Herbert Ford, 559-592-0980, 559-732-0313.
1790 BURNING OF 'BOUNTY' BEING USED AS LEGAL ARGUMENT AGAINST BRITISH SOVEREIGNTY OVER PITCAIRN ISLAND
ANGWIN (Napa County) Calif., January 19, 2004—Come Friday, January 23, a group of academics at a college here will raise their glasses in memory of a South Seas’ naval mutiny in which world-wide interest has continued unabated for 214 years.
It was on January 23, 1790, that the British naval ship H.M.S. Bounty was burned at tiny, remote Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific Ocean following the mutiny by her crew against Captain William Bligh.
That defiant act, now repeated annually as a holiday, has arisen from the ashes of the ship to become a major argument in an international court battle that could have a major effect on Pitcairn’s future as one of the world’s smallest and most isolated inhabited islands.
“The mutiny on Bounty was an act that should have been forgotten long ago, but the revolt and its aftermath is as popular a subject for world-wide discussion and review today as it was a century ago,” said Herbert Ford, director of the Pitcairn Islands Study Center that is housed on the campus of Pacific Union College here. The Center maintains the world’s largest collection of material relating to what has become known as “The Bounty Saga.”
“Through five Hollywood-style motion pictures and hundreds of books, the latest published only a few months ago; thousands of magazine and newspaper articles and countless television re-runs, not to mention a score or more of Internet web sites, ‘The Mutiny on the Bounty’ is today more widely noted and discussed than at any time since 1790,” Ford said.
“Hardly a month goes by without another book or major magazine article on some other aspect of this timeless sea saga being published,” said Ford. “‘Mutiny’ movie reruns are a television staple. Internet web sites and chat rooms on the subject abound.”
The mutiny story itself is simple, but its aftermath is an exiting compound of romance, treachery, murder and survival:
In 1787 the Bounty, under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh, was assigned to sail from England to Tahiti to collect and then transport breadfruit seedlings to British plantation owners in the West Indies to serve as a cheap source of food for their slaves.
At Tahiti Bligh allowed his crew to form liaisons with the island’s dusky damsels. Upon departing for the West Indies, as a result of anger at their captain and longing for the girls they had left behind, some of the crew mutinied, setting Bligh and those loyal to him adrift in a small boat. They reckoned he would become evening stew on one of the nearby cannibalistic islands. Bligh, however, survived one of history’s longest, small-boat ocean voyages and returned to England.
The mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, master’s mate of the Bounty, sailed back to Tahiti. Then, realizing the British would come looking for them, Christian and a few others, along with some Polynesian women and men, went searching the Pacific Ocean for a safe hiding place. They found it in January 1790, taking up residence on Pitcairn Island, a tiny, isolated isle about midway between Panama and New Zealand.
The first years on the island were bloody, with all the Polynesian men and all but one of the mutineers being killed or dying from illness. It was 18 years (1808) before the world learned that the mutineers had occupied the island.
Pitcairn’s years since then have seen two total emigrations away from the island, and various crises that have threatened the Pitcairners’ survival. Today fewer than 40 direct descendants of the mutineers inhabit the one-mile-wide by two-miles-long island.
“The Bounty’s burning on January 23 has been repeated annually, with a miniature replica of the ship being set afire in Pitcairn’s Bounty Bay, and the occasion celebrated as a holiday with picnics, boat races and games,” Ford said..
The original burning and its re-enactments represent a form of defiance against the British crown that has recently been brought as an argument in a New Zealand court battle attempting to prove Great Britain has no sovereignty over Pitcairn Island, which Britain claims as its smallest protectorate.
The legal effort to disprove Britain’s claim of sovereignty is an attempt to halt proceedings in trials of several Pitcairn men who have been accused of sexual criminality. If Britain has no sovereignty over Pitcairn than it cannot try the Pitcairn men as it is attempting to do.
New Zealand lawyer Paul Dacre, the public defender of the Pitcairn men, has said, “In burning the Bounty, those persons on Pitcairn Island cut irrevocably, and severed, their ties with the United Kingdom.”
Dacre also argues that the discovery of Pitcairn in 1767 by Captain Philip Cartaret calls Britain’s claim of sovereignty into question. “Certainly no attempt was made to claim the island on behalf of the monarch,” Dacre said.
Cartaret’s account of the discovery says only that he named the island after Midshipman Robert Pitcairn, and that he made no attempt to land because of the dangerous surf “which at this season broke upon it with great violence.”
Dacre’s highly respected co-defense counsel Adrian Cooke said, “Pitcairners have never ceded their land. They have never signed a treaty or been conquered.”
“What the Public Defender is saying today,” Dacre argued in court in late 2003, “ is that in the period between the burning of the Bounty (in 1790) and the most recent exercise of so-called powers, and the introduction of ordinances, that the Pitcairn community remains a self-governing community, a community which can exercise its own sovereignty over itself and, most particularly in the context of this case, that (it) has a set of rules and regulations which covers the situation which allegedly occurred on the island.”
So intent does it appear Great Britain is to bring downtown London’s brand of justice to Pitcairn that it has gotten the New Zealand Parliament to pass a law permitting Pitcairners to be tried in New Zealand, although the few who have ever committed crime on Pitcairn have always been tried only the island.
Britain’s reason for having Pitcairners’ trials in New Zealand, some 4,000 miles from Pitcairn, cites the high cost of bringing legal people and paraphernalia from New Zealand to Pitcairn. This despite hundreds of thousands of dollars Britain has already been spent on investigations, deposition-taking, construction of trial-related buildings and a new jail on Pitcairn, including the placing of four British police officers on Pitcairn in addition to the island’s own policewoman.
It may be years before the question of sovereignty is settled since Dacre has said he plans to bring the question to courts of appeal in New Zealand, Great Britain, and, if necessary, a court of the European Union. He said he also plans to question the present court’s power to sit in New Zealand and whether Pitcairn ordinances complied with human rights.
An unprecedented number of restrictive ordinances – a virtual flurry of them, some say – have recently been written by Pitcairn’s British Governor Richard Fell, most bearing on the trials of the Pitcairn men. Each of the ordinances carries the weight of law for Pitcairn Island.
Meanwhile, despite the long, legal road that seems to be stretching ahead, the Pitcairners go routinely about their hard scrabble lives that include growing their own food and putting out in their longboats in often dangerous waters to trade on the few ships that call at the island these days. And through it all they keep an ear tuned to the obscure, international legal maneuverings going on thousands of miles away that could bring a seminal change to their lives.