This film is held by the BFI (ID: 41357).


Survey of the life of the islanders and their reaction to modern life.



Pitcairn Island in 1962 was an exceedingly remote place inhabited by a very small number of people – just 128, according to The Pitcairn People’s commentary – almost all of whom were descended from a handful of Fletcher Christian’s famous Bounty mutineers and the few Tahitians that Christian and his men took with them from Tahiti to Pitcairn in 1790.

For around ten years after this first settlement the tiny island’s history was one of chaos and bloodshed, after which a period of relative calm set in. The islanders were first rediscovered in 1808 by an American ship, the Topaz, and their first contact with Britain came in 1814, when they were chanced upon by HMS Briton and HMS Tagus; at this time the population was around 40 people, being lead by George Adams, the last survivor of the original mutineers (Ball 1973: 104-19; Lewis 2009: 43-4). Thenceforward there were occasional visits from British ships.

Pitcairn nominally became part of the British Empire in November 1838, when the inhabitants, weary of the liberties taken with them by the crews of passing whalers, petitioned Captain Elliot of the HMS Flyto take the island under the protection of the British Crown. A constitution was written and signed on board the Fly, and Elliot’s naval superiors commended him for his action. The Colonial Office, however, did not see how Pitcairn could be helped, incorporated into the Empire, or governed, and the next official intervention was in 1856, when the entire population was relocated to Norfolk Island, an ex-penal colony (Lewis 2009: 53-4). Many of the deported Pitcairners immediately set about returning to their redoubt, and there was little further outside interference for most of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the first definitive evidence of the island actually being considered a British possession came in 1898, when Harry Christian – the great-great-grandson of Fletcher – was prosecuted under English law for killing Clara Warren and her child. In response to the murders, the British Settlements Act of 1887 was retroactively applied to Pitcairn in order to facilitate a prosecution. The Act had given the British authorities power to establish laws and institutions of governance in any British settlement where they were deemed necessary, and so ‘from 1898,’ writes Lewis, ‘there could be little doubt but that Pitcairn was a British settlement in the eyes, at least, of the British government’ (ibid.: 57).

However, subsequent central administration was minimal, if it could be said to exist at all. The island was almost wholly neglected by the metropole, and Lewis notes that for the duration of the twentieth century ‘only one Governor of Pitcairn…ever visited the territory for which he was responsible’ (ibid.: 59); indeed, from the date of first settlement until the notorious sex abuse trials of 2004 there had been ‘no effective civil authority presence on the island’ at all (Oliver 2009: 11).



Imaginatively shot and intelligently narrated, The Pitcairn People succeeds in presenting its eponymous subject relatively unvarnished by either the historical romance of the mutiny on the Bounty, or the voyeuristic pity that might easily be directed at such a lonely outpost of humanity. In a place with such an extraordinary past, history can never be far away – the first person we are introduced to is, like so many others on Pitcairn, a descendent of Fletcher Christian – but the treatment of this history does not glamorise it. Instead, the historical peculiarity of the Pitcairner’s  predicament is used throughout the film as a gentle motif with which the essential strangeness and loneliness of life on Pitcairn can be brought into relief.

It has been argued that the hope of a return to the happy and easy living that the Bounty’s crew experienced on Tahiti while Captain Bligh rested there for nearly six months may have triggered the mutiny (cf. Ball op. cit: 88-9; Lewis op. cit.: 39); most of the crew indeed returned to the island after the ship was commandeered, with only Christian and a few others striking out for Pitcairn. This proverbially easy South Seas life is reprised in cruel parody on modern Pitcairn, and the narration picks up this unhappy irony: ‘Pitcairn is no paradise of languor and tranquillity – it is either dull or desperate.’ The popular myth of the South Seas is invoked and then turned on its head, as the dominant theme of the film emerges: the isolation, boredom and emptiness of life in what the narrator early on calls ‘oblivion.’

To be sure, there is hard work to do – there is still only one place to land a boat and doing so is still dangerous, still only one source of meat (wild goats), and everything heavy and difficult must still be manhandled and hauled by communal effort. Ships still call, and some limited trade still takes place, but these events are as a ‘punctuation mark in the endlessly empty calendar of Pitcairn.’ The islanders are marooned in history, lost in ‘the half-world to which they were committed’ by Fletcher Christian ‘in the days of George III.’

Regular slow tracking shots impassively and equally capture both people (who are often posed motionlessly) and the luxuriant vegetation of the island scenery, generating a pervasive sense of unreality. ‘On the island,’ narrator Wymark observes, ‘there are mostly those who long to go, and those for who have given up the dream,’ and to illustrate those who have abandoned thought of escape, we are shown an old man dozing in the sun. The hope of another life having departed, he takes refuge in sleep. The image seems to be the symbol of life on neglected, anomalous Pitcairn, with its dwindling population living on in the empty shipwreck of an eighteenth-century seaman’s mad, utopian dream.

Francis Gooding, Patrick Russell (Dec 09) 


Works Cited

Ball, Ian M. Pitcairn: Children of the Bounty (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973)

Lewis, Andrew ‘Pitcairn’s Tortured Past: A Legal History’ in Oliver ed. 2009: 39-61

Oliver, Dawn ‘Problems on Pitcairn’ in Oliver ed. 2009: 1-21

Oliver, DawnJ ustice, Legality, and the Rule of Law: Lessons from the Pitcairn Prosecutions(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)




Technical Data

Running Time:
27 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
2406 ft

Production Credits

CARR, James
Sound Recording
British Petroleum Company
Camera Assistant
FOX, Dennis
Commentary Writer
Music Performed by
WYMARK, Patrick
ALLEN, James
Production Company
World Wide Pictures