A Relic From The Family Of One of the Bounty Mutineers: An Exceptionally Rare Documented Piece of Bark Cloth From The Pitcairn Islands

15th December 2023

For dealers like ourselves, the perfect object is one that blends historical significance and some other factor, the mysterious “x factor” that the trade, and collectors, all look for when making those special purchases. With Christmas fast approaching, we would like to talk about one of the most historically interesting objects we have ever been privileged to own and also one which ties in to the spirit of Christmas and a tale of eventual redemption and high adventure.

The Mutiny on the Bounty 

After a long period of service in the Pacific, the crew on the Bounty, captained by Lieutenant William Bligh, largely turned against their leader and took control of the ship on the 28th of April 1789. Bligh and the small band of supporters who stayed with him were set adrift in a launch whilst the majority of the crew, now led by Fletcher Christian, a man who had been unfairly targeted by Bligh during his period in command, seized the vessel and headed for Tahiti and Pitcairn Island. Many of the mutineers favoured Pitcairn as cartographic errors meant that it was very hard to locate and, having found it at last, the mutineers decided that the fact that it was in effect uncharted would make it more useful as a place to hide. The mutineers had abducted several native Tahitians, largely women, who were brought with them in order to ensure that a new society could be created on Pitcairn. At first this society functioned reasonably successfully but growing tensions between the Tahitians and the Europeans eventually led to widespread violence and reprisals with Fletcher Christian amongst the first to die, whether violently or by natural causes never having been established. In the midst of all this chaos, a settlement was established. The Bounty had been burnt on arrival at Pitcairn and so escape was now impossible. A fascinating image from 1831 shows one of the houses on Pitcairn inhabited by John Adams and it is Adams who is the focus of the story from now on.

Born on the 4th of July 1767, John Adams, also known as Alexander Smith in an attempt to avoid detection after the mutiny, would go on to become the last surviving member of the mutinous crew on Pitcairn Island. After taking control of the colony in 1799 from Matthew Quintal, an alcoholic with a  predilection for violence, Adams and Ned Young, the only other surviving mutineer, decided to turn to God and converted their little nation to Christianity, teaching them from the Bible rescued from the Bounty. As well as religious instruction, Adams used the Bible to teach the women and children to read and write and became a positive influence on those under his care. The women on Pitcairn continued age-old Tahitian traditional crafts, passed from generation to generation, and amongst these was the custom of weaving barkcloth. Used as the primary material for clothing as well as bedding material and for ornamental hangings, barkcloth or ahu in Tahitian was made by using strips of material peeled away from the inner bark of trees. The trees used were normally Fig, Paper Mulberry or Bread-Fruit varieties. Fittingly, the transport of Bread-Fruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies had been the primary reason for the Bounty having been sent to the area in the first place. Once dried and bleached in the sun, barkcloth would then be dyed using traditional vegetable dyes in a vast array of colours and patterns and there are important collections of cloths of this sort in many important museums and private collections. In the British Museum there are huge numbers of pieces of historically significant barkcloth and amongst the most important are these two examples

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Oc1937-0308-1

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Oc1937-0308-2

and there is another related piece in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich

https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-204605

All of these pieces of barkcloth were recovered from Pitcairn in the 1830s and brought back to England by visiting sailors. In 1825, John Adams was pardoned and the mutineers had become the subject of fascination to a new generation back in England due to the publication of Lord Byron’s poem The Island from 1823 onwards which inspired a new generation of trophy hunters keen to own a little piece of the history of the mutiny and the settlement on Pitcairn. Pitcairn Island and its inhabitants have been the subject of a considerable amount of historical and ethnographic research and it was thought that the chances of discovering any more early artefacts from the settlement had been exhausted. Erly visitors to the Pitcairn settlement had even gone as far as removing John Adams’ headstone from his grave which is now in the collection of the Maritime Museum as well and so further finds were thought to be unlikely. However we are delighted to share with our readers another piece of barkcloth with Pitcairn Island provenance which we unearthed recently. Our piece, in common with the three linked above, has a handwritten label applied to it that states ‘manufactured on Pitcairn Island, by the descendants of John Adams the mutineer, from the bark of a tree’. The handwriting is identical to that on the labels in the British Museum and, as those pieces bear the signature “H Porter”, we can assume that Mr Porter, presumably a sailor on the HMS Imogene which was one of the first vessels to reach Pitcairn Island after its occupation by the mutineers, arriving in December of 1836, also wrote the label attached to our piece. Aside from the museums already mentioned, Kew Gardens has a further piece of barkcloth believed to have been made by Fletcher Christian’s widow Mauatua and there are pieces made by the descendants of the original settlers in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Turnbull Library in New Zealand.

Our piece of barkcloth is finely woven and of clearly the work of a talented and experienced craftswoman. That this lady was also a relative of John Adams, working on Pitcairn Island, makes this a discovery of real historical significance. The capital of Pitcarin Island today is known as Adamstown after the mutineer who played such a significant role in founding the settlement there and this little piece of cloth is a direct link back to him and his extraordinary life. We are delighted to be able to offer our clients the opportunity to acquire an object of truly international significance and proven museum quality.

 

A relic from the family of Bounty Mutineer John Adams: An exceptionally rare documented piece of Bark Cloth from the Pitcairn Islands, with a fragment of paper pinned to it stating ‘Manufactured at Pitcairn’s Island, by the descendants of John Adams the Mutineer, from the bark of a tree.’
A relic from the family of Bounty Mutineer John Adams: An exceptionally rare documented piece of Bark Cloth from the Pitcairn Islands, with a fragment of paper pinned to it stating ‘Manufactured at Pitcairn’s Island, by the descendants of John Adams the Mutineer, from the bark of a tree.’

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