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The American Connection: The Pitcairners and Old Glory

The American Connection: The Pitcairners and Old Glory

Visitors to Norfolk Island are often surprised to find that the North American tradition of Thanksgiving is celebrated here. What most do not realise, is that in over more than 200 years, there has been much contact with American people and culture, arising mainly through visiting American trading and whaling vessels both on Pitcairn and on Norfolk Island.

One of the most fascinating stories is that of the close encounter the descendants of the Bounty had with the original American flag, which bore the name ‘Old Glory’.

When the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian companions sought a refuge and hiding place on remote Pitcairn Island in 1789, they were to remain hidden from the world for some 19 years. It was an American schooner, captained by Mayhew Folger, who chanced upon the community in 1808. Instead of a band of mutinous and hardened criminals, Folger discovered a peaceful and strongly religious group of people, led by the only remaining mutineer, John Adams.

The news of the discovery of the Bounty community travelled far and wide. The fact that they had not only survived, but had been transformed after the early days of bloodshed, isolation and life in a difficult and unfamiliar environment, captured the imagination of the world. From that time, Pitcairn Island was well and truly ‘on the map’, and received frequent visits from vessels sailing in that area of the Pacific. These ships not only brought news and useful goods from the outside world, but were able to take on fresh supplies and keep folk at home informed of the well-being and progress of this unique little society.

Time passed, and the population of Pitcairn grew. In 1825, Captain Beechey of the HMS Blossom had visited the island while on a survey voyage for the Admiralty. John Adams, confided to Beechey of his fears for the future of his charges, and his concern that there may come a time when this remote island could no longer provide sufficient supplies of food, water and timber. No doubt old age, plus the burdensome responsibility of caring for this community, and for a wife who was blind, weighed heavily on the patriarch. Adams suggested that a new home may perhaps be found in NSW or Van Diemans Land.

The British Government, alerted to the request, turned its attention to the issue of relocating the Pitcairners. It was the Missionary Societies who advocated the choice of Tahiti as a new home, believing that the upright and pious people would provide a fine Christian example in their efforts to evangelise the Tahitians. The young Queen Pomare was keen to co-operate with the British, and offered the gift of a tract of land where the new settlers could build their dwellings.

On February 28 in 1831, the brig Comet, accompanied by the sloop Lucy Ann, arrived at Pitcairn to carry the settlers to their new home. The people were a little surprised and reluctant. John Adams had died, and they had not considered relocation to be a pressing issue. However, in their usual spirit of courtesy and goodwill, all of the island’s inhabitants packed their possessions, boarded the boats, and bravely farewelled their familiar island home. At the time the average age of these 87 people was just 17 years.

The immigrants were to be well provided for materially. While their homes were being built, they were given the use of one of the Queen’s larger residences, and arrangements were made for a supply of meat and vegetables for six months. However, the move was fraught with disaster from the beginning. On their arrival, a number of Tahitian women had boarded the ships to show hospitality by offering sexual favours to the menfolk. The moral laxity of the Tahitians was distressing to them. Moreover, Tahiti was just recovering from some recent civil strife. Their isolation on Pitcairn had not only sheltered these Bounty descendants from the ways of the world, but also given them no immunity from the fevers and infections that beset them.

In a bid to return to Pitcairn, a small party led by John Buffett found a passage on a small vessel which took them to Lord Hood Island initially. From there another ship took them to Pitcairn, where they found that much of their homes and gardens had been vandalised by visitors from Bora Bora. Those still stranded on Tahiti were in a state of melancholy despair, having lost 12 of their number to illness, including Fletcher Christian’s son Thursday October, and Lucy Ann, a baby who had been born en route to Tahiti.

Relief and rescue came in the form of one Captain William Driver who had set sail in his Brig Charles Doggett from Salem Massachusetts. In 1824 at the age of 21, he had attained the status of Master Mariner, and to celebrate the occasion, had been presented with an American flag, sewn specially for him by his mother and young women of Salem. The flag had the stripes, and 24 stars in the corner. The delighted recipient declared he would name it ‘Old Glory’. Driver’s sea voyages were to take him around Australia, and criss-crossing the Pacific to Asia, trading in products like pearls, tortoiseshell and dried beche-de-mer. The ‘Old Glory’ flag flew proudly from his mast.

In August of 1831 Driver found himself in Tahiti, and became aware of the plight of the remnants of the Pitcairn community. He offered to provide a passage back to Pitcairn Island for a sum of 500 dollars. To raise the money the people sold some possessions, and were assisted by the Missionaries and other friends. They finally arrived back on Pitcairn in September, some six months after they had left, and were forever grateful to the good Captain. A baby who had been born in the final days on Tahiti to Charles and Maria Christian was christened Charles Driver in his honour. As it happened, Driver had suffered financially from the rescue exercise and was reprimanded by his insurers. The Pitcairners wrote a letter on his behalf to his superiors, testifying that he “had behaved with the greatest kindness and humanity.”

Driver continued his voyaging until 1837. Soon after his return to Salem his wife died, and he moved with his children to Nashville Tennessee, where his brothers had opened a store. A fierce patriot, Driver took every opportunity to fly his Old Glory flag with national pride on special occasions such as July 4th, and Washington’s birthday. The banner was so large that it hung from an upstairs window right across the street, and was tethered to a tree on the other side. At one stage, 10 extra stars were added, bringing the number to 34, and a small anchor was also appliquéd to represent Driver’s seafaring period.

During the American Civil War, Nashville was controlled by the Confederates of the South but Driver remained a staunch Union supporter. The Captain’s familiar flag gave courage to the Unionists, and Confederate supporters made many attempts to steal it and destroy it. Eventually, it was sewn up inside a quilt so that it would remain hidden from the Secessonists. When Nashville finally fell to the North, it was removed from the quilt and flown proudly from the Tennessee State Capitol. The story of Driver’s flag spread far and wide, and the term ‘Old Glory’, coined by Driver, became a fond national nickname for the ‘Stars and Stripes’. One of Driver’s descendants eventually donated the original flag to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, where it is carefully housed under glass.

Back on Pitcairn, the community continued to enjoy visits from many ships, including whalers from places like Boston, Nantucket and New Bedford. The contact was not always positive, with unruly crew members taking advantage of the gentle locals, and harassing their womenfolk. The offenders claimed immunity from any penalty because the island did not come under any authority or system of law. In 1838, the Pitcairners were assisted in creating a code of regulations, and were brought under the British Crown. Relationships with visiting whalers and traders improved.

Vessels calling in to the island were able to take on board produce and fresh water. In exchange they supplied the island people with items such as clothing, tools, fish hooks, timber and books, and sometimes livestock. It had become increasingly common for wives to accompany their whaling husbands on their voyages, and from time to time came ashore to await the birth of a child, or recover from an illness. They might bring items with them to make their lives more comfortable and pleasant, such as rocking chairs and harmoniums. Some of these have been handed down through Norfolk and Pitcairn families to this day. It was not unusual for the Norfolkers and Pitcairners to name their babies after visiting ships and their captains, and many of these names have also been handed down from generation to generation.

The visits of American whalers continued well after the move to Norfolk Island in 1856, and some crew members and captains settled on the island and married locals. There were also opportunities for the islanders to join the crews. The best known of these was Parkins Christian, who served on the famous whaler, the Charles Morgan.

Isaac Robinson, a trader who had come to Norfolk Island around 1865 and had married into a local family, actually served as the American consul for a number of years. He was of British stock himself, and we are not sure if this position was officially ratified, but he formed friendships with visiting whalers and looked after their interests over many years. It was Isaac who instigated the celebration of Thanksgiving on Norfolk Island in the 1890’s, probably urged on by his homesick American friends.

The whaling wives were to have quite an influence on the social and cultural lives of the community. They would often remain on the island for ‘the season’ and would have shared stories and recipes with their host families. Traditional American custard pies were adapted with local ingredients, giving us the well-loved coconut, lemon and cream pies we use for celebrations today.

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Two of the Christian denominations on Norfolk Island – the Methodists (now Uniting) and the Seventh Day Adventists – originated with missionary endeavours from the United States. Some of the island’s traditional and well-loved hymns such as ‘The Sweet Bye and Bye’ also had their origins in religious movements in America in the latter part of the 19th century.

And what of Driver Christian, named in honour of the Captain? As a young man, in 1853, he was involved in a nasty accident when firing the Bounty Cannon to salute a departing ship, HM Virago, the first steam vessel to visit Pitcairn. He recovered, and in 1856 made the journey with the rest of the community to Norfolk Island, where he was loved and respected, especially for his contribution to the musical and religious life of the community. Along with George Hunn Nobbs, he is credited with being the composer of ‘The Pitcairn Anthem’, and the hymn ‘Gethsemane’.

Captain William Driver died in 1886. He never forgot his experience with the Bounty people, and to his dying day he believed that God had guided him to be in the right place at the right time so that he could help them. He is buried in the Nashville Cemetery, and this is now one of a small number places in the United States that flies the national American flag 24 hours a day. His grave is marked by an elaborate tombstone that was designed and carved by Driver himself from white marble in the shape of a tree trunk. His memorial and the inscription are shown above. Although his spelling and maths leave a little to be desired, it reveals how important his encounter with the Pitcairn Islanders had been in his life.

 

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Image Credit: Royalty Free Image

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Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 06 Issue 01, 2016. 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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