As the longboats slowly pulled away from our ship, the islanders were singing a hymn. Those not pulling on oars were waving to the cruise passengers lined up along the open deck. It appeared that every passenger and crew were waving back. I turned to savour the moment with Bert and saw there were tears in his eyes.
“Why are you sad?” I asked.
“What are they going back to? Nothing.” he said. I wondered at that observation but kept quiet.
Pitcairn lived up to its billing. You are in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean midway between Chile and New Zealand. You finally realize how the mutineers could ‘disappear’ as we are in fact in the middle of nowhere. It is also the place that proved beyond a doubt that “you can find a Jamaican in every corner of the world”. Yes, the social worker on Pitcairn was English of Jamaican descent.
There were 49 permanent residents plus an administrator, his wife and two children, a nurse and the social worker who are contracted workers. That was the total population. Pitcairn is a British Overseas Territory administered from New Zealand.
By name and nature they are Christian as almost half the population, Caucasian or Polynesian in appearance carries that surname and when the expedition left England to search for the island there was a Seventh Day Adventist Missionary on board who baptized them all. Pitcairn Islanders are all Seventh Day Adventists.
We learnt this and more from a Christian, the great-great and more greats grandson of Fletcher Christian, he of the famous Mutiny on the Bounty. It was a most informative talk. We learnt that they were not totally isolated as they could and did have the means to connect to the internet for two hours most days. The 45 minute talk became a more than two hour session as the questions flew.
Questions: “What do you eat? Where do you get your food? Do you make anything on the island? Where do you get any money? Who looks after legal matters?”
Answers: “A supply ship comes from New Zealand. It also brings mail and whatever we have ordered. Cruise ships like yours stop and bring us things like toilet paper, potatoes flour, soap. We are grateful for all that. We fish, have a few goats, pigs and chickens. On the island we have a barter system, trading everything and sharing everything. Our administrator looks after the official duties.”
“Our biggest export for money is our stamps. We have brought our post office on board so you can be proud owners of a Pitcairn Island stamp. Better yet, write a card to yourself and we will frank it and mail it to you. They are being traded on E-Bay! We also make crafts that are for sale in the market set up in the lounge.”
If the Administrator was the Governor then Steve (or was it Tom?), Christian was the Mayor. There was no question he could not answer and is often invited to speak about life on Pitcairn internationally. He shares his fees and gratuities with the islanders. I would guess he has to pay for excess baggage after each engagement.
The current major topic of conversation concerned the recent judgment passed down from the highest court in England. The islanders were accused of incest. The islanders lost. They were to be jailed. A six-cell jail was built, duly inspected and opened ready for the incarceration of the convicted incest offenders. The jail, perhaps the best built structure on the island was being put to good if unintended use as follows:
One cell was the general activity and exercise room
One room was used by the social worker for one on one consultation
One was a sewing and craft room
One for a meeting place
One was the medical facility
One was used for its intended purpose, though it was rarely occupied.
An excellent use of resources I thought.
As the longboats rowed to the small island and Bert wiped away a tear an announcement was made that Captain Erik had given the order for some earth and sand from the island be brought from Pitcairn and placed on the aft deck. Passengers were invited to walk on Pitcairn soil. Since we were unable to walk on Pitcairn, Captain Erik did the next best for his passengers. He brought a little sample of Pitcairn to us. We did walk on Pitcairn soil. Thank you Captain Erik for an unforgettable experience.
The Meander: As I stepped in the soil, I looked out at the shrinking longboats riding the waves. The singing waned. I think I understood Bert’s tears. Do these Islanders live a life of only minutiae? What do they dream about, hope for? What do they plan for? Are there any big ideas or desires to be explored or is every day distilled into just the immediate, bare necessities for existence? I want to think they are rowing home to more than nothing. I still ponder that.
Oh yes, we did buy postcards and stamps, mailed a few to friends and to ourselves. Maybe if I can remember where they are I will sell them on E-Bay – Nah!