Pitcairn Islands: Mutiny on the Bounty

The Mutiny on the Bounty is a well know tale of insurrection on the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty in the South Pacific on 28th April 1789. The mutineers seized control of the ship from their captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, setting him adrift in a launch with 18 loyalists. The story of Bligh’s navigation more than 3,500 nautical miles to reach safety is remarkable enough but equally compelling is the story of the mutineers that led to the settlement of Pitcairn Island.

HMS Bounty was on a voyage to acquire plants and seeds of fruit and vegetables that could be used to feed Britains growing global empire. Following an extended stay in Hawaii collecting plant specimens, the relationship between the Captain and his 45 crew worsened. Bligh was indisputably a harsh captain who treated his crew in a severe manner, winning him few friends onboard ship.

1940-51 Pitcairn Island 2d George VI stamp featuring Lieutenant William Bligh and HMS Bounty
1940-51 2d stamp featuring Lieutenant William Bligh and HMS Bounty

Mid-Pacific, the hostility erupted into a mutiny with sufficient numbers overpowering those that remained loyal to the captain. Knowing that mutiny was a capital offence in the British Navy, the mutineers set Bligh adrift with just a few charts and some meagre supplies – the assumption being that they would perish in the open Pacific. If nothing else, Captain Bligh was an expert seaman. He rationed food consumption, plotted their route due west and eventually made landfall in the Torres Strait on Timor, an island between Australia and New Guinea. Captain Bligh and his men were fortunate that they located the island and eventually were able to return to Britain. Ships in the Pacific were requested to search for HMS Bounty and return the mutineers to justice. The hunt was on!

1940-51 Pitcairn Island 1d George VI stamp featuring Fletcher Christian and Pitcairn Island
1940-51 1d stamp featuring Fletcher Christian and Pitcairn Island

Meanwhile, the mutineers led by Fletcher Christian returned to Hawaii to pick up livestock and further supplies, and additionally persuaded some of the Polynesians, both men and women that had befriended them, to join them for a destination as yet unknown. The charts for the Pacific were far from complete and Pitcairn Island, little more that a remote volcanic rock, became a welcome sanctuary despite there being no beaches or natural harbour.

Pitcairn Island is a little over a mile long, with a width less than a mile and was uninhabited. It was an ideal location for a hideaway and with cliffs that were unwelcoming to visitors, this made the island even more inviting to the mutineers. The men were able to unload the Bounty of its cargo and establish a community on the island in 1790. Any passing ship would recognise HMS Bounty at anchor off the coast of the island and so it was decided to scuttle the ship, leaving no future opportunity to leave the island. At that point, the settlement comprised 9 Europeans and 18 Polynesians.

1940-51 Pitcairn Island 1½d George VI stamp featuring John Adams
1940-51 1½d stamp featuring John Adams

It was 18 years later in 1808, that an American whaling ship, Topaz, happened to call at the island by which time the community had become established and grown in size. Of the original mutineers only one remained alive – John Adams. But the secret of the mutineer’s location was now out. The British sent two frigates, arriving at Pitcairn Island in 1814. Whilst there was evidence of feuding, the community had become closely bound to christian beliefs. John Adams was eventually granted amnesty. The main settlement and capital of Pitcairn, Adamstown, is named after him. In 1838, Pitcairn Island became a British Protectorate.

Of the one and three quarters square mile of Pitcairn only 8% can be cultivated, the remainder is too mountainous. As the population expanded the supply of food became such a problem that in 1855 the islanders appealed to the British for help and they were offered another island in the Tasman Sea (between New Zealand and Australia) called Norfolk Island. Norfolk Island had been a British penal colony but had been abandoned years earlier. The Pitcairner’s agreed to the move. Having been transported to their ‘new’ home, several were unable to settle and within 18 months, 17 returned to Pitcairn Island. Five years later, another 27 followed, many of them direct descendants of the mutineers. The population quickly grew to 200. Today, there are fewer than 100 inhabitants and the island is administrated by New Zealand.

In the early 20th century, postal services to and from the island were very irregular, having to rely on passing ships for the collection and receipt of mail. In 1920 a regular postal service was introduced sometimes using a cancellation representing payment with the slogan ‘No stamps available’ and sometimes using New Zealand stamps cancelled with the name of Pitcairn Island in the cancellation. The first distinctive postage stamps for the island itself were issued in 1940 and are featured throughout this post. This pictorial commemorative issue depicts various people and views that have shaped the history of Pitcairn Island including Captain Bligh, Fletcher Christian, John Adams and HMS Bounty.

To view postal issues of Pitcairn Island, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Published by billmandsphilatelycom

William (Bill) Matthews has been a philatelist for more than 60 years. He has a particular interest in the postal history of the British Commonwealth including most notably, the issues from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. However, he also has specialist interest in the postal history of Egypt, Norfolk Island, Papua New Guinea, Sarawak, Sudan and the Italian States as well as a fine collection of overprints.

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