Take Me to Pitcairn
By Julian McDonnell - Award-winning Film Maker, Presenter & Raconteur
All photos by Tony Probst, with thanks.
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Just before sun-rising, Mr Christian, with the master at arms, gunner’s mate, and Thomas Burket, seaman, came into my cabin while I was asleep, and seizing me, tied my hands
with a cord behind my back, and threatened me with instant death, if I spoke or made
the least noise - William Bligh 1790.
I was flogging the world’s smallest kites on London’s Millennium Bridge on a grey winter’s day when inspiration hit. I’d jump ship for the adventure of a lifetime.
Pounding the streets to the backdrop of the British Empire’s once mighty River Thames, I had plenty of time to daydream. And this is what obsessed my waking hours. On the 28th of April 1789, Captain William Bligh and 18 crewmen of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty were set adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by a gang of mutineers led by Fletcher Christian. It was the most famous mutiny in history and inspired countless books and Hollywood films. It had everything: drama at sea, idyllic desert islands, the thrill of adventure, beautiful native women, piracy, survival and cannibalism, not to mention shirts with huge sleeves!
I’ve been obsessed with this story since I was a boy. It’s the ultimate adventure of people running away to their own desert island. I wanted to find out what drove Fletcher Christian to mutiny and if he regretted it afterwards. Was Captain Bligh really such a tyrant like they made out in the movies?
And so a cunning plan was hatched. Every year a model of the Bounty has been burnt on Pitcairn since 1790 in front of the waters where the real wreck lies. My goal was somehow to get there and film the celebration with no money and no film crew. It was no problem for an old sea dog like me. What could possibly go wrong?
In my naive stupor, little did I realise what I was getting into. As it turned out, more people have visited the South Pole in the last five years than have got to Pitcairn. I would end up petrified, in fear of my life, going over the edge of the world to some of the remotest islands on the planet.
First off, I needed someone to take me there. The only way to get to Pitcairn is by private charter yacht or cargo boat from New Zealand. This can take a month, and if there’s high seas there’s no guarantee you’ll even get ashore. You might end up in Panama. To add to the problem, the island sometimes takes a dim view of journalists showing up with cameras. When the BBC presenter Ben Fogle tried to get there, he was sent packing. Imagine going 9,138 miles, only to be turned away!
The cheapest option seemed to be a yacht from Mangareva in French Polynesia, which still cost several thousand pounds on top of the flights and accommodation. My heart sank. The prospect was far too expensive for a poor kite seller like me. However, all was not lost.
“I’d like to make you an offer,” the director of the cheapest expedition I could find told me. “I’m actually a scientist who does island conservation work. The trips to Pitcairn are just an extra source of income, but my real passion is science,” he continued. “We’re planning a trip to the Phoenix Islands in Kiribati. If you can come with us and make a light-hearted film showing that not all scientists are crusty and boring, then I’ll take you to Pitcairn for free.”
When I arrived in Samoa, it turned out that the captain of the boat charter, Paul, hadn’t been told I was there to make a film. He thought I was a deck hand – but I knew nothing about boats and was scared witless of the ocean. After three weeks sailing around uninhabited coral atolls, nearly being wrecked on rocks, running out of food and medicine and arguing with the captain who hated me, we returned to Samoa. I gleefully disembarked and headed for Sydney for a month’s respite before flying out to Tahiti to pick up the same wretched boat again.
I had already experienced first-hand life on a cramped boat with a captain who didn’t like me and much discontent amongst the passengers. I was starting to see how easily a mutiny could kick off. When it was time to rejoin the boat in Mangareva, I was apprehensive. The captain had threatened to kill me, after all.
I was only supposed to be in Mangareva one afternoon to catch the boat to Pitcairn, but when I arrived six other passengers were also waiting. There was no sign of our sea transport. Although we were only on Managreva for four days, it felt like weeks and it amazed me how quickly the mood turned sour. Arguments broke out as horror stories emerged about past expeditions on this same boat. None of us had researched it properly and some eager passengers didn’t even get a receipt after paying thousands of pounds. The South Pacific does weird things to you. I started feeling a bit like Fletcher Christian, depressed at leaving Tahiti (or in my case wanting to go back to Sydney where I had a lovely time). Instead, I was about to board a boat full of fury.
When it finally arrived, the boat was not seaworthy. It had been stuck in a storm and the hull was taking on water. Four of the passengers were in their 70s. There weren’t even enough berths. We landlubbers were expected to share. Some of the paying passengers gave up and decided to stay on shore. As terrified as we were, I knew this was my one chance to get to Pitcairn.
After bartering some bottles of whisky for fuel for the boat, we set sail. Our moods at last lightened, but not for long. It was a rough two-day sail in cyclone season and on the first night the boat lurched up and down and side to side in a huge storm. I was in a tiny berth in the bow with Bob, a 70-year-old man with two metal hips. I’m 6 foot 6 inches and had just suffered a slipped disc into the bargain. Winds of 50-60 knots lashed the hull and by the time the night was through, both our beds were soaking wet from the leaking ceiling. I was convinced we’d sink. Some old timers had sold their life’s possessions for the pleasure of this chaos.
But make it we did and the sight of Pitcairn on the horizon was one of the most extraordinary and memorable moments of my life. For a split moment, just imagining what the mutineers must have thought coming down this same latitude, I almost felt like I was inside their skin.
The main landmark you see on approaching is Christian’s Cave, where Fletcher used to sit as a sad recluse watching for passing English ships, praying he wouldn’t be hauled back to Blighty to face trial. Today it has a sort of mesmerizing presence, as if Fletcher Christian is taunting you to join him.
By the time he was cave-bound, the Bounty had been burnt in Bounty Bay and the mutineers were stranded on the island for the rest of their lives with some beauties they picked up in Tahiti. Had they been caught, they would have been hanged, but it didn’t come to that. After a couple of years, all the men on Pitcairn had killed each other or died of alcoholism, leaving just one man, John Adams, with ten wives and 23 kids. Many of the mutineers’ descendants still live on the island today.
On shore I stayed with Terry Young, a descendant of midshipman Ned Young, who showed me a piece of the Bounty he’d recovered. It was only an iron keel spike but was a thrill to hold. The wreck itself is virtually non-existent now. Hardly anything survives other than a few slithers of hull and concreted iron. However, remains like the ship’s bell, anvil, anchor and, most importantly, the ship’s bible, which John Adams used to teach his new community to read, were salvaged decades ago.
On Bounty Day, the anniversary of when the Bounty was burnt, a feast was held. I was given the honour of setting fire to a replica Bounty made of cardboard in front of the wreck site, while the islanders sang the hymn ‘In the Sweet By and By’. It felt pretty special. The only real disappointment was the breadfruit plant, uru, which lay at the heart of the whole mutiny. It tasted pretty bland, like someone had gathered up balls of sawdust and deep fried them.
The Bounty had been on a single mission voyage. The plan was to sail to Tahiti, get hold of a cargo of bread fruit and take it to the West Indies as cheap food for Britain’s sugar plantation slaves. On Tahiti, Bligh and his men collected 1,015 breadfruit plants for transportation. Bligh was an experienced sailor: aged 33, he’d even worked with Captain Cook, but now it was time for him to become a legend of the wrong sort. In the five months the Bounty was moored off Tahiti, Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian married a local girl and other crew members formed fond attachments too.
On the journey home, Bligh’s bossy ways and bad temper soon became too much for Fletcher Christian who pined for the idyllic life in Tahiti’s lush landscape and the locals’ famous hospitality. 1,300 miles out to sea he gathered a group of mutineers, threw the captain in a longboat and ended up searching for a hiding place where they could live out the rest of their lives, eventually settling on the uninhabited Pitcairn. The Bounty had to be burnt so the Royal Navy couldn’t find the dastards. There was no reason to worry. In the end the 24-gun HMS Pandora sent to bring the mutineers to justice ended up wrecked as well on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia and only three men from Bounty, left behind on Tahiti, ended up hanged. The mutiny on the Bounty, and saga of the most infamous fugitives in British naval history, ended up the greatest media sensation of its age.
After my ordeal of getting to Pitcairn, I wondered how people survived on such an isolated spot. They do have internet and a supply ship visits every couple of months. Apart from that, they are basically 50 people living on a tiny outcrop with electricity for only part of the day. The locals like the solitude and many of them carve wooden Bounties to sell to tourists on passing boats and keep bees. I was amazed to find Pitcairn honey at Fortnum & Mason on my return.
My favourite resident was Miss T, a giant Galapagos tortoise who was born on Pitcairn in 1934. I also met Tom Christian, a direct descendant of Fletcher and wondered if he looked like him. You can more or less see all the island’s attractions in a day: the museum, Christian’s Cave and Bounty Bay, but after three days marooned on Pitcairn I was more than ready to leave, which I think suited the islanders just fine.
On the day of departure, the islanders took us out to our vessel on big longboats. After a few more disasters, with the captain’s girlfriend slipping in the torrential rain and smashing her head open, it was time to head home and wait for our flights delayed by cyclones. The trip had been life-threatening mayhem. I had needed my one-man film documentary to work, otherwise I’d spend the rest of my days selling kites on the streets of London.
Close to 1.5 million viewers later and several film awards in the bag, my close encounter with the mutiny on the Bounty changed my life forever.
Would I ever go back? Who knows… or dares to dream?
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