Breadfruit and Coconuts

Everyone has a name, and many people have two. The same is true for other living things. Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist from the 1700s and the father of modern taxonomy, came up with a ‘binomial’ naming system. Now every species has two scientific names: the first is the genus and the second is the species

As we prepare to leave for the expedition, we reminded ourselves of where Pitcairn comes from and what the name means. Like many Scottish names, Pitcairn is both a place and a surname. The place is in Fife and the word is of Pictish-Gaelic origin: Pit is Pictish for a portion or share of land; Cairn is Gaelic for a heap of stones built as a memorial or a landmark. It’s very fitting that Pitcairn Island would be named after Robert Pitcairn; a Scotsman born in Fife who, as a 15-year-old midshipman aboard the British sloop HMS Swallow, was the first of the crew to spot the island; a volcanic outcrop in the middle of the South Pacific.

View of Pitcairn’s Island, South Seas (by J. Shillibeer, 1814).

About 23 years later, Pitcairn Island would again be sighted, this time by the crew aboard the famous HMS Bounty. Lieutenant William Bligh and his crew sailed on the Bounty from England in 1787, almost ten years after the death of Carl Linnaeus, on what was chiefly a botanical expedition. They crossed the stormy seas to Tahiti for the spiky breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) to feed slaves in the West Indies. By no coincidence, it was a fellow botanist, and founding member of the Linnean Society, Sir Joseph Banks, who came across the breadfruit on an earlier voyage to Tahiti aboard the HMS Endeavour in 1769. Carl Linnaeus was so pleased with the discoveries made by Banks; he proposed that New South Wales be named Banksia. It was this same Joseph Banks who proposed the journey to Tahiti, appointed the first six crew members that would go aboard the Bounty, and likely recommended that Lieutenant William Bligh be its captain.

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), also known as ‘uru‘ in the Tahitian language (by S. Parkinson, ca. 1769).

There are various accounts of what happened during the voyage of the Bounty. The most well-known is that, after a difficult journey and rising tensions between captain and crew, including a row over coconuts, the acting lieutenant Fletcher Christian led a mutiny, put Bligh and some of his men into a 23-foot launch, then set them adrift in the open ocean. Christian first went to Tahiti, then sailed the Bounty over 1,000 nautical miles to the remote and fertile Pitcairn Island. The passengers settled there and scuttled the ship to hide from the British navy. It worked. Bligh used the navigation skills he had learned under Captain James Cook and made an astonishing journey of over 3,500 nautical miles in the tiny launch boat to a European colony. After his shock return to Britain, the HMS Pandora went out searching for the mutineers, but it never reached Pitcairn.

Fletcher Christian and the mutineers set Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 others adrift (by R. Dodd, 1790).

The island would remain hidden until its rediscovery in 1808 by the American ship Topaz. Many more ships have visited Pitcairn since the Swallow and Bounty and Topaz. Some of these have been for science and exploration, such as the HMS Blossom (1825), the Zaca (1934), the Pele (1967) and the MV Bravo Supporter (2021), which is now renamed Silver Supporter. The most recent expedition was part of the UK Blue Belt Programme, exploring the marine biodiversity off Ducie and Henderson islands. This work will continue with the 2023 expedition and extend to the Adams Seamount, which is still active above the Pitcairn hotspot.

Tomorrow (Thursday 2 February), we will embark on a much quicker and less-taxing journey than the Bounty, flying from the UK to Los Angeles to Tahiti to Mangareva. From there, along with the Cefas team, we will board the MV Silver Supporter and journey two days on the Pacific Ocean. There will be no arguments over coconuts. Binoculars will be at the ready for seabirds and whales. We look forward to standing on the ship and seeing the island for the first time, like the young Robert Pitcairn.

Photo Credit: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

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