In the Wake of the Bounty on Pitcairn Island, French Polynesia

by Antonio Cortese, Executive Chef, Pacific Princess

Antonio poses with a Bounty cannon in Pitcairn
Antonio poses with a Bounty cannon in Pitcairn

When people think of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” they think of the Marlon Brando movie about the famous uprising at sea.  In the movie, cruel Captain Bligh is overthrown by his crew and cast adrift on a small boat.  The story is even more incredible because it’s true.  As a child in Italy, I loved the movie and was amazed to learn that there really was a mutiny on the HMS Bounty, where Captain William Bligh was overthrown by his second-in-command, Fletcher Christian.

The mutiny occurred in 1789 and the story could’ve ended there, in the middle of the South Pacific, unknown to later generations.  Against all odds, Bligh made it safely back to England, along with the half of the crew that remained loyal to him, to tell the world the news.  There, began the legend of the mutiny on the Bounty and the inevitable question:  Whatever happened to Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers?

We now know that Christian and his half of the Bounty crew took wives in Tahiti and ended up on a deserted island, the remote and desolate Pitcairn Island, in 1790.

Named after British midshipman Robert Pitcairn who sighted it in 1767, Pitcairn was at first incorrectly charted, making it difficult for other sailors to find it.  Thus, it was the perfect place for someone who needed to hide.  Even when a ship did happen to spot Pitcairn, the harbor was so dangerous to navigate that most could not stop.  First contact between the Bounty mutineers and the outside world didn’t come until 18 years later, when the American ship Topaz, under the command of Mayhew Folger, spent 10 hours with the settlers, solving the mystery of whatever happened to Fletcher Christian and his shipmates.

More than 210 years after the mutiny, I’ve been fortunate enough to see with my own eyes what happened to the descendants of Fletcher Christian and his defiant crew.  I was first called aboard the cruise ship, Pacific Princess, in 1996 and have since sailed by the island five times, but have landed there twice.  The first time I actually got to set foot on the island was in the winter of 2002.  

My mission, as chef of the new Pacific Princess, was to deliver food and supplies to the islanders — something passing cruise ships do as a courtesy.  I was on and off the island quickly since the weather was bad that day.

Every time a ship calls, the locals, many of whom have surnames of Young, Warren and Brown — names that trace back to the Bounty — come out to the ship to sell their beautiful wood carvings, as well as local crops:  pineapple, papaya, passion fruit and bananas. They also pick up the staple food items they have ordered.

The Bounty Bay harbor is difficult for most ships to call, especially with unfavorable tidal conditions. However, that doesn’t stop the residents from meeting the ship as it anchors offshore.

During our 2009 passing, I was able to spend some time on the island.  The Pitcairn Islanders came onboard as usual to sell their wares.  But this time, as conditions were calm, the captain gave me, as well as the food and beverage manager (Melania), a security officer (Berwyn) and our videographer (Will), permission to go ashore to explore the island.

The weather that day was quite nice and the seas weren’t very rough, making our approach into the island very smooth.  Mayor Christian accompanied us on the tour and easily sailed his craft into the harbor.  No houses were visible as we sailed in, just a garage-like structure and a chain and hook for hauling in small boats.  These boats then go inside the garage for protection from choppy surf.  From there, we got on some 4×4 vehicles for a tour of the island.

Island highlights included the post office (every three months the post goes out via boat), a small museum, the general store, a court house and a church.  There’s a place for the locals to socialize with table tennis, a few chairs and a small bar.

We also saw the school house where a teacher from New Zealand takes up temporary residence to teach the young, and an old cemetery that I would like to return to one day as it has the graves of the original Christian family.  The mountains on the island and the lush vegetation are beautiful as is the panoramic view of the Pacific.

As a chef, naturally the highlight of my travels is the food.  On Pitcairn, I was delighted to taste the local passion fruit. Finding the fruits delicious, we decided to bring back plenty of them onboard, to be put out at the buffet for our guests.
The local diet is rich in shellfish, fish and tropical fruits, all abundantly available.  I imagined how happy the mutineers must have been to realize that they didn’t have to starve on their deserted island.

Technically, the Pitcairn Islands (there are four of them, but just Pitcairn Island itself is inhabited) are a British Overseas Territory.  So the residents’ taste in imported food tend to be British with a twist of Australia and New Zealand — before cruise ships began bringing supplies, ships from New Zealand came by only twice a year, delivering regional fare.

On this visit, our mission was to deliver food they had ordered by email almost two months prior.  We brought cheddar cheese, milk, cream, roast beef, pork loin, lamb, steak, kidney for pies and several vegetables like onions, potatoes and carrots.

Pitcairn residents’ tastes are becoming broader as years go by.  Their shopping lists used to be very basic — staples like rice, beef and butter — and were easy to assemble. More recently, the lists have become more detailed.  We get requests for Champagne and wine, as well as beer.

By 2009, I was surprised to find their list showed even greater awareness of the outside world. In addition to luxury goods, now we are getting requests for specific brand names. By my account, the most popular brand on Pitcairn Island is Nutella.  I think there must be a craze for it.  As a chef, I would recommend grilling the local pineapple with a Nutella glaze.  Other recent requests have included Vegemite and Cascade Lager from Australia and Steinlager from New Zealand.

The mayor of Pitcairn and I continue to keep in touch — now by email; it used to be by postcard.  He keeps me up-to-date on changes on the island.  They’ve started putting asphalt down on the roads.  He wants to improve the harbor and build a pier so that passengers can land in the future.

Will these developments change the island?  I don’t know.  I know when I was on Pitcairn, I felt like Robinson Crusoe.  With the mutiny still a very important part of life there, it felt like uncharted territory — a mysterious, uninhabited tropical paradise.

I wonder whether increasing civilization will change that connection to the past.  But mostly, I wonder what they’re doing with all that Nutella?