ANGWIN — Jacqui Christian’s journey from her Pitcairn Island home began with a 310-mile boat trip to the island of Mangareva, a 1,050-mile flight to Tahiti, eight more hours in the air to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and finally the 70-mile car ride to this hamlet in the Upvalley hills.
The trek had brought her across the Pacific Ocean and into a place where she became the unlikeliest of celebrities: a resident and symbol of the tiny yet near-legendary South Pacific settlement whose exotic, tortured birth has sparked novels, movies and imaginations.
More than two centuries have passed since Fletcher Christian, a disgruntled seaman aboard the British ship HMS Bounty, spurred a mutiny against Lt. William Bligh and led his supporters to a remote spit of land more than 4,300 miles south of California.
This week, the story came to life as more than 100 guests came to Pacific Union College over three days to learn about the rebellion’s continuing mysteries, celebrate the community’s persistence — and get a rare meeting with a few of the island’s 60 or so inhabitants.
A superstar of sorts for a day, Jacqui Christian hoped her home island’s enduring fame would attract not only curiosity, but the visitors and cash needed to preserve a tiny and aging community that struggles to hold on to its young.
“It’s the stories of Pitcairn that’s kept it alive for the last 220 years,” said the 42-year-old Christian, a pharmacist and seventh-generation descendant of Fletcher Christian, who returned to the island from Australia in 2006 to organize its first travel ministry.
“As more people know the story and realize that we’re actually real, that we really do exist in the middle of nowhere out in the Pacific, more people might like to see what life is really like there and meet some of the people.”
The second International Bounty-Pitcairn Conference took place only a few hundred yards from the Pitcairn Islands Study Center, which is housed at the Pacific Union library and possesses the largest collection of Pitcairn- and Bounty-related artifacts outside the South Pacific.
Many of the visitors — including both frequent world travelers and collectors of the territory’s stamps and coins — had come to the inaugural Pitcairn gathering in 2005 in Florida, and their willingness to arrive from across the U.S. and abroad gave some sense of the Bounty story’s continued allure, according to one of the event’s lecturers.
“I look on the Pitcairn islanders as celebrities; they’ve been so studiously inspected, so invasively studied by the media,” Bob Kirk, a Sonoma State history professor and two-time Pitcairn visitor, said during his presentation on the mutineers’ early years on the island. “They’re public icons almost like the royal family, in that their celebrity is determined by their heredity.”
in January 1790, Pitcairn became the new home of nine renegade British seamen, 11 Tahitian women and six Tahitian men. Ten months earlier, most of the sailors, led by Fletcher Christian, had seized the Bounty from Captain Bligh during a shipment of breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the Caribbean, and afterward sought a place beyond the reach of the Royal Navy and the gallows. (Bligh and his loyalists, set adrift in an open boat, made a punishing 3,500-mile crossing to the Dutch-controlled port of Coupang, and he eventually returned to London with his account of the revolt.)
Having mismapped Pitcairn’s location, the navy did not discover the settlement until 1825, when the crew of HMS Blossom came ashore to find the island peopled with the mutineers’ part-white, part-Tahitian children and grandchildren. The British government accepted the settlement as an overseas territory, which it remains.
Life on Pitcairn Island remains tenuous in many ways, even with the coming of modern conveniences. Most goods arrive only four times a year on a supply ship — weather and tides permitting — and the isolation makes it difficult to bring tourists in or its few exports, such as honey, crafts and its sought-after commemorative stamps, out. Telephone and Internet service have arrived on Pitcairn only in the past half decade, according to Christian, who left her home island for a career as a pharmacist in Australia before returning in 2006.
Such isolation forges bonds among the islanders akin to an extended family rather than a nation, said David Brown, a Pitcairn native who recalled his mixed emotions on leaving the island two years ago to become a seaman in Nova Scotia.
“It’s 50-50, the fear and the excitement. The homesickness is the first things you get after leaving,” said the 25-year-old expatriate. He will briefly visit his relatives during a stopover on an eight-month voyage to the Cook Islands while on the crew of the Picton Castle, which leaves Canada in October.
Having heard lectures about nearly every aspect of Pitcairn Island’s past — from its unique dialect to its effects on adventure fiction to the dispute over Fletcher Christian’s fate — some 60 conference visitors got their chance to speak with the islanders of the present. For half an hour, a Skype video call shrank the distance between the two groups to the space between the seats and the big screen in a conference room.
Meralda Warren, joined by about a dozen other islanders — nearly a quarter of the Pitcairn population — appeared on screen, good-naturedly fielded questions about their daily lives from the conference guests and traded back-and-forth greetings with family members or onetime visitors beyond the sea.
Finally, Warren picked up a guitar, and she and her compatriots gave their virtual guests their traditional send-off to those visiting in person: the singing of the hymn “The Ship of Fame,” with lyrics promising the peace and harmony so absent from their colony’s birth.
In her seat at the back of the meeting room, Jacqui Christian beamed; David Brown, a few rows forward, struggled not to become teary-eyed. Around them, some of the audience members sang along with the Pitcairners with familiarity:
Come join our happy crew!
We’re bound for Canaan’s shore!
The Captain says, “There’s room for you,
And room for millions more.”