Monday, July 3, 2017

Discovering Pitcairn Island

Pitcairn Island, in the Southern Pacific Ocean, was first discovered by Europeans 250 years ago today thanks to one of a series of circumnavigation expeditions undertaken by the British Royal Navy. Captain Philip Carteret, a naval officer in charge of the Swallow, was sailing west across the Southern Pacific Ocean when one of his crew spied ‘a great rock rising out of the sea’. A first hand account of the discovery can be found in Carteret’s diary - published in 1773.

Carteret was born in 1733 on the island of Jersey, but joined the Royal Navy aged 14 or so. He served first as an officer’s servant, and then in 1755 passed his officer’s examination. In 1761, he inherited the family estate on Jersey but continued serving with the navy. From 1764, he served as lieutenant on the frigate Dolphin under Captain John Byron during his circumnavigation of the world. On returning to Britain, he was given his own command, the Swallow, which was ordered to sail with Dolphin on a second circumnavigation in search of a southern continent. However, after several months, the two vessels became separated.

Carteret proceeded west through the Pacific discovering Pitcairn Island and the Carteret Islands (named after him) as well as a new archipelago inside Saint George’s Channel to be named Duke of York Islands; he is also credited with rediscovering the Solomon Islands and the Fern├índez Islands first sighted by Spaniards two centuries earlier. On his return to Jersey, he became involved in local politics. He married Mary Rachel Silvester in 1772, and they had five children, four of whom survived into adulthood. His requests for a new ship fell on deaf ears at the admiralty, until 1779 when he took charge of HMS Endymion, and sailed it to the West Indies. There, however, he was paid off and displaced as captain; petitions for another ship were unsuccessful. He retired in 1794 with the rank of rear-admiral, and died in 1796. Further information is available at Wikipedia,, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), or Captain Carteret and the Voyage of the Swallow by H. G. Mowat (which can be previewed at Googlebooks).

After returning from his expedition in the Swallow, Carteret gave his journal of the expedition to John Hawkesworth who published it in 1773 in the first of the three volumes entitled: An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, and Successively Performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret, and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour: Drawn up from the Journals which were kept by the Several Commanders, and from the Papers of Joseph Banks, Esq. This is freely available online at Internet Archive.

Carteret was so aggrieved at changes made by Hawkesworth to his manuscript that he prepared his own version. However, this manuscript languished through the centuries, and was in a private collection in Sydney in the mid-20th century when Helen Wallis edited it for the Hakluyt SocietyCarteret’s Voyage Round the World, 1766-1769 was published in two volumes in 1965. The following extract, however, on the first sighting of Pitcairn Island comes from the 1773 Hawkesworth edition.

3 July 1767
‘We continued our course westward till the evening of Thursday the 2d of July, when we discovered land to the northward of us. Upon approaching it the next day, it appeared like a great rock rising out of the sea: it was not more than five miles in circumference, and seemed to be uninhabited; it was, however, covered with trees, and we saw a small stream of fresh water running down one side of it. I would have landed upon it, but the surf, which at this season broke upon it with great violence, rendered it impossible. I got soundings on the west side of it, at somewhat less than a mile from the shore, in twenty-five fathom, with a bottom of coral and sand; and it is probable that in fine summer weather landing here may not only be practicable but easy. We saw a great number of sea birds hovering about it, at somewhat less than a mile from the shore, and the sea here seemed to have fish. It lies in latitude 20° 2’ S., longitude 133° 21’ W. and about a thousand leagues to the westward of the continent of America. It is so high that we saw it at the distance of more than fifteen leagues, and it having been discovered by a young gentleman, son to Major Pitcairn of the marines, who was unfortunately lost in the Aurora, we called it PITCAIRN’S ISLAND.

While we were in the neighbourhood of this island, the weather was extremely tempestuous, with long rolling billows from the southward, larger and higher than any I had seen before. The winds were variable, but blew chiefly from the S. S. W.  W. and W. N. W. We had very seldom a gale to the eastward, so that we were prevented from keeping in a high south latitude, and were continually driving to the northward.’

Since it’s discovery Pitcairn Island has had a chequered history. In 1790, it was populated by mutineers from the Bounty and several native Tahitians (most islanders today remain their descendants). Nearly 20 years were to pass before the island was visited by another vessel. The group of islands became a British colony in 1838. The population peaked at over 200 in the 1930s, and is around 50 today. In 2004, several men, including the mayor, were convicted of sexual offences against children, since when restrictions on children visiting have remained in place.

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