Once a teacher, always a teacher.
Dr. Robert Kirk, a semi-retired professor of history and a Sonoma County resident, was in fine form last week as he spoke to a crowd of people gathered for the 2012 Bounty-Pitcairn Conference, held in the Fireside Room at Pacific Union College in Angwin.
In the mid-1980s, Kirk attended the National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on the British Empire at Yale University. Professor Robin Wink told Kirk he was going to Pitcairn Island, a remote island in the South Pacific that is famous for being the refuge of Fletcher Christian and the rest of the mutineers from the HMS Bounty in 1790.
“I would give my right arm to go to Pitcairn,” Kirk recalled telling his professor.
He didn’t have to. Wink was going to be a lecturer on a cruise ship, which would travel to the South Pacific, but he became ill and told the cruise ship company that Kirk should take his place.
“I quickly read 43 books,” Kirk said, and he and wife Barbara went on the six-week cruise, leaving in February 1987. He called it the greatest cruise of his life.
Kirk later found out the Lindblad cruise cost $38,000 a couple and said he would have “sold the house, the car and mortgaged the kid” to get to Pitcairn Island, one of the most remote islands in the world.
Kirk first became aware of Pitcairn Island when he was a member of a junior high school stamp club and he received some island stamps in a trade. Kirk, who was 12 at the time, had been collecting stamps since he was 7. Thus began a lifelong fascination with the remote island, which is 2,590 miles from Santiago, Chile; 4,695 from Sydney; and 1,312 from Tahiti.
Being a guest lecturer on cruise ships became an avocation and the Kirks went on 61 more cruises, several to the South Pacific. He returned to the remote island in 2004 and even though the sea was like glass, the captain wouldn’t allow the passengers to go ashore — there is no harbor — so the islanders came out to the ship and once again Kirk was entranced.
He didn’t need to elaborate, as many in the audience had been to Pitcairn and knew its charms.
Three years later, Kirk decided to write the history of Pitcairn Island. He had the credentials — a comprehensive history was needed and his home in Sonoma County was near the Pitcairn Islands Study Center, which was founded in 1977 at PUC.
Kirk said he read hundreds more books and hammered out a first draft, which he sent to Angwin’s Herb Ford, who is the director of the study center. Ford praised it and when asked, suggested a publisher, McFarland & Company, Inc., with offices in Jefferson, N.C., and London.
After sending off sample chapters, Kirk said he received a contract three months later. He now had to hurry to finish the book, which was published in 2008. It is one of an estimated 1,500 books, 3,200 magazine articles, uncounted newspaper articles, documentary films and Hollywood extravaganzas that have been produced about the mutiny and its descendants.
In his book, Kirk writes that Fletcher Christian and the crew of the Bounty were fortunate to have found Pitcairn. It is remote and people could live there by farming and fishing.
“If the mutineers had gone to any other Pacific island, they may have been apprehended or become protein for the inhabitants,” he writes. “Even on Pitcairn, not being apprehended was a matter of luck. If a British man-of-war had stopped in the 1790s, and its crew came ashore, the history of Pitcairn might have been cut short.”
Instead, there was no finer place for Christian and his cohorts. “For a generation nobody knew what had become of them,” Kirk writes, even after Lt. William Bligh — having survived an 3,611-mile journey in a longboat — told his story in an English courtroom.
About a dozen people spoke during the three-day conference, including Jacqui Christian, who was born and raised on the island. She is seven generations removed from Fletcher Christian and went off the island to attend high school and university. She became a pharmacist in Australia and started her own business, but after 20 years, returned to her island home in 2006.
It was only natural that the conference was held at PUC, since the college’s connection to Pitcairn stretches back more than two centuries, according to the official program. In 1890, the missionary ship “Pitcairn” made six voyages to the remote island and a number of the residents returned to San Francisco to get a college degree, enrolling at Healdsburg College, which later changed its name to Pacific Union College. In the early 1900s, Hattie Andre, Pitcairn’s first off-island school teacher, became dean of women at PUC and the women’s residence is named in her honor.
Ted Cookson was the conference director and president of the international Pitcairn Islands Study Group, which co-sponsored the conference with the Friends of Pitcairn. The moderator was Barbara Stein.
(David Stoneberg is the assistant editor of the St. Helena Star. He has been friends with the Kirks for more than 20 years.)