Rachel History - Captain George Rennie McArthur visits the Pitcairn (Part Three)... by Rachel Borg

The occasion was not favourable for judging of the appearance of the islanders.  They wore their most ordinary raiment, in consequence of the inclemency of the weather, and every kind of ornament was of course in abeyance.  Contrary to the impression of other travellers, those visitors thought that the men were better looking than the woman.  The latter showed more plainly their Tahitian origin, where as the former looked like fine hearty English seamen.  If when on Norfolk Island, they would be persuaded to engage in whale fishing, how admirably they would be suited to this occupation.

 Dr. Carns had little opportunity of looking about him.  As soon as it was discovered that he was a medical man, he was importuned in the most urgent manner to visit the sick.  No sooner had he seen one patient than he was hurried off to another and from this to a third.  His time was thus fully occupied in going from house to house.  Among other services he had to extract a considerable number of teeth.  This minor operation one would have supposed would have been performed by the pastor surgeon but Mr Nobbs explained the he never undertook anything of the kind if there was a probability of a qualified doctor paying them a visit.  Dr. Carns set to work therefore to extract the molars, and did this kind service, among others, to a very old lady, the oldest woman on the island none less a person than the daughter of John Adams.

     The doctor had to prescribe for several cases, both in medicine and surgery some in urgent need of operation but on so short a visit impracticable.  He noticed that scrofula, or something very similar to it was rather prevalent.  This he attributed to the frequent intermarriages in this small community but we think an equally potent reason may be found in the almost constant abstinence from animal diet, not to mention the frequent scarcity of food altogether.

     Meantime deep conferences were held among the chiefs and elders respecting their present state and future prospects.  It was most gratifying to Captain McArthur to hold council beneath the banyan tree, surrounded by these kind simple people and to be able to answer satisfactorily the eager questions propounded.  The new home was looked forward to with anxiety and hope all were zealous to depart with the exception of one family.  This family never would forsake the old rock and would probably be left behind.  The leading men however did not like the idea of a College being established on Norfolk.  After the guests had been pressed to partake of the island fruits and vegetables and preparations had been made to offer up pigs and poultry on the alter of the Island when they were there they seemed to think there was nothing unorthodox in such an institution likely to unsettle them in their firm adherence to the Protestant Church.  The prejudice may perhaps hereafter be overcome, at present it is strongly impressed.  Hospitably, they were conducted to the grave of the patriarch, John Adams.  From thence they passed by the house of Mr. Nobbs and were shown the little church, with its grand organ, the school room, the dispensary, and other offices.  In this way the minutes flew rapidly and pleasantly.  It was time to depart and taking leave of some, and accompanied by a large concourse of others, the visitors took the slippery and dangerous path downwards to the shore.  Here another grand leave taking took place.  A dozen times they entreated and hoped that Captain McArthur would come himself to fetch them away, as he knew the coasts of Norfolk Island and could land them safely.  The boat was launched, a score of willing hands were employed in shoving her off, and amidst hearty cheers from the shore, returned to the Southern Cross, after an absence of about three hours.  The visit altogether has left an indelible and most agreeable impression of the amiable simplicity and kind heartedness of the Pitcairners with prompt wishes for their future Welfare.

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Rachel History - Captain George Renie McArthur visits the Pitcairn (Part Two)... by Rachel Borg

To understand what connected George Rennie McArthur to our tale of two Islands it is first useful to learn that he captained a colonial whaler, the Southern Cross,and that both Norfolk and Pitcairn Island were places that the world’s whaling fleets used as stopover and provisioning points as they roamed the southern seas in search of whales for whale oil.  The Southern Cross was a barque of 345 tons which was built to the order of Charles Seal, a well known ship-owner.  She was launched in 1851 and was soon set to work.

What is fascinating to learn, from our viewpoint at least, is that the Southern Cross, captained by George Rennie McArthur, visited both Islands in reasonably quick succession around the time of the Pitcairn community transferring to Norfolk Island.  The Southern Cross had called in to Norfolk Island not long before stopping over at Pitcairn Island towards the end of November 1855 as the Pitcairners were facing the dilemmas relating to the sustainability of Pitcairn Island due to its burgeoning population and times of increasing food scarcity; which brought with it a pressing need to relocate.  Pitcairn Island was a community clearly in turmoil over the difficult decisions which faced it and Captain McArthur’s arrival presented a rare and unique opportunity for the Pitcairn Islanders to speak to someone with first-hand knowledge of what they could expect to find in their new homeland.

The Hobart Courier of Wednesday 6th February 1856 carried the following insightful article relating to Captain McArthur’s visit to Pitcairn Island:-


     On his return from the coast of South America, Captain McArthur, in the Southern Cross passed close to Pitcairn’s Island, and landed for three hours on the coast.  This visit was short indeed, and made under unfavourable circumstances, but as every item of intelligence connected with the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty is at this time interesting, we have drawn up a few particulars from the statements of the Captain and the gentleman who accompanied him.  It was about seven o’clock of the morning of the 21st November last, when the little island, like a rock in mid ocean, was seen from the deck of the Southern Cross.  The wind at this time was light and variable the weather hazy. Standing in toward it, the British ensign was observed flying on shore at the indentation of the coast called Bounty Bay.  Soon afterwards a boat was noticed coming from thence, manned by a dozen young and vigorous islanders.  The ship was hailed in the usual manner in good English, the men jumped on board, shook hands with every one, expressing the greatest pleasure in seeing them and giving them a hearty welcome to Pitcairn.  In dress and general appearance they appeared like first class British sailors strong, stalwart, healthy fellows as if just drafted from a man-of-war.  Those on board were much struck by the kindly disposition of these people, and at the same time amused by their artless simplicity.  One fine young fellow came up to the captain as soon as he heard his name pronounced, shook him repeatedly by the hand, and claimed him as a relation.  “How is that, my man?” said the captain.  “Why, you see,” returned the youth, your name is McArthur, mine is Arthur, and therefore we’re namesakes, you know”.


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Rachel History - Captain George Renie McArthur visits the Pitcairn (Part One)... by Rachel Borg

Generally speaking, it seems that people the world over have an innate need to feel connected; be it an inner compulsion to trace our ancestral roots or to make pilgrimages back to a place or time where something significant happened or where we, or someone we are related or connected to, once spent time.  It makes little difference if the person in question was famous or infamous, or whether it was a deed or misdeed that was committed to earn themselves a small place in the annals of time or the pages of some dusty long forgotten history book.  Somehow when we follow in thier footsteps we feel we can lay claim to belonging in just a little (even if it is only genetically) to that story which was once enacted out by these people from so long ago to which we are somehow connected.  If the stories, our family names, or even our faces are recognised in the process it gives us a wonderful sense of self; and a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves.  

As pilgrims it is nice to get a sense of place; and to walk the earth where so much of one’s family  history, folklore, and dinner table talk originated.  Today for many Norfolk Islanders of Pitcairn descent this journey back in time might take us off on pilgrimages to England, Tahiti and Pitcairn as we try to get an appreciation of what life was like for our forebears.  We like to look at the same mountains, tread the same soil; imagine oneself standing amid the same, or a similar scene that once panned out so many years before as we ourselves come to stand upon that same earth in mute wonder.  If we feel connected to a place and if we get a sense of the passage of time and the events which once took place our experiences are so much richer for having done so.

For a surprising number of people who visit Norfolk Island this little isolated landfall is their connective link; the place to which they come on pilgrimage to get a sense of time, space, place and self.  They seek connection to their past and hope to learn more of what their forebears did here; they are eager to share their stories and are pleasantly surprised when others recognise names and know their family history.  In recent weeks we have met with several visitors who are related to Captain George Rennie McArthur. 

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Rachel's History - Strange Food (Part Three) ... by Rachel Borg

Today while the majority of Norfolk Islanders eat most of the things considered to be part of the ‘global food culture’ there are certain things which continue to be consumed as part of the traditional Island diet which would seem strange and exotic to others.  Steamed fish was and still is commonly eaten; but in fact all parts of the fish are used.  Fish head soup simply makes one’s mouth water—delicacies such as the soft glutinous fish cheeks scooped off the bone and the eye-balls were highly sought after by many.  In fact anything which is particularly delicious to an Islander is said to be ‘as sweet as a trumpeter’s head’.  In season trumpeter roe (sacks of fish eggs) are simmered in water and lemon juice or rolled in flour and fried in hot oil or dripping.  Fish frames, wings and whole rock-fish meet the same fate and are relished for the sweet tender flesh that is literally sucked off the bone.  The crisp, crunchy wings and tails are nibbled away on with complete and utter relish by almost everyone.  Anything remaining or inedible is simply dug into the garden and becomes fertiliser.

By far the strangest offering from the seas around the Island is the hoemnaenwi (dream fish).  The friedi (frightening) hallucinogenic affects encountered by many include nightmares of the worst order—which seems to do very little to deter many die-hard local dream-fish enthusiasts.

Another Island delicacy, though eaten less so now than it has been in the past, is the wana (sea-urchin) which is generally made into pancakes, with or without the roe depending on the season.  They were also eaten raw and many say that raw wana is rather bitter and to be avoided.  One man who collected them from the Cemetery and Slaughter Bay reefs for the Island dinners at the old Paradise Hotel claims that the only way to eat them raw and enjoy them is while treading water.

One particular kind of sea-bird egg, the whale bird or sooty-tern egg, is also a seasonal delicacy for many old Island families.  These speckled fishy-tasting orange yolked eggs are collected annually during the open season and generally boiled, fried or turned into omelettes.  To the un-initiated they are most definitely an acquired taste.  There are some who simply cannot stomach the sight, smell or taste of them and others who look forward to the season with much anticipation.

Wild greens were also once a part of the Island diet; especially in the dry season when the winter greens were finished.  These included wild cress, and taro and sow thistle leaves known as ‘pota’.

Food memories evoke all kinds of feelings in people depending on what was happening around them at the time; people who have a strong sense of family and togetherness will sentimentally associate certain special family dishes and recipes with warmth and intimacy.  Family recipes and secret ingredients can be fiercely guarded down through the generations; fish batter recipes and the secrets to the perfect Island pie are among those most highly guarded. 

Food combining is also part of the culinary journey into adult hood; Island children quickly learn the affinity trumpeter (the prize table fish) has with fried bananas or sweet potato, how fish, lemon and cream create a kind of alchemy which can rarely be found elsewhere in life, and how cream (‘Norfolk gravy’) or golden syrup in copious quantities lift just about everything to an eternally incrementing pleasure zone. 

The crux of the matter really is what we have a hankering for.  Like a bolt out of the blue when I lived on the mainland I suddenly had an inexplicable craving for mada (green banana dumplings).  To this end I searched high and low for months for some griin plan (green bananas) but to no avail—it would be four years before my cravings could be satiated.  For those who do not appreciate mada it is no more than grey, taitai (tasteless) sludge of the most unappealing kind.  In fact, many people could little imagine any culinary pleasure might be found in a rock-hard green banana.  Perhaps only those who have been raised on them could appreciate green bananas grated on a yolo stone (traditional basalt grating stone) and turned into hot crisp green banana pancakes drizzled with golden syrup; or green banana dumplings cooked in coconut, cow’s milk, or a combination of both.   This wonderful creamy dish which tastes like nothing else in the world is one which I and many others I know of can eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner; but you would find me hard-pressed to go back for a second round of mopane worm, witchetty grub or grasshopper.  Horses for courses, of course!

Daaset yorlye, tek keya tal neks wiik.  

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