The Schoolmaster of Pitcairn

ON the twentieth of April, 1881, the Acadia, a large three-masted full-rigged clipper ship, loaded with wheat, left San Francisco bound for Cork to await orders. The ship’s crew consisted of twenty-two hands — the captain, three officers, the common seamen, and two apprentice boys, named Lincoln Clark and Ormond Fowler. The former eventually became my father. There was also one other member of the crew that helped to form an important part in my life. This was the sailmaker, Phillip Cook Coffin. Many, many years after, I had the pleasure of marrying one of his daughters.

From the time the Acadia cleared the Golden Gate, and until she reached the South Seas, the weather was perfect and the voyage uneventful. This imperturbable, peaceful voyage came to an end on a clear moonlight night, June 5, 1881.

Lincoln, whom henceforth I will call my father, had just come to his room after being relieved by the watch, and was in his bunk reading when all of a sudden there was heard a mighty grinding, crunching noise, and a crash that shook the vessel from stem to stern. My father was thrown from his bunk to the floor, and then through the cabin dining-room door, and into the dining room.

It did not take long before every man was on deck, wondering what had happened. As soon as it was found that the ship was wrecked on a coral reef, there was great excitement, but, as related to me by my father, there was no unnecessary confusion. Captain George immediately saw the situation, and his orders were prompt and quick. Each order given by him was promptly obeyed. First a kedge anchor was cast astern, which was fastened to the windlass, and all hands began to work the windlass, and in time the ship gradually began to free herself from the reef. At last she was free and began to drift to sea. There was a slight breeze blowing offshore, so orders were given to hoist sail so as to help on the kedge anchor, but as fate would have it the wind shifted just at this opportune time, when it seemed that all danger was over, and blew the Acadia back on to the reef, this time never to come off again.

Soundings of the ship were taken, and showed that she was leaking badly. Orders were given to lighten the ship, and tons of wheat were thrown overboard, but this proved to no avail, for the water in the hold of the vessel still increased. As a last resort all hands took to the pumps and spelled off and on for two hours. But the ship was doomed. There was nothing left to be done but to seek safety for the crew, so two boats were lowered into the water and the crew of the Acadia left their home to the mercy of the elements and took to the ship’s boats for weal or woe.

The sailmaker, Phillip Coffin, suggested to Captain George that they set sail for Pitcairn Island. He stated that he had been there some years before on a whaling ship, and that the people were very kind and hospitable. This suggestion met the approval of the captain, and without delay was put into effect, so the two boats left Ducie Reef and the ill-fated Acadia for Pitcairn Island.

Often have I heard my father relate how it was at this time he enjoyed the best meal he had ever had. The Negro cook took some bottled fruit, and, for the want of something better, washed out his hat well with salt water and then emptied the contents of several bottles of fruit into it, stirred in some broken ship’s biscuits, and served a meal à la mode. There must have been high hilarity and merriment. However, the meal was enjoyed by all.

As the boats drew near to land the islanders saw them and surmised correctly that they belonged to a shipwrecked crew. They hastened to prepare food and go to their assistance. A boat put off from land loaded with fruit, water, and other articles they thought would be needed. The boat’s crew were shown every consideration, and were treated with kindness such as they never expected. On reaching shore there was also spread on the sand a great repast, such as potatoes, chickens, fried bananas, and other native foods.

The crew were led up the steep incline to the landing edge and then on to the village, called Adam’s Town.

My father related to me a rather ludicrous and amusing story in regard to himself. It so happened that some of the older folks did not hasten to the landing place, for at the time they were busy in making tappa cloth from the bark of the aute tree, and could not at the time leave their work. My father was then a lad of sixteen years, and in spite of all that he had heard about the island and its people, he became frightened as he neared the village. Coming faintly to the ears was the weird sound, as he thought, of tom-tom drums, and he had fearful misgivings that they would soon be attacked and eaten, the drums being beaten in anticipation of a feast of human flesh soon to be. He was actually frightened and thought that his last days had come. Some of the islanders have the appearance, even to this day, of their native forbears.

His fears were soon dispelled by the effective welcome given them by the older folks. Everything was done to make the crew as comfortable as possible and to make all feel at home. Each of the thirteen families took one or more of the crew in their own homes. My father and Ormond and Captain George were taken in by the pastor or minister of the island, Simon Young, a direct descendant of Edward Young of the Bounty. Even to this very day the remembrance of the name of Simon Young calls up respect and reverence for one that was more than a man of God. Mr. John Tay changed the religious aspect of the islanders, and from that year to the present time the people of Pitcairn have followed the teachings of the Seventh-Day Adventist Doctrine.

The crew of the Acadia spent many happy days on the island before a ship was sighted to carry them back to San Francisco. This was in February 1882, after spending nearly eight months on Pitcairn. There was one that did not leave the island, and that was Phillip Coffin. He wooed and won one of the young island girls and was soon married, and thereafter made his home with the islanders.

During my father’s stay on the island he had become one of them. For a time he taught school, and proved himself helpful to the small community in many other ways. He has related to me of how he became sun-struck and wandered about in the hills and valleys as a madman, claiming that he was a wild Indian; of how he was saved from drowning; of times spent in swimming and fishing, and of many other enjoyments and pleasures. Truly it was a sad farewell as he gat hered up his few belongings and said good-bye to each of his dear friends, expecting never to meet again.

My father’s sea career after his homecoming was not at an end. For some time he worked for the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, as clerk and purser. Finally he tired of sea life and turned to the electrical trade.

Time passed. He married. I was his first child. Five years later my sister was born. We were the only children.

About this time some of the Pitcairn Islanders had occasion to leave the island. Two finally reached San Francisco, and eventually the home of my parents and grandparents. These islanders were made welcome and became as one of the family. Our home was their home as long as they chose to stay. It was a case, on their part, of receiving their cast bread after many days.

During the visit of the islanders to our home the old life of Pitcairn was brought vividly back to my father’s memory. Old experiences were related. Narratives forgotten were brought forcibly to his mind, and from this time the germ of Wanderlust and the desire to visit Pitcairn again entered his very being. He spoke often to me, in my youth, of Pitcairn and the South Sea islands. He spoke of getting away from civilization with all its grasping selfishness and its inhumanity. He hinted to me of his desire to visit the South Seas again. This was the call of the tropics, though he little realized it. When this call once gets into one it stays there for life, or until the desire is gratified. He spoke to me of how he would like to see me find a home and wife on Pitcairn, and that I might love the island as he had. This wander call was so great that worldly ambition was set aside, and he made a trip to Tahiti to see what the prospects were of making a living there for a time, and if opportunity offered to go on to Pitcairn. It was decided that Tahiti was not a fit place to bring my mother, myself, and sister, so the idea was abandoned.

It seemed that providence opened a way, and just a little over twenty-five years ago my father and I landed on this island. The tropic call was answered in a most unusual way, the most of which, I am sorry to say, I cannot record.

I was a miscreant at school. No teacher ever liked me, or, as far as I am aware, ever tried to turn a bad boy into a good one. I played truant away from school for weeks at a time, and associated with evil companions. I was on the downward road.

My parents decided to take me out of school and find some kind of work for me to do. At last work was found in the worst possible place for a boy of my temperament. I worked in a theatre, and soon began to smoke and drink and waste my money in other useless ways. Then it was that something happened. I look back through my life and find that it was God’s intervening hand that changed my whole course of life.

Well do I remember the last farewell of myself and mother. As I was leaving home I gave one backward glance as I turned the corner, and saw my home, my mother and sister, for the last time. Both are dead now and the old home is gone. Nearly all of our relatives we have lost track of, and my father and I are alone away off on a lonely island in Mid-Pacific. Alone and not alone, for we have many kind friends on Pitcairn.

My father and I left San Francisco in July 1909, for Tahiti, and eventually went on to Pitcairn.

What a welcome we had! I shall never forget it! My father found old friends and we were feasted and dined as ever any royal family were, and in the very same home that sheltered my father some forty years ago we were welcomed as he was during his first stay on the island.

Life was made pleasant for us, the islanders doing all in their power to make us feel at home. We lacked for nothing. We in time became as one of the islanders, and well do I remember the time when one of them came to my father and offered him a home in the most magnanimous manner possible — a home that we could call our very own, and in which to-day myself and family live.

The old sailmaker, Phillip Coffin, was still on the island and had raised a large family, of which most all live today. Phillip Coffin and my dear old father have gone the way of all men, and now I am more alone than ever.

My wife and I have been married for over twenty years and we are happy and contented. We have a girl just past her sixteenth year. I rejoice to know that the Lord has been able to use me in His work on the island, and have in more than one way proved myself useful to the now large community of Pitcairn Island.

The tale of how it happened that I came to Pitcairn is ended. As the tropics called to my father they also call to me, and I would not leave them for any and all the allurements of any city in the world.