Story for the Week

18 October 1814 • Christianity on Pitcairn Island

In 1789 Fletcher Christian led a mutiny on H. M. S. Bounty. He and his men dragged Lieutenant William Bligh from his bed, accused him of tyranny, and set him adrift in an open launch with eighteen men loyal to him. Bligh guided the little boat 3,600 miles to the safety of the Dutch Indies (today’s Indonesia).

Pitcairn Island Adams
Pitcairn Island, NASA photo

British captains sought for the mutineers and learned that they had sailed between the islands of Tubai and Tahiti. Some of the crew, who  had not been involved in the mutiny, remained on Tahiti. Fletcher Christian and eight mutineers, however, along with some Polynesian women and men, disappeared on the sea.

For nineteen years, mystery hung over their fate, until a New England whaling ship, the Topaz, landed on Pitcairn island to take on water in September, 1808. To the surprise of the captain, he found natives who spoke garbled English and could read a little. The islanders begged for books and the crew of the Topaz collected two hundred for them from among their personal possessions.

It was six more years before the British navy rediscovered the island, which had been improperly recorded on charts. On this day, 18 October 1814, Captain Staines of the Briton penned a letter to his superiors from Valparaiso, announcing his discovery.

“…On the morning of the 17th September, I fell in with an island where none is laid down in the Admiralty or other charts…I therefore hove to, until daylight, and then closed to ascertain whether it was inhabited, which I soon discovered it to be, and, to my great astonishment, found that every individual on the island (forty in number), spoke very good English. They proved to be the descendants of the deluded crew of the Bounty

“A venerable old man, named John Adams, is the only surviving Englishman of those who last quitted Otaheite [Tahiti] in her, and whose exemplary conduct, and fatherly care of the whole of the little colony, could not but command admiration. The pious manner in which all those born on the island have been reared, the correct sense of religion which has been instilled into their young minds by this old man, has given him the pre-eminence over the whole of them….

The mutineers had settled on uninhabited Pitcairn, fought over women, and murdered each other. One of the survivors made a still, and drunkenness became the norm. Eventually the only men left were Edward “Ned” Young and John Adams. They sobered up, and when Young died of an asthma attack, Adams was left alone to guide the little clan. He turned to his Bible and Prayer Book.  Although barely able to read himself, Adams taught them what he knew of Christianity, and managed to teach some of the older children to read.

Under his instruction, the islanders prayed morning and evening and before and after meals. They observed Sunday, recited the creed, and knew many Bible verses by memory. 

The British granted Adams amnesty for his part in the mutiny. Exposure to the outer world brought the Pitcairn islanders more books (including Seventh-Day Adventist literature), opportunities to visit other countries, and visitors. One of those visitors was a Seventh Day Adventist layman named John L. Tay, who converted everyone on Pitcairn Island to Seventh-Day Adventism in 1887.

Dan Graves

References:

  1. Barrow, John. The Eventful History Of The Mutiny And Piratical Seizure Of H.M.S. Bounty: Its Cause And Consequences. London: John Murray, 1831.
  2. Lummis, Trevor. Pitcairn Island; Life and Death in Eden. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Co., 1997.
  3. McKee, Alexander. HMS Bounty; a True Account of the Mutiny. London: Souvenir Press, 1989.
  4. Nicolson, Robert B. The Pitcairners. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1965.
  5. Shapiro, Harry L. The Heritage of the Bounty; the story of Pitcairn Through Six Generations. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936.

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