By lex, on February 12th, 2011
Was skimming the online Beeb this AM for summat interesting to chat about. Found this article about the remains of the Two Brothers, a whale ship that had foundered after striking a reef northwest of Hawaii.
The Two Brothers was skippered by one George Pollard, a Nantucketeer who had previously commanded the Essex, another whaleship that had been battered to bits by a whale, which story formed the basis for Herman Mellville’s Moby Dick. (Having lost two whaleships and dined on the bones of a young cousin he had been asked to protect – more on that later – Pollard declined the sea going forward, serving the rest of his life as a night watchman on Nantucket.)
The survivors of the Essex salvaged what they could of the ship before setting east towards Peru in whaleboats on half rations. They eventually landed on Henderson Island in the Pitcairns – a flat bit of nothing in the middle of nowhere that nevertheless allowed the starving sailors the opportunity to gorge on local wildlife and drink fresh water, at least until both ran out.
Three elected to remain on the island, while the rest again took to their boats. The first few sailors who died of exposure and disease were sewn into their hammocks and slipped over the side. The last few were eaten. Eventually young Owen Coffin drew a bad lot, and was shot by his friend Charles Ramsdell, also selected by lot, to serve as supper for the last three in the boat, including Captain Pollard. From the original crew of 21, eight survived, including the three nearly famished men who stayed behind on Henderson Island.
Which is part of the Pitcairn Island group, a South Pacific vestige of the British Empire, and the kind of place whose visual beauty draws one to dream of long nights under sail, heading for places known only to few, down below the line where the ocean gleams a cobalt blue shot with sun rays.
For those keeping score at home, that’s 14 men to 11 women, and apparently the mutineers – who had already shown a certain disregard for the established customs of their day – quickly set about making mayhem amongst themselves, until only two remained. These worthies vaulted to the top of their society by getting a thug named Matthew Quintal roaring drunk, and then murdering him with a hatchet. John Adams would be the last of the two mutineers to survive, and – having used the ship’s bible to convert the women and children survivors Christianity – was later pardoned by the Crown for his role in the mutiny.
That left one man, nine Tahitian woman and dozens of children in 1790. By the 1850s, a population of 193 had outgrown the island’s meagre resources and appealed to their British protectors for resettlement. The population moved en masse to Norfolk Island – whose enigmatic motto is “Inasmuch” – but a year and a half later 17 of the transplants returned to Pitcairn Island, as did another 27 five years later.
Today the island is only accessible by longboat from Bounty Bay – where the ship was burned to prevent second thoughts amongst the settlers – and is home to about 50 people, most of whom share one of four last names.
Bucolic, innit? Apart from the fact that living on an island cut off from pretty much the rest of the world and – who knows? – being the descendants of mutineers might come with some baggage. So much that six of the island’s leading young men – including the mayor, his son/deputy and the local postmaster – were convicted in 2005 of engaging in sexual assaults on essentially every young girl on the island, a custom that had gone on for so many generations that the older women didn’t think much of it.
So, I went from the discovery of a lost whaler to a tale of cannibalism, murder, mutiny and rapine all in the course of one short hour and a half on Wikipedia.
I think I need a shower.