Picks and Pans Review: Hell and Paradise

updated 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Peter Clarke

As history, this book about two tiny Pacific islands 3,700 miles apart hardly touches on anything of global consequence. As drama, however, it is fascinating. For the two islands are Norfolk, long the site of a brutal British penal colony, and Pitcairn, refuge of the mutineers who took over H.M.S. Bounty in April 1789. Clarke, an Australian ad executive who now lives on Norfolk, tells the two islands' tales in economical language, filled with quotes from contemporary books. The illustrations, an effective mix of maps, sketches and paintings, provide all the embellishing these stories need. Norfolk, settled in 1788, was at one point designated as "a place of the severest punishment short of death." A number of the colony's administrators seemed more criminal than its inmates. (Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore addresses Australia's history as a penal colony in detail.) Pitcairn was deserted in early 1790, when Fletcher Christian sailed the Bounty, bearing nine of its mutineers, 18 Polynesians and one baby, to the island. Christian previously had dropped off 16 mutineers in Tahiti. Within months, two of them had been murdered and the 14 others imprisoned by a British force dispatched after the Bounty's captain, William Bligh, and 18 loyal crew members survived a 43-day, 3,618-mile voyage in an open 23-foot boat. (Clarke notes that Christian and his mutineers released Bligh near an island, but its inhabitants were so hostile Bligh had to take to the open sea.) The Pitcairn settlers were not found for 18 years. By that time, all but one mutineer had died, and the British-Polynesian survivors had turned the island—not even two square miles in area—into an idyll. Pitcairn was later visited, and in some cases ruled, by a succession of religious zealots and various charlatans. Then in 1855 the island's 193 inhabitants, running out of farmland, asked Queen Victoria for help. She provided a ship that took them on a five-week trip—to Norfolk Island, whose penal colony had been abandoned in 1854. By 1864, 44 Pitcairners had returned to Pitcairn. Today Norfolk is part of Australia and a tourist attraction, while Pitcairn, still a British colony, struggles to survive with a population about the same as it was when it was first settled. Part of Clarke's motivation for the book, in fact, seems to have been to call attention to the Pitcairners' plight and to Norfolk's petition to Australia for home rule. (Viking, $25)

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