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Pitcairn Islands Study Center

Henderson Island

Photograph of the beachside of Henderson Island
Henderson Coast. © Andrew Christian ( Used by permission.

Henderson Island lies 107 miles east-north-east of Pitcairn (nearly 200 miles west-north-west of Ducie) at 24 degrees 22 minutes South, 128 degrees 20 minutes West. It is a flat limestone island about 100 feet high, five miles long, north to south, and two and three quarters miles wide, and is roughly rectangular in shape. It was discovered in 1819 by Captain James Henderson in the merchant ship Hercules. Shortly afterwards the island was sighted by Captain Henry King in the English whaler Elizabeth who named it after his ship. It was still known as Elizabeth Island to the Pitcairners when they first visited it in 1851.

Although Henderson is six times larger than Pitcairn, it is uninhabited. One reason is, of course, its isolation--Pitcairn might also be uninhabited today if it had not been for the mutiny on the Bounty. The main problem with living on Henderson, however, would be the difficulty in finding good fresh water (brackish water can be found in clefts and pools). The island is densely wooded and so thickly interlaced with shrubs that walking is not only difficult but dangerous, since the vegetation conceals the cavities in the coral. Professor Harold St. John, who explored the island botanically some years ago, reported that a false step could mean plunging into a jagged limestone crevasse to sudden death.

Photograph of Henderson Island's North Beach
Henderson Island's North Beach. © Andrew Christian ( Used by permission.

Incredibly, Henderson was nevertheless populated by Polynesians, possibly for generations, between approximately 1250 and 1425 A.D. In 1971, Professor Yosihiko Sinoto of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu discovered small shelter caves in the base of a limestone cliff with evidence of human occupation. 

The last human inhabitant on Henderson was Robert Tomarchin, an American eccentric, who in 1957 spent three weeks on the island with his chimpanzee, Moko. (See 'The Tomarchin-Moko Story.') In the early 1980's another American, millionaire Smiley Ratcliff, offered to buy the island and build an airstrip on it. He was turned down by the British government in 1983.

The Pitcairners visit Henderson from time to time in order to gather miro wood for their carvings. However, the voyage against the trade winds is difficult, and the Pitcairners deeply appreciate it when a visiting vessel will take on board their longboats and transport them to Henderson (coming back--with the trade winds--is, of course, not difficult). the first such boat voyage recorded in the Pitcairn Island Register was undertaken on November 11, 1851, with the assistance of a ship named Sharon. Added to the entry in the Register is the following comment: "Eight human skeletons were found upon the island, lying in the caves. They are doubtless the remains of some unfortunate ship-wrecked seamen, as several pieces of wreck were found upon the shore." (See 'The Henderson Island Skeletons'.)

Captain Irving Johnson, who visited Pitcairn seven times in his voyages around the world in the schooler (later the brigantine), Yankee, made a special point of taking the islanders to Henderson.

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