Yesterday's Magazette

15 – I Shook Hands With History

I Shook Hands With History

Fletcher Christian

By Carrillee Collins Burke

I am a paper rat of items that interest me for future usage, that, of course, I seldom get around to using. So once in awhile I sort through my treasure trove of junk and weed out stuff I know I’ll never use. I was doing just that recently when I discovered a paperback book about Pitcairn Island.

I purchased this book around 1950 as a teenager who was fascinated with the HMS Bounty’s mutineers and how they settled on a tiny island with their Tahiti women. It all seemed so romantic to me at the time. 

In reality, it wasn’t so romantic for the Bounty’s  crew. It took years of hunger, jealousy, and several murders before the island became a decent place to live. That little paperback book that I read over and over was now a mess of crumbling yellowed pages, loose from the spine, and nibbled by bugs and mice.

I searched the box of clippings and newspaper items for the precious letters I received long ago, to no avail. I remembered reading them as I had the book earlier, letting the words take me to another world.

This book, Pitcairn’s Island, was published in 1934 and written by authors, Nordhoff and Halls. Their source of information was derived from sea captains who visited Pitcairn and talked to Alexander Smith, the last surviving mutineer in his later years.

There had been many books written about the HMS Bounty and the mutineers lives and the trial of Captain William Bligh but only two other books were written on actual knowledge of their lives.

Rosalind Young wrote Story of Pitcairn Island using details from Eliza Mills who was born in 1793 and lived to be 93. She was the daughter of mutineer John Mills. 

In 1850, Walter Brodie wrote a narrative given to him by Arthur Quintal, the son of mutineer Mathew Quintal.

From the very first time I read about the HMS Bounty and Captain Bligh that led to the mutiny in 1788, I was hooked. Later, I saw photos in National Geographic Magazine of Pitcairn Island and the story of how the mutineer descendants survived living on the two-mile long, one-mile wide rock island, raising out of the sea 1,000 feet or more. Weather is normally 75 degrees year round there.

That sounded like heaven to a winter, snow-bound romantic like me. I always had a strange desire to communicate with the descendents of the infamous  sailors.

Then one day an article appeared in my city newspaper that Fletcher John Christian, the great-great-great grandson of Fletcher Christian, second-in-command of the HMS Bounty and leader of the mutiny was coming to Columbus, OH where I lived. I was overjoyed! He would visit the Seventh Day Adventist Church. My friend, Nancy, went with me to the church. 

We were the object of curiosity from the moment we settled in our balcony seats of the huge overfilled church, but we didn’t know why. When a couple of plain dressed giggling girls gave us a sign by pointing to their lips and our clothes we finally got the message. We were both dressed in bright colors and makeup. I don’t recall what Nancy wore but I wore a very straight red plaid skirt and a white peasant blouse. We both wore red high heels and red lipstick definitely not in the church dress code.

‘”Oh my God,” I said and tucked my feet under my seat and wiped my lips with a Kleenex Nancy had already smudged with her Magenta colored mouth. There was nothing we could do about the bright and rather “wicked clothes” we wore. We glanced at the crowd of plainly dressed religious people and sighed. My first thought was that Mr. Christian would not talk to us when he viewed our clothing. However, I was wrong.

Fletcher John answered questions from the audience and gave answers that we all craved to know beyond what was written in the books.

He was a tall, weather-beaten man with a soft tan complexion from his mixture of English and Tahiti heritage. He was in his 60s but appeared much younger in his brown suit and full head of white hair. He said the islanders didn’t know much about the true story of the mutiny except the legend which was handed down from generation to generation.

Pitcairn’s population was 128 at the time of his visit, but continuity grew less with the young people leaving for more modern places. Fishing and gardening are the chief occupations. Some create souvenirs that they sell to tourists on passing ships, earning approximately $850 more or less a year.

When asked if he would like to leave the island, he said, “It’s good to leave home for a while, but to go away and leave forever, no.” Before the visit to the USA, he had never traveled beyond the Fiji Islands. 

He said there was no doctor or hospital on the island. If someone couldn’t heal themselves or couldn’t get to New Zealand, they died. He wore false teeth that he had carved himself from coral.

He said, not as a complaint but as a fact, there was just too many people in the outside world and the modern buildings were so large and life seemed to be so fast and loud. He liked the quietness on Pitcairn, he said, where one had space to think. He answered all the questions thrown at him with patience in a soft, gentle voice. After the question session as people were leaving, Nancy and I approached him.

What a thrill it was for me to be in his presence – I reached out to a true piece of history. He clasped my hand and smiled. After a little chit-chatting, I said, “I’d love to correspond with someone on Pitcairn.” He suggested I write to Betty McCoy. She and her husband a great-great-great grandson of William McCoy, one of the Bounty mutineers, were shortwave operators, the islanders only communication with the outside world. He also told me it might take 6 months to a year to reach her. Mail was carried and delivered by any ship that passed nearby.

I did write Betty 5 letters over the next 5 years and received 2 in return. I tried again 10 or so years ago by sending a Christmas card and letter to whom it might concern. It took the post office clerk, who had never heard of the place, a half hour or more to find it and how to charge me. 

Mr. Christian died years ago in his 80s and I’m certain that Betty McCoy has passed on by now, too. I never received a response from my Christmas card. Perhaps it was never delivered. I’ll never know.

I learned that Pitcairn Island has no modern houses or appliances. Betty had told me they ordered their clothes or material to make them from the Sears Roebuck Catalog taking months to receive. Actually, they know little of the modern world. Still, I believe it would be nice to live there. Existing on veggies, fruit and fish with no chemicals. The quiet of the land and no worries of crime or loud politicians. 

Pitcairn sounds like heaven, but would I be content without my big color TV, my computer, and regular visits to the public library? I’m no longer a teenager and my dreaming days are long behind me now, but I do have a desire for new experiences and I am still a romantic, traveling to strange worlds and touching history through books.

HMS Bounty Mutineers Included:

Fletcher Christian – second- in- command

Edward Young

John Mills

William McCoy

Mathew Quintal

John Williams

Isaac Martin

Alexander Smith

William Brown

Also 12 Tahitian women and 6 Tahitian men lived on the island at the time of the Mutiny on The Bounty.

Vol. 38 No. 3 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall- 2011

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