Pitcairn – history of a legend

© Yann Chavance / Tara Expeditions Foundation

17 September 2016

When Tara dropped anchor for a short week near the shores of Ducie Island in the Pitcairn archipelago, everyone on board enjoyed the unique opportunity of being in one of the most isolated places in the world.

The archipelago of Pitcairn had no reason to become famous. Four small uninviting islands, far from any other land, lying due east of Polynesia, with the Gambier Islands about 500 kilometers away. There are few natural resources to invite settlement. Henderson, the largest of the 4 islands, measures 36 square kilometers, but has no source of fresh water. There is water on Pitcairn, but the island is smaller and very steep, limiting agriculture. Finally, Oeno and Ducie are tiny coral atolls emerging from the ocean, unfit for human settlement.


carte-pitcairn© tara.nullschool.net


Despite these uninviting features, a few dozen Polynesians lived – or more likely, survived – on Pitcairn and Henderson for several centuries, thanks to trade with the Gambier Islands. A serious crisis around the 15th century led to the end of trade and the subsequent decline of Pitcairn’s small population. These inhospitable islands again became deserted. The story could have ended there, with Pitcairn falling into oblivion, but History with a capital H  decided otherwise.

It all began 2,000 kilometers from there, in 1788. After a grueling journey from England  lasting a year, the 28-meter yacht — the HMS Bounty with 46 sailors, anchored in Tahiti. The crew spent 5 months of relaxation enjoying the charms of Polynesia and Polynesian women. When they were forced to return to life at sea under the orders of a captain who had become increasingly tyrannical, abusing corporal punishment, more than half of the crew declared mutiny.


L’équipage se prépare à un apéritif sur le pont pour fêter les premières plongées à Ducie Island sur fond de coucher de soleil.With the sunset for backdrop, the crew prepares to have drinks on deck in celebration of the first dives at Ducie Island © Yann Chavance / Fondation Tara Expéditions


The captain and the 20 sailors remaining faithful were cast into a boat with 5 days of food – which allowed them all to reach land alive. The rest of the crew took control of the Bounty. The mutineers abducted over a dozen Tahitian women and eventually hid themselves on Pitcairn Island. They set the Bounty aflame to prevent its discovery, and then found themselves trapped on their island. Ten years later after incessant quarreling and fighting, only 1 adult man, 8 women and 19 children remained. Today, 2 centuries have passed, and the descendants of this small group still live on Pitcairn Island. Only about 50 people make up the total number of inhabitants on this archipelago, passed on to posterity, almost a bit reluctantly.

  Yann Chavance

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