A Boatload of Christians…

…and a few Peus

February 19, 2020, Off Pitcairn Island, South Pacific

You can’t properly say we called on Pitcairn Island as much as Pitcairn Island called on us.  With 1200 passengers it would be hard for Pitcairn, the last surviving British colony in the Pacific with a population of about 60, to accommodate us, so we accommodated them.  As we cruised off of Adamstown (up the “hill of difficulty” from the landing) the island longboat with about half the adult population came alongside to “trade” with our (much) bigger ship.

The day started with a scenic narration as we approached the Island, Glenn-Michael related the familiar story of the HMS Bounty, the breadfruit expedition, Captain Bligh and the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian. I can still hear Trevor Howard or Charles Laughton shouting “Mr. Christian” in the 1935 and 1962 movies.  Although the descendants of Fletcher Christian look little like either Clark Gable or Marlon Brando.  They are a diverse group.  Some looking completely Polynesian, including full arm tattoos, and some are blonde haired. 

Pitcairn Island was settled by 9 Bounty mutineers, 12 Tahitian women, 6 Tahitian men and one kid who left Tahiti to find a deserted island in 1790, found it and burned their vessel to keep from being discovered.  The gene pool was occasionally refreshed by the stranded Yankee whaler or two.  When the Island was “rediscovered” in 1809 only one man, John Adams, remained alive along with 10 women and 23 kids.  The rest of the men killed each other, committed suicide or died of natural causes.  Apparently, the men didn’t get along so well.  But Adams had learned to read, found religion, and had established an orderly and God-fearing community.  By 1809 the British were engaged in an epic struggle with Napoleon and didn’t much care about bringing the remaining mutineer to justice.

The community grew and in the late 1850s somewhere just under 200 Pitcairners were re-settled on Norfolk Island, the recently abandoned penal colony, off of Australia, where they still live.

During Glenn-Michael’s narration the longboat came alongside and the islanders set up shop on the Lido Deck, each with a table to sell various handicrafts and curiosities.  When Hamish, the Cruise Director, announced “Shop to you drop” all bedlam broke loose.

I was standing on the deck above the lido to photograph the melee.  I had heard that in past calls security had to come in to settle disputes among shipmates competing for stuff.  Ship’s security was present along with the local constable who is a trained policeman from New Zealand on a one-year rotation. 

The ship set a limit on two jars of local honey for each passenger to purchase because that apparently was what the disputes were about.  Some honey lovers tried to recruit proxy buyers.  Other cruise mates along the rail made comments like “It’s like Black Friday,” “What a rabble” or “feeding frenzy” as people grabbed stuff and thrust $20 bills at the happy islanders.  The 12 cruise ships that pass by each year account for 50% of the island’s cash economy.  In Diane, the piano bar entertainer’s, evening “port song” she sang about sharp pointed elbows.  Honey was not a problem.  The islanders had made the jars smaller while keeping the price at $10 a jar so near the end people could go back for seconds.

After the initial rush Suzi and I ventured into the market, which was still pretty crowded. I had my reflex market response of keeping my hand on my wallet although I don’t think any of my shipmates were pickpockets.  At the t shirt stand I asked if they had any 3X, not a chance, but the islander consoled me by saying “they’re printed off island so don’t be sad.” 

Aside form handicrafts, collectables were on the table, including a “Classic Illustrated Comics” edition of “Mutiny on the Bounty” encased in cellophane.   There were also some cellophaned bank notes that were denominated in pounds and were beautiful.  I asked Mr. Christian about them.  He smiled and said “completely counterfeit,” although the Pitcairn Islands coins, denominated in New Zealand dollars, were real, minted in the UK and uncirculated.  They’re too valuable as sales items to circulate.  Islanders use New Zealand coins.  Post cards and stamps were a big item.  Stamps are the major source of revenue for the island government.  I bought post cards to send to the grandkids, although they will not go out until the mail boat in May.  Another source of income is passport stamps, they cost $10 a punch.  The island has no taxes.

At 10:30 Malva, descended from a Yankee shipwrecked whaler and Christian Fletcher gave a talk.  She looked familiar. It turns out that she met an American, married and lived most of her life in Alaska, Sitka in fact (I had met her before, degrees of separation), but she went back to Pitcairn to take care of her mother.  She spoke for a little over an hour including questions.

For me the most interesting question was about ham radio operators.  For years Pitcairn Island was a great “catch” for armature radio operators around the world but no more.  She said there were no more active hams.  “Why bother when we have the Internet.”  She told us about the 4 times a year mail and supply boat.  It comes from New Zealand, and then makes a couple of round trips to the nearest French island, about a 36-hour one-way sail, from which they can travel onward to Tahiti.  The boat then returns to New Zealand.  The island has three kids in its school and two preschoolers.  The older kids go to New Zealand for middle and high school.  There are only 2 women of child bearing on the island.  The UK provides money for the school, clinic, a policeman and a public safety officer and subsidizes the supply/mail boat phone and internet service.  The EU provided infrastructure money and islanders are concerned the effect Brexit will have on their projects.   They hope the UK will take that on.  Pitcairn is an expensive colony for the UK to maintain.

My biggest regret was that each table was so busy I didn’t really have time to have a conversation with any of the craft’s people.  Some of our cruise mates brought gifts for some of the islanders who they met on past cruises.  One woman brought chocolates.  The Pitcairner said “We don’t give our kid’s chocolate; we don’t want to create the unhealthy habit.”  She smiled and said “But perhaps Grandma would eat some.”

Some of those $20 dollar bills passed to the islanders may have stayed on the ship.  We watch islanders load the long boat with cases of Washington State wine, “Seagram’s,” flats of Coors and Amstel, Coke, and Sprite.  Some of it may have been gifts from the ship.  Unlike Greenland I did not see fresh fruit loaded onto the local boat.  The presenter told us they already have more fresh fruit then they can consume.  The Islanders left fresh fish for the main dining room.

This has been the must frustrating post to load. It took 2 days. I originally had the photos in the order I wanted in the gallery but the internet would drop and the picture that was loading dropped with it. So I had to reload the dropped pics, and again and again. So the pics are not in any rational order but they are all up. Mid-Pacific is a bad place to play with internet, at least on MS Amsterdam. Getting ready to get off the boat in Tahiti in about half an hour.

P.S. Sometime in early summer all the postcards we sent arrived at grandkids, homes, and ours too.

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