Pitcairn Island: A Bountiful Adventist Adventure
When I was a boy of thirteen, in my final year of grade school before moving on to high school, each child in our class had to read and do a paper on the famous book, Mutiny on the Bounty.
The boys loved the book: the girls, no so much. That Mutiny on the Bounty book fascinated me because unlike most of the adventure novels that I read, this was an actual true account of the most famous mutiny in history. I loved it!
In December of 1787 the British naval ship H.M.S. Bounty, under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh, put to sea from Spithead, England. The ship’s mission: to bring breadfruit plants from the island of Tahiti to the West Indies to provide food for the slaves of plantation owners there.
On October 26, 1788, the Bounty anchored in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, amid shouts of welcome by the friendly Tahitian people. In the embrace of South Seas friendship the ship’s crew was promptly put to work gathering hundreds of breadfruit plants.
The task was a tricky one: to make sure each plant was healthy enough to endure the months at sea before Bounty reached the West Indies.
When the breadfruit gathering task was completed, there were 1,014 breadfruit plants aboard, and on Saturday, April 4, 1789, the Bounty weighed anchor and set sail for the West Indies.
But once they were again under the harsh discipline of Captain Bligh, a number of crew members began to plot against him. Early in the morning of April 28, some of the crew, under the leadership of Masters Mate Fletcher Christian, revolted, forcing Captain Bligh and crew members loyal to him into the small ship’s cutter, which was then set adrift.
Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers sailed the Bounty back to Tahiti, but the islanders there were not as welcoming as before.
After attempting to settle on another unfriendly island, Christian realized that he had to find a safe hiding place, for he knew a ship would be sent from England to track him down; sailors did not mutiny in the Royal Navy and escape punishment.
So the Bounty set sail again, this time to find some speck of land in the vast Pacific Ocean that would be safe. This time, however, the nine mutineers on Bounty were not alone.
They were joined by 18 Polynesians—6 men, 12 women, and a baby. The women became the wives of the mutineers, with three others being companions to the Polynesian men.
In the Bounty the mutineers visited a number of Pacific islands, none of which seemed safe. At last, Fletcher Christian saw on the ship’s admiralty charts a tiny island far off to the east. It was named Pitcairn Island.
Pitcairn Island lies about halfway between New Zealand and Chile deep in the heart of the South Pacific Ocean.
The new arrivals emptied the Bounty of all salvageable material and began to build shelters on Pitcairn. On January 23, 1790, the ship was set afire so passing ships would not see Bounty’s tall masts rising beside the island.
Bligh and the 17 crew members with him in the Bounty’s cutter survived what many believe is the longest open boat voyage in the Pacific Ocean. Once his story was heard in England, a ship—H.M.S. Pandora—was dispatched to bring the mutineers to justice.
The 16 crew members who stayed on Tahiti were captured and three of them were eventually hanged. On Pitcairn, though, the little colony was safe, and the world would not even know its existence for nearly two decades.
The first few years on Pitcairn were relatively calm, and the mutineers and their families thrived.
Then the calm was shattered by a series of violent events. The wife of one of the mutineers fell to her death while out gathering food, and her widowed husband demanded the wife of one of the Polynesian men.
This triggered a series of plots to kill the English sailors. The women, however, were loyal to their European husbands and warned them of the danger. The hostility and treachery on both sides led to the deaths of five of the mutineers. Soon the Polynesian men were also murdered.
One of the remaining mutineers, William McCoy, having had earlier experience in England, began to brew alcohol from the native ti plant.
He and others of the four remaining mutineers spent much of their time in a drunken state. McCoy perished at his own hand while drunk. At last all but two of the men on Pitcairn were dead. Then mutineer Edward Young died from illness—the first on the island to die a natural death.
Young’s death left only mutineer John Adams as the lone adult male on the island. With 11 women and 23 children, the sons and daughters of his former companions, Adams began to realize that he had a great responsibility to lead them into a better way of life.
Adams said that in a dream he was told to repent of his former life and to teach others to live the lives God intended for them.
Fletcher Christian’s son, Thursday, remembered his father having a Bible and a prayer book among his possessions.
It was from these books that Adams, who had very little education, read and began to understand the precious words that would change the lives of the Pitcairners. Adams became the teacher and spiritual leader of Pitcairn Island.
In 1808 the inhabitants of Pitcairn were discovered by the American ship Topaz. Captain Matthew Folger and his crew were astonished to discover they had solved the mystery of missing Bounty mutineers. Even more, they were amazed to find English-speaking, devout Christians living lives of peace and tranquility.
In 1876 two Seventh-day Adventist preachers in California’s Napa Valley in the United States—J. N. Loughborough and James White, the husband of Ellen G. White, having learned of the little colony on Pitcairn, decided to journey and tell the islanders the “good news” of the Christian gospel.
They filled a box with literature, took it to the docks in San Francisco, and there found Captain David Scribner of the sailing ship St. John.
Scribner, acting on their request, took the box ashore at Pitcairn where it was read by several of the islanders, but they continued their practice of the doctrines of the Church of England, which they had been following.
Ten years later—in 1886—in Oakland, California, an Adventist layman, by the name of John I. Tay, was having health problems. His doctor told Tay he was suffering from the polluted air of Oakland and he needed to go where there was better air quality.
A retired seaman, Tay decided he would go to sea again, and with the imperative of Matthew 28:19 burning in his breast, he also decided he would go to Pitcairn Island and tell them of the faith he had come to love.
On October 18, 1886, the Royal Navy’s sloop Pelican arrived off Pitcairn Island with John Tay aboard. He spent five weeks in Bible study and prayer with the Pitcairners, and at the end of his stay a large number said they wished to be baptized as Seventh-day Adventist Christians.
Tay explained that as a layman he could not perform the rite, but that he would one day bring them an ordained minister who could.
The challenge of carrying the gospel story to hundreds of islands in the Pacific Ocean swept over the Seventh-day Adventists of America in 1890, and nickel and dime fund-raising in the Sabbath schools resulted in the building of a missionary ship named, appropriately enough, the Pitcairn.
In October 1890 the ship, with John Tay and Edward H. Gates, an ordained minister, set sail from San Francisco for Pitcairn Island, arriving there in November. Several baptisms over the next few months resulted in most of the Pitcairners joining the Adventist faith.
Very soon after their conversion, the missionary spirit began to grip many on Pitcairn Island. As the ship Pitcairn would depart from the island on each of its six voyages into the Pacific, Pitcairners would leave for lay missionary service in other islands.
Others, realizing their need for formal missionary training and education, returned on the ship to San Francisco, where they enrolled at Healdsburg College, forerunner of Pacific Union College, so that they might be better trained for service.
The Seventh-day Adventist church—the only church on the tiny island—still holds services every Sabbath, rain or shine.
This story perfectly illustrates how God in His goodness is able to motivate men and women to prepare others for His kingdom.
Are you willing to share the gospel with others, though they may be far away in some distant country, or even at home in your own neighbourhood?
I pray that you are willing to allow God to use you in the furtherance of His cause.