How the Bounty Mutineers Found Their New Home on a Secret Pacific Island ‹ Storyva – True Crime Story

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Christian Fletcher was the ringleader of a band of nine infamous mutineers who, in April 1789, commandeered His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty and, along with their Tahitian brides, launched a quest to find an idyllic island that had been incorrectly plotted in the British Navy’s nautical logs. Dubbed Pitcairn, after the fifteen-year-old deckhand who had first spotted it, the green dot was scribbled on a big blue chart of the Pacific some two hundred miles west of its actual location due to an error in longitudinal reading. After many months at sea, Christian and his men finally found their promised paradise—by the end of their third year, almost all of the mutineers would be dead.

It wasn’t fever or thirst that had racked the castaways, but the inextricable qualities of humanity that led to their most violent demises. You can call it love, jealousy, or greed, but really it was the need for power disguised as the pursuit of happiness.

So foolish were the nine mutineers who pinned their Edenic dreams on a place fiercely governed by the laws of the wilderness. So foolish were the thousands of people who followed over the centuries, hoping to change their fate on this two mile bump in the sea. They would all come to realize that we can travel to the farthest recesses of the planet, but we are never truly able to escape ourselves.

January 1790

Daybreak splashed across the horizon like candlelight from under a closed door, and the full scope of the island’s body suddenly came into view: a long, inhospitable rock face without a welcoming arm of land reaching down toward the waves.

“Mr. Christian!” Young yelled up to their leader, napping in the crow’s nest. His booming cry woke the others, who wondered if they were still dreaming as they glimpsed the lonely isle. “Fenua maitai,” the good land, they cheered, as others wept with happiness.

Christian stared at the landmass rising in front him, reciting Carteret’s log entry by heart: “A great rock rising out of the sea, not more than five miles in circumference, covered with trees with a small stream running down its side . . . and surrounded by unimaginable stretches of water.” He paused, stunned into breathlessness. “It’s Pitcairn—this is Pitcairn’s Island.”

Carteret never set foot on the lonely rock—“It was pounded by violent unhindered surf, which made landing treacherous if not impossible”—but he got close enough to marvel at its fecundity, which had ignited Christian’s ambitions.

The Bounty battled its way toward the island for two more days. Each time it maneuvered an approach the swells grew larger, as though some greater force was purposefully rebuffing their attempts to make landfall. The wretched cocktail of anticipation and seasickness had poisoned even the hardiest of seafarers on board.

Finally, they broke through. Christian would lead a small surveying party ashore to spend three days assessing whether they could truly sustain themselves on the isle. He tapped McCoy, Brown, and Williams to join, plus the three Tahitian men—Teimua, Niau, and Minarii—to help steer the way in the Bounty’s dinghy and negotiate any surprises on land.

The rolling seas dropped their boat onto a jagged reef that would have easily broken up a bigger vessel. They slid into the waist-deep water and navigated a maze of boulders belched forth by a primordial volcano then rounded and smoothed by the perpetual crashing and ebbing of the tide. A skin of algae coated the outcrops, making them impossible for the sailors to grip as whips of seaweed coiled around their ankles, pulling them down into the undertow.

Finally on land, the men rested—outstretched on large dry rocks like reptiles—before attempting an almost-vertical ascent onto the island’s plateau. Their first upward steps loosened the earth above, raining down red dust, and higher up they were devoured by a hot, wet tongue of rotting leaves and vicious mud.

Once they reached less precipitous ground, the seven men organized themselves into a single file. Teimua led the way, adze in hand, slashing narrow passages along overgrown paths that spread like sinuous veins. He paused under a large tree drooping with bulbous fruits and ripped one the size of his fist off from its stem, then sharked his teeth through its peel. It bled bright purple. “Guava!” he smiled, handing one to Christian, who bit into the fibrous sphere with similar gusto. They laughed, savoring the puckery flavor, a huge improvement from the scraps of salted meat aboard the Bounty, rendered so bland after two months at sea that they no longer tempted even the rats.

They passed more fruit trees—plantains and coconuts dangled overhead—mulberry trunks, and pandanus palms. To their delight, they found yams, taro, and even sweet potato growing underfoot. Brown, the gardener, brought up the rear, dutifully cataloging the island’s abundance and spouting off the flora’s scientific nomenclature with glee: “Allophylus rhomboidalis, Senna gaudichaudii, Colocasia esculenta . . .”

But something wasn’t right. There was a strange geometry to the way the fruits and vegetables were growing. Brown paused to take a closer look—yes, only the craftiness of man could organize nature’s chaos in such a measured fashion—then sprang back to his feet in terror: there are other people here.

He refocused his attention back on his comrades, but they were gone—disappeared into the impenetrable brush that grew more forbidding with each step. He yelled to them without reply, then began to sprint while frantically waving his arms; branches scratched his side and cobwebs veiled his face.

When he finally found the others, they were standing bewildered in front of a small clearing. A sweeping stone marae lay just beyond, decorated in glyphs and framed by bushy breadfruit trees. Brown and Christian exchanged glances. Carteret was not Pitcairn’s discoverer after all. The island clearly belonged to someone else, but were they still home?

Before nightfall Christian chose a concealed spot for their rudimentary camp. They dared not light a fire and reveal their position, as there were still too many unexplored crags and crevices where someone, or something, could be hiding. They sat in a circle, monitoring any potential danger lurking over each other’s shoulders, and feasted on fresh fruit until the darkest stripe of night set in, amplified by the pervasive shade of the overgrowth.

Christian, McCoy, and Minarii kept the first watch while the others slept. Brown was restless, however, haunted by the traces of other island dwellers they had discovered earlier in the day. “It’s so quiet,” he whispered. The only sound was the plinking of tiny lilikoi seeds that McCoy spat into the center of their circle.

On the second day, the men followed the island’s spine all the way down to its thin, rocky tail—it curled landward around a small cove fed only by the occasional splash of an overbearing wave. They baptized themselves in its crystalline waters, washing away the putrid dirt that the island had spat at them while exploring. Further on, they cataloged more trees proffering exotic fruits and found the stone foundations of several toppled dwellings—the homes of the long departed. It would be here that they’d set up camp after landing the rest of their brethren.

They returned to their same hideaway on the second night, and on the morning of the third day negotiated impossible sea swells to return to the Bounty.

“The island has exceeded my most sanguine hopes,” Christian preached to his community, both anxious and desperate, “in its fertility, its beauty, and, above all, in its inaccessibility.” He spoke of arable soil, fresh water, and recounted a long list of the great plants and trees that would provide shelter and sustenance while doling out dozens of ripe fruits brought back aboard the dinghy. “The race which had planted these, ready for their use, have thankfully abandoned this little paradise.”

Christian ordered the Bounty to the northeasterly side of the island, where it could get close enough to shore to be tethered to the trees with a rope. “We’re home.”

The grassy spot where the twenty-eight souls of the Bounty finally touched terra firma would be known from then on as the Landing Place. They would build their camps along the ridge just above, using the foundations of the ancient inhabitants’ stone structures, well hidden behind a phalanx of trees. The pigs, chickens, goats, and dogs were landed with extra care, making sure that none were drowned. Lighter cargo—dishware, books, and seedlings for planting—came off next, followed by furniture. Finally, the sails were dropped for tenting, and some of the ship’s timbers were torn from the decks and bow for additional housing construction. Their tired bodies trembled as they fought the island’s punishing verticality, hoisting cargo—heavier and heavier—up what they dubbed the Hill of Difficulty to their makeshift village.

Progress was quickly forged. Williams, the Bounty’s armorer, sharpened their tools and weapons. Jenny groomed the dogs, who squealed with excitement after months in the ship’s hold. Faahotu scoured the underbrush, collecting medicinal herbs and flowers. Brown found a freshwater well and started pruning the bumper crops that had been planted hundreds—or maybe thousands—of years ago. As the others readied small garden plots and tilled a communal vegetable patch, they unintentionally excavated more artifacts from the island’s past: fish skulls, spear heads, and rudimentary tools. It seemed, perhaps, that Pitcairn’s original keepers had primed the land to be used as some kind of supply station between long overseas journeys. But for one reason or another, they never returned to enjoy the literal fruits of their labor.

On her knees, Mauatua was using a small trowel to loosen the earth into a more suitable plant bed when its metal tip clinked against something solid in the ground. She dug around with her fingernails and unearthed a long whalebone that had been carefully fashioned into a comb. She scrubbed it clean using the coarse tapa cloth of her dress and marveled at its ornate design—ten long prongs and a maze of spirals adorning the handle—wondering if perhaps it once belonged to a raatira princess like herself.

Perhaps a prosperous little kingdom once flourished here, rich in goods traded for their unique, dark diamonds.

Mauatua returned to the Christian camp just as the sun dipped into the sea for its nightly rest.

Christian had no trouble dozing off, but for Mauatua the world still spun even when she closed her eyes. Every time her thoughts finally began to drift, she’d be roused back to consciousness by the incessant yapping of the dogs.

She sprang up, frustrated, and drew light tracks along the veins of her forearm with the prongs of the carved whalebone.

“What if they never left?”

“What—who?” asked Christian.

“The ancients,” she showed him the ivory comb. “What do you mean?” Christian examined the object in a cursory fashion. “We’ve found no sign of anyone else living here. They’ve all gone.”

“No, I know. What I’m trying to say is . . .” Mauatua swallowed her fear. “What if they never left because . . . because something terrible happened to them here?”

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How the Bounty Mutineers Found Their New Home on a Secret Pacific Island ‹ Storyva – True Crime Story

Adapted from The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania, and Mutiny in the South Pacific by Brandon Presser, copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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