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

Friday, July 07, 2017

While there are several intriguing aspects to this old 1856 article; many today will be more than interested to learn that the Pitcairners, at least some of them, were made aware of the proposal to establish the Melanesian Mission headquarters on Norfolk Island before they came to the Island.

According to David Hilliard in God’s Gentleman while Governor Denison had rejected Bishop Selwyn’s initial plan to re-establish the diocese at Norfolk Island on the basis that it was ‘crude and undigested’ and that he smelt the threat of ‘ecclesiastical tyranny’ over the 200 newly arrived Pitcairner descendants of the Bountymutineers.  A few short years later the matter was finally settled and Bishop Patteson was at last able to purchase for mission purposes 933 acres and was also bestowed a free grant of 99 acres; permission now having been granted for him to do so by Sir John Young, Governor of New South Wales at the behest of the home government.  

Anecdotally, I understand that relations between the Mission and the Pitcairners were sometimes strained but generally cordial.  Despite the understandable resentment from some quarters of the Pitcairner community there was of course some necessary and mutually beneficial interaction between both camps.  The residual resentment which perpetuated over some generations among the Pitcairner community regarding the Mission’s presence on the Island quite clearly emanated from a belief on the part of a number of Pitcairners that Norfolk Island would be reserved for their sole and exclusive use.  In retrospect however, few would now argue thatthe Mission’s presence has added a subtle overlay to Island life and made for a far richer and fascinating history.

Following the Pitcairners relocation in early June 1856 Captain McArthur again visited Norfolk Island.  On Monday 22 September 1856 The Hobart Town Mercurycarried the following short article:

      The Southern Cross arrived from Valparaiso, bringing 4084 bags of wheat, or about 12,250 tons biscuit. ... On the 2nd September theSouthern Cross touched at Norfolk Island and took in fire-wood.  Captain George Rennie McArthur reports that the Pitcairners in consequence of their potatoes and yams not having come to perfection, and having no other vegetable, were complaining of the want of bread stuffs.  One death that of an elderly female had occurred on the island.  The Bishop of New Zealand’s lady was residing ashore.  His lordship was on a cruise to the eastward, but was expected back daily.  Captain McArthur supplied the Islanders with some bread, potatoes, and sugar, and in return they assisted in getting him his firewood.  No colonial whalers had touched at Norfolk Island since the Pitcairners had been there. 

It is both speculative and fanciful to think that Captain McArthur was somehow touched by the Pitcairners plight and that he held some paternalistic concern regarding the fate of this small community of people, whom he had encountered so briefly in a state of angst and turmoil over the prospect of moving en masse to a new and distant land. It would be nice to think that he did however and nice to believe that his feelings fell on the side of humanity and were not alone founded  ing the fulfilment of his duties.

If nothing else Captain McArthur more than likely played a dual role in easing wary minds and better equipping the Pitcairners for what might lay ahead of them on Norfolk Island; and following the Pitcairners initial weeks of settling in he again helped to see them more comfortably provisioned until their own crops were established.

While in the overall scheme of things many may feel that the part Captain McArthur played in our history was small and insignificant, yet to his descendants today and to the early Pitcairners here on Norfolk Island in 1856 he surely looms large as a good and benevolent man.  Here was a man with choices; a man who chose to hold out his hand, who chose (despite less than favourable conditions on Pitcairn) not to simply sail onward and outwards or turn his back on the Islanders.  Captain George Rennie McArthur was much more than that; in the sum total of things he was a friend to the Islanders at time when they needed one.

On more than one occasion the Southern Cross had brought windfalls to the Pitcairners.  Many of the whalers which plied the southern oceans were referred to as ‘lucky’ ships; and those who had ‘greasy lucky’ were the luckiest of all.  Unfortunately the Southern Cross itself eventually ran out of luck - she was lost off Cape Douglas in January 1880 while on a voyage from Adelaide to Newcastle, all hands getting safely ashore.  By the time the sun was setting on the final days of theSouthern Cross the Pitcairners themselves had hoist their sails and caught the breeze setting the course for their new life on Norfolk Island.

Very special thanks this week to John Christian for sharing  information passed on through Captain McArthur’s great-great grandson during his visit to the Island recently.

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