The Pitcairn Islands are a loosely grouped handful of tiny islands in the remote South Pacific, farther from any continent than any other inhabited island. The islands are the last British colony in the South Pacific and most isolated British dependency. The rugged main island was settled by the infamous mutineers of the HMS Bounty and their Polynesian companions, and most of Pitcairn’s mere four dozen current inhabitants are their descendants. They are one of the least-populated entities given an ISO country code (PN).
- Pitcairn Island – the only inhabited island of the group
- Henderson Island – the largest island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with several endangered bird species
- Oeno Island, Sandy Island – a close pair of islands, the locals’ “holiday” spot
- Ducie Island – distant from the others, with lots of exotic bird life
- Adamstown, the capital and sole settlement containing the entire population of the Pitcairn Islands – a scattered village of households on the main eponymous isle, up the Hill of Difficulty from Bounty Bay.
Pitcairn and Henderson were inhabited by Polynesian peoples from current day French Polynesia in earlier centuries, and was visited briefly by Portuguese and British explorers (one of whom gave it his name), but it was deserted when in 1790 the infamous mutineers of H.M.A.V. Bounty and their Tahitian companions settled there under the leadership of Fletcher Christian. They burned and sank the ship in what is now called Bounty Bay (there was nowhere else to hide it), and founded a village on Pitcairn. At first a rather lawless community of violent drunks, it was “tamed” when John Adams, the last mutineer to avoid accident or murder, converted the women and children to Christianity. They lived there for 24 years before being rediscovered by the British, who allowed the community to continue. Pitcairn was the first Pacific island to become a British colony, in 1838, and today remains the last vestige of that empire in the South Pacific.
Emigration – first to Norfolk Island and mostly to New Zealand in the last century – and a nearly-prohibitive approach to immigration have thinned the population from a peak of 233 in 1937 to less than 50 today. The island was rocked in 2004 by accusations of chronic and ubiquitous sexual abuse of the community’s young female members, including pre-adolescent girls. After an investigation of much of the adult male population, including several who were no longer living there, six men were sentenced to terms in prison. It’s unclear whether the Pitcairn society – already hovering at the lower fringes of self-sufficiency – will survive.
The climate is humid and tropical (the Tropic of Capricorn lies a short distance to the north), with average temperatures ranging from 16°C (60°F) on winter nights to 30°C (85°F) on summer days. Rainfall is moderate with no strong seasonal pattern, just a bit wetter in the winter. The island is subject to infrequent typhoons during the season from November to March.
The islands are each unique, with differing origins. Pitcairn is distinctly volcanic, jutting steeply out of the ocean with a peak of 337 meters, seemingly a stone’s throw from the shoreline (in any direction). As such it has very little of what would be called a “beach” – however the word “cliff” gets used a lot – and harbours are hard to come by. Bounty Bay hardly deserves the name, consisting of a small indentation in the shoreline with water deep enough only for small boats without keels and a small sea-level landing area… connected via the Hill of Difficulty to Adamstown. It is the only island of the group with fresh water sources. Henderson is the largest island, a flat coral formation, but raised 50-100 feet above sea level by volcanic activity. It has caves along its shoreline which served as either tombs or ill-fated residences to an ancient people. It might be suitable for building an airstrip if it weren’t for all the endangered seabirds that find it an ideal spot to land. Oeno is a small, flat island (accompanied by another sandy island known as “Sandy Island”) surrounded by a circular reef, a typical South-Pacific paradise with palm trees, lovely beaches, and a sheltered lagoon. Ducie is distant from the others (over 100 miles from Henderson and well over 200 from Pitcairn), a circular reef and island, popular with seabirds.