If it weren't so high — 347 meters — and had he been less desperate, Fletcher Christian probably never would have found the rocky island, a flyspeck just 1.6 km wide and 3.2 km long in the most remote reaches of the South Pacific. Approaching Pitcairn 210 years later aboard an elegant cruise ship, one still wonders how anyone could have spotted this tiny volcano peak jutting up from the ocean bottom 6,600 km west of Panama and 5,310 km northeast of New Zealand. Far from the normal trans-Pacific shipping lanes, Britain's smallest colony emanates a primordial quiet that belies a death struggle under way ashore.
Pitcairn has always been about surviving on the edge. Christian was frantically searching for a place to hide after he and the crew of the H.M.S. Bounty mutinied in 1789. The ship had been in Tahiti collecting breadfruit trees to transplant to the West Indies to provide cheap food for slaves, but the crew was reluctant to leave the pleasures of Polynesia. Three weeks into the 10-month return voyage they revolted and cast off Captain William Bligh and 18 loyal men in a launch. In one of history's great feats of seamanship, Bligh skippered the 6-m boat west across 6,000 km of open sea to Timor without losing a man. Christian and eight cohorts, fearing arrest and hanging for treason, stopped off in Tahiti to pick up a dozen Polynesian women and six able-bodied men and found Pitcairn by chance after two months sailing east. They burned the Bounty to eliminate any trace of their whereabouts.
Pitcairn was uninhabited when they arrived in 1790. Within a decade all but one mutineer had died and 18 years went by before a passing ship discovered the presence of the 35 inhabitants still there. Population peaked at 233 in 1936. Now, only 38 people live on Pitcairn, many named Christian and most descendants of the mutineers. They speak a patois among themselves, and, to visitors, English laced with accents hinting of Tahiti and 18th century Britain. Despite generations of intermarriage, studies indicate no more imbecility than would be found in far larger populations. Yet their future is as precarious as the wave-lashed entrance to the Bounty Bay wharf which offers the only access to the world's most remote inhabited island.
The problem is not the sinking population, nor the lack of cars, paved roads, an airstrip, secondary education, a trained doctor or satellite links. It is postage stamps and dried fruit. More precisely, the plunging sale of Pitcairn's striking floral and fish stamps, which long provided much of the island's income, and the increased use of oil-powered dehydrators to market dried bananas and pineapples abroad. With e-mail up and letter writing and stamp collecting down globally, plus increased oil and transport charges, the island is nearly broke. The Pitcairn Investment Fund, which subsidized freight, power and islander travel, is down 30% in the past decade to $930,000. Figuring the fund will run out in three years, islanders have struggled without subsidies since January, supporting themselves by subsistence farming and the sale of T shirts, carvings, fruit and honey to passing ships. "There is a real concern the island will have to be evacuated," said Tom Christian, Fletcher's great, great, great-grandson.
Britain does not subsidize its colony. Nor is Pitcairn big enough to declare independence even if islanders wanted that, which they don't. But their predicament has prompted rumors in Europe that France might add Pitcairn to its Pacific territories. Paris has made no overtures and British officials and Pitcairners reject the scenario as groundless. "I'd not like to be a Frenchman, thank you very much," said Christian, "but I would like to have a future."
Another cloud on that future is a British investigation into an alleged rape on Pitcairn last year. If a case comes to trial — in London, New Zealand or on Pitcairn — it will set a precedent. There have been no court cases involving islanders, most of whom are non-drinking Seventh Day Adventists. "If even one person is charged, it's the death of the island," said Herbert Ford, a California-based Pitcairn expert. "No one condones lawbreaking, but they have their own way of dealing with problems."
If the island survives this setback, there are plans for a short airstrip and to pave the 2-km dirt road from the landing through the main village. That would reduce the dust churned up by the islanders' three-wheel all-terrain vehicles, and might help to attract some modest banking or insurance business. Right now, though, Pitcairn's entire populace, sated on hamburgers, pizza and ice cream consumed on board the cruise ship, is in one open longboat, packed with fresh supplies and a few unsold souvenirs. They circle our ship singing a haunting farewell song, then dash toward shore through surf and spume to their charming and troubled Brigadoon.