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The historical archaeology of settlement at Pitcairn Island 1790-1856

The historical archaeology of settlement at Pitcairn Island 1790-1856
Nigel Erskine


School of Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology, James Cook University, Townsville City QLD 4811, AUSTRALIA.


This thesis examines the historical and archaeological evidence of the mutineer settlement at Pitcairn Island from the time of the arrival of HMAV Bounty in 1790 to the removal of the entire population to Norfolk Island in 1856. The mutiny aboard the Bounty has been the focus of intense interest since news of the event first reached England in 1790 and a rich literature has substantially documented the subsequent voyage of HMS Pandora to capture those mutineers who chose to remain at Tahiti and William Bligh's second (successful) breadfruit mission. By contrast, our knowledge of the community founded by Fletcher Christian at Pitcairn Island has remained enigmatic and obscured by evangelical and Eurocentric interpretations of the survival and development of the settlement. In this respect, the study distances itself from the continuing controversy surrounding the characters of Bligh and Christian and examines the arrival of the Bounty and subsequent development of the community by the descendants of the mutineers as a particularly well defined example of cultural adaptation in an environment where many of the controlling parameters are visible. In the microcosm of the mutineer settlement we see an example of European culture confronting an unexplored environment which can be applied generally to a range of frontier situations where institutional authority, cultural identity and environment interact at the extreme range of lines of communication and supply.

The settlement at Pitcairn Island was established by a small, culturally divided group of settlers on one of the most remote islands in the Pacific, and for the first 18 years of its existence it remained totally separated from outside contact. The successful establishment of a settlement in such circumstances is remarkable and this thesis focuses on the process of colonisation at Pitcairn and how contact with European commercial enterprise in the Pacific impacted on the Pitcairn community.

Finally the study compares the process of colonisation at Pitcairn with theoretical models to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of particular models.