The Pitcairn Islands, officially named the Pitcairn Group of Islands, are a group of four volcanic islands in the southern Pacific Ocean that form the last British Overseas Territory in the Pacific. The four islands – Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno – are spread over several hundred miles of ocean and have a total land area of about 47 square kilometres (18 sq mi). Only Pitcairn, the second largest island measuring about 3.6 kilometres (2.2 miles) from east to west, is inhabited.
The islands are inhabited by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and the Tahitians (or Polynesians) who accompanied them, an event retold in numerous books and films.
This history is still apparent in the surnames of many of the islanders. With only about 36 inhabitants (excluding the six outsider officials) , originating from four main families, Pitcairn is the least populous national jurisdiction in the world. The United Nations Committee on Decolonization includes the Pitcairn Islands on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.
Flag & coat of arms of the Pitcairn Islands
The flag of the Pitcairn Islands was adopted on April 2, 1984. The design was suggested by the Pitcairn Island Council in December 1980 and approved by Queen Elizabeth II in April 1984.
The flag was flown on Pitcairn for the first time in May 1984, during a visit by the then Governor, Sir Richard Stratton (1980-1984).
The coat of arms of the Pitcairn Islands was granted by Royal Warrant dated November 4, 1969.
The coat of arms of the Pitcairn Islands features a shield depicting the anchor and Bible from HMS Bounty.
This represents the ancestral history of the islanders, most of whom are descended from the sailors who mutinied on the Bounty in 1789. The design of the shield is green and blue representing the island rising from the ocean. The helmet and crest are a flowering slip of miro and a Pitcairn Island wheelbarrow.
The flag of the Pitcairn Islands is a Blue Ensign with the Union Flag in the canton and the coat of arms of the Pitcairn Islands in the fly.
The Governor of the Pitcairn Islands maintains a separate flag. This flag of the Governor consists of the Union Flag defaced with the coat of arms.
The earliest known settlers of the Pitcairn Islands were Polynesians who appear to have lived on Pitcairn and Henderson, as well as nearby Mangareva Island 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the northwest, for several centuries. They traded goods and formed social ties between the three islands despite the long canoe voyages between them, helping the small populations on each island survive despite having very limited resources.
Eventually important natural resources were used up, inter-island trade broke down and a period of civil war began on Mangareva, causing the small human populations on Henderson and Pitcairn to be cut off and eventually go extinct. Although archaeologists believe that Polynesians were living on Pitcairn as late as the 15th century, the islands were uninhabited when they were discovered by Europeans.
Ducie and Henderson Islands were discovered by Portuguese sailor Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, sailing for the Spanish Crown, who arrived on 26 January 1606. He named them La Encarnación (“The Incarnation”) and San Juan Bautista (“Saint John the Baptist”), respectively. However, some sources express doubt about exactly which of the islands were visited and named by Queirós, suggesting that Queirós’ La Encarnación may actually have been Henderson Island, and San Juan Bautista may have been Pitcairn Island.
Pitcairn Island was sighted on 3 July 1767 by the crew of the British sloop HMS Swallow, commanded by Captain Philip Carteret. The island was named after Midshipman Robert Pitcairn, a fifteen-year-old crew member who was the first to sight the island. Robert Pitcairn was a son of British Marine Major John Pitcairn, who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill in the American Revolution.
Carteret, who sailed without the newly invented accurate marine chronometer, charted the island at 25° 2′ south and 133° 21′ west of Greenwich, but although the latitude was reasonably accurate, the longitude was incorrect by about 3°. This made Pitcairn difficult to find, as highlighted by the failure of Captain James Cook to locate the island in July 1773.
In 1790, nine of the mutineers from the Bounty and their Tahitian companions (six men, eleven women and a baby) — some of whom may have been kidnapped from Tahiti — settled on Pitcairn Islands and set fire to the Bounty.
The wreck is still visible underwater in Bounty Bay, discovered in 1957 by National Geographic explorer Luis Marden. Although the settlers survived by farming and fishing, the initial period of settlement was marked by serious tensions among them.
Alcoholism, murder, disease and other ills took the lives of most mutineers and Tahitian men. John Adams and Ned Young turned to the scriptures, using the ship’s Bible as their guide for a new and peaceful society. Young eventually died of an asthmatic infection. The Polynesians also converted to Christianity. They later converted from their original form of Christianity to Seventh-day Adventism, following a successful Adventist mission in the 1890s. After the rediscovery of Pitcairn, John Adams was granted amnesty for his part in the mutiny.
Ducie Island was rediscovered in 1791 by Royal Navy Captain Edwards aboard HMS Pandora, while searching for the Bounty mutineers. He named it after Francis Reynolds-Moreton, 3rd Baron Ducie, also a captain in the Royal Navy.
The Pitcairn islanders reported it was not until 27 December 1795 that the first ship since the Bounty was seen from the island, but it did not approach the land and they could not make out the nationality.
A second ship appeared some time in 1801, but made no attempt to communicate with them. A third came sufficiently near to see their house, but did not try to send a boat on shore.
Finally, the American trading ship Topaz under Mayhew Folger became the first to visit the island, when the crew spent 10 hours on Pitcairn in February 1808.
A report of Folger’s discovery was forwarded to the Admiralty, mentioning the mutineers and giving a more precise location of the island—25° 2′ S latitude, 130° W longitude.
However, this was not known to Sir Thomas Staines, who commanded a Royal Navy flotilla of two ships (HMS Briton and HMS Tagus) which found the island at 25° 4′ S and 130° 25′ W (by meridian observation) on 17 September 1814. Staines sent a party ashore and wrote a detailed report for the Admiralty.
Henderson Island was rediscovered on 17 January 1819 by a British Captain James Henderson of the British East India Company ship Hercules. On 2 March 1819, Captain Henry King, sailing on the Elizabeth, landed to find the king’s colours already flying. His crew scratched the name of their ship into a tree, and for some years the island was known as either Elizabeth or Henderson. Oeno Island was discovered on 26 January 1824 by USA Captain George Worth aboard the whaler Oeno.
Pitcairn Island became a British colony in 1838, and was among the first territories to extend voting rights to women. By the mid-1850s, the Pitcairn community was outgrowing the island and its leaders appealed to the British government for assistance. They were offered Norfolk Island, and on 3 May 1856, the entire community of 193 people set sail for Norfolk on board the Morayshire, arriving on 8 June after a miserable five-week trip. But after eighteen months on Norfolk, seventeen of the Pitcairners decided to return to their home island; five years later another twenty-seven did as well.
In 1902, Henderson, Oeno and Ducie islands were annexed by Britain: Henderson on 1 July, Oeno on 10 July and Ducie on 19 December. In 1938, the three islands, along with Pitcairn, were formally incorporated into a single administrative unit called the “Pitcairn Group of Islands”. The population peaked at 233 in 1937, and has since fallen due to emigration, primarily to New Zealand, leaving some fifty people living on Pitcairn.
Sexual Assault Trials of 2004
In 2004, charges were laid against seven men living on Pitcairn and six living abroad. The island held the record for highest number of sex offenders per capita. After extensive trials the men were convicted, some with multiple counts of sexual encounters with children. On 25 October 2004, six men were convicted, including Steve Christian, the island’s mayor at the time.
After the six men lost their final appeal, the British government set up a prison on the island at Bob’s Valley. The men began serving their sentences in late 2006. By 2010, all had served their sentences or been granted home detention status.
The Pitcairn Islands form the southeasternmost extension of the geological archipelago of the Tuamotus of French Polynesia, and consist of four islands: Pitcairn Island, Oeno Island (atoll with five islets, one of which is Sandy Island), Henderson Island and Ducie Island (atoll with four islets).
The Pitcairn Islands were formed by a centre of upwelling magma called the Pitcairn hotspot.
The only permanently inhabited island, Pitcairn, is accessible only by boat through Bounty Bay. Henderson Island, covering about 86% of the territory’s total land area and supporting a rich variety of animals in its nearly inaccessible interior, is also capable of supporting a small human population despite its scarce fresh water, but access is difficult, owing to its outer shores being steep limestone cliffs covered by sharp coral. In 1988 this island was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The other islands are at a distance of more than 100 km (62 mi) and are not habitable.
Pitcairn is located just south of the Tropic of Capricorn and enjoys year-round warm weather. Summer temperatures average 25 to 35 °C (77 to 95 °F) from the months of October through to April, while the winter months range from 17 to 25 °C (63 to 77 °F). The average humidity in summer can exceed 95%. The rainy season is from November through to March.
Flora & Fauna
About nine plant species are thought to occur only on Pitcairn. These include tapau, formerly an important timber resource, and the giant nehe fern (Angiopteris chauliodonta). Some, such as red berry (Coprosma rapensis var. Benefica), are perilously close to extinction.
The plant species Glochidion pitcairnense is endemic to Pitcairn and Henderson Islands.
In terms of fauna, an interesting and rare introduction is the Galápagos giant tortoise.
The sole surviving tortoise, Ms. T (also known as Turpen), was one of five which arrived on Pitcairn between 1937 and 1951, brought to the island by Irving Johnson, skipper of the 96-foot (29 m) Brigantine Yankee. Turpen usually resides at Tedside by Western Harbour. A protection order makes it an offence should anyone kill, injure, capture, maim or cause harm or distress to the tortoise.
The birds of Pitcairn fall into several groups. These include seabirds, wading birds and a small number of resident land bird species. Of twenty breeding species, Henderson Island has sixteen, including the unique flightless Henderson crake; Oeno hosts twelve; Ducie thirteen and Pitcairn six species. Birds breeding on Pitcairn include the fairy tern, common noddy and red-tailed tropicbird. The Pitcairn reed warbler, known by Pitcairners as a “sparrow”, is endemic to Pitcairn Island; formerly common, it was added to the endangered species list in 2008.
Important bird areas
The four islands in the Pitcairn group have been identified by BirdLife International as separate Important Bird Areas (IBAs). Pitcairn Island itself is recognised because it is the only nesting site of the Pitcairn reed warbler. Henderson Island is important for its endemic landbirds as well as its breeding seabirds. Oeno’s ornithological significance derives principally from its Murphy’s petrel colony. Ducie is important for its colonies of Murphy’s, herald and Kermadec petrels, and Christmas shearwaters.
The Pitcairn Islands are a British overseas territory with a degree of local government. The Queen of the United Kingdom is represented by a Governor. Pitcairn Island is governed remotely from New Zealand, however there is a Governor’s Representative resident on the Island.
The 2010 constitution gives authority for the islands to operate as a representative democracy, with the United Kingdom retaining responsibility for matters such as defence and foreign affairs. The Governor and the Island Council may enact laws for the ‘peace, order and good government’ of Pitcairn. The Island Council customarily appoints a Mayor of Pitcairn as a day-to-day head of the local administration. The Pitcairn Islands has the smallest population of any democracy in the world.
The fertile soil of the Pitcairn valleys, such as Isaac’s Valley on the gentle slopes south-east of Adamstown, produces a wide variety of fruits: including bananas (Pitkern: plun), papaya (paw paws), pineapples, mangoes, watermelons, rockmelons, passion fruit, breadfruit, coconuts, avocados, and citrus (including oranges, mandarins, grapefruit, lemons and limes); and vegetables include: sweet potatoes (kumura), carrots, sweet corn, tomatoes, taro, yams, peas, and beans. Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) and sugarcane are grown and harvested to produce arrowroot flour and molasses. Pitcairn Island is remarkably productive and its benign climate allows a wide range of tropical and temperate crops to be grown.
Fish are plentiful in the seas around Pitcairn. Spiny lobster and a large variety of fish are caught for meals and for trading aboard passing ships. Almost every day someone will go fishing, whether it is from the rocks, from a longboat or diving with a spear gun. There are numerous types of fish around the island. Fish such as nanwee, white fish, moi and opapa are caught in shallow water, while snapper, big eye and cod are caught in deep water, and yellow tail and wahoo are caught by trawling. A range of minerals—including manganese, iron, copper, gold, silver and zinc—have been discovered within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 370 km offshore and comprises 880,000 km2.
The Pitcairners are involved in creating crafts and curios (made out of wood from Henderson). Typical wood carvings include sharks, fish, whales, dolphins, turtles, vases, birds, walking sticks, book boxes and the famous models of the Bounty. Miro (Thespesia populnea), a dark, durable and beautifully grained wood, is preferred for carving. Islanders also produce exquisite tapa cloth and painted hattie leaves.
Coins and stamps
The major sources of revenue, until recently, have been the sale of coins and postage stamps to collectors, .pn domain names, and the sale of handicrafts to passing ships, most of which are on the United Kingdom to New Zealand route via the Panama Canal.
Trade is restricted by the jagged geography of the island, which lacks a harbour or airstrip, forcing all trade to be made by longboat to visiting ships. Occasionally, passengers from expedition-type cruise ships will come ashore for a day, weather permitting.
In 1998, the UK Government aid agency, the Department for International Development, funded an apiculture programme for Pitcairn which included training for Pitcairn’s beekeepers and a detailed analysis of Pitcairn’s bees and honey with particular regard to the presence or absence of disease. Pitcairn, it was discovered, has one of the best examples of disease-free bee populations anywhere in the world and the honey produced was and remains exceptionally high in quality. Pitcairn bees were also found to be a particularly placid variety and, within a short time, the beekeepers were able to work with them wearing minimal protection.
As a result, Pitcairn today exports its renowned honey to New Zealand and to the United Kingdom, where it is stocked in London by Fortnum and Mason and Partridges in Sloane Square.
The honey has become a favourite of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. The Pitcairn Islanders, under the “Bounty Products” and “Delectable Bounty” brands, also export dried fruit including bananas, papayas, pineapples and mangoes to New Zealand.
Tourism plays a major role on Pitcairn, providing the locals 80% of their annual income.
All passengers to and from the island travel on the Government chartered ship Claymore, coming from New Zealand every three months.
Electricity on the island is provided by diesel generators operating from 7 am to 10 pm.
A wind power plant was planned to be installed to help reduce the high cost of power generation currently associated with the import of diesel, and provide 24-hour electricity to the islanders at 70 cents per unit with no government subsidy.
The wind power scheme was cancelled in 2013 after a project overrun of 3 years and a cost of £250,000.
In September 2003, a baby was born on the island for the first time in 17 years. Another child, Adrianna Tracey Christian, was born on Pitcairn on 3 March 2007. In February 2005, Shirley and Simon Young became the first married outsider couple in recorded history to obtain citizenship on Pitcairn.
The majority of the resident Pitcairn Islanders are the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and Tahitians (or Polynesians). Pitkern is a creole language derived from 18th century English, with elements of the Tahitian language. It is spoken as a first language by the population and is taught alongside standard English at the island’s only school. It is closely related to the creole language Norfuk, spoken on Norfolk Island, because Norfolk was repopulated in the mid-19th century by Pitcairners.
100% of the population is Seventh-day Adventist. A successful Seventh-day Adventist mission in the 1890s was important in shaping Pitcairn society. In recent years, the church has declined, with only about eight islanders worshipping regularly, but most of them still attend church on special occasions. The Sabbath is observed as a day of rest and as a mark of respect for observant Adventists.
The church was built in 1954 and is run by the Church board and resident pastor, who usually serves a two-year term. The Sabbath School meets at 10 am on Saturday mornings, and is followed by Divine Service an hour later. On Tuesday evenings there is another service in the form of a prayer meeting.
Education is free and compulsory between the ages of five and 16. All of Pitcairn’s seven children were enrolled in school in 2000. The island’s children have produced a book in Pitkern and English called Mi Bas Side orn Pitcairn or My Favourite Place on Pitcairn.
The school at Palau provides preschool and primary education based on the New Zealand syllabus. The teacher is appointed by the governor from suitable qualified applicants who are New Zealand registered teachers. The contract includes the role of editor of the Pitcairn Miscellany.
The once-strict moral codes, which prohibited dancing, public displays of affection, smoking, and consumption of alcohol, have been relaxed in recent years. Islanders and visitors no longer require a six-month licence to purchase, import, and consume alcohol. There is now one licensed cafe and bar on the island, and the Government Store sells alcohol and cigarettes.
The unique cuisine and rich cultural heritage of the Pitcairn Islanders is detailed in a cookbook: A Taste of Pitcairn: The First Pitcairn Island Cookbook, by Pitcairn resident Meralda Warren (updated ed. 2005).
Fishing and swimming are two popular recreational activities. A birthday celebration or the arrival of a ship or yacht will involve the entire Pitcairn community in a public dinner in the Square, Adamstown. Tables are covered in a variety of foods, including fish, meat, chicken, philhi, baked rice, boiled plun (banana), breadfruit, vegetable dishes, an assortment of pies, bread, breadsticks, an array of desserts, pineapple, watermelon and more.
Public work ensures the ongoing maintenance of the island’s numerous roads and paths.
Media & Communications
Pitcairn uses New Zealand’s international calling code, +64. It is still on the manual telephone system.RadioThere is no broadcast station. Marine band walkie-talkie radios are used to maintain contact among people in different areas of the island. Foreign stations can be picked up on shortwave radio.
Amateur RadioQRZ.COM lists six amateur radio operators on the island, using the ITU prefix (assigned through the UK) of VP6. Several of the operators are quite active. There are also DX-peditions to neighbouring islands; in 2008 a major one visited Ducie.
There are two live English TV channels from satellite, CNN, and Turner Classic Movies. Free-to-air satellite dishes can be used to watch foreign TV.
There is one Government-sponsored satellite internet connection, with networking provided to the inhabitants of the island. Pitcairn’s country code (top level domain) is .pn.
Residents pay NZ$100 (about £50) for 2 GB of data per month, at a rate of 256 kbit/s. The Pitcairn Miscellany reports that despite the bandwidth recently being doubled to 512 kbit/s this is not per user but is in fact shared between all families on the island making normal internet use extremely difficult.
Pitcairn Island does not have an airport or seaport; the islanders rely on longboats to ferry people and goods between ship and shore through Bounty Bay. The island has one small harbour and launch ramp that is used to dock and load long-boats. Because it is small and the water is shallow, only small-craft can fit.
A dedicated passenger/cargo supply ship chartered by the Pitcairn Island Government, the MV Claymore II, is the principal transport from Mangareva, Gambier Islands, French Polynesia.
Totegegie Airport, Mangareva is reachable by air from the French Polynesian capital Papeete.
There is one 6.4-kilometre (4 mi) paved road leading up from Bounty Bay through Adamstown. The main mode of transport on Pitcairn Islands is by four-wheel-drive quad bikes or on foot.
As of December 2013 much of the road and track network and some of the footpaths of Pitcairn Island are viewable on Google’s Street View.