Part 4 of my Britain Overseas series looks at a British territory at the very edge of the world; the Pitcairn Islands. One of the most isolated island groups in the world, the Pitcairn Islands are the ultimate symbol of the reach of the British Empire at its height. In an area of the world that couldn’t be further from London, the Pitcairn’s relationship with the British government demonstrates the extend of Britain’s world reach and the continued relationship they maintain with their overseas territories.
- 54 (The Pitcairn Islands are the smallest country/territory in the world in terms of population)
Only 18.1 square miles of land, split over four islands the Pitcairn Islands are not only small in area but also have the world’s smallest population of any country or territory. The size and location, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, of the islands has meant that the history and culture of the territory has been artificially created by its colonial inhabitants.
Although there was evidence of Polynesian habitation, when Europeans discovered the islands in the 17th century they were uninhabited and the British who arrived in the 18th century were the first human inhabitants. However the origins of habitation in the Pitcairn Islands suggest that settling these islands was never a priority of the British government and understanding how people came to live on the islands helps to explain how this territory functions in the wider world.
In 1789 the crew of the HMS Bounty mutinied against their commanding officer, Lieutenant William Bligh, citing harsh treatment from the commanders and the idyllic life in the Pacific as the main motivation for their actions. Some of the mutineers traveled to the island of Tahiti, whilst others, alongside many Tahitian natives, traveled on to find a safe haven to avoid the Royal Navy. They came across the Pitcairn Islands, which had been misplaced on Royal Navy charts. Here they believed they were safe from the Royal Navy and so therefore sunk the Bounty to avoid detection, began to collect provisions and built the first permanent settlement in the Pitcairn Islands. This early community was completely isolated from the rest of the world and their was a great power struggle between the mutineers in the early stages of the settlement’s development.
By the time contact was made with the settlement in 1808, most of the mutineers were dead and those who remained were granted amnesty. By 1838 the islands were incorporated as a British colony and the population grew rapidly.
The population of the islands has always been one of the main features of life in the territory. It peaked in 1937 with a population of 233 but the population has also seen dramatic drops. In 1856 the entire population set sail for Norfolk Island to escape the pressures in the Pitcairn Islands of the growing population (although most later returned to the Pitcairn Islands) and likewise in recent years the population has dropped again as people have migrated to New Zealand and Australia, in search of greater economic opportunities.
The economy of the islands has always been largely subsistence; relying on what they can produce locally, but the community has continually sort to expand their economy and have used British support and aid to help develop the economy in recent years. Although agriculture has always been an important part of the Pitcairn economy the isolation and island geography have meant that trade between the Pitcairn Islands and its regional neighbours has never developed to any great extent. Instead, like other isolated islands, such as St Helena (another British territory) the territory relies heavily on tourism, an industry they hope to develop with British financial aid. The tourists who come to the Pitcairn Islands seek both adventure at the edge of the world and seek to trace the story of the HMS Bounty.
Like the tourist economy, the culture of the islands is bound up in the story of the HMS Bounty. The majority of the population are descendants of the mutineers and the local language, Pitkern, is a derivative of 18th century English. With the population never numbering more than 250 people, ethnic and culture diversity has never truly been a feature of social life. Many within the community are Seven Day Adventists, following a successful mission to the islands, and other historic quirks of British life are present in the island chain. The society of this far flung community cannot be interpreted in the same way as the society of other nations, instead it must be understood like a small town or village community; as a microcosm of British life.
However, the culture is British purely because of the origins of the original mutineers. The British government, due to the islands small size and distance, has never placed the Pitcairn Islands high within its foreign policies and today much of the island’s political connections are with New Zealand and other Pacific islands, including neighbouring Tahiti and French Polynesia.
Yet despite this lack of a close day-to-day political connections with Britain, the Pitcairn Islands remain not only under the control of Britain but operates as a reminder of a key story in Britain’s history. The story and legacy of the HMS Bounty and the mutineers went down in history and demonstrated the true extent of Britain’s imperial power and dominance as a society and culture all the way from London to the centre of the Pacific.