“Robinson Crusoe’s Children”

The Strange Story of Nine English Mutineers Who Took Up Their Abode With Their Native Tahitian Wives, on a Desert Island in the South Seas.

One of their most interesting contacts was with the New England whalers who swarmed in the Pacific in the middle of the last century. Many of the young men shipped on long cruises, returning with Yankee tricks of speech and customs. Frequently the captain would leave his wife at Pitcairn to be picked up on the return voyage. During such visits these efficient New England housewives introduced many innovations, so that even at the present time pie is a favorite dish. During my stay at Norfolk I was the guest at a Thanksgiving dinner at which all the traditional dishes were served.

One of the most valuable things inherited from the whalers is the technique of whaling. On Norfolk, whaling is still practiced and is a lucrative source of income.


The church was built by the Norfolk Islanders through the inspiration and devotion of “Uncle” Cornish (the bearded man).

Photo by H. L. Shapiro

Since the necessities of life on Norfolk and Pitcairn are few, the principal occupation is raising sufficient food to supplement the wild fruits that grow abundantly. An additional source of income on Norfolk is the preparation of lemon juice, which is shipped to Sydney, Australia.

For entertainment the Norfolk Islanders are dependent on European games and amusements. Tennis is a favorite form of sport, and a tournament is held annually for a shield. Cricket, football, and horse racing are also popular. More sedentary games such as checkers, cards, and chess, find enthusiastic devotees. During my visit a weekly dance was held, which attracted all the younger people. Also once a week a moving picture show was given. The social life of the islanders is very hearty and informal. Moonlight picnics, garden parties, and other gatherings of a social nature are always hilarious. A strong love of music is common, and one of the most generally attended organizations is the choral society.

The Australian Government maintains a doctor on the island, and the school, which is free, is attended by all the children. An administrator represents the Australian Government, but the islanders are allowed to manage their local affairs through a body of elected officials. Taxes are paid in the form of public work, which consists in building roads and repairing public buildings.

Most of the islanders are affiliated with the Church of England, but other denominations such as Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist and Baptist have adherents. Pitcairn, however, is now almost entirely Seventh Day Adventist. The principal church on Norfolk is a large Georgian building of gray stone which is a relic of the penal colony. On alternate Sundays the congregation meets at the former chapel of the Melanesian Mission station, which is beautifully decorated with mother-of-pearl, inlaid in Melanesian designs, and has a number of beautiful stained glass windows designed by Burne-Jones.

The present population is approximately 600 on Norfolk and more than 175 on Pitcairn. Many of the younger members of the community have in recent years sought wider opportunities on the mainland, where they have married and settled, so that the total number of living descendants of the mutineers is probably more than a thousand.

NORFOLK TYPES These individuals belong to the fourth and fifth generations from the original English-Tahitian cross. English as well as Tahitian characters reappear in these types.
NORFOLK TYPES Note the strong Northern European appearance of the girl at the lower left. The woman at the lower right represents the Tahitian type.
Photos by H. L. Shapiro

To the anthropologist, the chief interest of the descendants of the mutineers of the “Bounty” lies in the fact that here is an example of race mixture between two contrasted races. In studying race mixture it is always discouraging when one attempts to define the ancestry precisely. Where the mixture has been long continued, it is frequently hopeless to obtain satisfactory genealogies. The Norfolk Islanders, however, have kept records of marriages and births, so that I have been able to make for all the islanders genealogical tables which go back to the original cross, and in that way determine the proportions of Tahitian and English in the population. There is somewhat more English “blood” in the present generation. In studying the qualitative characters such as eye color, skin color, and hair form and color, one finds among these hybrids evidence of genetic behavior along Mendelian lines. The typical phenomena of dominance and segregation have taken place. In a small proportion the recessive traits such as blue eyes, blond hair, and fair complexion, are combined in one individual. On the other hand, one finds, according to expectation, a number of individuals who are strikingly Tahitian in appearance. On the whole, Tahitian and English characters form a mosaic, the totality of which in some tends toward the English and, in others toward the Tahitian. Heterosis or hybrid vigor, which is frequently observed in the first generation after the original cross, is well illustrated in the stature of the Norfolk Islanders. Early records indicate that the hybrids in the first generation were considerably taller than either Tahitian or English. Although this excessive stature has diminished among the Norfolk Islanders, it is still greater than that of the parent stocks.

From necessity the islanders have inbred from the beginning, so that now after five or six generations, everyone is related to the rest of the community. In some cases the degree of blood relationship between husband and wife is extremely close. Yet there are no evidences of deterioration. On the contrary, the Norfolk Islanders are tall, muscular, and healthy. That inbreeding mysteriously produces degeneracy is now disproven by animal experimentation. Among the Norfolk Islanders we have another example that inbreeding in a sound stock is not attended by the traditional stigmata of degeneration.

Vital statistics reveal some interesting physiological facts in the hybrids. In the second generation the average number of children per family was 9.1. This average is greater than in any other generation. In the same generation the average age at marriage was 16.8 years for the women and 20.9 for the men. In later generations these ages increased. This high point in fertility exceeds the fecundity even of the Rehobother Bastards studied by Fischer.

Although there have been several additions of Europeans to the Norfolk community, their influence has been relatively slight. One can only hope that this fascinating group may be allowed to maintain its identity and continuity.

view counter
view counter

Recent Stories

A nation is defined by what it preserves.

The way they live, the food they eat, and the effect on us

A true but unlikely tale

Story and Photographs by William Rowan

Increasing day length on the early Earth boosted oxygen released by photosynthetic cyanobacteria.