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THE MYSTERY OF PITCAIRN

 

The mystery of Pitcairn Island remains unresolved. It can be readily understood why certain atolls were occupied for a time and then deserted for more attractive islands. The forms and numbers of the stone implements discovered on Pitcairn Island show that the island was inhabited by intelligent Polynesians for a long period of time. Yet when the mutineers of the Bounty landed in 1789, the previous settlers had become extinct. It is not known whether they died out from some mysterious disease, deserted the island for some unknown cause, or were they exterminated by outside forces that returned home.

 

Pitcairn Island, about three hundred and fifty miles southeast of Mangareva, is a volcanic island three miles long by two wide. Its highest peak rises to just over 1,000 feet. No coral reef protects its shores against the great breakers that crash against its cliff-girt coast. In the rugged shore line, there is but one landing place, and it requires skill and courage to safely negotiate the rough seas and jagged rocks which guard its entrance.

 
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The island was rediscovered in 1767 by Phillip Carteret, Commander of the British sloop Swallow. He named it Pitcairn after a marine officer's son who first sighted land. Owing to the rough surf, Carteret made no attempt to land, but he noted a stream pouring over a cliff and rich vegetation in the uplands. He surmised that the island was inhabited.

After the mutiny on the Bounty, Fletcher Christian and his followers with their Tahitian wives and servants attempted to settle on Tupuai in the Austral Islands. Conflict broke out between the newcomers and the inhabitants, and the mutineers were forced to take ship to seek some other refuge. Fate and a knowledge of Carteret's discovery directed them to Pitcairn Island. Here, in 1789, they sank the ill-fated Bounty off the sole landing place in the bay now termed Bounty Bay.

                   

With the memory of the hostile treatment in Tupuai fresh in their minds, the mutineers must have exercised great caution as they climbed the steep ascent from the landing place to the more level slopes above. They had seen no canoes or smoke, but in the rich vegetation they saw breadfruit trees which warned them of human occupation. On a peak near the edge of the cliff facing Bounty Bay they saw an arresting sight. Rocks had been carefully placed together to form a quadrangular platform, and on each corner a stone image with its back to the sea gazed disapprovingly at the intruders on their sacred domain. But the temple and the gods were mute, for the people who had created them had mysteriously disappeared.

The mutineers or their offspring dismantled the temple above Bounty Bay and some others that had been erected on other parts of the island. The helpless stone gods were rolled over the nearby cliff and carried their secrets to the bottom of Bounty Bay. In destroying the Bounty Bay temple, a human skeleton was found interred in the structure with its head pillowed on a large pearl shell. The pearl shell gave evidence of contact with Mangareva or some atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago.

In digging the foundations of houses and preparing cultivations, the mutineers found human bones interred below the surface. Some adzes and gouges have been discovered from time to time and have found their way into various museums. Some of the implements are well shaped and well ground, and others are peculiar for their large size. The implements are better made than those of neighbouring Mangareva. Petroglyphs have been found on the cliffs in the form of men, animals, birds, and geometrical figures including circles and stars. Shallow pits lined with stones and ashes in position bear witness to the use of the Polynesian earth oven.

The Franco-Belgian Expedition to Easter Island visited Pitcairn in 1935, and the scattered evidences of ancient occupation have been summarized by Henri Lavachery, a member of the expedition. Lavachery found that one of the images from the Bounty Bay temple had been picked up at the base of the cliff and used as a pile to support the veranda of a house. The image was extricated for examination. It was made of yellowish coloured local volcanic tuff and consisted of a trunk without legs. The head had broken off, but there were two five-fingered hands clasped on the abdomen in a characteristic Polynesian attitude. The archeological evidence from temples, images, and stone tools shows that the vanished people of Pitcairn Island were Polynesian.

The presence of the breadfruit trees proves that the early settlers came from some volcanic island. The breadfruit is absent in Rapa, so they must have come from the Austral Islands farther to the west or from Mangareva.

Pitcairn was known to the Mangarevans as Heragi and in modern times as Petania (Britain). Heragi is mentioned in a localized form of the widespread legend of Tinirau and Hina. Hina-poutunui was told by her mother to air a bark cloth garment in the sun and to watch it lest it rain. Hina was careless, and the garment was spoiled by a shower of rain. Hina was promptly expelled from home and went down to the seashore to seek transport to some other island. No canoe being available, she asked various lagoon fishes whether they had crossed the horizon, but each replied in the negative. She asked a deep-sea turtle, and he replied, "Yes! Get on my back and I will take you wherever you want to go." Hina mounted the turtle and was carried to Heragi. When Hina landed, she saw both banana and plantain trees in fruit. She bent down a bunch of bananas, and the fruit of banana have drooped down ever since, whereas the untouched fruit of the plantain remains erect. Tinirau, a chief of the island, married Hina. They had a daughter named Toa-tuta, who went to Tahiti and after various adventures returned to Mangareva. On her death she was buried on Kamaka on the side of the island facing her birthplace in Heragi.

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The Mangarevan native history narrates that an arrogant chief named Taratahi was forced to leave Mangareva and sailed to an island named Mata-ki-te-rangi. His priestly grandson Te Agiagi had a vision in Mangareva that his grandfather had been killed by his people named Meriri and that the breadfruit trees had been destroyed. Te Agiagi, his father Anua-motua, and some brothers sailed to Mata-ki-te-rangi in a double canoe to verify the vision. After sighting some atolls, they arrived at Mata-ki-te-rangi which had a difficult landing place and which the native manuscript surmises may have been Petania (Pitcairn). The Agiagi went ashore and found the corpse of his grandfather in a dry watercourse. "In those days the dead could converse with the living." The Agiagi asked the corpse for breadfruit and the body replied, "You will find a small plant beside my ear." A long account describes the planting of the breadfruit and the ritual used. Anua-motua gave the power over the land to his sons Puniga and Maro-kura but promised to create a new land of Momona-mua for Te Agiagi. Anua-motua died and was set adrift on a funeral raft. In a vision, Te Agiagi saw his father creating the land of Momoa-mua by heaping up sand on the ocean waste with a digging stick. Later Te Agiagi sailed away with attendants to settle on his mythical land. His two brothers with their people remained in occupation of Mata-ki-te-rangi.

Toward the end of the fourteenth century, a voyager named Ragahenua arrived in Mangareva accompanied by warriors. After a short stay, he built a new canoe and sailed to Mata-ki-te-rangi. Conflict occurred in which both Puniga and Maro-kura were killed and their people defeated in a great slaughter. Four fugitives escaped and reached Mangareva. One was Ipo, a son of Anua-motua, who came in a canoe by himself and landed at Akamaru. He made his way to the Taku district of Mangareva which was ruled by his brother Hoi and told the tale of disaster in Mata-ki-te-rangi. After this incident there is no further reference to Mata-ki-te-rangi in Mangarevan history.

The Mangarevans, since post-European contact with Easter Islanders, have come to regard Mata-ki-te-rangi as Easter Island, but the very definite details about planting breadfruit is evidence against Easter Island, where the breadfruit did not grow. The escape of fugitives from battle, without opportunity for making provisions for a long voyage, indicates that Mata-ki-te-rangi was much nearer Mangareva than is Easter Island. The only volcanic island that fits the narrative is Pitcairn.

Ragahenua occupied Pitcairn before rafts had become popular on Mangareva; hence the characteristic Mangareva axes used in raft making have not been found on Pitcairn. Perhaps Ragahenua, who was merely a visitor on Mangareva, carried his own tools with him. He may have come to Mangareva from the Austral Islands, or there may have been a later influx from the Australs which would account for the similarity of some of the Pitcairn implements with Austral types and also for the presence of the stone images above Bounty Bay. The missing face of the salvaged image might have told us something, but the breakers of Pitcairn have concealed the evidence and helped to seal the mystery of their island.

The mystery of Pitcairn Island remains unresolved. It can be readily understood why certain atolls were occupied for a time and then deserted for more attractive islands. The forms and numbers of the stone implements discovered on Pitcairn Island show that the island was inhabited by intelligent Polynesians for a long period of time. Yet when the mutineers of the Bounty landed in 1789, the previous settlers had become extinct. It is not known whether they died out from some mysterious disease, deserted the island for some unknown cause, or were they exterminated by outside forces that returned home.

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