Pitcairn's Island

by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
[Atlantic Monthly and Little, Brown, $2.50]
IN this third volume, and with the same admirable simplicity as in the two preceding books, Nordhoff and Hall complete the story of the men of H. M. S. Bounty. In the first volume we read of the ship sailing from Spithead, of her errand (to bring from Tahiti a cargo of breadfruit trees), and of the tyranny of Captain Bligh which caused Fletcher Christian (second in command) to head a revolt against him. The second narrative gave us the extraordinary sufferings and heroisms of Bligh and eighteen others, set adrift in an open boat. And now the final portion of this epic story brings us back to the Bounty herself and the remarkable leader of the mutiny, Fletcher Christian. No invented yarn could possibly be more singular than the true account of what happened to these men who took refuge from pursuit on the lonely plateau of Pitcairn’s Island in mid-Pacific. Many readers will find this the most absorbing of the three. It would be poor manners indeed to deprive any intending reader of his various shocks and surprises by recounting the course of events; but a few brief comments can be made in the hope of suggesting the vivid interest of the story. For here, skillfully woven out of the conflicting testimonies that have come down to us, Nordhoff and Hall have given, what must be as nearly precise a tale as can ever be told of Pitcairn’s Island.
In brief, we have here every element that the ideal romance could claim. We have all the fundamental human emotions on a small scale: problems of race and sex and liquor, problems of subsistence, family, and education, all laid in a scene so enchantingly idyllic that it will give every city-bound reader pangs of nostalgia. As good old Sir Cyprian Bridge said long ago, writing his introduction to John Barrow’s version of the affair, ’the story is one of unions begun in lust and ending in pure affection; of a community originating in crime and nursed in lawlessness giving to the world the one real example of a Golden Age. And though there is certainly nothing of the Golden Age in the earlier years of the island here described in full horror, our authors are skillful to show us, at the end, a glimpse of the scene found by Captain Folger when he discovered the little settlement in 1808.
Of course when the Bounty found her way to that deserted island early in 1790 any outsider could have predicted trouble. There were nine of the naval mutineers left, headed by Fletcher Christian; three or four of these were already quarrelsome and dissatisfied, There were six Polynesian men; and there were twelve Polynesian women. (What would we not give for a photograph of the lot as they set earnestly to work to build their village? No Crusoe tale of Treasure Island call possibly be as fascinating as this actual history.) So from the outset we have a shortage of women added to the possibility of race conflict. And when in addition one of the settlers secretly discovers how to distil whiskey from ti root all the elements of explosion are available. Those who have tasted the illicit elixir that Hawaii makes from that same root will not wonder at what happens.
So, while the world they came from goes through the French Revolution and the Wars of Napoleon, our faraway islanders have their own social upheavals — no less significant and appalling on their small scale. Almost all those twenty-seven people will become intimately known to you; and I rather hope that as many women as men will read the moving and tragic story. I don’t know whether you can form any idea of what is likely to happen when nine white men, six brown men, and twelve brown girls go to start an Eden of their own on an island of tropical loveliness. Nordhoff and Hall tell us, with complete fidelity. And, though they never exactly say so, they certainly give me the impression that the women showed up best of all. The final rebellion of the Polynesian wives was as dramatic and as decisive as a Greek play. But I’m hot telling you. . . - This book has not only the excitement of the Book of Genesis and the Swiss Family Robinson, it is also a perfect and profound essay on sociology.
CHRISTOPHER MORLEY