White European and American settlers washed ashore on some of the world’s most remote uninhabited islands throughout the 17th-19th centuries, whether shipwrecked, on the run, in chains, or with a vision for a new society.
The populations they created, usually with the help of local women, still carry their genes, surnames, and preserved aspects of their language and culture.
However, the paradise they seem to inhabit also carries the seeds of their extinction as a community.
The Pitcairn Islands are a group of four volcanic islands halfway between New Zealand and Peru in the South Pacific Ocean. They are inhabited by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, an event retold in numerous books and films.
Nine mutineers, under the command of Fletcher Christian, settled on Pitcairn in 1790. With them were 20 Tahitians, of whom 14 were women, who had been invited on board the Bounty at Tubuai for a social gathering and had been taken captive.
Pitcairn proved an ideal haven for the mutineers – the island was uninhabited, warm and virtually inaccessible, and there was plenty of food, water and fertile land. They set fire to the Bounty and lived peaceably for a while.
Gradually, tensions and rivalries arose, caused mainly by the mutineers regarding the Tahitians as their property, in particular the women who were passed around from one ‘husband’ to the other. By 1794 five of the mutineers, including Christian, and all six of the Tahitian men were dead. The mutineers who had perished had, however, already had children with their Tahitian wives. By the time an American seal-hunting ship visited Pitcairn in 1808, only one mutineer, John Adams, was still alive, along with nine Tahitian women and numerous children.
In the 6 or 7 generations that have passed since then, many of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian consorts migrated to New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. A sizeable portion relocated to Norfolk Island, 1,200 miles east of Australia, where most people with Pitcairn roots now live.
Only 56 islanders now remain on Pitcairn, almost all bearing one of 4 surnames – Christian and Young (direct descendants of mutineers Fletcher Christian and Ned Young), or Brown and Warren (descendants of two 19th century sailor settlers). Other mutineer surname lines – Adams, Quintal and McCoy – died out on Pitcairn, but live on in New Zealand and on Norfolk Island. However, the high degree of intermarriage on Pitcairn amongst first and second cousins means that mutineer DNA is still prevalent.
Other mutineer remnants include Pitkern, the island’s creole language derived from 18th century English, with elements of the Tahitian. Pitkern was influenced by the diverse British dialects and accents of the Bounty’s crew, which included Geordie, West Country and Scottish. It also includes common words and expressions from British maritime culture in the age of sailing ships, such as whettles, meaning food, from victuals.
Pitcairn also has some quirky pidgin English placenames, including: Where Freddie Fall, Bitey Bitey, Little George Coc’nuts, Ugly Name Side, Headache, Oh Dear, Break Im Hip, and Stonepeoplefightfor.
A more disturbing side of Pitcairn culture was revealed in 2004, when 6 men, including the island’s mayor Steve Christian, were convicted of multiple counts of sexual encounters with children dating back to the 1960s. During the trial the islanders said that having sex at a young age had been always been a healthy part of Pitcairn life, but the victims who testified described their experiences as anything but normal.
A clip from the 1935 Documentary ‘Pitcairn Island Today’:
2. Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha is a group of volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean and is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, lying 1,500 miles from the nearest from the nearest continental land, South Africa.
Named after the Portuguese admiral Tristão da Cunha, who first saw it 1506, Tristan remained largely uninhabited until the British government briefly garrisoned it in 1816 to guard against a French attempt to rescue Napoleon, exiled on the nearest inhabited island, Saint Helena (1,200 miles away).
The garrison was maintained until the following year. One soldier, a 30 year-old Scottish corporal named William Glass, saw the island’s potential and requested permission to stay behind, along with the 16 year-old wife he had picked up in Cape Town two years earlier – Maria Leender – plus their two children and two stonemason companions. Glass’ request was approved and he was presented with a bull, a cow, and a few sheep, which in time became an extensive flock and herd. The stonemasons did not stay long but examples of their work can still be seen on the island houses. Maria Glass went on to give birth, totally unassisted, to a further 14 children on Tristan (after William’s death in 1853, she remained on the island until the age of 89 – when she left to ‘begin a new life’ in New England).
When English sailor Thomas Swain (a veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar) arrived on Tristan in 1826, the number of lonely bachelors who had made their way to the island had risen to five, so a plea for wives was answered by five volunteers from the island of St Helena. Swain had vowed to take the first woman to step ashore and duly took Sarah Jacobs for his wife; they reportedly had a long and happy marriage which produced 15 children.
The growing community was joined by various immigrants throughout the 19th century: Dutchman Peter Green arrived in 1836, American whalers Thomas Rogers and Andrew Hagan settled in 1837 and 1849, and Italian sailor Andrea Repetto was shipwrecked on Tristan in 1892.
Tristan’s main settlement is Edinburgh of the Seven Seas (named after Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria, in honour of his visit to the island in 1867) and its current population of 275 is largely descended from these ancestors and still bears their surnames.
Due to the island’s small population, there has inevitably been interbreeding between the original founding families. While this has resulted in some minor health issues, such as asthma and glaucoma, most Tristanians have lived without any access to doctors and nurses to healthy old age. In the 1880s the average life expectancy was 69 – much higher than in Victorian Britain – and when a doctor visited in 1937 he found two centenarians out of a population of 200. The only case of cancer on the island was that of the founder William Glass.
The mix of ancestral nationalities on Tristan is reflected in its language – an unusual patois of 19th century English, Afrikaans slang and Italian. The language developed through the island’s isolation – it can only be reached only by sea and, while South African fishing boats now visit eight or nine times a year, it wasn’t unusual for the island to be without visitors for months or years at a time; during the First World War no boats called at all.
The islanders continue to live by the ‘original agreement’ that William Glass drew up – a contract which said that all land on Tristan was to be held in common, as were livestock, fish catches and barter from passing ships. All were to be considered equal and ‘none above any other’. Individual ownership of cattle is allowed but strictly limited to prevent anyone acquiring too many.
Consequently, from initial settlement in 1816 until the end of the second world war in 1945, there was no form of authority on Tristan – no governor, no administrator, no police (as there was no crime), and no money. When an individual required help from neighbours – such as thatching a roof – help would come through a mutual obligation which would be remembered by families for generations.
Any island man who did give himself airs and graces was open to mockery. In the 1920s, one of William Glass’ descendants, Bob Glass, would strut about wearing his Boer war medals, telling passing ships captains that he was the head man of the island. He is known to this day as ‘Height’ – considering himself to be above everyone else.
Tristan’s ticking tomb bomb has always been its volcanic hotspot, which duly erupted in 1961. The eruption of Queen Mary’s Peak forced the evacuation of the entire population via Cape Town to England. Luckily, the settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas had been only marginally affected and most families returned in 1963.
An ITN news clip from 1963 reporting on Tristan da Cunha and the aftermath of the 1961 volcanic eruption:
1963 interview with 70 year-old Mary Swain, Tristan da Cunha’s only midwife, on her return to the island from England after the 1961 volcanic eruption:
3. Chichi Jima
Chichi Jima, formerly known as Peel Island, is technically part of the Tokyo Metropolis, but lies over 600 miles south of Japan’s capital.
It remained uninhabited until May 1830 when 36 year-old Massachusetts native Nathaniel Savory established a colony on the island, along with 4 other whites and 20 Hawaiian men and women from Oahu.
They eked out a living selling provisions to passing American whalers and British warships, although many visiting captains remarked on the lawlessness of the island, recording tales of murder and polygamy. It also proved vulnerable to pirates, who in 1849 made off with Savory’s gold — and his wife (although the woman, who was much younger than Savory, reportedly eagerly joined the marauders).
In 1853 the United States laid claim to the island as a coaling station for steamships and appointed Savory as governor. However, in 1862 Japan asserted its sovereignty over the island and began to introduce Japanese immigrants, although they allowed Savory to remain in charge of the islanders until his death in 1874 aged 80.
The Japanese established a naval base on Chichi Jima in 1914, which became a supply and communication hub in WW2. At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 around 6,000 military personnel were based there and it later became a frequent target of US air attacks.
Although they were not interned, the Western-descended settlers were forced to take Japanese names and watched as possible spies. In 1944, most were evacuated along with the Japanese residents to the mainland.
After the war, the US Navy used the island for a submarine base. The Navy allowed only 129 Western-descended settlers to return in 1946, but Japanese former residents were barred from coming back.
When the island was returned to Japan in 1968, the Westerners were given a choice of becoming either Japanese or American citizens. Many left for the US.
Today there are around 2,000 people living on Chichi Jima, but less than 200 of them are descendants of Savory’s colonists. The community is disappearing as young people emigrate or assimilate into Japanese culture, dropping the Anglican religion and English language of their ancestors. The local cemetery is one of the few remaining traces of the Westerners’ history. Most of those who still speak English and retain distinctly Western or Polynesian features are over the age of 50.
Montserrat, part of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies, was named by Christopher Columbus in 1493. It is nicknamed The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean both for its resemblance to coastal Ireland and for the Irish ancestry of many of its 5,000 inhabitants.
Montserrat came under English control in 1632 and a plantation colony developed on the island. The labour force comprised Irish people transported in their tens of thousands as slaves, indentured servants and exiled prisoners from Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland. African slaves were later imported in common with most Caribbean islands. Most descendants of these Irish ‘Redlegs’ emigrated whenever the opportunity arose, reducing the white population to a minority which mixed with the majority African population.
Many of today’s Montserratians are blue and green-eyed, with skins in all shades of black and brown, bearing surnames like Sweeney, Riley, Kelly and O`Brien. In fact nearly 300 families of the 1,600 listed in the phone book have Irish surnames. They speak with a lilt descended from the Gaelic language and celebrate St Patrick`s Day as a national holiday.
1976 report about the ‘Black Irish’ of Montserrat:
Palmerston Island is a coral atoll in the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean and was discovered by James Cook in 1774. There are only 62 people living in Palmerston, all but three descended from a 19th century Englishman named William Marsters.
Although Captain Cook discovered Palmerston in 1774, he did not actually land on the island until 1777. He found it uninhabited, though uncovered some ancient graves. He named the island after Viscount Palmerston, then Lord of the Admiralty.
In 1863 William Marsters, a ship’s carpenter and barrel maker, arrived on Palmerston with two Polynesian wives – one, Akakaingaro (known as Sarah), was the daughter of a Cook Islands royal chief; the second was her cousin. He added a third wife, another of Sarah’s cousins, and sired a large family of some 23 children.
Thus, Palmerston Island is the only island in the Cook Islands for which English is the native language. Marsters is thought to have come from Gloucestershire and that his surname was actually ‘Masters’. His descendants on Palmerston speak English with a distinctive Gloucestershire twang, which might explain why they now spell the name ‘Marsters’.
Marsters planted the island with palm trees to produce coconut oil, which became their main source of income. However, he died of malnutrition in 1899 after his coconut trees were destroyed by blight.
By the time Marsters’ youngest daughter Titana Tangi died in 1973, there were over a thousand of Marsters’ descendants living in the Cook Islands and New Zealand. Only 59 family members remain on Palmerston, which is considered their ancestral home. The 59 are grouped into three branches of the family, each branch being descended from one of William’s three wives (marriage within a family group is prohibited). The island’s council includes the three heads of each family branch, and the current mayor is Bob Marsters.
Officially a New Zealand protectorate, the people of Palmerston have power (for a couple of hours a day) and the internet (for a couple of hours a day). Yet they have no shop and rainwater is collected for drinking water. Money is only used to buy supplies from the outside world – not from each other. Fish and coconuts are their staple food.
The island’s remoteness in the Pacific presents many challenges. With no land for thousands of miles Palmerston takes the full force of any storm, so the islanders tie their buildings to surrounding trees. And when the island’s oldest inhabitant, 92-year-old Mama Aka, went for dental work in the capital of the Cook Islands, it took her four days to get there – and after the short procedure, she had to wait six months for a ship to bring her back.
Wyntersea Productions 2012 clip about Palmerston Island: