Trouble in Christian's Paradise

UPDATED 04/17/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/17/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

Tom Christian's home is a ramshackle, tin-roofed construction at latitude 25°04' south and longitude 130°06' west, on a tiny speck of land in the vast empty reaches of the South Pacific. It is not a crowded neighborhood: Over the southwestern horizon, 3,300 miles away, lies New Zealand; to the northwest, 1,350 miles as the dolphin swims, is Tahiti. Christian rides to work on a battered Honda motorbike, jouncing over the rough-cut road that runs like a red dirt ribbon up the steep flank of a spyglass hill. At the windblown summit, 870 feet above sea level, Christian, 51, parks his bike outside the single-story building that houses the Taro Ground radio transmitter. As chief radio officer, he is responsible for maintaining the only official link between the 46 men, women and children of Pitcairn Island and the rest of humanity.

Today, after raising an operator in New Zealand—"Calling Wellington, this is Pitcairn.... We are standing by "—he arranges a string of radiotelephone hookups for islanders. Forty-five minutes later, the radio clicks off. Once again Christian, his family and his fellow islanders are alone, marooned in time and space by an accident of history.

Tom Christian was delivered into this remote existence by the willful folly of a famous ancestor: Two hundred years ago, on April 28, 1789, Master's Mate Fletcher Christian led the mutiny for which the British ship Bounty is famous. Christian and his fellow islanders are directly descended from the nine Bounty mutineers and a group of 19 Polynesians who settled on Pitcairn nine months after the mutiny. Though there are nominally four distinct families on the island—the Youngs and the Christians go back to Bounty times, the Warrens to the mid-19th century, and the Browns arrived about 90 years ago—they are all interwoven by marriage and inbreeding. Sealed off for generations from the rest of the world, Pitcairn is a closed society with its own codes, its own family secrets. "I think if you aren't born here," says New Zealander Helen Barker, until recently the island's nurse, "you are never accepted as anything but an outsider."

At first impression, Pitcairn seems an island paradise, lacking only a Swiss Family Robinson. The surrounding seas teem with fish. Exotic fruits grow wild, ripe bananas fall uneaten to the ground. Morning glories the color of the sky run riot in the bush.

Yet even as the Pitcairners cash in on their mutinous antecedents by selling $500,000 worth of commemorative stamps to eager collectors, the colony is facing a deepening crisis. A steady shrinking of the population, a growing dependence on the outside world, and a spiritual malaise have combined to sap Pitcairn's strength. With younger islanders drifting away to Australia and New Zealand for schooling and jobs, the island has barely enough workers to maintain services even at the present primitive level. A divisive feud over the island's Seventh-Day Adventist Church has also undermined the harmony of a settlement that 50 years ago was likened to Eden. There are some islanders, and a few observers who watch over their fate from afar, who believe the natives are less a community than a dwindling tribe doomed to extinction.

There is no airstrip, so visitors to Pitcairn must follow in Fletcher Christian's wake, sailing between rocky headlands to drop anchor in Bounty Bay. Two who did so recently discovered immediately that the islanders' reputation for bawdy humor and suspicion of outsiders is not exaggerated. Stepping ashore, still queasy from a three-day, storm-tossed voyage from the Gambier Islands, some of the travelers were greeted with a hearty, "Welcome to Pitcairn, a—holes!"

Though aware that strangers are endlessly fascinated by the mutiny, the islanders view it as family history and see no need to dwell on it. "You will never be able to say, This is what really took place,' " says Charles Christian, 61. "What is important is now and the future, not what happened 200 years ago." The Pitcairners live casually with relics from their outlaw ancestry. An encrusted anchor raised from the wreck of the Bounty rests in a place of honor in the town square. Fletcher Christian's Bible is displayed under glass in the church.

When she sailed from Spithead, England, in December 1787, the Bounty, a small, 215-ton, 14-cannon ship, was bound for the South Pacific. Her despotic captain, Lt. William Bligh, 34, had been ordered by King George III to collect breadfruit plants, which the monarch hoped to introduce to the West Indies as cheap food for plantation slaves. Bligh administered whip-and tongue-lashings freely and accused the ship's company of stealing his private supply of coconuts. The Bounty was sailing near the Friendly Islands when the anger of the crew and many of Bligh's junior officers erupted in violence. On the night of April 27, after Bligh had retired to his cabin, Christian and his followers seized control of the Bounty. With 18 crewmen who remained loyal to him, Bligh was set adrift in an open boat. After an epic 41 days on the high seas, sailing 3,618 nautical miles under desperate circumstances, Bligh reached the Dutch-held island of Timor. He eventually made his way back to England, where he brought charges against the mutineers.

But Christian had vanished. After a brief stop in Tahiti, where some of the mutineers elected to stay, Christian had set sail again with several shipmates and a band of Polynesian men and women. Christian knew that British men-of-war would scour the seven seas to hunt him down and return him to England for hanging. Desperate for a hiding place, he found one in a British navigational guide—a remote, uninhabited dot of land measuring only two miles long by one mile wide.

Twenty-two years earlier, an English sailor, perched atop the mast of H.M.S. Swallow, had first sighted the island. "It is so high that we saw it at a distance of more than fifteen leagues," the ship's captain wrote in his log, "and it having been discovered by a young gentleman, son to Major Pitcairn of the Marines, we called it Pit-cairn's Island."

On Jan. 5, 1790, Fletcher Christian led a scouting party ashore. He came back to the Bounty, according to one of his crew, "with a joyful expression such as we hadn't seen on him for a long time past." A party of 12 Polynesian women, six Polynesian men, a baby girl and nine mutineers went ashore carrying chickens, pigs, tools and weapons. Fearful of discovery, Christian ordered the ship stripped and burned.

From the beginning, the island was a feeble imitation of paradise; its early history was written in blood. Within a few years nearly all the men, Christian included, had been killed, victims of feuding and sporadic massacres triggered by alcoholism and sexual jealousy. (Though most Pitcairn history buffs are convinced Christian was killed on the island, a few believe he escaped and returned to England. One mutineer, Peter Heywood, who was captured, and later pardoned by King George III, was convinced that he saw Christian vanish into a crowd in Plymouth in 1809.) By 1800 only one mutineer, John Adams, was left on the island. African daisies now bloom on his grave.

The legend that Adams, Christian and the rest left behind continues to exercise a powerful romantic appeal. There have been three major films about their mutiny, including the 1935 classic starring Clark Gable as Christian and Charles Laughton as Bligh. Marlon Brando played Christian in a '62 remake (during the filming he fathered a son he named Christian and fell in love with a South Pacific island he would later buy) and Mel Gibson took the part in a 1984 production. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is said to have based his 1798 poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, on the hot-tempered Christian and the consequences of his mutiny.

Life on Pitcairn these days has evolved into a unique, sometimes surreal mix of the backward and the contemporary—as though Robinson Crusoe had struggled ashore with an electric toaster and a cassette recorder. There are no hotels, restaurants, banks or paved roads. Few of the island houses have flush toilets, yet many are equipped with VCRs. There is no radio or television programming and no daily newspaper: News trickles in over privately owned ham radios, exciting usually only mild curiosity. The rest of the world is too remote for the islanders to feel much involvement with it. As a British dependency, Pitcairn accepts English as its official language, but among themselves the islanders lapse into Pitcairnese, a pidgin mix of Tahitian and English. From early morning, when they are roused by the insistent cries of the island roosters, the Pitcairners are absorbed in the repetitive chores of island life: fishing, repairing boats, carting wood and cooking. When the power generators are running—just nine hours a day—some women cook on electric stoves, while others rely, as their Polynesian ancestors did, on stone ovens. Though they still cultivate five or six small vegetable plantations, the islanders no longer live entirely off the land; now they stock up at the Pitcairn coop with food supplies imported from New Zealand.

The arrival of the supply ship every three months or so is the most exciting and dangerous event on the Pitcairn calendar. The men steer their diesel-powered longboats out through the treacherous surf, then hold the pitching vessels alongside the freighter as sling loads of heavy cargo are swung down to them. Mishaps occur, and the consequences are potentially dire. There is no hospital or doctor on the island. Until recently the islanders' physical well-being was the responsibility of nurse Helen Barker, 41. She had a small, decently equipped dispensary and sensible skills, but the islanders knew her limits. Always conscious of their isolation, they dread the possibility of serious injury or illness. Many years ago, Tom Christian's older sister, Valda, was evacuated with acute appendicitis, only to die at sea before she reached New Zealand and medical aid. Tom himself had a close shave with appendicitis in 1959. With his abdomen packed in ice and the pain severe, he barely survived the voyage to a hospital in Auckland.

Last January, their two-year tour of duty complete, Helen Barker and her husband sailed away from Pitcairn forever. Lou Barker, 59, the retiring pastor of the island's church, was regarded by most Pitcairners as a disruptive figure who had set the islanders wrangling over an ancient dispute. Alcohol had been a sore point since 1887, when the community, converted by a missionary sent out from Britain, rejected the Church of England in favor of the teetotaling Seventh-Day Adventist faith. Today, however, fewer than half the islanders regularly attend church, and many defectors hold Barker to blame. Soon after he arrived, in January 1987, Barker reminded members of the island's ruling council that it was against the law to drink. As the pastor and everyone else knew, liquor was and is brought in illegally, the bottles concealed in black plastic garbage bags.

Barker's moralizing irritated the Pitcairners, who are accustomed to squabbling among themselves but tend to band together when criticized by outsiders. "At that first meeting he got in there with his blinking law books," says Carol Warren, 38, a faithful worshiper. "He upset people. Not me, because I don't care—I don't drink—but the young people who are doing things. Then after he did that, he went around begging them to come to church, which was the wrong way of going about it. By then some folks were so anti-pastor they wanted to have nothing to do with him or his church."

Barker was troubled but unrepentant to the end. "Drinking is not permitted on the island," he said, "and I have no apologies."

A Pitcairn childhood is in some ways idyllic, but must end, inevitably, in a moment of wrenching decision. Island children usually leave home at 15 to continue their studies abroad, and most of them never return. Last year, Carol Warren's second son, Dean, chose to go to school in New Zealand. "I remember I had been getting ready and we got word the ship was coming in," says his mother. "He said, 'I don't want to go now, it's too much of a rush.' But I made him go. He was very strong until we left, and then he broke down when the longboats were pulling away. I don't think I will ever forget that." Carol starts to cry. "We pulled away from the ship—this huge, big ship—and he looked so lost. It was horrible. And I wondered if I had done the right thing."

Now that the moment is past, she is convinced that the painful parting had to be faced. "It is something we all have to accept," says Carol. "I don't think Dean would have been satisfied just carving fish to make a living."

The islanders peddle their carvings, woven baskets and other simple curios to cruise-ship passengers as a way of augmenting their meager income. The schoolteacher receives a comfortable salary—the incumbent, Australian Loyd Buckley, earns nearly $30,000 a year—but the locals make do with far less. At $10,000 a year, radio officer Tom Christian is the highest-paid native Pitcairner. "We are a small community living out on an island," he says. "I remember a visiting dignitary once said, 'If you choose to live here, you have to put up with certain hardships.' I think there is a lot of truth to it."

There are signs, though, that the community's ability to endure is weakening. The island's population has dropped from a pre-World War II high of 233 to 46 now, and abandoned homes are collapsing along the main road from Bounty Bay to the village, sinking down into the lush green vegetation. "These empty houses," says Bernice Christian, 89, the oldest Pitcairner. "well, it makes you feel you are living alone."

Living alone, perhaps, but not willing to cease doing so yet. "I don't see we are dying out, not in this generation or the next," says Brian Young, 34, the island magistrate. "Everyone always says, 'Pitcairn is dying.' But I never believe in that rubbish because this is our home. We have to make it survive."

Tom Christian was 17 when he left Pitcairn for the first time to go to radio-training school in New Zealand. "I was up before daylight," Christian remembers. "I went on deck and saw Wellington and these lights running. It seems dumb, but I didn't know that those running lights were cars." He returned to Pitcairn in 1955; then, in 1967, after marrying islander Betty Warren, he moved with his new bride to California for seven months to work for the Seventh-Day Adventist radio station. Twice he has left his island, and twice he has come back, summoned home by a powerful longing.

Today Christian—in the middle of building a new home—has mixed feelings about heeding that urge. "The advantage," he says, "is freedom. You don't have to worry about locking doors. You are not tied to a 40-hour week. I can go down to the valley with my knife and cut bananas or go fishing whenever I want." But there is a price for such freedom, and his consciousness of it is constant. "I never thought I would live here as long as I have," he says. "You know, I like that world out there in many ways." Two of his daughters, Jackie, 18, and Raelene, 15, are now at school in New Zealand; the other two, Sherileen, 13, and Darlene, 12, will probably follow. None of them, he suspects, will return to live on Pitcairn. "I don't know what is going to happen to our family." he says, "whether with the kids gone, Betty and I will move too, or end up two old people alone on Pitcairn Island."

With that Christian falls silent, leaving a listener to wonder about the Pitcairn paradox: The very isolation that drew Fletcher Christian to the island in the first place may ultimately force the last of his descendants to leave.

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