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The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania, and Mutiny in the South Pacific, by Brandon Presser

I’m indulging my love of travel this week with The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania, and Mutiny in the South Pacific, by Brandon Presser, his bizarre account of the history of, and of his visit to, Pitcairn Island, the isolated South Pacific island where the Mutiny on the Bounty crew took refuge in 1789. Pitcairn is still inhabited by a mere 48 people, many of them Bounty descendants.

This isn’t likely to be a place I’ll ever visit. No plane flies there, as the terrain is too rough for a runway. It’s too far away from anywhere else for a helicopter. There is no proper port for ships. Getting to Pitcairn Island is pretty much limited to a month-long voyage on a freighter that brings cargo four times a year, with goods and visitors off-loaded in small boats. Still, looking at the satellite image from Google above, I have to admit a longing to have a haircut at the Tom Selleck Salon, or some ice cream at the Adamstown.

The nine mutineers led by Fletcher Christian, along with some 19 Tahitian wives and other Tahitian captives they had brought along, stumbled across Pitcairn after months at sea. The island was listed on nautical charts of the era, but 200 miles away from its actual location. While other mutineers who had remained in Tahiti were captured by the British, the Pitcairn group eluded the hunters.

It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later, in 1808, that an American ship, the Topaz, stumbled across the island. The captain, Mayhew Folger, was shocked to see small boats paddling out towards the ship. Even more stunning was the fact that the men who paddled out spoke English. Captain Folger was invited ashore to dine with the inhabitants, and he soon realized that this island was where the missing Bounty crew had ended up.

By then, only one of the original mutineers was still alive. The rest, including Fletcher Christian, had been killed within the first three years, either by each other or by the Tahitians they had brought with them. And indeed, John Adams, the mutineer who was still alive, the one captain Folger dined with, was mysteriously not listed on the roster of the original Bounty crew. Folger pondered the possibility that Adams was actually Fletcher Christian.

The book alternates between chapters of the author’s experience during his stay on the utterly isolated Pitcairn, and a meticulous mining of source documents to reconstruct those violent first three years of the mutineers. He also covers the often violent episodes in the centuries since, and the occasional new inhabitant that comes to stay.

A fun book, part travelogue, part history, and part Lord of the Flies as it explores these humans living in isolation.