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Stumbling upon Pitcairn

July 16, 2015

            In a world united electronically, where millions carry a smartphone linked to the Internet, it is hard to imagine a time when things really, truly vanished. Not things like socks in the laundry, of course, but ships, armies, entire colonies that would seemingly be there one minute and gone the next. Perhaps this is why, beyond the associated human tragedy, last year’s Malaysia Airlines disappearance lingers in our minds. Things just don’t go missing in our modern society like they once did.

            The story of the mutiny on the Bounty is a famous one and worth exploring in detail, but generally goes as follows. A small British warship was given the mission to introduce breadfruit from the Tahiti to the West Indies as a foodstuff for slaves. While tempers began to flare well before the crew reached its destination, it was not until the return voyage that a contingent of the ship’s crew seized the tyrannical Captain Bligh and set him to sea in an open boat. Bligh, miraculously, made his way back to England. A ship was sent out to hunt for the Bounty and the mutineers; while those crewmen left in Tahiti were captured, the ship and the rest of the crew vanished into mystery.

            Those shrouds of mystery lasted for years until an American commercial vessel stumbled upon remote Pitcairn Island and found a well-run colony of Englishmen and Tahitians living there. Even then, the British remained largely unaware of the discovery and the colony until 1814, a quarter-century after the mutiny.

            One book, a copy of which is in the vaults of the Charleston Library Society, helped thrust the full story of the mutineers onto the British public consciousness. “A Narrative of The Briton’s Voyage, to Pitcairn’s Island” by Lt. John Shillibeer of the British Navy, captured the moment when, like the opening scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Englishman met long-lost Englishman on an unexpected rock in the middle of the Pacific.

            Shillibeer was the commander of a contingent of Royal Marines sailing on the HMS Briton during its 1814 voyage to the South Pacific. Sent to protect British commercial interests from the USS Essex — an American warship under the command of the talented and colorful Capt. David Porter, with a young David Farragut serving aboard. Finding the Essex already captured by the time the Briton reached Chile, the ship turned westward and began a patrol of the South Pacific.

            After action in the Marquesas they began the return voyage towards Chile; it was on this leg of the trip that, out of nowhere, land was spotted. As they sailed in to examine the coastline, people in canoes flew out to meet them. Before the Briton could hail them in the dialect of the Marquesas, the islanders began to converse with them in perfect English. “For me to picture the wonder which was conspicuous in every countenance … would be impossible,” Shillibeer wrote.

            It should be noted that during the course of the court cases related to the mutiny, popular opinion in Britain soured on Bligh significantly. While the mutineers were far from folk heroes, they were certainly viewed with a large degree of sympathy. Perhaps this is why, when the Briton expedition discovered John Adams, the sole survivor of the original mutineers, they sat down with him peaceably and discussed his free return to England, instead of seizing him for trial. In an era and a military culture of exceedingly harsh justice, this was remarkable indeed.

            Shillibeer gives a fine account of the Pitcairn Island colony’s history up to that point. It is deeply sympathetic to the original mutineers and to their descendants then living. The book is full of his own illustrations from throughout the voyage; few are as striking as his portrait of Thursday October Christian, son of mutiny leader Fletcher Christian and the first child born on the island. Combined with the lieutenant’s surprisingly crisp writing and keen eye for observation, this treasure of the Library Society’s vaults is an interesting travelogue for the Eastern South Pacific during the eighteen-teens.

            The Briton returned home in 1815 to find Napoleon defeated and the great conflict between Britain and France at an end. So too was the ship’s military career, as post-war budget cuts meant she was decommissioned almost as soon as she arrived in port. She was maintained and used as needed off-and-on until being broken up in 1850. One more Charleston connection, however, remains part of the story; in the summer of 1831, the Charleston Courier reported the finding of a message in a bottle from the Briton from a voyage to Mexico the prior year, cast off in an effort to gather scientific data about currents:  The originals of the paper are yet another treasure of the CLS vaults.

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