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The Mutineers of the Bounty (S182a: 1871)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A book review of Lady Belcher's The Mutineers of the Bounty, and Their Descendants in Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands printed in The Academy issue of 1 February 1871. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S182A.htm

    [[p. 107]] The appearance of a new history of the mutineers of the Bounty is justified by the fact that Lady Belcher has obtained much additional information from original sources, which to a great extent supplies the deficiencies of preceding narratives as to the causes which led to the mutiny, and also brings down the history of the Pitcairn Islanders to the middle of the year 1869. The most valuable portion of the new matter consists of the journal of one of the petty-officers, James Morrison, who, though not a mutineer, was kept on board the ship, and was subsequently taken home prisoner in the Pandora. This journal bears internal evidence of being a truthful narrative, and of being written by a person by no means prejudiced against the captain; yet it reveals such an amount of spite and petty tyranny on the part of [[p. 108]] Bligh against the officers and crew, but more especially against the chief officer, Christian, a gentleman by birth and education, that not only is the mutiny itself fully accounted for, but it is also, from an unofficial point of view, almost justified. The account of the sufferings of the prisoners, who after waiting two years at Tahiti, voluntarily delivered themselves up to the captain of the Pandora, is now for the first time fully given from the same source; and when we remember that these prisoners were all untried, and most of them quite innocent men, the reckless barbarity with which they were treated is almost incredible. That it appears so to us now, although it passed almost unnoticed at the time, may be taken as a gratifying proof of how much, within the memory of persons now living, society has advanced in that true civilisation which is indicated by a horror of all injustice, tyranny, and needless cruelty.

    But it is to the subsequent career of the mutineers and their descendants--the well-known Pitcairn Islanders--that we are most attracted, presenting as it does features of the highest social and political interest. It is so rarely that social problems can be subjected to anything like a critical experiment, owing to the impossibility of eliminating the disturbing influence of adjacent populations, that we should have thought our rulers would have carefully secured this one from interruption. In Pitcairn Island we had an instance of people almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, who, owing to such exceptional circumstances as can hardly be expected to occur a second time, were morally and physically healthy, with most of the capacities and virtues, and but few of the vices of civilisation; and who were both able and willing to keep themselves free from intermixture or social contamination. Many curious problems were here in process of solution. The little community consisted almost entirely of half-breeds; would any signs of sterility appear, or could they permanently continue the race? They necessarily soon came to marry almost wholly with blood-relations; would this cause disease or deterioration? In the mixed race would the characteristics of the white or of the brown progenitors ultimately prevail, and which special features of each would maintain themselves longest? As population increased, would zymotic diseases arise? Was infant mortality above or below the average of civilised communities? Would the services of a regular medical man increase or diminish the mortality? The political and social problems were of equal interest. The islanders began with a simple republican form of government; would they maintain this? They began dividing the land equally among each man's descendants of both sexes, a certain portion falling due on their marriage; how long would this practice continue? When population so increased as to render the means of subsistence difficult, would they put a stop to early marriages, and with what result? Would they establish a poor law or trust to private benevolence? In an intelligent, industrious, and healthy population, what numbers could be supported by each acre of cultivable ground? Would the prohibition of alcoholic drinks in the island be permanently maintained? These are a few of the questions we might have had answered had Pitcairn Island been let alone, or had the people been removed to some larger island equally remote from civilisation and equally difficult of access. Unfortunately, however, before there was any pressing necessity for removal at all, and strongly against the inclinations of the majority of the inhabitants, they were persuaded to allow themselves to be removed in a body to Norfolk Island, which they understood was to be wholly given up to them in order that they might have ample room for their rapidly increasing numbers. Yet hardly have they settled there when a thousand acres of land is taken to found a missionary college for Melanesian converts, notwithstanding the protests of the Pitcairners. They soon find that the island is not their own as Pitcairn was. They are now under the New South Wales government, and though they have been as yet left under their own freely elected magistrate, there is nothing to prevent a governor with different views from dictating to them and putting strange officers over them. This unexpected change from their former freedom disgusted several families, who, as soon as they could obtain the means, returned to their old home. At Norfolk Island they are far less isolated than before. Trading vessels and whalers often visit them. Strangers settle among them or marry and carry away their girls. They have no longer the accustomed resources of bread-fruit, cocoa-nuts, and bananas for food, or tappa for clothing, and many have turned whalers or get their living by trade. The rural self-supporting simplicity of their former state is gone; yet by the latest accounts they still retain that kindliness of disposition and purity of life, which so charmed every visitor to Pitcairn Island.

    Their numbers are now somewhat more than 300 in Norfolk Island; and allowing for those who have left, we find that since 1800 their little population has about doubled itself every twenty years. Though they had only an amateur doctor in their schoolmaster, Mr. Nobbs, the mortality among them was very slight. In the ten years from 1841 to 1850, for example, there were 62 births and only 13 deaths, at which time the population was 156. The numbers of the sexes were always nearly equal, sometimes the male and sometimes the female element preponderating; and when they had reached a population of 300, there were exactly 150 of each sex. These figures would indicate that both the death and birth rates were low, the former extraordinarily so; and as all marry very young, and almost every form of vice and immorality is unknown, they should be one of the happiest, as they are one of the most interesting, of English-speaking communities.

    In the Pitcairn code of laws (as given in the Rev. T. B. Murray's volume on "Pitcairn") we find several excellent regulations which might advantageously be copied by other communities. The laws were to be made known by being read in public; all parents were obliged to send their children to school, having previously taught them the alphabet; no intoxicating liquors were to be made or introduced, except for medicine; no law was made in anticipation of crimes; all punishments were by fines, unless otherwise determined by the jury; and women had votes for the election of the magistrate.

    The families who returned to Pitcairn Island were visited in 1860 by the Calypso, and in conversation with the officers they explained that they had left Norfolk Island because it was not their own. They said that no one could be kinder than the Governor of New South Wales, but that a schoolmaster and a miller had been placed among them who were not of their own people, and some sappers and miners had also been quartered on the island; that their own magistrate was now responsible to government, and altogether they found it so different from the life of freedom and irresponsibility to all but themselves and their elected magistrates they had led at Pitcairn, that they had a longing to be back to the island where nobody could interfere with them, however good and kind the intention. They also loved the wild, rocky, luxuriant islet, with its cocoa-nuts and bread-fruits; with every foot of whose soil they were familiar, and in which they had all been born; and they compared it disadvantageously with the much colder, tamer, and less productive Norfolk Island, with no trees but gloomy pines, and nothing eatable but what was cultivated.

    [[p. 109]] We have now, therefore, two distinct colonies of Pitcairn Islanders; and we trust, that the officious though well-meaning persons who so rudely broke up the happy and united community in its original home, will for the future leave these interesting people to manage their own affairs (for which they are quite competent), and to work out after their own fashion the many problems in physical, social, and political science which increasing population will soon force upon them.

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