairn: The Island, the People, and the Pastor; with a Short Account of the Mutiny of the Bounty. (1854), appearing in America as The Home of the Mutineers (1854); Diana Belcher’s The Mutineers of the Bounty (1871); and Rosalind Amelia Young’s Mutiny of the Bounty (1894).

The story concerns the Bounty’s captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, and his intended voyage to the Pacific to bring breadfruit plants back to the British colonies in the West Indies, his fateful five-month stop in Tahtiti and the crew’s attraction to life there, and the subsequent mutiny led by Fletcher Christian. Christian took the Bounty to Pitcairn, where he established a settlement. In 1808 it was discovered that only one of the original fifteen English and Polynesian men was left alive, John Adams (alias Alexander Smith), who lived there with four women and a number of children and teenagers.

This intriguing chronicle spoke to the romantic movement in literature and served as inspiration for creative literature both in Britain and in the United States, beginning with Mary Russell Mitford’s Christina, the Maid of the South Seas (London, 1811; no American ed.). Christina, a narrative poem in five cantos, is a tale of love, with the fictional heroine the orphaned daughter of Fletcher Christian and his Tahitian wife, casting Christian as a romantic hero. It was read in manuscript and corrected by James Burney, who had sailed with James Cook, and was read as well by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who corrected the proofs. It was by all accounts popular in the United States. Lord Byron’s The Island (1823) casts Fletcher Christian as a hero, the ideal of romantic rebellion in his desire for a Paradise on earth. British travel writer Dea Birkett’s Serpent in Paradise (1998) paints a disillusioned picture about becoming acquainted with what she had envisioned would be an idyllic South Pacific retreat.

Significant nineteenth-century American literature using the story includes William Cullen Bryant’s* “A Song of Pitcairn’s Island” in his Poems (1832), which emphasizes the peaceful and religious serenity of life on remote Pitcairn. Nathan Welby Fiske’s The Story of Aleck (1829; rev. and reissued as Aleck, 1845 and later eds.) focuses on the lone surviving mutineer. Mark Twain’s short story “The Great Revolution in Pitcairn” in The Stolen White Elephant (1882) was probably based on the story of Englishman Joshua Hill, an 1833 arrival to Pitcairn who tried to take over the island but was ousted by the British.

Twentieth-century American literature includes Jack London’s* “The Seed of McCoy,” in South Sea Tales (1911); Charles Nordhoff* and James Norman Hall’s Pitcairn’s Island (1934; part of the Bounty trilogy); and William Kingsolving’s Mister Christian (1996). American film adaptations of the story include the classic Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which starred Charles Laughton as a sadistic, elderly Bligh and Clark Gable as a dashing Fletcher Christian; The Women of Pitcairn Island (1957); Mutiny on the Bounty (1962); and The Bounty (1984), starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. Australian John Toohey published Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare (1999), a largely factual and highly imaginative account. A description of the discovery of the wreck of the Bounty at Pitcairn by Luis Marden appears in the December 1967 issue of National Geographic. Today, thirty- eight of Christian’s descendants live on Pitcairn. [See also CLEMENS, SAMUEL LANGHORNE]

Edward J. Lefkowicz