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Tahiti to Norfolk: A single deed can change the shape of the world

Tahiti to Norfolk: A single deed can change the shape of the world

Norfolk Island is quite isolated from the rest of the world, with the nearest land mass being New Caledonia, about 800 kilometres to the north. Norfolk is by any measure, a paradise on earth, in a world that is beset by poverty and unrest. Add old-world manner and values to the island’s scenic beauty and you get the feeling that this is how the human race was meant to live. Of course, the history of Norfolk has not always been pleasant. In the 18th century, the empire builders of Europe were spreading across the globe, and Norfolk was selected as a site for a prison which became notorious for its brutality. A “hell on earth” was created in a place of incredible beauty, and hundreds were condemned to a life of constant torture that was relieved only by death. I suppose if the British weren’t such a “civilised” society at the time, it could have been worse. Eventually the prison was closed and the Island all but abandoned.

So how did a thriving tourist industry and a permanent community evolve? The answer to that question revolves around one of the most famous incidents in British maritime history and what appears to have been an unplanned and split-second decision by one man in 1789 — Fletcher Christian, Acting Lieutenant of the HMS Bounty. The Bounty had been sent to Tahiti to gather a cargo of breadfruit plants and deliver them to Jamaica as a crop that could be a cheap food source for slaves there.

There are many varied accounts of the events that followed after the Bounty left Tahiti with a full cargo, but what is known is that some of the crew, led by Christian, seized the ship and set the captain, William Bligh, and 18 loyal crew members adrift in the ship’s launch. The Bounty returned to Tahiti where some of the remaining crew disembarked and a number of Tahitian men and women sailed away with the mutineers – some willingly, but not all. On board the Bounty were 9 mutineers, 12 Tahitian women and 6 Tahitian men. It is recorded that Christian knew of a mis-charted Island called Pitcairn to which they sailed and set up a new community. The early years were bloody, leaving only one man, John Adams, and most of the women, alive. It is more likely, however, that the mutineers were guided by the Tahitians who knew the island as Hitiaurevareva. Many years later, after the community had been discovered and the population was obviously outgrowing the island, Queen Victoria granted Norfolk Island to the Pitcairners and they arrived here in 1856 just in time for the Bounty Day celebration!

All of the above is the “nutshell” version of how Norfolk Island was settled and by whom. If you want to know more, I highly recommend The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall — a basic introduction to the subject through a series of novels.

In recent years, there has been much more interaction between Norfolk/Pitcairners and Tahitians regarding the common heritage that resulted in the Pitcairn & Norfolk Island peoples. In November of this year, my wife Margaret and I joined a sizable contingent of Norfolk Islanders at the Arts Festival in Arue, Tahiti where traditional Tahitian and Pitcairn arts and crafts were displayed. It was also the 220th anniversary of the Bounty landing at Point Venus. I was excited about going to Tahiti as I was interested in standing in the place where such an unusual set of events had taken place in 1789, so long ago.

I had read the description of Matavai Bay given by a member of the crew of the Bounty when he first sighted it. A description of a natural and unspoiled paradise. Tahiti and its associated islands are of course beautiful beyond belief in the way a coral ring surrounds and protects them and one can only imagine what they must have been like before the arrival of Europeans. I stood at the memorial of the Bounty landing, and then waded into the waters of the black sandy beach. It was hard to reconcile the landscape with that which confronted the Bounty crew because of the encroachment of modern civilisation, but I stood waist high in the water and stared at the coconut palms on the shoreline and slowly it came to me as I remembered the words of Midshipman Peter Heywood, “I fancied I have never gazed on a scene more pleasing to the eye.” I saw nothing but a forest of coconut palms and a line of grass huts dotted within. I was suddenly aware that I stood where Christian and his young wife to-be, Maimiti first met hundreds of years ago and I must confess that tears came to my eyes. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was for a paradise lost. Or perhaps it was for Maimiti who left friends, family and all she knew behind forever, to be with Christian. I am sure, however, that if she was standing in the waters of Norfolk as I was standing there, she might shed a tear knowing that her descendants were in a “paradise found”.

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Image Credit: Royalty Free Image

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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.

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