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Pitcairn Islands Study Center

The Henderson Island Skeletons

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

Herman Melville's Moby Dick is thought to be based upon the true story of the American whaling ship Essex, which was charged and sunk in mid-ocean by a 40 foot sperm whale in the vicinity of the Marquesas. The survivors landed on Henderson, after sailing in an open boat from the distant site of their shipwreck. The majority of the survivors set off again in an endeavour to get to South America, leaving the Mate, Thomas Chappel, and two others on the island. Their lives were saved from death from lack of water by a shower of rain. But they had no food. As they had no tackle they could not fish: they had to suck the blood of the few birds they could catch. A few turtles supplemented their food supply. They lived on Henderson Island for several months in 1820-21and were rescued by the Surrey.

Six human skeletons were discovered in a cave by the Essex survivors. There is, however, another report, from the Religious Tract Society in 1830, that the Essex crew had found eight skeletons (as versus six).

Among the rocks were several caves formed by nature, which afforded a shelter from the wind and rain. In one of these caves they found eight human skeletons, in all probability the remains of some poor mariners who had been shipwrecked on the isle, and perished for want of food and water. They were side by side as if they had laid down, and died together! This sight deeply affected the mate and his companions.

Photograph of Henderson Island caves, taken by Andrew Christian
Henderson Island caves. © Andrew Christian ( Used by permission.

There are also reports of skeletons found even before the Essex survivors arrived at Henderson, and others discovered by Pitcairners in 1851, where several pieces of wreck were also found upon the shore.

A total of six skeletons were again found on Henderson Island on Saturday, March 29, 1958 in a cave on the Northeastern coast.

Were these the same skeletons found by the Essex crew in 1820-21?

Were they Polynesians or shipwrecked Europeans?

Dr. Herbert Ford , director of the Pitcairn Islands Study Center, has gathered new information on the skeletons from the 168 kilometres (90 Miles), of records found in the United Kingdom's Public Record Office (PRO) at Kew, West London. Below is a summary of the information he has found:

The Pitcairners watched as Captain Arthur Jones' crew swung their two longboats off the Shaw Savill cargo liner Corinthic and onto the water outside the reef of Henderson Island. It was Friday, March 28, 1958, time to gather Miro wood for carvings again.

But this time would be different from others before. Scotland Yard and the Royal College of Surgeons, news wire services and a host of British officials would hear of this trip.

By late Friday afternoon the islanders had gotten their boats safely through the reef, had landed and stretched out the tarps that would shelter them for the next few days.

Next day, Saturday, being the Sabbath day of the Pitcairn people, they put off the start of their wood cutting in favour of a brief religious service. In the afternoon one group decided to take a walk along Henderson's east coast.

The walk took them past a cave, and, explorers that all Pitcairners are, some ventured inside. The sight was eye-popping, downright chilling!

There, lying side by side outstretched with their hands by their sides, were four skeletons, three adults and a child! The skeletons seemed complete, all joints and sockets appeared to be in place. Near one, which appeared to be a woman, was a tuft of hair.

"Don't disturb them; leave them like they are," warned Chief Magistrate Warren Christian who was with the group. But, having given the warning, he carefully collected the hair, knowing that it at least might serve as a clue to the startling find.

Heavy weather set in shortly afterward, delaying the return of the loaded boats to Pitcairn, and while they waited for fair winds the Pitcairners made a second visit to the cave. This time, beyond the four skeletons, a bit deeper into the cave, could be seen a mound of coral sand that had obviously been brought in from outside.

Digging into the mount those in the group came upon two additional skeletons! One had a tuft of hair still attached to its skull. There was also a coarse material, perhaps a deteriorated rug or blanket, mixed with the sand.

With the changing weather soon after this second find favouring their return to Pitcairn, and with enough macabre skeleton unearthings to last them a long time, the islanders returned home full of reports of the sensational discoveries.

On April 7, Pitcairn's Government Adviser E. Schubert sent an account of the discoveries to government headquarters in Suva, Fiji.

Photograph of the Coast of Henderson Island, from under a cave, taken by Andrew Christian
Coast of Henderson Island. © Andrew Christian ( Used by permission.

Mr. Schubert's complete report is contained in his 7th April, 1958, letter addressed to: The Secretary to Governor, Pitcairn & Tonga Affairs, Government House Offices, Suva, Fiji. Here it is:

Dear Sir:


On Friday 28th March two boatloads of Pitcairn Islanders went to Henderson Island on the Shaw Savill Liner "Corinthic". Besides being a good turn to the Pitcairn people it was a Shaw Savill advertising plan. A good one too.

Next day, Saturday, being the Sabbath day to the Pitcairn people, the men on Henderson did not work but in the afternoon they report going walking to the east coast of the island. It was here that they visited a cave and first saw four skeletons, three adults and one child. They were lying outstretched with hands by their sides. All joints and sockets appeared to be in place. The skeleton of the child was so placed that it could have been prenatal. A hair sample accompanying this report was taken from near what appears to be the woman's skeleton.

Three days later, while waiting for suitable weather to return to Pitcairn, they report a second visit to the same area where they began to dig in a mound of sand deeper in the cave. Here they found two more skeletons, one with a patch of hair the size of half crown still on the skull. The coral sand covering the skeletons was obviously carried there to bury them as nowhere else in the cave is there any sand. There are indications of a coarse material mixed with the sand which could be the remains of a blanket or rug.

The men say that there is a possibility that there are more skeletons in the cave as there are heaps of sand not dug out. This of course, is speculation, but not beyond the bounds of possibility.

As for previous visits to the cave, I am not able to ascertain to any degree of certainty whether the Pitcairn men have been there before or not. However, I do know that they have never found these skeletons before. There have been reports of skulls and bones but not such complete specimens in other parts of the island, especially on the west coast, but not here.

The Island Magistrate was a member of the party and asked the men not to disturb the skeletons. His request was not fully complied with but in the main I think they were co-operative.

I report this as it came to me. Whether or not it warrants further action I am in no position to say. The hair sample may give a clue to the age of victims and from there the possibility of action could be discussed. It could be a wartime disaster, but that is poorly based speculation. I attach a small map showing position of cave.

I would appreciate advice on the results of the examination of the hair specimen.

I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
Govt. Adviser
Photograph of a coastal cave of Henderson Island, taken by Andrew Christian
Coastal cave of Henderson Island. © Andrew Christian ( Used by permission.

Note: The school teacher and government adviser are one and the same person on Pitcairn.

The Royal College of Surgeons in London was asked for advice on the action to be taken to identify the remains by the Governor of Fiji, who was the ex officio Governor of Pitcairn.

The Fiji Medical Department pathologist's submitted a report on a hair sample taken from one of the skeletons. Pathologist Minnie Gosden of the Laboratory and Research Division, Medical Department, Suva, reported:

I attach a report on certain hairs which you forwarded to me under confidential cover on 13.5.58.

The specimen consisted of a mass of hair mixed with white powder. The colour was light brown and the texture fine and rather straight.

I have cleaned and mounted samples of this mass of hair and am of the opinion:-

(1) The hair is human. It was in short pieces, but very brittle and the ends are broken and not sharply cut, so that the original length is in doubt.

(2) The colour is predominantly light brown.

(3) The medulla is absent in many of the hairs, but the three present are narrow.

I have compared these hairs with hairs from known European sources and also with samples from hairs from Polynesian students from various territories which you supplied to me and with microphotographs of Negro and Chinese hair.

The unknown hairs resemble brown hair from European sources, but some of the lighter hairs from Polynesian sources resemble individual hairs very closely, although the general colour of the average of the Polynesian hairs is darker. The width of the medulla also varies in different hairs.

On the whole, I am rather of the opinion that the probable race of the unknown hair is European, but on microscopic appearances light coloured Polynesian sources could not be excluded.

The hair is dry and brittle, but as hair remains unchanged for long after death, I do not think an opinion on age can be given.

The hairs are short and are therefore either male or from a female with short cut hair.

I am returning the remainder of the specimen with this letter.


Yours faithfully,
(Sgd.) Minnie Gosden

The Governor's Deputy on Fiji mentions that it has been suggested that the skeletons could be forwarded in air-tight coffins to either New Zealand or the United Kingdom to some appropriate institution for identification, though this may prove difficult to arrange successfully. But he concludes that Pitcairn Island can ill afford the expense and that the islanders will not normally visit Henderson again for about another year.

The Governor's Deputy, Fiji, was worried that the press would "indulge in wild surmise and may encourage yachtsmen to visit Henderson" and wrote: "No persons reported missing in the vicinity of Henderson. Possibility appears to be that they are Polynesian remains or skeletons of shipwrecked party. Locality not visited by Pitcairners for about 40 years."

The Metropolitan Police Laboratory, New Scotland Yard, examined the hair from a skeleton. The Director of the Laboratories, New Scotland Yard wrote: "The enquiry has narrowed to the question whether these skeletons are European or Polynesian" and "it is a pity that they did not bring away one skull, but I think it is impossible to ask for any further specimens now, because the Island may not be visited for many years, and Pitcairn has no funds to finance a special trip."

1st October, 1958 . Report on examination of the following samples received from The Consulting Physician to the Colonial Office, Sir Richard Hawes, by post: Samples of hair taken from skeleton found on Henderson Island.

I have examined the sample of hair and I found it consists of human head hair in a brittle and disintegrating state. From the condition of the hair I should estimate that it had been in the cave for a long period of time, probably in excess of ten years.

The hairs show a very great range of colour which would suggest a possibility that they may be derived from more than one individual. Certain of the hairs are dark and could have been derived from an individual of a brown race, among which I include Indians, Malays and Arabs as well as Polynesians. There are also present fair hairs, these are most likely to be derived from a Caucasian race. I have not seen fair hairs, such as these, in any brown race.

My examination would indicate, therefore, that a European is represented among the skeletons, while other hairs may be derived from a dark haired European or a light haired Polynesian. The remainder of the hairs are returned herewith.

Sgd. M.Sc.
(Lewis Charles Nickolls)

Reuters, the British news agency, wrote: "Experienced master mariners here laughed off suggestions that the skeletons could have been passengers and crew of the derelict island trader, Joyita, which disappeared on an inter-island run in 1956 and was found abandoned several months later."

The Secretary of State for the Colonies determined that from a medical standpoint no useful purpose would be served by removing the remains for expert examination, and that in these circumstances the best course would be to arrange a decent burial either at Henderson or Pitcairn.

The Governor of Fiji now asked the Chief Magistrate, Pitcairn Island, to "arrange for the proper burial of the remains during the next visit of the people of Pitcairn to Henderson Island and to ensure, if possible, for the nurse on Pitcairn (assuming that the post is still filled by a male appointee) to accompany the party to ensure that no obvious evidence relating to origin, age, sex and cause of death is overlooked.

"It would, of course, be more satisfying to natural curiosity to have the remains removed and properly examined, but, having regard to the financial resources of Pitcairn Island, the Governor considers that no further action is justified in the circumstances."

On which coast of Henderson Island were the Essex skeletons found? Mr. Schuberts remarks that "There have been reports of skulls and bones but not such complete specimens in other parts of the island, especially on the west coast, but not here" seem to indicate that these are not the same skeletons found by the Essex. Also the report that all the Essex skeletons "were side by side as if they had laid down, and died together," whereas the 1958 find were not, is further evidence that this is a new discovery.

A query to The United Kingdom Public Record Office about the current whereabouts of the hair samples, received this reply: "It is unlikely that we will have the samples you refer to, although we may have copies of the correspondence."

Howard L Phelps contacted Betty Christian on Pitcairn and was told that there are no bones or hairs from the Henderson skeletons on Pitcairn, but there are still bones in Henderson.

It seems that chance may have taken a part in this discovery on Henderson Island's East Coast. It is apparently only very rarely that the Pitcairners visit the East Coast.

Tom Christian, from Pitcairn writes:

We have always landed on the North or the West beach to cut miro wood... The North beach is preferred, since it is approximately 2 miles long, and there is much more wood both Miro, and Tau. Landing on any of the beaches (North, East or West) can be difficult if there is a large surf on the reefs.

Tom Christian, from Pitcairn solves many unanswered questions about the further fate of the skeletons. He writes:

Other skeletons (incomplete) were found in two or three other caves above the Northern beach many years ago.

I was in the 1958 party who discovered the skeletons in the cave to the West of the East beach. No signs of clothing, buckles etc. were there.

Caskets were made by the U.S. Air Force in 1966 when the Island was fully surveyed. All skeletons were placed in the caskets and a white cross set up by the cave.

Bones were taken again by the scientific party who spent 18 months on Henderson in 1991-92. Michael Brooke based in London was in charge of the expedition. Bones were taken back to Henderson by Pitcairners in Long Boats in 1995. I don't know anything about the results of the tests.

Photograph of US Air Force-made caskets and cross on Henderson Island, taken by Andrew Christian
US Air Force-made caskets and cross on Henderson Island. © Andrew Christian ( Used by permission.

Based on Tom Christian's remarks, Dr Marshall Weisler, a member of the the 1991-92 team who have analysed the bones, was contacted. He reports: "I am still working on the Henderson burials and will send you a report in due course. All the human remains examined are prehistoric."

The mystery is solved. The skeletons are the remains of prehistoric Polynesians. Dr Weisler's final report confirms that they were prehistoric inhabitants of the island.

An interesting related story 

Eric Huffey sent an account of his visit to Henderson Island with the square rigger Eye of the Wind in 1990. It contained the following passage:

...a couple of us attempted to reach a cave half way up the slope. Where we had landed the sheer cliffs had given way to a steep jungle covered slope. It was nearly impossible but we finally made it, badly scratched but happy. We did find a small bag of bones, probably from the Henderson chickens, a sign of previous habitation at some point.

Eric Huffey was asked for further information about these bones. This is his reply:

...sorry to disappoint you but they definitely weren't human. Some humans had obviously used the cave for shelter and cooking chickens. There were quite a few bones about. I couldn't figure out why some were in a bag, It was a small bag, if laid out probably four inches square. I did not remove the bones.

Very strange. Who would have placed these bones in a bag in an out-of-the-way cave? And when?

Text by Mark Winthrop of Copenhagen, Denmark. Used by permission. (

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