The islands of the Pitcairn group have always had a close connection with Mangareva in the Gambier Archipelago, and at one time a Polynesian trading triangle operated between Mangareva, Pitcairn and Henderson. Mangareva's lagoon had abundant supplies of black-lipped pearl oyster shells, which made fine scrapers or scoops and could be cut to make fish hooks. Pitcairn had the only quarry in this part of Polynesia where flakes could be chipped off the sharp-edged stones to make adzes and other tools. Inhospitable Henderson Island's small population supplied red tropicbird feathers, green turtles and other 'luxury' goods.
Overpopulation devastated Mangareva, and deforestation removed the trees used for making the great seagoing canoes. In a classic example of the flow-on effect of ecological disasters, the downfall of Mangareva led to the abandonment of both Henderson and Pitcairn.
When the explorer Pedro Fernández de Quirós chanced upon Henderson Island in 1606 it was uninhabited, and presumably Pitcairn Island had also been evacuated.
The four Pitcairn islands would probably have been annexed by the French, along with the Tuamotu and Gambier islands, were it not for the British settlement founded by the Bounty mutineers.
The Pitcairn Island group is Britain's last overseas territory in the Pacific. The governor, who is also the British high commissioner to NZ, lives in Wellington. Prior to the sex trial, the island was governed at arm's length. The governor now has a representative in residence, and has visited Pitcairn personally. At a local level, the Island Council consists of a mayor plus appointed and elected members, and tends to local matters including island maintenance, shipping arrivals, communications and medical services.
It is believed there was a Polynesian settlement on the island between the 12th and 15th centuries, and perhaps an earlier settlement as many as 2000 years before that. As the mutineers were to prove, small though it was, Pitcairn provided all the basic necessities of life.
In 1767 Philip Carteret sailed by on HMS Swallow and named the island after Major Pitcairn of the marines. Finding it was one thing - Carteret was unable to land and his mischarting of the island by 300km made relocating it a problem.
In January 1790 the Bounty mutineers arrived on inhospitable Pitcairn after a long search for a remote hideaway, far from the long arm of British naval justice and almost certain death at the gallows. Led by Fletcher Christian, the party was made up of eight other mutineers, six Tahitian men, 12 Tahitian women and a child. Once they were settled on the island the Bounty was burnt (both to prevent escape and to escape detection), but their island community proved to be anything but a safe haven. Chaos and bloodshed ruled the first years, largely due to the English mutineers' slavelike treatment of the Polynesian men. Things escalated when a mutineer demanded that one of the Tahitians give up his wife, following the death of the mutineer's partner in a fall. A cycle of murder and revenge commenced, and by 1794 all six Tahitian men and five of the nine mutineers, including Fletcher Christian, had been killed. Only Young, Adams, Quintal and McCoy survived.
The few peaceful years that followed were brought to an end when McCoy discovered how to produce a killer spirit from the roots of the ti plant. By 1799, under the influence of the drink, McCoy had thrown himself into the sea with a rock tied around his neck and Quintal had become so crazed under the drink's influence that Adams and Young killed him in self-defence. A year later Young died of asthma, leaving John Adams as the sole survivor of the 15 men who had arrived a decade earlier.
Populated by Adams (who had recently discovered religion), 10 women and 23 children, Adamstown was a neat little settlement of God-fearing Christians when Captain Mayhew Folger of the American sealing ship Topaz rediscovered Pitcairn Island in 1809, solving the 19-year mystery of what had happened to Christian and the Bounty after the mutiny. By this time British attention was focused on the struggle with Napoleon and there was no interest in the mutineer who was guilty of a crime that was now decades old. The next visitors, the British ships HMS Briton and Targus, arrived in 1814, unaware of Folger's earlier visit but also deciding there was no point in taking any action against the lone mutineer.
Ship visits became more frequent, and by the time Adams died in 1829 there was concern that the island would become overpopulated. In 1831 the British Government relocated the islanders to Tahiti, but within months 10 of the Pitcairners, lacking immunity to a variety of diseases, had died - including Thursday October Christian, the son of Fletcher Christian and the first child to be born on Pitcairn. By the year's end, the 65 survivors were all back on Pitcairn.
The island became a British colony in 1838, but when the population grew beyond 150 there were again fears of overpopulation. This time the entire population, then numbering 194, was moved to Norfolk Island, an uninhabited former Australian prison island between Australia and NZ. Not all the settlers were content with their well-equipped new home, and in 1858, two years after being relocated, 16 Pitcairners returned to their isolated outpost, just in time to prevent the French annexing Pitcairn to their Polynesian colony. More families returned over the years, raising the population to 43.
Right up to the mid-1870s, Pitcairners were followers of the Church of England. However, the arrival of a box of Seventh-Day Adventist literature from the US in 1876 saw the beginnings of change. A decade later, the arrival of a Seventh-Day Adventist missionary heralded real conversion from the teachings of Pastor Simon Young. A mission ship was sent out from the US in 1890 and the happy proselytes were baptised with a dousing in one of the island's rock pools, and the local pigs were swiftly killed to remove the temptation of pork.
Although Pitcairn's population grew to 223 just before WWII, depopulation rather than overpopulation has become the major concern. In 1956 the figure was 161, in 1966 it was 96 and in 1976 Pitcairners numbered 74. Since then, the figure has wavered in the 40s and 50s.