Tillman W. Nechtman, The Pretender of Pitcairn Island: Joshua W. Hill – The Man Who Would be King Among the Bounty Mutineers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Paperback, $29.99USD, 362pg.
By Meaghan Walker
Ostensibly about Joshua W. Hill, who filibustered Pitcairn Island out of British “control” between 1832 and 1838, The Pretender of Pitcairn Island is a broader history of the Pacific world and the increasing arrival of Europeans into the region. Along with its titular focus on Pitcairn Island, the book also spends time with the kingdoms of Tahiti and Hawai’i. Tillman Nechtman is interested in Hill as a starting point to explore the legacy of the mutiny on HMS Bounty, the broader effects of European contact in the Pacific, and the very slippery ideas of truth, morality and authority which that contact engendered. “Pitcairn,” writes Nechtman, “sits at the intersection of a number of distinct though interrelated Pacific histories … [yet] in none of these histories is Pitcairn paramount” (270).
The broad scope of the narrative means that Nechtman has organized this tale in a style more like a jacquarded tapestry than a traditional chronological narrative. He shows the pacific and global networks at play, at first only occasionally pulling the threads of Hill and Pitcairn’s story to the fore. Each chapter is thematic; first the wild yarn of Hill’s life is examined and Nechtman finds some truth here. Hill’s storytelling will be familiar to anyone who has read a sailor’s autobiography—there is little pure fabrication but who knows if the stories are Hill’s own. Perhaps they are a string of tales of he had heard throughout his 60 years, many of which were spent at sea in the British merchant service as well as the navy. Netchman then examines the redemption of Pitcairn—the idea that though forged in mutiny and murder, the island’s people were returned to a state of purity when Alexander Smith (aka John Adams) learned to read the bible and the book of common prayer. This idea meant that Pitcairn was a rarefied island in the imagination of the British at home but also the British and American missionaries in the Pacific, who saw the island as both a potential source of Christian evangelism in the Pacific and as under threat from the corrupting force of whaling ships and suspicious foreigners. All the while, Netchman relates the conflicts happening on Tahiti and Hawai’i between missionaries and whalers in which Hill and the Pitcairners all played brief and small parts.
As the narrative goes on, it becomes more focused on Pitcairn itself. Nechtman explores the mutiny and the first violent years on the island only midway through the book, discussing the environmental fragility of Pitcairn, especially on problems with water management and the introduction of European domestic animals. He then writes about the gendered history of the island, with a refreshing emphasis on the Tahitian women brought there on the Bounty, revealing them to be more nuanced than tropes of the sexually exotic Pacific Island women normally allow. The Tahitian women played an important role in the island’s development—by supporting, marrying and bearing children almost exclusively with the British mutineers, they became Pitcairn’s kingmakers and secured access to the island’s limited land for themselves and their descendants. The book’s final chapter outlines both Hill’s removal from the island and the wider argument for situating Pitcairn within a Pacific Islands framework.
The history of Pitcairn is not unique, despite its swashbuckling origins. As Nechtman argues, its story is reflected in other histories of the Pacific islands—colonial encounters and sexual confrontation turned to violence, frequent relocation, unstable and often foreign leadership, a confusing mix of indigenous and European ideas about law and property, all rocked by the arrival of new whaling ships and their crews. For Nechtman, though, Pitcairn’s heritage as the secluded refuge of British mutineers and Tahitians allows for a micro-historical inquiry into the broader Pacific region and incursions into it by explorers, whalers, missionaries, and would-be rulers like Joshua Hill. Still, as Netchman reminds us, “we find that we know everything about Pitcairn even as we know nothing about it at all” (78).