Heart of Darkness (Can we learn anything from Pitcairn Island?)

Here’s The Telegraph:

Land is free and plentiful, the weather is good and there would be little chance of confrontation with the neighbours.

Yet almost nobody wants to wants to move to Pitcairn, the tiny Pacific island that was settled by mutineers from HMS Bounty.

The population on Britain’s smallest colony has been dwindling for years, and there are now fewer than 50 islanders left. But locals are struggling to find new settlers to follow in the footsteps of Fletcher Christian, who led the mutiny.

Only one application has been received to move to the island, even though the government provides all immigrants with a plot to build their own house and temperatures stay above 62F (17C) all year round.

.  .  .

Most of the island’s population is descended from the eight mutineers who settled on the island in 1789 after Christian mutinied against William Bligh, the Bounty’s captain. They brought six Polynesian men and twelve women from Tahiti with them.

Ms Christian admitted that the island’s location seemed like “the middle of nowhere”.

“But once you are there, you are as connected as anywhere else,” she said. “The island has electricity and the internet now.

“It is a special place and it is beautiful seeing the stars without light pollution. There are the bluest waters you have ever seen.”

Let’s start from the fact that Pitcairn is perhaps the least populous society on Earth—the polar opposite of China.  It has beautiful weather and fertile soil.

But—you knew there had to be a catch—there is a dark side.  From Wikipedia:

In 2004, charges were laid against seven men living on Pitcairn and six living abroad. After extensive trials, most of the men were convicted, some with multiple counts of sexual encounters with children. On 25 October 2004, six men were convicted, including Steve Christian, the island’s mayor at the time. After the six men lost their final appeal, the British government set up a prison on the island at Bob’s Valley.  The men began serving their sentences in late 2006. By 2010, all had served their sentences or been granted home detention status.

In 2010 a senior Pitcairn Islands official faced 25 charges of possessing images and videos of child pornography on his computer.

Children under the age of 16, even from the cruise ships, who wish to visit the island, must obtain the prior entry clearance.

.  .  .

The Pitcairn Islands are an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, meaning defence is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence and Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.  In 2004, the islanders had about 20 guns among them, which they surrendered ahead of the sexual assault trials.

.  .  .

In September 2003, a baby was born on the island for the first time in 17 years. Another child, Adrianna Tracey Christian, was born on Pitcairn on 3 March 2007. In February 2005, Shirley and Simon Young became the first married outsider couple in recorded history to obtain citizenship on Pitcairn.

.  .  .

The Pitcairn Islands has the smallest population of any democracy in the world.

.  .  .

Potential extinction

As of July 2014 the resident population of the Pitcairn Islands was 56, including the temporary residents like doctor, teacher etc. In fact the actual permanent resident population was only 49 Pitkerners spread across 23 households.  At the same time is rare for the 49 residents to be all on-island at the same time as it is common for several residents to be off island for varying lengths of time and reasons, for example, visiting family, medical reasons and attending international conferences. At the beginning of November 2013 approximately seven of the residents were known to be off-island.  A diaspora survey revealed that by 2045, if nothing is done, only three people of working age will be left on the island with the rest being very old. In addition, the survey revealed that residents who had left the island over the past decades showed little interest in coming back. Of the hundreds of emigrants contacted, 33 were willing to participate in the survey and only 3 expressed a desire to return. This may be partially attributable to the 2004 sexual assault trials which has caused many emigrants to be ashamed of their Pitcairn heritage. The current labour force consists of 31 able-bodied persons, 17 males and 14 females aged between 18 and 64 years of age. Of these 31 able-bodied persons 18 are over the age of 50, with only three in their 20s, and four in their 30s.

This sad story makes me wonder about small populations that are both isolated, and are composed of a tiny number of people (in this case from 2 vastly different cultures.)  And it somehow reminds me of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. Ironically, Brando played Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty.  Even more oddly, Brando’s first son was named Christian. Later he married an Mexican actress, who had starred in the 1935 version of  . . .  Mutiny on the Bounty.  His third wife was a Tahitian actress who co-starred with him on the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty.

Want more ironies?  Brando mutinied while filming Mutiny on the Bounty, refusing to cooperate with the director. Nothing happened on the set until Brando gave the nod.

Attn. Noah Smith:  NGDP targeting might not be optimal for Pitcairn Island, especially as its population approaches zero.  I’d suggest a breadfruit standard:


The fertile soil of the Pitcairn valleys, such as Isaac’s Valley on the gentle slopes south-east of Adamstown, produces a wide variety of fruits: including bananas (Pitkern: plun), papaya (paw paws), pineapples, mangoes, watermelons, rockmelons, passionfruit, breadfruit, coconuts, avocadoes, and citrus (including oranges, mandarins, grapefruit, lemons and limes). Vegetables include: sweet potatoes (kumura), carrots, sweet corn, tomatoes, taro, yams, peas, and beans. Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) and sugarcane are grown and harvested to produce arrowroot flour and molasses. Pitcairn Island is remarkably productive and its benign climate allows a wide range of tropical and temperate crops to be grown.

Fish are plentiful in the seas around Pitcairn. Spiny lobster and a large variety of fish are caught for meals and for trading aboard passing ships. Almost every day someone will go fishing, whether it is from the rocks, from a longboat or diving with a spear gun. There are numerous types of fish around the island. Fish such as nanwee, white fish, moi and opapa are caught in shallow water, while snapper, big eye and cod are caught in deep water, and yellow tail and wahoo are caught by trawling. A range of minerals””including manganese, iron, copper, gold, silver and zinc””have been discovered within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 370 km offshore and comprises 880,000 km2.

Honey production

In 1998 the UK’s overseas aid agency, the Department for International Development, funded an apiculture programme for Pitcairn which included training for Pitcairn’s beekeepers and a detailed analysis of Pitcairn’s bees and honey with particular regard to the presence or absence of disease. Pitcairn, it was discovered, has one of the best examples of disease-free bee populations anywhere in the world and the honey produced was and remains exceptionally high in quality. Pitcairn bees were also found to be a particularly placid variety and, within a short time, the beekeepers were able to work with them wearing minimal protection. As a result, Pitcairn today exports its renowned honey to New Zealand and to the United Kingdom, where it is stocked in London by Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly and Partridges near Sloane Square. The honey has become a favourite of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles.  The Pitcairn Islanders, under the “Bounty Products” and “Delectable Bounty” brands, also export dried fruit including bananas, papayas, pineapples and mangoes to New Zealand.

It would be sad to see Pitcairn NGDP fall to zero.



10 Responses to “Heart of Darkness (Can we learn anything from Pitcairn Island?)”

  1. Gravatar of Britonomist Britonomist
    22. February 2015 at 16:37

    This is all very Summerisle-esque.

  2. Gravatar of benjamin cole benjamin cole
    23. February 2015 at 06:16

    The traditional Polynesians often traded youths off-island to procreate. Pitcairn sounds isolated. And demented a little. You would think resorts…

  3. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    23. February 2015 at 17:30

    What’s interesting is that you would have thought that the internet and increasing connectivity in general would make it easier to live in such places. But the trend seems to be opposite, the more people learn about the world, the more that they want to be part of it. It is similar to the home working idea, in theory central city offices should be becoming more and more empty, but when I look at the world it seems that the one trend we can rely upon is that city centers will add office space.

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. February 2015 at 18:04

    Chris, Excellent. That’s the sort of comment I was looking for. When I was young it seems like that sort of lifestyle would have appealed to many people I knew. Today not so much. I wonder why.

    (By “that lifestyle,” I obviously don’t mean the child molesting. Rather the living away from the crowd.)

  5. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    23. February 2015 at 21:08

    Great post. Extraordinary.

  6. Gravatar of Jaap de Vries Jaap de Vries
    24. February 2015 at 03:05

    Obviously we don’t learn to be alone nowadays anymore. We give the children Ipads, applications, constant interaction. I think it is the way we get raised. This is only bound to increase over time, excluding yourself from for instance Whatsapp results in complete exclusion.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. February 2015 at 05:57

    Thanks Brian.

    Jaap, I think you are right. I see electronics as a sort of less unhealthy heroin addiction.

  8. Gravatar of Colin Docherty Colin Docherty
    24. February 2015 at 18:43

    Chris, could it be the internet lets us know what we’re missing? It’s one hell of a demand simulator, although not always the GDP producing kind.

  9. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    24. February 2015 at 21:27

    This entire piece is well written but it reeks of being made up. First of all, fishing is harder than it looks, as is living off the land, as anybody who lives in Polynesia knows. You need years of experience and/or modern equipment (nets, fish finders) to make it work, and areas can be quickly over-fished (as would happen if the population grew). It’s not so Robinson Crusoe as Sumner makes it appear. Second of all, it’s hard to imagine that this place, in the ‘middle of nowhere’, is ‘connected’ to such an extent that it appeals to people who do not love the outdoors. Very few people actually enjoy the outdoors, unless they have an option to return to ‘civilization’, typically on the same day or shortly thereafter. In short, the Telegraph and Sumner story is a ‘just so’ Kipling / Malcom Gladwell type work of fiction masquerading as fact. It’s like Sumner’s “kill all beavers to help the environment” piece.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. February 2015 at 06:27

    Ray, To tell a “just so story” don’t I first have to tell a story?

    You probably don’t know this, but in a blog post indented material is written by others, not the blogger. Hence I did not tell any stories here, the Telegraph did.

    And in fairness to the Telegraph, I don’t see where it said fishing and farming are “easy.”

Leave a Reply