One of the left-over scraps from that bloody little mess that was the British Empire the Islands remain a part of British territory. You may have heard of the Islands in a less positive light, but there are more to the Islands than this as attested to by my friend, Samantha Smith, who as an employee the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), represents the British government on the Islands.
Q. Firstly, where are the Pitcairn Islands, what are their link with the United Kingdom and what is your position on the islands?
The Pitcairn Islands are a group of four small volcanic islands – Pitcairn, Henderson, Oeno and Ducie. Henderson Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Situated in the South Pacific Ocean, the islands are approximately half way between New Zealand and Chile. The nearest inhabited island is Mangareva (French Polynesia) some 300 miles away by boat.
The Pitcairn Islands are one of Britain’s most isolated Overseas Territory’s and the last remaining British Overseas Territory in the Pacific. The Governor of Pitcairn Island is a British Diplomat who is also the High Commissioner to New Zealand and based in Wellington. I work on island as the Governor’s Representative, and together with the Deputy Governor, based in Auckland, I provide support, advice and guidance to the locally elected Island Council. I am also the Children’s Officer and oversee off-island professionals in our role of safe-guarding the welfare of children on the island. As needed I act as Deputy Registrar to the Court (based in New Zealand).
Q. Describe an average day on the islands in your position.
As one of the most unique postings in the UK Diplomatic service, there is no such thing as an ‘average day’ on Pitcairn. With an official six day week and an expectation locally that the Gov Rep is ‘on duty 24/7’ it can feel like you’re never not working. My time is spent in Council meetings (that have been known to run for 7 hours); dealing with paperwork on local policies or laws; auditing in the post office, treasury or store; liaising with HMG in the UK and New Zealand; and generally interacting with the community to resolve problems or provide advice. For a very small island and a tiny community, Pitcairn generates a lot of work.
The Gov Rep is not immune to the limitations of Pitcairn and, like most houses without generators, I have to cope without electricity between 10pm and 7am daily, I am reliant on rainwater for drinking, cooking, washing etc, my food, post and other essential supplies are delivered by supply ship once every three months and my transport on island is a quad bike. Thankfully I have an indoor toilet!
On Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday the island store, post office, treasury and Council offices open for around an hour. This is a good opportunity to catch up with people, particularly the elderly who are otherwise not often out and about.
On Saturdays, the local Sabbath, I can be found walking one of the many tracks on island, fishing from the landing or swimming and snorkelling in the famous Bounty Bay.
Q. Were any indigenous people uprooted by the British coloniailsm?
No. The island was uninhabited at the time of the arrival of the Bounty mutineers, one of the reasons it was such a perfect hideaway for them. The mutineers and their Tahitian companions remained on the island largely undiscovered and isolated for 25 years. Pitcairn formally became a British Settlement in 1887 though the islanders consider the constition they drew up in 1838, with the asisstance of a visiting Royal Navy officer, to mark the beginning of Pitcairn as a British Territory.
Q. How many people live there and what is the economy based upon?
The island’s population grew to a peak of 233 in 1937 but has been in steady decline since then. At the time of the December 2012 census there were 45 Pitcairners on the island, with a further 8 travelling. In addition there are usually between 5 and 10 ‘off-islanders’ from the UK and New Zealand – professionals recruited by the UK Government to fill the roles of the UK Governor’s Representative, Police Officer, Teacher, Doctor and Family and Community Advisor.
The Pitcairn economy is primarily based on subsistence fishing and farming, supplemented by the sale of ‘curios’ (carvings, t-shirts, woven goods) to tourists and visiting cruise ships. Pitcairn is dependent on budgetary aid provided by the British Government.
Q. What is the geography and climate like?
Pitcairn Island (the only inhabited island in the group) is approximately 2 miles long by 1 mile wide. Composed of reddish brown and black volcanic rock, much of the land is covered in dense vegetation – including rose apple, banana and coconut trees. The rugged coastline is dominated by formidable cliffs, giving limited access to the sea.
The highest point is 347 metres above sea level and Adamstown (the only ‘town’) sits on the limited flatland on the northern side of the island.
Just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, Pitcairn has a sub-tropical climate. The mean monthly temperatures range from 19-30° but with average humidity at 80% it can feel a lot warmer. Rainfall is supposed to be moderate, around 1700mm/annum, but this has been the wettest year for some time. The rain when it comes is very heavy, soaking you in seconds and turning the normally dusty roads into slippery, sticky bogs. It’s best to stay indoors when it rains.
Q. How have you found the islands, have the islanders been welcoming?
I have not visited the other islands in the group, but Pitcairn itself is far bigger and prettier than I had imagined. Much to the amusement of the islanders, I also find it very easy to get lost on the island (there are 16km of unmarked track) – something I hadn’t expected. As a proper city slicker I’ve found it hard adjusting to the lack of people and ‘buzz’, and harder still adjusting to the lack of shops – living out of freezers and cooking everything from scratch (having had to grow it first in some instances) is not as much fun as I’d imagined. At night when the power is off, it’s pitch black and all you can hear is the sea crashing below there’s an incredible sense of isolation and vulnerability – I’m a big fan of sun up!
For the most part the islanders have been pleasant, accepting me even if they are less accepting of my role. Much as it would be in any small community anywhere in the world there are those with whom it is easier to get along with than others.
Q. Are the islands of any strategic benefit to the UK? What are relations like with the ‘neighbours’?
The islands aren’t considered in terms of strategic benefit. The UK Government is committed to its fundamental responsibility and objective, for Pitcairn and the UK’s 13 other overseas territories, of ensruing the security and good governance of the territories and their people.
French Polynesia is the closest geographic neighbour and we maintain a positive relationship with the High Commission and welcome opportunities to strengthen ties on trade, communication and emergency aid.
Q. Finally, would you recommend the islands as a holiday destination?
Pitcairn is a holiday destination for the bold and committed traveller – to get here you need to travel through Tahiti, fly to Mangareva and sail for approximately 36 hours on the Government chartered supply ship, before finally transferring to the longboat crewed by islanders who will deliver you safe to shore. Greeted by the ‘Hill of Difficulty’ (a steep climb into town), this is one journey you will not forget in a hurry.
Once here you can enjoy the sunshine and warmth, snorkel in the crystal clear waters with the resident sea turtles and numerous tropical fish, climb the cliffs with a local guide and mingle with genuine descendants of the orginal Bounty mutineers. If you’re looking for boutique hotels and luxury this is not the place for you. If you’re looking for adventure, a once in a lifetime trip and possibly the only chance you’ll ever get to meet every single inhabitant of a country then I’m sure the islanders would love to have you.
By Jonathan Woodrow Martin
Endnote: Questions and answers based on an e-mail exchange between Jonathan Woodrow Martin and Samantha Smith.