Every year, a few days before the 8th of June, we take down our “Bounty box” and lay out the clothes for ironing and any mending that needs to be done. There are layers of clothes inside that have been handed down and passed along, and that we will pass along in turn. There are the trousers from “Dud” (my husband’s maternal grandfather), a particularly fine pair of circa 1940s fawn woolen trousers with leather sewn into the cuffs to save against wear, and a small band of cowhide inside the waistband to keep the shirt tucked in. I have a shawl made by his grandma Ellen, and a delicate lawn shirt, and a frilly pair of pantaloons, which were passed on when we came back to the island a few years ago, to be worn under a long, black skirt. My boots borrowed from my sister; my husband’s boots have the red island mud cleaned off them.
All over the island, around the same time, other people’s boxes or suitcases are coming down from high shelves or from under beds. There are hurried calls to find the shawl borrowed a year ago, or to replace the hat that succumbed to the wet weather a few months before. Pies are baked, chickens roasted and island favourites such as pilhi and mudda are on the menu. Long tablecloths are ironed and folded, trestles organised, and a quick prayer for good weather might be uttered.
If you’re not from Norfolk you might not know what the occasion is. Over 150 years ago, on the 1st of May, a small band of 193 men, women and children tearfully said goodbye to their beloved Pitcairn Island, and made the sea voyage across the South Pacific to their new home of Norfolk Island, which was offered as a solution by the British Government to the overcrowding problem beginning to make itself felt on tiny Pitcairn. The inhabitants had voted on the move, with all eventually (and some reluctantly) voting to make the journey to start life afresh elsewhere. A baby born on the voyage brought the number to 194 souls disembarking from HMS Morayshire onto Kingston pier on the morning of 8 June 1856. By all accounts, the weather was awful, a crewmember of the HMS Herald wrote, “She [the Morayshire] was rolling violently…it was an awkward job getting the women and children into the boats, sometimes they were left hanging by the hands some 10 feet above the boats others let go at the wrong time…one or two women got rather wet by holding onto the bottom of the ladder when the ship rolled windward.” One of the landing party, Sarah Quintal, has left us this diary entry, also recording her impressions of the new world which they had entered into: “everything was so strange, the immense houses, the cattle grazing, and in the distance the gigantic Norfolk pines, filled us for the moment with amazement. I was conducted to the Government House and seated by a good fire in the drawing room (I have learnt that name since) which was the first fire I have ever seen in a dwelling house, and an excellent addition to my previous ideas of domestic comfort.” Being a Sunday, the newcomers held their usual Sunday Church service later in the day, in an upper room of the military barracks.
Today, this landing and subsequent settlement of Norfolk is commemorated as Bounty Day by a morning gathering at the Kingston Pier by island families wearing early settler dress. Older peoplechat and catch up, young ones dart among the crowd, and down in the swell by the pier a full lighter is expertly piloted alongside the pier. The landing party is usually greeted by the island’s Administrator and his wife in period costume, and the serving Chief Minister. When everyone is assembled, the procession makes it’s way down Pier St to the Cenotaph, where wreathes are laid to honour the war dead, and “God Save the Queen” is sung. The march then continues down towards the cemetery to lay wreathes and flowers on the graves of departed family members, and to remember them. Local hymns are sung here, and the bittersweet verses of “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and “The Pitcairner’s Anthem” rise up against the crash of the waves on Cemetery Beach.
But let’s take a moment to look at some of the costumes in the march today. There’s the doctor with his medicine bottle, doling out a concoction to the daring; there’s a tiny boy’s blue sailor suit that’s been passed through three families; then there’s Uncle Leslie Nobby’s distinctive outfit now worn by his grandson, and his brother with the wooden wheelbarrow filled with kids. Traditional finely-plaited hats in flax (mo-oo), banana bark (rahulloo) and corn husk grace many heads, some made by the wearers (young and old), some identifiably made by the well known island weavers. I see Aunty Girlie Nobbs in her matriarchal black quilted dress, and the younger girls are beautiful in white with Tahitian shell necklaces. There are clothes that have been passed down through several generations, and outfits that have a contemporary twist. Vonnie Grube in her sailor hat, harks back to the old days when the whole procession was dressed like this and you had to rent your outfits from the Bounty Day Committee.
After the sombre part of the march at the cenotaph and the cemetery, the kids are allowed to run across the manicured green of the golf course towards Government House, on their way to tea and biscuits. For many in the procession, this is their favourite part of the day, watching the next generation “madding about” in a flutter of white dresses and shirts, barefooted, and seeing who has shot up in the intervening year. At Government House, families assemble for the judging of the best costumes, with some good-natured rivalry and not a little teasing of those who have to choose between family loyalties — their own or the one they married into. A senior member of the winning family accepts the perpetual trophy from the Administrator and his wife, after which everyone makes their way through a side gate down the hill on the way to the compound. If you’re young, there’s only one way to tackle a green grassy hill, and that’s to roll down it…over and over, but make sure you don’t fall in the creek!
Passionfruit and lemon pies, roast sucking pig, roast kumera and sweet tatie from vegetable patches, green plun fritters, pilhi, Tahitian fish, porpieh pie and all the no-so-traditional favourites such as pavlova and trifle, all jostling for room on heavily laden trestle tables inside the old convict compound in front of Slaughter Bay. The kids stand on tippy-toes and count off the number of desserts on their fingers with their cousins, bagsing a slice of passionfruit pie from Ma-Joe, or eyeing off chocolate slices and improbably mountainous pavlovas. After lunch, there’s the surreptitious easing of the top button, and a quick lie-down baeliup to sleep off the second helping (or maybe the third). Strains of the ukulele might float over the compound, or closer by a bit of a snore from under a hat. But it’s not just about eating until you nearly burst; it’s about sharing what you have with others, about the singing of grace beforehand, and the kids playing chasy in the middle. It’s about wandering around and flopping on the grass with friends and chatting, about saying hello to grandparents and elders sitting in their chairs, and finding a lost parent for a disoriented toddler. It’s a celebration of community.
After this excellent lunch, some go home to sleep it off, some go and get ready for the Bounty Ball that’s held later in the evening at Rawson Hall, and the intrepid go and play an inning of cricket over on the cricket pitch by Government House. In times past, the teams used to be Bounty descendants versus all comers; the inevitable result was a dunking in the creek, but unless you are very cheeky that’s unlikely to happen today. Eventually, in the compound rugs are folded, cars laden with picnic gear, and families tek fly (take off) home. Clothes are washed, grass stains attended to, top buttons sewn back on and the “Bounty box” returned to the high shelf for another year. And in the kitchen, a small miracle unfolds as the baskets are unpacked. How is it that every year, everyone takes home as much food as they brought to?
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V1 Iss2, 2008. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.