A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
January 23, 1790. The voyage of HMS Bounty ends at Pitcairn Island. A Polynesian woman, Jenny, who arrives with the mutineers, describes the event:
[Fletcher] Christian got the vessel under a rocky point and came to anchor. The mutineers began to discharge the ship, by means of a raft made out of hatches. The property from the ship was landed principally on the raft, by means of a rope fastened to the rocks. When all they wanted was brought ashore, they began to consider what they should do with the vessel. Christian wished to save her for a while. The others insisted on destroying her in the fore part. Shortly after two others went off and set fire to her in different places.
January 23, 1999. I watch Steve Christian (Fletcher's great, great, great, great grandson) set this year's replica Bounty afire. An old skiff has been fitted out with masts of scrap wood and sails of cardboard, the whole drenched in kerosene to insure a spectacular show. A flare thrown by Christian arches through the air and the Bounty bursts into a ball of orange fire. Several dozen islanders on the rocky shore of Bounty Bay witness the burning, an important annual event on the island, commemorating the destruction of the original ship.
I first visited Pitcairn Island in 1987 and was captivated by its beauty and history. Later, while studying maritime archaeology, I realized the potential for an investigation of both the wreck site and the mutineer settlement. A reconnaissance trip in 1997 confirmed that significant remains of Bounty lay in the surf just off the Landing, the island's only harbor. That trip also revealed the potential for reconstructing aspects of mutineer lifeways after the Bounty was burned--the land is owned by direct descendants of the original settlers and its extreme isolation would have helped protect sites. Furthermore, the island is studded with place names that signpost significant activities and events: Bang Iron Valley, where the mutineers set up the Bounty anvil; Down Isaac, an area of rock pools below mutineer Isaac Martin's land; and Down the gods, the site of a pre-Bounty Polynesian sacred place, or marae, later destroyed because it was seen as an afront to the Christian beliefs of the mutineers and their descendants.
In December 1787, Bounty sailed from England on a mission to collect breadfruit in Tahiti and transport the plants to the West Indies, where they would be grown to feed slaves on plantations. Chosen to lead the expedition was Lieutenant William Bligh, a highly regarded navigator and experienced mariner who had served as master aboard Resolution for the English explorer James Cook's third voyage to the Pacific. Bligh's orders were to proceed to Tahiti by way of Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, collect a large number of young breadfruit plants, and continue westward to the Caribbean. Unable to weather Cape Horn, Bounty sailed the far longer route via the Cape of Good Hope, at the tip of Africa, arriving in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, on October 26, 1788. The expedition suffered further delays waiting for sufficient numbers of young breadfruit to sprout, and it was more than five months before the ship was ready to depart. Throughout this period, the ship's stores were sealed and the crew was expected to secure food on shore. It is generally agreed that the seeds of mutiny were sown during this period of prolonged contact with the Polynesian inhabitants. Many of the crew took lovers and participated fully in village life. Fletcher Christian was reportedly among those most eager to embrace local customs, to the point of having his buttocks tattooed in the Polynesian style. Discipline appears to have suffered in the sensuous atmosphere of the island.
The mutiny occurred on April 18, 1789, just 24 days after the ship left Tahiti. In a matter of a few hours, Bligh and 18 others were cast adrift in the ship's launch, and Christian--second in rank after Bligh and officer of the deck when the mutiny took place--took charge. In an extraordinary display of seamanship, Bligh sailed the 23-foot launch 3,600 miles to the island of Timor, in the Dutch East Indies, from where he alerted the British Admiralty of events.
After the mutiny, Christian twice attempted to start a settlement on the island of Tubuai, 300 miles south of Tahiti, but the mutineers met native opposition. On the first attempt, a group of Polynesian men and women came aboard, giving signs of welcome, but quickly began stealing things. Christian had one flogged, and the others went back to their canoes for their weapons. Bounty fired a cannon loaded with grapeshot at the natives, then lowered a boat to chase them back to the beach. Twelve Polynesians were killed in the incident. The second attempt ended after the mutineers offended a Polynesian group that had previously been friendly. The mutineers then decided to sail back to Tahiti, where those who wished could go ashore. The rest would join Christian in the search for an island home far from the long arm of the Royal Navy. On September 23, 1789, Christian and mutineers Edward Young, William Brown, John Mills, John Williams, Isaac Martin, Matthew Quintal, John Adams (alias Alexander Smith), and William McCoy, accompanied by six Polynesian men, 19 women, and a baby, sailed quietly out of Matavai Bay and disappeared. The 24-gun frigate Pandora, dispatched from England to search for the mutineers, ultimately captured the 14 who stayed in Tahiti.
It was to be another 19 years before a Yankee sealing captain, Mayhew Folger, stumbled upon a curious community living on tiny Pitcairn, a 21/2-square-mile volcanic island 1,350 miles east-southeast of Tahiti. Folger was surprised to find that the natives spoke English but had apparently never seen a ship before. Listening to the men who paddled out to his ship, he realized he had solved the mystery surrounding the fate of Fletcher Christian and the Bounty mutineers, long forgotten by a world caught up in the Napoleonic Wars. Only one mutineer, John Adams, remained alive, along with several Polynesian women from the original group and a large number of children.
Adams told Folger the Bounty had arrived at Pitcairn with nine mutineers, six Polynesian men, 12 women, and a baby. (Seven old women with the group had decided to stay on Moorea, near Tahiti.) Each mutineer had a woman, leaving three for the Polynesian men. This system worked for about three years until the woman living with Jack Williams died. When he took a replacement from the Polynesian men, jealousies were so inflamed that a massacre followed. Five of the mutineers, including Fletcher Christian, were killed. Those remaining sought retribution by dispatching the Polynesian men. In later years, three more would die: McCoy committed suicide; Quintal, a bully, was killed by his shipmates in self-defense; and Young died of asthma on Christmas Day 1800.
In later years, sailors wrecked on other islands in the Pitcairn group--Oeno, Ducie, and Henderson--brought new blood to the island. Visiting British warships, American whalers, and ships carrying immigrants from Britain to Australia and New Zealand all stopped briefly. In 1856, the entire population of Pitcairn left for Norfolk Island, a British possession in the Pacific recently abandoned as a penal settlement, believing that Pitcairn's resources could not support its rapidly increasing population. Most Pitcairners remained on Norfolk, but a small group returned in 1858 and another in 1863. The current island population, about 50 in number, traces its roots to these people. They depend on four supply ships a year for mail, diesel fuel, frozen goods, and anything else not grown or made on Pitcairn.
In October 1998, I arrived with an advance guard of archaeologists from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, aboard the ship Melbourne Star. Packed in a container was every conceivable item we would require for a three-month stay. Other members of the expedition, officially titled the Pitcairn Project, would arrive in a few days via Tahiti and Mangareva, the nearest air link to Pitcairn. From there a charter yacht would carry them the final 300 miles by sea.
The Bounty and mutineer sites are significant for a number of reasons. Structurally, the vessel is an example of an eighteenth-century ship modified for the transport of botanical specimens. Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, designed many of the changes to accommodate live plants and supervised the transformation of the captain's cabin into a greenhouse with racks for potted plants. The cabin's floor was covered in lead, and scuppers at its forward corners diverted excess fresh water from the pots into barrels below deck for reuse. The voyage had also taken the ship into the relatively unexplored waters of the South Pacific, something akin to a present-day mission to the moon. Would the site reveal evidence of special preparations for such a voyage? Would it also tell us something about the resources available to Christian at the time of settlement? Bounty was an irreplaceable resource of fastenings, rope, canvas, and planks. Were all essentials removed before the ship was destroyed? What evidence was there for the recycling of this material in the settlement?
Our team began with an assessment of the Bounty wreck site. A reconnaissance dive in 1997 had shown that a large number of ballast blocks and some copper sheathing were spread throughout an area of large rocks adjacent to the Landing. A primary task for the expedition was to locate, define, and map all remaining artifacts. Diving from a boat anchored beyond the surf, we searched the entire bay visually and electronically, using an underwater metal detector. This confirmed that all ballast was confined to a single area approximately 69 feet square. Cast-iron ballast pigs, six inches square and three feet long, lay clustered in groups or scattered in gulleys and crevices. The water is always in motion at the site, and one must work in a constant ebb and flow. A diver risks losing control and being swept into the rocks. We dove in pairs, using additional weights for greater stability.
Close to shore we found a cannon. The Pitcairners had told us of it but were vague as to its exact location. Heavily encrusted, it lay between two large rocks at a depth of little more than eight feet. Later, we would discuss with the Pitcairn Island Council the possibility of raising it. (A British dependant territory, Pitcairn is administered by the council and a commissioner on New Zealand.)
The survey indicated a number of ballast mounds where material might best be sampled with minimum disturbance to the site. The most accessible areas have long been picked over by local divers looking for nails, which are incorporated in carved Bounty models and sold to visitors from passing ships. Bounty artifacts have been a reliable currency ever since Folger was given Bligh's chronometer and the ship's azimuth compass in 1808. In the 1950s the island postmaster made postcards with splinters of the rudder. We hope to create a collection that ultimately will be housed on the island, fostering an awareness of the value of heritage. Perhaps this will also lead to the return of significant Bounty artifacts that people passing through have taken, been given, or bought.
The first area sampled quickly confirmed that artifacts lay trapped beneath the ballast. Working in a small hole, partially shielded from the wave surge, we removed two ballast blocks to expose a concreted mass of artifacts including copper sheathing and nails held together in a mixture of corroded metal and sediment. The nails were in surprisingly good condition, with no sign of corrosion, and remained extremely sharp. Several concretions brought to the surface later revealed cannonballs, grapeshot, musket balls, and a large piece of timber in good condition.
One of the most surprising discoveries was a small piece of rope, its lay (the spiral of fibers) still clearly intact. Organic materials are not supposed to survive in sites with well-oxygenated waters, no protective sand layer, and waves constantly sweeping coarse gravel across them. Bounty shows that shallow-water wrecks have more to offer than has been generally believed.
A bolt appeared to be a puzzling composite of iron with a brass outer case. More of them, found later throughout the site, attest the measures taken to prepare the ship for its botanical mission. Bounty, or Bethia as she was first named, was built as a merchant ship for Benjamin Blaydes of Kingston-upon-Hull in 1782. She was bought by the Admiralty five years later as a suitable vessel to undertake the breadfruit expedition. The refitting included covering the wooden hull with copper sheets to protect it from teredo worms and to discourage barnacles and other marine organisms from fouling (and thereby, slowing) the ship. This was an expensive but necessary exercise for a voyage in the tropical waters of the Pacific lasting several years. The Admiralty had long accepted the advantages of copper sheathing, and after tentative experiments with smaller warships, had ordered the entire fleet coppered in 1782. An important part of this process was the development of suitable fastenings. Several ships sank after the iron fastenings that were initially used came into contact with the copper and corroded. Bounty's bolts may prove early examples of fastenings developed to be compatible with copper sheathing.
We also found a lead scupper associated with the drainage of the captain's cabin-greenhouse, a range of copper-alloy and iron fastenings, a large iron hinge, bronze washers clearly displaying the broad arrow symbol (marking them as British government property), animal bones, pulley sheaves, keel staples, and a variety of iron fragments in concretions. Some of the concretions are hollow, where iron objects have corroded entirely. These will be X-rayed and used for casting molds of the original objects. Almost without exception, the finds relate to the structure and armament of the ship. Only two or three objects, including a spoon crudely fashioned from copper, may relate to the crew. A gorget carved from pearl shell, with a small hole drilled for attaching a string around the neck, is of Polynesian workmanship. Another shell found in concretion, a large cowrie, may also prove to be Polynesian. We know from the diary of James Morrison (bosun's mate aboard Bounty), that the crew collected curios in Tahiti, and the gorget and cowrie may be such mementos or they may have belonged to one of the Polynesians brought to Pitcairn aboard Bounty.
The near total absence of personal items suggests that Bounty was stripped of all useful items before it was burned. The large amount of ordnance we found at the wreck site indicates that the mutineers were either unable to transport it ashore or left it behind because they did not have enough powder to use it. Both reasons may have played a part in the decision to abandon the cannons. According to Morrison, before Christian and the others left Tahiti they gave each of the mutineers who remained "a musket, pistol, cutlass, bayonet, cartridge belt, 17 pounds of powder and a quantity of lead to make balls." If Christian and his men had kept similar amounts of powder for themselves, they would have had enough for either a few cannon shots or many musket rounds, but not both. Furthermore, the only way up from the Landing is so steep that the mutineers would have had difficulty hauling the 1,320-pound cannons. The island's isolation would be their best defense.
The cannon lay in less than ten feet of water at a point where the surf breaks. The challenge was to free it from the bottom, lift it, and carry it to deeper water, where the island's longboat could tow it into the tiny harbor. The hydraulic crane on the jetty would do the rest.
Our first attempt, in November, was unsuccessful because of rough seas. We tried again in January, using a small pneumatic hammer to cut the cannon free of the bottom. After seven hours of cutting, we attached a plastic drum to the muzzle and filled it with air, the buoyancy gently breaking the remaining point of contact. We then attached the cannon to a metal bed or strongback with webbing. When all was secure, we pumped air into two 200-liter drums, which buoyed up most of the cannon's weight. Six of us in dive gear then simply walked it out through the maze of rocks into deeper water.
Bounty carried four cannons and ten swivel guns, light armament in comparison with naval ships built for combat. Two of Bounty's cannons were raised in 1845. One was used to salute ships visiting Pitcairn until 1853, when an accidental firing killed the island's magistrate. In 1856, one of the cannons was taken to Norfolk Island. The other remained on Pitcairn for a time, then was taken away, reportedly to America. A third cannon, raised in the 1970s, is on Pitcairn. Both it and the one on Norfolk are in poor condition.
The cannon we retrieved is the last. An initial inspection indicates that good surface details remain, which may tell us the gun's manufacturer. A dome covering the bore may prove to be a tampion, a plug used to seal the gun when not in use. If this is the case, we may find wadding and a ball still in the bore. In a remarkable twist of history, the cannon will be treated at the Queensland Museum in Townsville alongside one from HMS Pandora, the ship sent after Bounty.
We have also begun investigating the settlement of Adamstown, named for the mutineer John Adams, and related sites on land. A number of sketches, paintings, and descriptions of it exist, made by crew members from ships that visited Pitcairn in the early nineteenth century. In 1825, Captain Beechey of HMS Blossom surveyed the island and produced a map showing the settlement and main landscape features. His account, combined with local oral histories, formed the basis for our initial study.
The island's oldest surviving house is that of Fletcher Christian's grandson, Thursday October II (his father was born on a Thursday in October 1790). The house is built largely without nails and conforms to the earliest descriptions of Pitcairn dwellings. Evidence suggests that the original village square was nearby. Excavating at the house, we found an abundance of twentieth-century artifacts, little from the nineteenth century, and nothing from the eighteenth. Surface collections in a field above the house revealed several iron tools, including an early adze and a very crudely wrought hoe, along with some volcanic stone brought from a place in Bounty Bay called Oven, which may have been for cooking pits. A variety of pre-mutineer stone adze fragments were also found here. Although Pitcairn was uninhabited when the mutineers arrived, Polynesians had voyaged to the island long before to mine rich deposits of basalt for stone tools (the only radiocarbon dates indicate Polynesian presence ca. 700 years ago, but they were probably here 300 years earlier).
Excavations at the site of John Adams' dwelling and what is believed by locals to be that of Fletcher Christian's house proved disappointing. The Adams site had recently been plowed and planted with pineapples, seriously handicapping the survey. Despite this, fragments of barrel hoops and an ax head similar to ones found in camps from the American Revolution, and thus of the right period for the mutineers, were found just below the surface. The lack of finds at the other location seriously challenges the belief that it is Fletcher Christian's house site.
A pivotal change in the direction of our work occurred after the chance discovery below cliffs at Down Isaac of the trigger guard from a naval musket of a kind issued between 1755 and 1790. This find drew attention to the cliffs as possible disposal areas. Looking there we found a number of deposits from the entire period of European settlement. While searching a ravine below John Adams' grave, we found a black bottle neck and a striking ceramic sherd exposed on the surface of the steep slope. A plume of glass and ceramic fragments led us back to the edge of the gully. Careful probing revealed glass buried just below the surface. The deposit proved to be an extremely dense cluster of objects apparently discarded deliberately. A total of 18 bottles, two bowls, a plate, a mug, two snuff jars, a razor, a hinge with a broad arrow mark, several medicine vials, and a delicate wine glass were identified, along with a range of smaller glass fragments.
Five of the bottles are scratched with the letter N, while another fragment is marked G. It is likely that the initials refer to George Hunn Nobbs, the pastoral leader of the island after Adams' death. Nobbs came to the island in 1828 after a life at sea. He spent most of his career in the Royal Navy, and the hinge may have come to the island with him or on Bounty; once we have established the date of the bottles and ceramics found with the hinge we may be able to determine its likely source.
Personal marks like initials scratched on bottles have always been a part of Pitcairn tradition; officially registered family marks are used to the present day. Indicating ownership was a widespread practice, and even coconut trees were marked and individually owned. In a community where replacement of items was difficult, it is understandable that owners would clearly label them. While none of the registered marks can be directly attributed to particular mutineers, Bligh did note in his report to the Admiralty that several of them were tattooed with their own initials. The use of such marks on Pitcairn is undoubtedly an ongoing inheritance from the mutineers.
In addition to excavating, we collected artifacts from the surface of more than 1,000 meter-square plots. Some of the finds include clay pipe fragments, animal teeth and bones, an ornately carved ivory belt buckle, beads, a musket flint, Chinese ceramic sherds, gin bottle fragments, an iron adze head, whalebone tapa-beater fragments (for making cloth from the mulberry leaf), stoneware, glass, and a range of transfer-ware ceramic sherds. The analysis of this collection will produce an entirely new picture of the settlement and its development.
Much of the success of our expedition so far is attributable to the generous help and participation of the Pitcairn Islanders, who continue to display strong links with both their Polynesian and mutineer past. This was especially evident in our excavation at Steve Christian's house, which was destroyed by fire in 1988. A small shed attached to it had housed a collection of Bounty artifacts gathered during a number of dives Christian had made on the wreck. With Steve's help, and the assistance of a half-dozen island schoolchildren, we were able to locate the site and recover important items, including a large keel bolt, cannonballs, and a grenade. The children were enthusiastic; it was the first time that they, many of them descendants of the mutineers, had come into direct contact with artifacts so closely linked with their forebears. It was as though the stories they had heard so often had suddenly come to life.
The Pitcairn Project is the first attempt ever to examine the material evidence for the island's settlement. The HMS Bounty, burned by the mutineers, its wreck exposed to the full ocean swell and scavenged by later generations, has nonetheless yielded valuable information about what the mutineers took from the ship, providing a baseline of what was available at the inception of the settlement. Artifacts collected in our survey and recovered in excavations at the Adamstown and cliffside disposal areas span the entire period of European habitation and should provide evidence of how material from Bounty was recycled and supplemented with objects obtained from passing ships. Analysis of the finds, which will take 12 to 18 months, combined with the rich archival documentation we have for Pitcairn, will produce an entirely new picture of the settlement and its development.
Nigel Erskine, director of the Pitcairn Project, is an associate lecturer in maritime archaeology at James Cook University. The Pitcairn Project was made possible by grants from the Australian National Centre for Excellence in Maritime Archaeology, the West Australian Museum, the Queensland Museum, the Australian Research Council, and James Cook University. The expedition wishes to thank the commissioner for Pitcairn, Leon Salt, for his assistance during expedition planning.