The compelling saga of “Mutiny on the Bounty” is entering a new chapter, with Pacific Union College in Angwin providing 10 pigtails, supposedly from sailors who mutinied in 1789, for DNA authentication.
The 10 braids of hair are thought to be from seven mutineers of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame and three of their female Polynesian companions. They will be analyzed in a collaboration between the Pitcairn Islands Study Center at PUC and the forensic DNA group at King’s College London.
“If the tests and genealogical studies of this hair authenticate that it is of seven of the nine mutineers who hid out from British justice on Pitcairn in 1790, it will be the only tangible evidence of their having existed,” said Herbert Ford, director of the Pitcairn study center.
The pigtails are a popular exhibit at the Pitcairn Islands Study Center, but “we want to be very sure we are not traveling under false colors about these hairs,” Ford said. “If the research findings tell us the hair is not that of the mutineers, we will stop telling visitors to the study center that they are.”
The mutiny that took place on the British Navy ship H.M.S. Bounty in the South Pacific Ocean in 1789 was made famous by the publication of a trilogy of books published in the 1930s, then five Hollywood motion pictures.
The British mutineers, led by Acting Lt. Fletcher Christian, cast off their captain, William Bligh, then settled on Pitcairn and Tahiti islands in the South Pacific. “It’s an adventure. It has romance. It has murder in it. It has duplicity — all the human emotions in it. It just refuses to die,” Ford said of the event’s grip on the popular imagination.
“There is only one known mutineer grave on Pitcairn, that of John Adams. Of the whereabouts of the remains of the eight others we can only speculate,” Ford said.
Pitcairn, a remote speck of land, hid a group of mutineers until 1808 when only Adams remained alive.
There had been “warfare” between the mutineers themselves and with the Polynesian men who had been brought to Pitcairn as workers, Ford said. “It was a terrible time.”
According to Ford, the hair is a gift from Joy Allward, wife of the late Maurice Allward of Hartfield, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom.
In 2000, Maurice Allward successfully bid for the hair at a Sotheby’s auction in London. The pigtails were housed in a 19th-century cylindrical tobacco tin. Also with the locks of hair was a handkerchief, said to have belonged to Sarah, the daughter of William McCoy, one of the Bounty mutineers.
As the pigtails purportedly date back to the pre-1800s, the King’s team will first attempt to extract mitochondrial DNA from the historical hair samples. If sufficient mitochondrial DNA can be collected, the first step will be to investigate the ancestral origins of the owners of the pigtails.
Unlike nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA does not discriminate between all individuals, as people sharing a common maternal ancestor will also share a similar profile. However, this type of DNA can provide some indication of maternal geographical origin, e.g., whether someone is likely to be of European descent. King’s DNA team will aim to establish whether the hair samples do indeed come from seven Europeans and three Polynesians individuals.
More detailed identification will require genealogical methods to trace the ancestors of the pigtail owners to be able to link samples to names from historical records and other sources of information. King’s College London and the Pitcairn Islands Study Center will both be involved in this tracing.
The study will try to identify the mutineers’ maternal ancestors, such as their respective mothers and maternal grandmothers, and research other direct female descendants down to individuals living today.
The Pitcairn Islands Study Center, established in 1977, is a museum-research facility providing information about the mutiny and its aftermath to academics, journalists, researchers, authors, students and others throughout the world. The center holds the world’s largest collection of information about this still popular and much-studied sea saga.
The Seventh-day Adventist church provides the connection that led to the Pitcairn Islands Study Center being located at Pacific Union College. PUC is an Adventist college. In the late 19th century, long after the mutineers were dead, Adventist missionary efforts resulted in many conversions.
The four Pitcairn Islands are the last British Overseas Territory in the Pacific.
For information visit PitcairnStudyCenter.org.