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from Shipmasters of Cape Cod, by Henry C. Kittredge
Captain Josiah N. Knowles became one of the most brilliant of the commanders of the late clippers, conspicuous first for a dramatic disaster and afterwards for a record passage.
The disaster came in 1858, after Captain Knowles had been in command of the medium clipper Wild Wave for four years, engaged in miscellaneous trade. In 1856, sailing between Callao and Harve, he was off Plymouth in seventy days – a record which is believed never to have been broken. Two years later came his great disaster.
On the voyage in question, the Wild Wave sailed on February 9, 1858, from San Francisco for Valparaiso. At one o’clock in the morning of March 5, when the ship was going through the water at the rate of thirteen knots, the lookout cried, ‘Breakers,’ and at the same moment the Wild Wave was on top of a coral reef. A terrific surf broke over both reef and ship; all three masts went over the side, and sheets of copper, torn from the bottom of the vessel by the coral, were picked up by the breakers and hurled across the deck. What with falling masts and spars, tangled rigging, swinging blocks and dead-eyes, flying sheets of copper and waves breaking clear across the deck, it is a miracle that everyone on board was not killed.
At daybreak Captain Knowles discovered that what he had struck was a circular reef that lay about two miles off the uninhabited island of Oeno and completely surrounded it. The island, as figured in the chart, was twenty miles out of its true position – a mistake which was responsible for the wreck. The island itself is a low strip of sand, half a mile in circumference and covered with meager shrubs.
All day long the crew boated provisions ashore through the surf, wondering with every trip whether the ship would hold together for another one. They pitched two big tents on the beach, one for the officers and passengers, one for the crew. Luckily there was plenty of water on the island, as well as sea-birds’ eggs – for what they might be worth – and there were prospects of good fishing. The steward cooked supper, and all hands turned in, though with little prospect of sleep because of thousands of land crabs that lay hidden in conch shells and coconut husks and bit deep with claws like a lobster’s. There were rats on the island, too, from an earlier wreck, the remains of which were still visible.
In the morning Captain Knowles called his mate, Mr. J. H. Bartlett, for a consultation, the upshot of which was that the two men should sail in one of their boats to Pitcairn Island, twenty miles (actually 76 miles) south, on the chance of getting some sort of craft there from the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty. A boat was made ready for the trip, but for the next four or five days it blew a gale, kicking up a surf that completely buried the hull of the Wild Wave and of course made it impossible either to start for Pitcairn or to get any more supplies from the ship.
Finally, after a week of waiting, the surf flattened out, and the Captain started. “I cannot divert my mind,” he writes in his diary, “from the one subject – home and friends.” Bartlett and five men went with him; they left the second mate in charge at Oeno with orders to proceed to Pitcairn with the rest of the ship’s company if the Captain was not back in a month. He also took several sea-birds from their nests, on the chance that they could be used as carrier pigeons to take messages between the two parties. As the little boat pushed off, the rest of the company gave three cheers. Before finally laying his course for Pitcairn, however, the Captain stopped at the wreck to pick up $18,000 in gold, an item that had been worrying him ever since the ship struck.
On the first night came a return of the bad weather, with thunder, lightning, and a high sea that made the boat dance about so wildly that it was impossible to read the compass. They shortened sail and the next morning found that, as nearly as they could figure, they were ten miles farther from Pitcairn than when they had started, and it was blowing so hard that for most of that day they could not carry any sail. However, what with rowing until they were ready to drop, and long after Captain Knowles’s hands were raw from the unaccustomed labor, and now and then setting a patch of sail, they raised Pitcairn at dusk. But they were on the wrong side of the island, where the surf ran so high that no boat could land. They lay on their oars all night and in the morning found a spot where it was possible to run through the surf.
Once on the beach, they found that a thickly wooded mountain separated them from the settlement. They made their way over it only to discover, when they reached the other side, that all the inhabitants had left, having migrated in a body to Norfolk Island. The houses stood empty, with live stock and chickens running freely in and out.
Knowles and his party returned over the mountain to the boat and there, after letting the birds go with messages to Oeno, had their first sleep for fifty-six hours, Captain Knowles and Bartlett each with half the gold buried in the sand under his head.
The next morning the surf was too high for them to sail round the island to Bounty Bay, where the houses were; they therefore took the tedious overland route again. Once arrived, however, they made themselves comfortable enough, cleaning out a house, broiling chicken, catching a goat, and in every way taking a new lease on life. But their boat, left on the far side of the island, was smashed to pieces by an unusually high surf which reached it even in what they had supposed its safe position well up on the beach.
The Captain and Bartlett brought the gold to ‘town’ and buried it under a flat rock on the shore. With it they brought a compass and a chronometer, still undamaged, and they began to consider what their next move should be. Whatever they did could not be done in a hurry. Tahiti, which they had had some idea of trying to reach in their boat, lay fifteen hundred miles northwest, and all that remained of the boat was a mast and sail. The rain began and continued.
Captain Knowles passed the time reading Jane Eyre, which he picked up in one of the houses, hunting goats, and worrying about his young wife in Brewster, Massachusetts. They kept, of course, a constant lookout for ships the while. ‘Nineteen goat meals this week,’ he reports on March 24; and on March 28, still in the midst of rain, he writes, ‘Read, walked and thought of home.’
Before the month was up after which the second mate was to join them at Pitcairn, Captain Knowles had reached his decision: he would build a vessel and sail to Tahiti. A miscellaneous assortment of old tools had been left in the settlement; trees for timbers and planking were at hand. On April 5, one month after the wreck, the party began to cut them down and hew out a keel and a stem, using rusty axes from the abandoned houses. For the first two weeks the Captain suffered severely from blistered hands; after that, they hardened up nicely.
The chief trouble was the rain. ‘What a host of troubles that blunder of sombody’s had made for me,’ writes Knowles, thinking of the hydrographer who had drawn the chart. April 20 came and went, with no sign of the second mate. Work on the vessel progressed between showers; but a constant cloud over the Captain’s spirits was the thought how his wife would worry when no word of the arrival of the Wild Wave at Valparaiso reached home.
On April 28 they killed a wild hog and salted the pork with sea salt. On the 29th they finished hewing planks for the vessel and stood them up against the church to dry. They made sails from such pieces of canvas and stray rags as they could find, and began picking oakum from old rope. ‘I didn’t think I should ever get down to that again,’ writes the Captain, ‘but so it was.’ They burned houses for nails and collected scraps of metal for fastenings – the scarcity of which was their chief concern.
On May 26 the captain writes: ‘My 28th birthday.... My friends think I’m lost.’ They made a charcoal pit and burned charcoal for fuel for the voyage, began work on a rope walk, and always, when it rained, picked oakum in the church, living the while on goat’s meat, coconut milk, and chickens.
By June 3 the hull was finished, a schooner thirty feet long, eight feet wide, and four feet deep. The next job was caulking her, and by the time this was finished, it was found that the green wood had shrunk so much that she had to be calked all over again. While some were busy at this, others were shaping spars, using the flagpole for one of the masts; then they painted her, with paint left in the houses, salted a quantity of goat’s meat for the voyage, made some old barrels into water casks, wrote letters to leave behind them, and on July 23 launched the vessel. They provisioned her, in addition to their salted pork and goat’s meat, with twelve hundred oranges, made an ensign out of such rags as had not gone into the sails, and christened her the John Adams, after one of the former inhabitants of the island. The Captain and Bartlett dug up their gold from under the flat rock, and, bidding farewell to three of their company, who preferred to take their chances on the island, hoisted sail for the Marquesas, as the wind was dead ahead for Tahiti.
The John Adams developed a peculiar and uneasy motion at sea, which promptly made all hands sick; but she was staunch and able, and in time the sickness wore off. On July 25 she was bobbing along nicely through a heavy sea; on the 26th it was calm enough to bring the stove on deck. During the next week the schooner logged anywhere from 100 to 124 miles a day, and on August 3 looked in at Resolution By in the island of Ohitahoo, one of the Marrquesas, but the natives appeared so hostile that the Captain decided to try Ohevahoa instead. A flat calm prevented them, however, and they headed for Nukahiva, which they sighted the next day, August 4. They had decided, if there was no prospect of a vessel there, to continue their voyage to the Hawaiian Islands, but as they rounded the headland into the harbor of Nukahiva, they sighted the American sloop-of-war Vandalia lying at anchor, the only vessel in port. Captain Knowles headed for her and hoisted his ensign.
Their tale was soon told. The Vandalia promptly headed for Oeno to pick up those of the company of the Wild Wave that had stayed there and Mr. Bartlett went with her, subsequently joining her as an officer. Captain Knowles, after selling the John Adams to a missionary for $250, went along too as far as Tahiti, whence he took passage for Honolulu on the French sloop-of-war Euridice and made the rest of the voyage to San Francisco on the bark Yankee, arriving on September 29 – seven months after he had left there in the Wild Wave. He met many friends in port, who had thought him dead, and was interested to hear that he had become the father of a girl already seven months old. On October 6 he left for New York on the S.S. Golden Gate and in due time joined his family in Brewster.
from Pitcairn - Port of Call, by Herbert Ford
J. Hardie and Company’s four-masted steel bark Pyrennes of Glasgow, Scotland, 2,234 tons, with Captain Robert Bryce in command arrives at Pitcairn Island. The ship, a fire burning in her hold, stands in toward the Island. The date was December 1, 1900.
Pitcairn’s President James Russell McCoy, recounts the frightening condition of the ship:
“The ship’s cargo was discovered to be on fire 15 days previous to her arrival at Pitcairn. The captain’s intention was to run the ship onto a beach at Pitcairn if possible in order to save the crew. Since Pitcairn has no beaches, and because there were strong, contrary winds and heavy seas onshore I was not able to carry out the captain’s plans. I advised that the ship be taken to Mangareva, Gambier Islands, and beached there.
“At first the ship’s crew refused to go along with my plan, knowing of the great risk, and that the fie might break through the deck at any moment. But when the captain asked if I would pilot the ship to Mangareva I gave my consent. When the crew saw that I would risking my life for their sake they decided they were willing to come along.
“It was after dark when I landed back on Pitcairn in the longboat from the ship. A public meeting was called at the school room, and I told my people of my intention to pilot the ship to Mangareva if they would consent to my leaving. I told them it might be a few weeks or perhaps for a few months before I could find a ship to bring me home. After an hour’s talking and advising the people, and reminding them of the time when they had shipwrecked men on the island and of the trouble made by them at that time, I asked that all who were willing for me to leave the island for humanity’s sake should raise their right hand. The majority wee in favor of my going.
“I told the people I was not taking my life into my own hands as some might suppose; neither did I consider the strong fire that would be burning underneath me every day and night as we voyaged, because I knew that the strong ‘everlasting arms’ would be underneath me. Jesus left His father’s throne in His bright home above for humanity’s sake, why not we?
“There was no sleep in Pitcairn that night. While I was attending to family affairs, the women were cooking food for the distressed ship’s company, the men were gathering potatoes, fowls, bananas, pumpkins, etc., and at 6 a.m., I bad farewell to home and people. We sailed with a strong and fair wind for Mangareva, a distance of some 300 miles.
“On Sunday morning, after 28 hours at sea, we could not get the chains from the hold of the burning ship to anchor her, so we ran her onto the beach under Mangareva’s Mt. Duff and saved ourselves, our personal effects and a few stores. Two days later the fire broke out from the hold of the ship and she was suddenly all in flames, and continued to be so until her cargo of wheat and barley had burned up.”
Taken in by the Mangarevans after his dramatic arrival, McCoy would later write that he was seeking passage back to his Pitcairn home: “If I cannot get a vessel here or in Tahiti to take me back to Pitcairn, I will have go to San Francisco and take a merchant ship, as I did once before, and risk making a long voyage before being on my way home again.”
Still later, the world-famous novelist Jack London would chance upon McCoy’s exploit and write a novelization of it in “The Seed of McCoy,.” one of a group of stories in his book South Sea Tales.
The Pyrennes was salvaged in 1905 by Captains J. E. Thayer and Porter, renamed the Manga Reva and returned to sea service under charter to the Sugar Factors Company of Honolulu.
On October 4, 1914, while sailing for the Californian Atlantic Steamship Company, with Captain T. E. Willett as master, the ship calls again at Pitcairn Island, from San Francisco bound for Falmouth, England. Captain Willett is in command in place of H. C. Townsend, the ship’s regular captain who was in Philadelphia for the trial of his crew which had mutined in the autumn of 1913. The ship had gone to sea from the Delaware River on October 12, 1913. On October 25 the crew mutinied, and ordered Captain Townsend to navigate the ship to Bermuda. When he refused, they permitted him to return the ship back to the Delaware breakwater. At trial the seven ringleaders of the mutiny received prison terms of up to three and a half years for leading the mutiny.
In 1917 the Manga Reva was reported missing on a passage from London to Hampton Roads, Virginia. The U.S. government declared that the ship had been sunk by a German submarine.
from Pitcairn - Port of Call, by Herbert Ford
With a loan of $436 from the British Consul in Tahiti, the Pitcairners purchased a 15-ton cutter which they name Pitcairn II. The ship was to be used for missionary and trading purposes.
Griffiths F. Jones, a former seaman, along with five Pitcairners were selected to sail the vessel from Papeete to Pitcairn Island. Of the ship and the voyage Jones writes:
"Our ship was an old wreck taken from the Papeete reef, a cutter (one-mast boat) thirty feet long, patched up, and offered as a tempting bait to the Pitcairners. But who would navigate such an old craft 1,250 miles as the crow flies to Pitcairn Island? Somehow I felt it was my duty to do so. It was a fearful undertaking and an awful trip, as likewise were other trips that followed.
"We struck such a storm, with head wind and high seas, that it buffeted and battered us for thirty days. The elements defied our ever getting to our destination. When we were in the lee of the Tuamotu Islands, a tidal wave swept over them. It was reported that thirty vessels were wrecked, and that ours was among them.Homes and trees, with people astride, were floated to sea and lost.
"The rain continued day and night, and we had not a stitch of dry clothes into which to change. We wrung out our garments and put them on again; our teeth chattered. Now and again we would drop the sails, and the crew would jump into the mountainous seas to get warm for the sea water was warmer than the air.. Then those painful boils came on our knee joints, and there was no rest.
"Food and water ran short, and since the sun did not shine, we could not get our position. Our chronometer was an old secondhand one, bought at Papeete, which I found later to be in great error. I dared not show the crew my fears, for the use of dead reckoning alone to navigate in a storm is not assuring. The fact was that we could never find Pitcairn or any other place with a bad chronometer, and truly, under those unfortunate circumstances we were lost. But we plodded on, and I said nothing and prayed much, depending also upon my nautical judgment.
"Thirty days of this kind of sailing was wearing us all out. . . . One evening on the thirtieth day, I noticed a flight of sea birds winging their way somewhere, and I took a compass bearing on their flight and decided they were making for Oeno reef for the night, and would soon be there for the night was coming on; so I judged that my distance off and set my course to Pitcairn.
"Immediately the wind changed to fair. This was my last hope. But what if the judgment of my position should be wrong? What if Pitcairn was not in sight in the morning? I slept little that night, and dropped the sails before daylight, lest we should overrun the island.
"It was a clear morning with a clear horizon. I had exceptionally keen eyes, and my crew was as keen as myself. I can never forget my hopeless and lost feeling as I slowly came down from aloft and gave orders to hoist the sails again.
"You may not believe in God's miracles and wonders as in olden days, but I do, for I have experienced a few.
"'They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. . . . They reel to and fro, . . . and are at their wit's end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their distresses. . . . Then are they glad; . . . so He brings them unto their desired haven. Oh that men would praise the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!'
"The cry of the soul reached heaven. To our wonderful surprise Pitcairn Island loomed in sight only a few miles dead ahead at that instant.
"For the next twelve months Jones would sail the cutter between Pitcairn and Mangareva, trying without notable success to teach the Pitcairners navigation skills. The vessel carried cargoes of bananas, coconuts, and poultry among other products. At last Jones handed the boat over to George Warren, one of the Island's leaders."
from Pitcairn - Port of Call, by Herbert Ford
In the month of December, 1915, the Pitcairn Islanders, urged on by resident missionary Melville Adams, renew their efforts to build a small ship in which they can go on trading voyages to Mangareva in the Gambier Islands, and to Tahiti. The vessel, it is decided, will be called Messenger.
The New Zealand Shipping Company’s steel, twin-screw steamship Ruahine calls at Pitcairn on November 26, 1916. Aboard the ship is J. B. Kattern, a soldier returning to New Zealand from European service in World War I. He, Captain E. T. Smith of the Ruahine, three other soldiers and several fellow passengers go onto the Island.
“Ashore we took a good look at the schooner Messenger being built,” writes Kattern. “It is 45 feet long, with a 15-foot beam. The vessel is a credit to the builders. We also saw a life-boat presented to the Pitcairners by Queen Victoria. It is in good repair, and is reserved for special duties such as rescue work. . . .”
On January 15, 1917, the Messenger, 30 tons, is launched. Almost immediately she sails for Tahiti. The Islanders decide to give the ship to the Seventh-day Adventist mission in Tahiti for missionary use among the islands of the South Pacific. Aboard are Parkin Christian and George Warren, two of Pitcairn’s most skilled seafarers. When these two arrive in Papeete they then work their way on ships to Australia to visit relatives and friends before working their way back to Pitcairn. Because the Messenger is built almost exclusively with donated materials and labor the Islanders estimate her cost at $1.50 (15 schillings)!
On June 4, 1917, the Messenger arrives at Pitcairn Island, having been gone for four and a half month in her maiden voyage to Tahiti. At a public meeting two days later it is announced that the schooner is being returned to Pitcairn by the acting consul in Tahiti with the request that it be run and operated by the government of Pitcairn Island.
The Messenger begins making trading voyages between Pitcairn and Mangareva, and on April 8, 1918, she returns from one of her voyages with Pitcairn George C. Warren as her Master. On January 19, 1919, Messenger, along with two Pitcairn longboats, sail to Oeno Island to salvage material from ships wrecked on that atoll. In May, 1919, Pitcairner E. R. McCoy reports that the Messenger “was badly broken up in a gale, but at present she is more than half repaired. She will be ready to sail for Mangareva the end of this year or the beginning of next, if nothing unusual happens to prevent it.”
On April 10, 1920, it is reported that the Pitcairn schooner Messenger is lost returning from Mangareva while in sight of Pitcairn Island. Walter Fisher Young, who was aboard, tells of the loss:
“We stayed at Mangareva only seven days, then left for home. . . . We were in sight of Mangareva for about four days owing to a calm, then a light wind blew, but not fair for Pitcairn. Afterward the wind increased to a strong head blow and it lasted for a long time. This seemed to strain the vessel, and it began to leak very badly.
“On account of the strong head wind we made very slow progress. We sought the Lord that He would favour us with fair wind that we might soon reach home, but it seemed as if the fair wind would never come. . . . Our food supply was fast running out. We were fifteen or sixteen days out before we sighted Pitcairn.
“The day we sighted land was Sunday and we were that evening many miles to leeward of the island. Our last known food supply was cooked and eaten that evening. Though many miles from shore our captain lowered the boat and sent five men to row ashore to let the Pitcairners know of our present condition on board.
“Floating on a leaky ship, without provisions, the few men left on board having to be at the pump day and night to keep the water from overflowing the ship, and working without feeod, we were growing weak and feeble.
“Day and night the boat from the shore tried to reach us, thus bringing relief, but this was all in vain, for they never found us. From Sunday till Tuesday we were there in an almost helpless condition. The wind was contrary for us to make the land. In our distress we on board sought the Lord. Those on shore assembled in the house of God to seek help in behalf of those left on board the Messenger.
“On Wednesday morning we sighted a steamship. We put the distress signal up, but the captain of the steamship did not see it, so it passed us by. That same steamer passed close to Pitcairn. The Pitcairn boats made for her and succeeded in getting aboard. They presented the condition of the Messenger to the captain, and God used that captain to answer the prayers of His people.
“The captain turned his ship around and went in search of the Messenger until he found it. He saw the condition of the ship as well as those of us on board, and he took it in tow, trying to get it to land. But the Messenger was fast filling with water, and would not be able to get to land. All cargo was taken from her and placed on board the steamer, and all hands left the Messenger. Not a life was lost.
“The Messenger, which was now nearly filled with water, was sent adrift and has probably gone to the bottom. . . .”
In his book “The Romance of Pitcairn Island, “ W. Y. Fullerton names the American steamer Sassenach as being the vessel that came to the aid of the Messenger. During her lifetime the little ship made a dozen successful voyages to Mangareva for both commercial and religious purposes. Not one of Pitcairn’s better ship-building efforts, the Messenger was characterized by Pitcairner Fred Christian as going “just as fast sideways as forrard!”
from Mutiny of the Bounty and Pitcairn Island by Rosalind Amelia Young
Toward the close of January, 1875, the Liverpool ship Cornwallis, of the firm of Balfour, Williamson & Co., homeward bound from San Francisco, came in sight of Pitcairn Island. The captain in his boyhood had read the story of the mutineers of the Bounty and their subsequent settlment of the isolated rock, and decided that he would make a call at the place where, just eighty-five years before, Christian and his guilty party had landed. Taking with him his apprentices, they left the ship in charge of the first officer, and came ashore in their own boat, accompanied by some of the island men who had gone off to the ship.
But a very short time had elapsed after they landed when the ship was observed to be losing her ground, and, as if impelled by some unseen power, she drifted shoreward, coming on swiftly and surely to destruction. The people on shore watched with breathless anxiety and terror the doomed ship, and earnest but unavailing prayers went up that the fearful catastrophe might be averted.
The poor captain, half frantic, rushed with his young men and all the island men that were within call, to the landing place, to launch the boat and put off to the vessel, that was every moment nearing the rocks. But no effort could save her, and she soon struck on some unseen rocks a few feet from the shore. Had there been ten minutes more time, she would have been saved, as the water clear to the shore is very deep, and a few minutes more would have sufficed to steer the ship clear of danger.
A few of the islanders that had remained on the ship when the boat first went off, terrified beyond control at the approaching shipwreck, now hastily got into their boat and started for the shore. Meeting the captain’s boat returning, they also went back to where the ship now lay, a helpless wreck. The excitement that prevailed was great, and soon everybody was near the scene of the disaster. The other men who had been engaged about their several duties when the disaster took place, now returned from the fields, and, seeing what had happened, were quickly on the rocks near where the ship lay. Swimming off to the vessel, they were soon engaged with the others who had been before them in rendering what assistance they were able, and in a short time after the ship struck, all the crew had been safely landed.
Little else was saved. The mate wished to make a return trip to the vessel in spite of the wind, that was now increasing into a gale, and at the cry, “Who will volunteer?” a ready response was given, but the darkness coming on, and the threatening weather, made it advisable to delay the effort until the next morning. The boat was once more drawn up to a place of safety, and in the gloomy darkness, with feelings still more gloomy, the captain and the crew of the Cornwallis accompanied by the islanders, men, women, and children, formed a silent procession up the steep hill path that led to the village.
All that could be done for the strangers thus unexpectedly thrown amongst them was done as well as their limited means afforded, and everyone willingly gave up sleeping rooms to the shipwrecked men during their enforced stay, being content that their unexpected guests should enjoy whatever could be provided for their comfort.
The chief anxiety experienced was how to find enough to feed their guests should their stay be a long one, for this addition to their numbers was confessedly a tax upon them in the matter of food supplies, the islanders themselves being obliged to be careful in the use of what they had, as the island had not yet recovered from the effects of the long-continued drought of the previous years.
Not a thing was saved from the ship. The heavy seas rolled over the poor vessel during the night, and by morning the gale had increased to such fury that it was hopeless to attempt a return to the ship, each oncoming wave threatening to overturn it or break it in pieces. The deepest sympathy was felt for the distressed captain and his company of officers and men, but nothing could be done to alleviate the misery of their condition.
On the second day after the ship had become a wreck, she turned over and broke up by the violence of the waves. The sea around was strewn with wreckage, which floated away to leeward. The ship’s lifeboat, uninjured, was among the things that were scattered from the ship on breaking up, and in the hope of rescuing it a crew of the islanders started to launch the captain’s gig. With brave hearts and strong arms they waited for a moment’s lull in the angry waves to give them an opportunity of getting safely over the dreadful surf that rolled ceaselessly in to shore. At last the moment came, and at the command, “Pull ahead,” with a strength that seemed more than human, the boat was got beyond the danger of the breakers, that threatened to engulf her. In due time the lifeboat was reached. Being full of water, each man took turns to bail the boat. Wind and tide being both against them, the work was exceedingly heavy, but courageous hearts and willing hands insured success, and after several hours’ hard battling with the sea, the gig and lifeboat were both landed in safety.
A sad accident occurred a short while the men were engaged in rescuing the boat. A boy twelve years of age had, with some of his companions, gone down to the rocks near which the ship was wrecked, to get something that floated ashore. In attempting to reach his object, he was suddenly struck down by a heavy sea, and washed off into the boiling waters. The only aid that could be rendered was by means of a rope thrown to him, but before it could be brought the poor boy had sunk, bruised and killed by the wreckage that was tossing around. The poor, distracted mother witnessed the fearful scene, and in her agonizing grief made her way to the place where her boy was taken off, and would have thrown herself into the sea, as if such a sacrifice could avail to save her boy, but the arms of strong men who had followed held her back, and she was carried with great difficulty and in an unconscious state up the rocky steep to her home, where pitying friends received her and attended her through the long, dreary months of illness that followed. The father was not present when the accident took place, so word was sent to him where he was at work. He was with difficulty restrained from casting himself into the angry sea in the remot hope of finding the body of his son, but at length submitted to be led home; nor was the body every seen again, although a search was kept up for several days.
The American ship Dauntless had come in during the day, and Captain Wilbur waited until next morning, when, on learning what had taken place, he kindly offered to take the whole crew of the Cornwallis on his ship, and give them a passage to New York, whither he was bound. The ship was wrecked on Saturday, and by Tuesday noon all her crew had left, leaving only the poor remains of the good ship to remind the people of the sad occurrence.
from Pitcairn - port of Call, by Herbert Ford
The yawl Trondhjem arrives at Pitcairn Island in fair weather from Mangareva, with a man, his wife and their young son aboard. The wife, who is ill, is brought ashore with her son. The weather turns from fair to strong winds and heavy seas. Roy Clark, Pitcairn’s Postmaster, tells the story of the next several hours:
“It was difficult to conceive how quickly the weather changed. . . . From the south the wind changed to the east and began to blow a half gale making the sea rough and choppy. To make matters worse, heavy swells rolled in from the west with the sound of thunder. At The Landing at Bounty Bay surf and seas in the passage seethed and foamed over the rocks into the harbour in a most threatening way.
“All through the night the Trondhjem was straining and tugging at her anchor chain and we learnt later that the captain was fearful that at any time his boat would be dashed to pieces on the rocks. In the grey morning light the captain was frantically waving for help. For a time no one ashore noticed his signals of distress until they saw a flag flying at half mast. Then it was that the knew something was amiss. . . .
“During the night the Trondhjem had rolled and pitched so heavily that two planks were torn off the bow at the anchor chain. Two deck planks were also loosened near the winch which was partly torn from the deck.
“Sails were hoisted and the Trondhjem was sailed to the lee of the Island with two Pitcairn boats following. The seas and surf in the lee of land was even worse than at Bounty Bay. Three islanders were aboard the vessel. They with the captain, nearly met disaster before the two boats caught up with them. Foolishly the Trondhjem’s sails were lowered, and the current must have been setting in hard towards land, for the vessel was drifting shoreward in great troughs of swells that were frighteningly large. Once again the ship’s sails were set, but being now dead to lee there was not a puff of wind or a squall to fill the sails and gain headway, even with the help of the engine. When the two Pitcairn longboats came around a point of land and saw the danger the Trondhjem was in the crews pulled to the vessel’s side – and just in time too. A line was cast to the boats and the crews pulled with all their might and managed to tow the ship into deeper water and free from the heavier swells. The sails filled with wind and all danger was over.
“Fearing some impending disaster, or having some foreboding of evil, I cannot tell, but the captain intimated to the (Pitcairn) Magistrate that his boat be run ashore at Bounty Bay. Parkin Christian (Magistrate) remonstrated with him and explained just what would happen to his ship when once it came through the passage and into the small harbour, that it would piled onto the rocks a total wreck. Mr. Markwalder (the captain) would not listen to the Magistrate’s advice. The two men reasoned pros and cons and finally Markwalder had his way, and it was decided to run the vessel ashore.
“Parkin said to the captain, ‘Alright Captain, you say run your boat ashore. I run it ashore for you.’ The Magistrate suggested that two boats be called alongside and transfer all his valuables and belongings into them, but the captain replied, ‘No, plenty of time to do this when we get into the harbour.’ This time never came, and because the captain refused to take Parkin’s advice, only a few things were saved out of the boat – nearly all the family’s possessions were lost.
“The wind increased, the sea swells grew larger. . . . That night brought many comments and conjectures as to whether the coming day would witness a shipwreck, or the captain had changed his mind. . . . At daybreak the Trondhjem was sighted about five miles off land and headed directly for Bounty Bay. . . . Some thought that in time the vessel would be brought up to the wind in preparation for a tack off land, and at the last the ship would be brought to head in the wind and await the boats from land.
“Nearer and nearer the ship came. Two miles, one mile, a half mile off shore. Now we were for certain that Parkin was at the helm. At the last minute would he swing the ship off on the wind and save it? No, onward it came. Now we knew beyond all doubt that the Trondhjem was sailing to its doom. As one man, those of the community who could rushed for the Landing place. I heard one man remark as we sped down to the harbor, ‘Can’t be the fool is going to run it ashore?”
“Onward came the little craft into the swells. It lurched from side to side as if in agonizing pain. The Trondhjem seemed to resent going to its destruction. It called for help, for rescue, but no – wave after wave caught at the stern and propelled it on. In a few minutes it was all over. The ship was on the rocks in the passage. It rose and fell with a sickening thud. The swells, as they broke, washed over the stern. Masts and spars and booms and blocks squealed and groaned each time the Trondhjem rose and fell, and the waves, foot by foot, floated the vessel further and further onto the rocks.
“Sails hung useless and flapped in the wind. Ropes dangled here and there and swung flying in the air to again come back to the ship’s deck, only to swing out on the other side. One could plainly hear the crunching of planks and timbers. Slowly now the boat was settling down to its final resting place. It lay broadside to the sea and breakers. One tremendous wave lifted it high and forced the ship between two large rocks, wedging it firmly, at the same time breaking a large gap in the hull.
“Those on board were tense with excitement and fear, and their faces looked wan and frightened. The ship now lay on its side at an angle of about 40 degrees. The crew hung onto ropes and wires – anything that could afford a hold, and slowly, painfully crawled to the bowsprit which faced the harbor. One of the crew reached the bot. It happened all in a minute. The lad poised on the gunwale for a second, lifted his arms in the air for a dive and plunged into the frothing harbour. A good swimmer he proved to be. We could see his arms in an overarm stroke, swimming for a rock above the water, his head bobbing up and down in the white swirling waves as they broke over him. He reached the rock and climbed on the top, but only for an instant. He looked behind and saw a huge wave rushing and breaking into foam and flying spray. For the second time he raised his arms for a dive but had no time to do so. The wave washed him off the rock and into the angry waters and he was washed and rolled ashore.
“I did not see how the second man made his escape from the vessel. The third man (Parkin) was climbing onto the bowsprit chains, getting ready to push himself into the harbour. He never did, for at this moment a comber caught the vessel with such force that Parkin lost his hold of the bowsprit chains and was thrown, twisting and turning, into the air. Parkin was a poor swimmer and I thought he would drown and be washed out through the passage by the strong undertow and current. However, the incoming seas were more powerful and he was literally washed ashore rolling and turning over at the mercy of the waves.
“The captain alone now remained aboard his ship. Voices from the beach told him to jump. He waved his arms as a signal that he understood and followed like the rest. He fortunately reached safety better than the others. None of the men received any serious injury. Parkin had a cut over his eye. . . .
“All this time the islanders were not inactive. They gathered opposite the wreck only a few yards from high water mark and some of the more fearless men managed to get onto the hull and take from the ship what they could. It was surprising what they did save. The next morning the sea had somewhat subsided. The harbour and along the rocks at water line was a scene never to be forgotten. There was wreckage everywhere. Spars, sails, ropes, wires, broken timbers and planks were strewn along the beach and rocks. There were boxes, canned goods, cooking utensils, tins, clothing, souvenirs and a hundred and one other shp’s paraphernalia.
“The Island Government claimed everything salvaged from the wreck except the personal belongings of the captain and his family. . . . The captain and his family bemoaned the loss of their sea home. They have no other this side of Switzerland. . . . The islanders and the Government have bought many articles salvaged from the wreck. The Church is also taking up a collection for the Makwalders. . . .”
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