What Should I Know About the Pitcairn Islands?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

The Pitcairn Islands are a tiny territory in the South Pacific. They cover 2 square miles (5 sq. km), and have a population of around 50 people, making them the least-populated territory in the world. The Pitcairn Islands are located at the far southeast tip of Polynesia. The territory consists of four distinct islands, but only Pitcairn itself is inhabited The other three islands are spread out widely from Pitcairn itself, and although the largest island in the chain, Henderson Island, has the potential for habitation, inaccessibility has so far made it undesirable.

Pitcairn Island and Henderson Island were both first settled centuries ago by Polynesians who left some archaeological evidence of their presence. By the 15th century, however, these original inhabitants had all died out or moved on to other islands, and the Pitcairn Islands were vacant.

Two of the islands were discovered by the Portuguese in the early 17th century, and eventually rediscovered by the British in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. In the late 18th century, Pitcairn island itself was discovered by the British, and named after a teenage member of the crew who was the first to spot the island.

At the end of the 18th century the British ship HMAV Bounty landed on Pitcairn Island. Along with the crew were a number of Tahitian women the crewmembers had either lured or kidnapped from Tahiti and taken as wives and concubines. The crew members, who had mutinied against their captain before, set fire to their ship and settled the island. The mutineers suffered from a great deal of internal strife, and many were killed in the first years of settlement, but ultimately the population managed to survive.

The island was visited in the early-19th century and members of the mutiny were granted amnesty. Only a few decades later the Pitcairn Islands were absorbed into the British Empire as a colony, and the population began to grow steadily. In the mid-19th century the population became too large for the island to support, and the British government gave the islanders Norfolk Island, prompting a mass exodus. In the next few years, however, a number of the original inhabitants returned, establishing a steady population base.

The population has fluctuated from a high just above 200 to a low of less than 50, and currently is right around 50. In 2004, the island was rocked by a massive rape trial, during which it came to light that a large number of the men of the Pitcairn Islands had been systematically engaging in sexual assault on girls as young as 7 for much of the island’s history. The aftermath of the trial removed many of the island’s able-bodied men from the work force, and has provoked some questions about the future of the microstate.

The Pitcairn Islands are one of the most inaccessible places on the planet. There is no airport of any kind, and boats only irregularly make anchor off shore. The best way to get there is to try to either find a passenger ship from Auckland in New Zealand, or to hitch a ride on a yacht from Mangareva in French Polynesia. Once there, getting off is a waiting game, and visitors should prepare themselves for a long wait if circumstances aren’t in their favor.

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