Discover the Mysteries of Pitcairn Island

The remote South Pacific outpost of Pitcairn Island will forever be linked to the British vessel HMAV Bounty and its roguish band of mutineers which settled on the isolated island. By setting Lt. William Bligh and his 18 loyalist crew adrift mid-ocean in an open boat in 1789, one of history’s most fascinating maritime tales was set in motion.

Photo: The Mutineers turning Lt Bligh and part of the Officers and Crew adrift from His Majestys Ship the Bounty 29th April 1789. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Lo

But long before the Bounty mutineers dropped anchor, burned their ship to the waterline and moved ashore to hide from the authorities that would inevitably come looking for them, Pitcairn’s volcanic slopes already concealed many secrets.  Secrets that survived as whispers upon the relentless wind. Myths that still today dance upon the dawn or lay concealed within the outcrops of her rocky shores. Given the island’s history, it’s no surprise that Pitcairn is referred to as one of the ‘mysterious islands’ of the Pacific.

While settling into their new island home, the Bounty mutineers found prehistoric stone tools and fishing hooks carved from bone, raising questions about former settlers. Did long-ago Polynesians, those intrepid ocean-going navigators, settle on Pitcairn while exploring new lands or looking for resources like timber for building canoes? Indeed, were the Polynesians in residence when the British sloop HMS Swallow sailed past 22 years before the mutineers and named the island after the 15-year-old midshipman Robert Pitcairn, who first sighted the volcanic island on the horizon?

Other indicators of the long-ago settlement include stone building foundations, earth ovens and quarries concealed in dense undergrowth. Then there is the abundance of coconut palms found in the island’s elevated interior, which could only have sprouted with human intervention.

Photo: Pitcairn Museum. Credit: Pitcairn Tourism Bureau

On Henderson Island, approx. 200km to the northeast, tools were found that are carved from Pitcairn Island stone and are estimated to be around one thousand years old. These artefacts are now housed in the small museum near the town square on Pitcairn. But the most resounding evidence of Polynesian’s settlement on Pitcairn is found in the rock art carved into the cliff face on its shores. Petroglyphs are etched into the base of rocks at difficult to reach sites known as’ Down Rope’ and ‘Down the God’. Despite multiple archaeological surveys, the origin of these artworks remains uncertain and Polynesian oral histories passed down through generations pose more questions than they answer.  In relating ancient Polynesian legends or myths orally, accounts are characterised by the narrative skills of the storyteller, so that historical stories may change according to the setting or the audience.

Photo: Pitcairn Island Bounty Bay. Credit: Pitcairn Island Tourism Bureau

In the 230-plus years since the Bounty mutineers settled on Pitcairn, the island’s population peaked at 233 in the 1930’s but has dwindled to approx. 50 residents currently. 6,000km from the closest continent and occupying less than 5 sq km of volcanic rock, the sale of philatelic commemorative stamps was once the islanders only source of income, though tourism has become an unlikely income stream in recent years. Adamstown houses the town square with its post office, community hall, church and administration office. The general store is resupplied by a ship from New Zealand and New Zealand dollars are the local currency.

Photo: Stargazing on Pitcairn Island. Credit: Chris Pegman for Pitcairn Islands Tourism

Declared an International Dark Sky Sanctuary by the Dark Sky Association, Pitcairn’s lack of industrial lighting means it has found popularity with stargazers.

Coral Expeditions’ offers a rare opportunity to unravel some of the island’s mysteries which enabled the Bounty mutineers to remain hidden for 18 years.  Coral Geographer voyages to Pitcairn Island in November 2021 as part of an epic series of expeditions exploring the Small Islands of the South Pacific.