A NEW 'FENUA MAITAI' FOR THE PITCAIRNERS (Part Three) ... by Rachel Borg

It was an idea first mooted by Walter Brodie in his book published in 1851 wherein he suggested that should the Home authorities finally decide to abandon Norfolk Island as a penal settlement there would be no more beautiful or suitable a location for the Pitcairners to call home.  There were many reasons given for the Island’s suitability but above all the Pitcairn Islanders, in accordance with their personal wishes, could move en masse as a community and not be scattered to the wind.

The Pitcairn Islanders learned of this possibility in 1852 and a year later were resigned to the fact.  They advised that their choices lay now between Norfolk Island or Sunday Island in the Kermadec Group; although the weight of opinion was swinging towards Norfolk Island.  

When Nobbs returned in 1853 the situation was dire.  The Islanders were suffering grievously from famine and disease and for weeks they had been living on pumpkins, berries, coconuts and beans.  It only served to reinforce the need for prompt action.

It was finally suggested to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir John Pakington that Norfolk Island be reserved for the Pitcairners.  Sir John requested a report from the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Sir William Denison, whose reply was suitably enthusiastic.  Understandably so; being compelled as he was to close down the penal settlement on the Island  Denison was himself faced with a number of choices and decisions regarding the future of Norfolk Island.   In fact, not wanting the Island to lapse again into decay, or fall into enemy hands, he had written to Pakington suggesting three possible uses for the Island; first that it continue as a penal out-station; second that the Island be sold, either as one lot or in separate blocks; or third; that a body of men pensioned from the forces be allowed to settle as an agricultural labour force and that they should be joined by an entrepreneurial group who could provide an attendant shipping services for the agricultural produce.  

Pakington had however already decided on the Island’s future use.  The British Government gave approval for the transfer of the Pitcairners and the Admiralty instructed Captain Fremantle of HMS Juno to convey this message personally to the Islanders and deliver a description of Norfolk Island to them for their consideration.  Although there was more than one family among them daunted at the prospect of leaving, the general consensus eventually bade them all go.  With scant time to offer any real resistance or look further at the options available to them the Islanders at last all were decided, or had been persuaded for a greater good, to leave Pitcairn Island.  The final scenes which were played out on Pitcairn Island in the first two days of May 1856 as the distraught Islanders prepared to depart must have been heart-rending to say the least.  

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Nothing came of this and in September of the same year Lord Palmerston wrote to Miller stating that Her Majesty’s Government considered it desirable to provide the means for the surplus population of Pitcairn’s Island to be removed to some other Islands in the Pacific.  Again nothing happened until mid-1849 when Miller wrote to Palmerston advising that John Buffett ‘who had come here upwards of two months since to undergo a Surgical operation’ would return home and explain to the Pitcairn Islanders that a portion of them could count on the Sandwich and Society Islands as a new home.  Miller wrote that ‘It now remains for the British Inhabitants of Pitcairn’s Island to make known to me their further wishes’.

In the meantime the Queen of Huahine in the Society Group had also offered them an extensive tract of land; remembering that Huahine was the home Island of our foremother Toofaiti (Nancy).  Juan Fernandez, a Chilean possession was also thought of, and there was even a most magnanimous offer from King Kamehameha III to transport the whole of the island’s population to his royal estates in Hawaii.  Miller however insisted that the islanders would go as British subjects which further complicated matters and ruled out several of the options placed before them.

The overriding factor which caused such in-action on the part of the Pitcairners was undoubtedly the angst they felt at any possible separation.  Although Nobbs also wrote of other considerations including the ‘great and paramount influence the French are exercising in these seas’ it is unlikely given the general simplicity of life on the Island and their lack of worldliness that this factor loomed large in the hearts and minds of most of the Pitcairn Island inhabitants.  

Despite the obvious necessity to relocate, the choices presented to them lay squarely between the devil and the deep blue sea; it was a decision they seemingly could pay no real consideration or countenance to until sheer necessity finally forced their hand.  George Hunn Nobbs wrote they were ‘intent only upon putting off the “evil” day of separation’ and that ‘their hearts failed them; they could not brook the idea of separation’.  

Meanwhile on the other side of the Pacific, some five thousand miles away, there lay an Island which in recent times had suffered a very different kind of past.  Norfolk Island was currently facing the bloodiest and most horrible time in its history.  It was a place of utter degradation and inhumanity far beyond what the gentle, hospitable and peaceable inhabitants of Pitcairn Island might ever be able to conceive.  Increasing enlightenment in England regarding transportation and the convict system would however very soon see one of the last and worst bastions of penology fall and when it did it would open up another opportunity; and another choice for the tiny Pitcairn Island community.

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Choices and decisions; we are faced with them every day and each of the choices we face have varying degrees of importance and as yet untold consequence in our lives.  Best as we can, the decisions we make today, based on the choices placed in front of us, forge the way for the unique and individual futures we create for ourselves.  Sometimes we feel we have little or no choice; at other times we are indeed spoilt for choice.  There are some among who also believe that there is no such thing as choice, or luck.  Everything is pre-destined and that God and fate are life’s master planners.  Perhaps these people sleep a little easier at night than most?

Following his ordination in England George Hunn Nobbs returned to Pitcairn Island in 1853 to face the fact that his little flock of faithful sheep would soon have to make a very serious decision of their own.   Speculation and anxiety was running high in the Island community at the time regarding the ability of Pitcairn Island to continue to sustain and support the expanding population.  It was becoming increasingly clear that migration was likely the only solution and the impending move was understandably a source of considerable stress and unhappiness to the Islanders; particularly for those who were old enough to remember the disastrous shift to Tahiti in 1831.  While these people believed deeply in the blessings bestowed upon them by God; they must surely have felt the sheer weight of responsibility and choice laid out before them; and were at this particular point in time most acutely aware of the fact that God had given them the power of personal free will.

The possible need to relocate had been raised by the British Pro-consul at Honolulu as early as 1844.  Based on information received from Lieutenant Hunt of HMS Basilisk and others who had visited the Island he concluded that the Islanders would soon need more space – Mr Hunt thought that the Bonin Islands would perhaps be a suitable option.

Four years later George Hunn Nobbs himself was forced to move decisively on the possibility of relocation and in April 1848 the permanent British Counsel in Honolulu, General William Miller, wrote to the Foreign Secretary in England describing the ‘embarrassing position in which the interesting and praiseworthy little Community’ found itself and suggested that about twenty of the island inhabitants might avail themselves of the first opportunity to remove to the Sandwich Islands.  Miller had in fact received offers from an Englishman, Dr Wod, who owned Koloa Estate on Kauai to employ and assist the Islanders in resettlement. 

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WOTA LOTA POTA (Part Four) ... by Rachel Borg

There are still a few Norfolk Islanders who make ‘potter bush’, one recipe contains  ‘taro, tomato and spinach leaves’ which is finished off in coconut milk.  I understand it is an old family recipe.  There may be other versions of ‘potter bush’ around and it would be lovely to hear from anyone who still makes it, or makes a different version of this recipe.

There is another Tahitian word ‘fafa’ which was recorded by the missionary John Davies who arrived in Tahiti in 1801 to work with Reverend Nott.  Davies recorded ‘fafa’  as  ‘the stem of taro, plantain, or cocoanut branch’.  This word did not survive in Pitkern-Norf’k but it is interesting to know that dishes such as chicken fafa are still eaten in Tahiti today and are made generally with the chicken and taro leaf which is cooked in coconut.

In her cookbook Taste of Pitcairn Meralda Warren tells us that ‘Potter bush’ is made from taro leaves, obbrew, manioc leaves, 1 – 2 cups of coconut milk, tomato leaves and salt to taste.  She goes on to say ‘We use the young taro leaves in the center.  The backbone is then stripped off and soaked in warm water.  We also use the young leaves of the manioc tree.  Young tomato leaves and a bunch of obbrew.  Wash and drain the greens and chop in a large saucepan.  Simmer for 15 minutes and pour off the water.  Pour over 1 – 2 cups of coconut milk and return to the heat.  Simmer for 1 hour until the coconut milk becomes thick, season with salt to taste.’

Sometimes I wish for a crystal ball instead of a fortune cookie to go with my ‘potter bush’; I think crystal balls are slightly more reliable when it comes to the age-old questions of gain and loss.  Crystal balls, I imagine, must allow you to see things a little more clearly.  Over time we have gained an enormous increase in choice when it comes to green, leafy vegetables and improved agricultural practices such as irrigation pumps and hydroponics means that we can have them year round and that has to be a good thing I guess; but the loss to our culture is that most of us no longer eat pota, and many of us don’t even know what it is. 

This perhaps is just all a part of the ebb and flow of life.  My soothsayer cookie however still leaves me none the wiser in the grand design of things - should we be like a great tree in the midst of it all?  Should we just be happy and rest?


Fut Yolyi Noo Bin Laane Aklen? - Anders Kallgard (1980)

Speak Norfolk Today – Alice Buffett (1999)

A Tahitian and English Dictionary – John Davies (1851)

Taste of Pitcairn – Meralda Warren (1986)

The Pitcairnese Language – A. S. C. Ross (1964)

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