The Bounty and the Bible
How the Adventist message found its way to Pitcairn Island and stayed
By Herbert Ford and Wilona Karimabadi
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 would reach 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 Bligh and crew members loyal to him into the small ship’s cutter, which was then set adrift.
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’s Island, later changed to Pitcairn Island, and had been first seen from the rigging of the ship H.M.S. Swallow in 1767 by Midshipman Robert Pitcairn. Captain Carteret of the Swallow decided to name it after young Pitcairn. Christian decided to sail the ship toward the island, and on finding it a safe haven the little colony of mutineers and Polynesians went ashore in early January 1790.
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.1
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.2
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 impressed to find English-speaking, devout Christians living lives of peace and tranquility.
The island population continued to thrive over the years, at one point necessitating the need for its inhabitants to resettle. One attempt, to Tahiti in 1831, proved disastrous and resulted in the deaths of a dozen Pitcairners. In 1856 the entire population of Pitcairn sailed to Norfolk Island, near Australia, and settled there. In time, however, several Pitcairn families returned home.
The Adventist Message
In 1876 two Seventh-day Adventist preachers in California’s Napa Valley in the United States—J. N. Loughborough and James White—having learned of the little colony on Pitcairn, acted to 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, 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.
For decades many Pitcairners have been part of a unique form of Christian witness. Because of their isolation from the rest of the world, Pitcairn has often been branded the most remote island in the world: no air service, no scheduled ship service, closest hospital 1,200 miles away. Their only face-to-face contact with the outside world is with the captains, crews, or passengers of ships that call. Early on, the Pitcairners began bidding farewell to each departing ship by singing hymns from their longboats. Scores of entries in ship’s logs, journals, and books testify to the power of this Christian witness.
Life on Pitcairn
Today the membership of the Seventh-day Adventist faith on Pitcairn is small, largely because of the exodus of a large number of people from the island to New Zealand and other countries. But the Sabbath day is still remembered: though not all islanders are present in church, the community rests on the seventh day. A pastor is still provided from the South Pacific Division for a term of two years, and Ray Codling is currently serving the island in his second term. Of the Pitcairn people, whom he loves, he says, “The Pitcairn people are lovely people, always willing to help. They welcomed us to the island.”
In addition to ministering to the spiritual needs of the community and the number of visitors to the island, Codling and his family are immersed in the everyday lives of the Pitcairners—even in their burgeoning honey export business. The Pitcairners are also a very social group of people, and to the island pastor, these gatherings are important. “The islanders love to get together and fellowship over a meal. Birthday parties are a big thing. Every three to four weeks I announce a community dinner in the town square on Friday evening, and after the meal we go into the church for an opening Sabbath sing-along. About half the island comes and participates,” says Codling.
Opportunities for witness seem to have increased also, as several ship lines now schedule visits of their huge cruise vessels to Pitcairn. In addition, there are visitors who spend a week or more living in Pitcairn homes enjoying the genuine hospitality of the islanders. “All these folk—on the cruise ships and visitors in the homes here—are our evangelistic field,” says Codling.
Pitcairn Island, which holds a special place in history—for both the world and the Adventist Church—continues to represent a unique mission field. But the spirit of the gospel is still alive even as it was when the early descendents of the Bounty mutineers first heard the message of the redemptive love and grace of Jesus all those years ago.
1Ferris, Norman, The Story of Pitcairn Island (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958), p.39.
*Pitcairn Island has received worldwide attention during the last several years as reports of alleged criminal activities and subsequent legal trials have been covered by the media. Seventh-day Adventists on the island and throughout the world church are working toward bringing healing and reconciliation to those involved.
Wilona Karimabadi is the marketing and editorial director for KidsView, Adventist Review's magazine for children.