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The Most Isolated Island - Two Hundred Years Later

    They had a wonderful time when, in 1991, to mark the bicentennial of the island’s settlement, they played the crew of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Oberon, visiting the island where two centuries ago Fletcher Christian and his band of mutineers from Captain Bligh’s HMS Bounty burned the ship they had stolen and his from civilization. (Pitcairn Islands Sc.# 321)
    When I was a boy, it was considered a great joke to say, when asked “What do you collect?” – “Oh, I specialize in the Pitcairn Islands!” The point is that up till 1940 they had no stamps at all, and only a set of eight regulars.   The earliest letters from Pitcairn bear a handstamp inscribed “No stamps available” – the addressee had to pay the postage and so you find stamps of Britain, the United States and other countries attached and postmarked thousands of miles away from Pitcairn. Then a New Zealand postal agency was opened, using NZ stamps with a special Pitcairn postmark stamp, and when the radio station was opened they produced a special illustrated cover showing the radio shack and bearing special handstamps.
    All these early items are very scarce indeed, and it’s worth noting that the entire printing of the radio covers was dropped in the sea as it was being taken on one of the island’s famous longboats out to a waiting ship, so they all bear disfiguring water stains. Any without stains are bogus!
    When Fletcher Christian and his fellow conspirators plotted to get rid of the hated Bligh, they realized they would be pursued to the ends of the earth if word got out, and that their fate was certain death at the hands of a Navy court martial. Remember that and you will see why, in setting Bligh and his supporters free to float across the Pacific, they took a calculated risk – it was in their interests to shoot the tyrant, but the British sense of “fair play” left Bligh to reach Tonga and report the mutiny.
    Yet the mutineers were not found for many decades, for they had both good planning and sheer luck on their side. They sailed first to the delightful Pacific island of Raiatea, which to this day has the reputation of being the home of the most beautiful Polynesian maidens, and persuaded some of them to sail away with them, thus ensuring the future of their settlement as an Anglo-Pacific people.
    And when they sought the isolated island of Pitcairn – so small and insignificant that no ship can be reached there – they found it had been wrongly charted and lay well off any expected ship lanes. Bounty was burned in Bounty Bay – though its anchor remains a fond monument on the island – and they settled down to a feckless life which led most of them to alcoholism and an early death.
    Of the original settlers, only one remained when contact was resumed with the outside world; he had custody of the Bounty Bible   (Pitcairn Islands Sc.# 5a)   and tried to maintain some basic standards among the young population around him. Now, two hundred years later, Pitcairn marks it bicentennial with several stamp issues that tell the whole story in pictures, an ideal addition to your album that might even provide a graphic frontispiece to a Pitcairn collection.
    On February 22, 1989, a strip of six 20 cent stamps began the tale with the departure of the Bounty from Deptford, London. April 28 was the date of issue of a similar strip of 90 cent stamps continuing the story chronologically, and on January 15, 1990, the third strip provided six 40 cent stamps taking the story up to the actual settlement of the island.
    Add to this a striking miniature sheet issued at the same time as the second strip, and you have a good basis for expansion. This unusual sheetlet combines stamps of three different countries: there’s one stamp from Pitcairn, of course; another stamp from Norfolk Island, also in the Pacific, to which the Pitcairners were evacuated for some years and where some families still remain – and the third stamp is from far-off Britain’s Irish Sea where you will find the Isle of Man, home of Fletcher Christian’s forefathers.
    But, you may ask, why should a tiny, isolated island with rarely more than a hundred inhabitants, now visited only perhaps once or twice a year by tourists making the perilous trip by longboat or launch from a passing steamer, have stamp of its own at all? (Pitcairn Islands Sc.# 571) Pitcairn is governed from Fiji by the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific; the incumbent of that post in the forties was completely opposed to stamp collectors and insisted on no “philatelic” mail being created.
    So when in 1949 the island marked the Silver Wedding of King George VI with two stamps – one of them for 1 ½ d., the other for the massing sum of 10s., the Postmistress was faced with a dilemma. She was inundated with orders for first day covers bearing the pair of stamps; some of these were to be sent through the mails to overseas addresses, the rest to a post office box on the island where an agent would bundle them up and mail them under cover for protection. 
    Now the 1 ½ d. stamp prepaid island postage only; the 10s. (then worth $1.40) was too high to pay any normal mailing fee at all. The solution may sound crazy to you, but this is what the strict instructions of the High Commissioner insisted should be done: covers addressed to the island post office box had only the 1 1/2c. stamp postmarked; those sent overseas had a postmark on the 10s. stamp but the 1 1/2d. was untouched!
    The Pitcairners demanded their own stamps for two reasons. First, they felt it demeaning that they should have to rely on a New Zealand agency for a postal service, when they had no other connection with that dominion – they felt it was the first step toward NZ sovereignty, which they found objectionable. Secondly, of course, they needed the income that philatelic sales would bring to their tiny, underpopulated, poor island. And when finally the Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations finally gave them stamps, they really did a grand job, for the original eight stamps are all colorful pictorials introducing you to many of the island’s attractions and interests.
    Let’s see: there’s Fletcher Christian himself on the Bounty approaching Pitcairn, the last mutineer John Adams and his house – and the famous Bible; there’s the unfortunate Captain Bligh, a map of he islands, and on the 1/2d. value some oranges which were Pitcairn’s only homegrown export. The map will show why the stamps are inscribed “Pitcairn Islands” which postmarks say “Island” – the post office is on Pitcairn where the handstamps are used, but there are three tiny uninhabited islands named Ducie, Oeno and Henderson which the islanders visit for fishing and to gather the beautiful wood that they use for their carvings, a local craft this is always popular with visitors – and you can even order them by mail, though there is no guarantee how long they will take to reach you!
    In 1951, two newly needed denominations were added – the 4d. with the Bible on it, and the 8d. showing the new school, built only in 1949 out of the proceeds from stamp sales. But this led to an amusing confusion in 1957 when, five years after she ascended to the throne, they finally received stamps portraying Queen Elizabeth II.
    For when the 4d. stamp was designed, the artist incorporated a photograph labeled “School House.” He took this to mean it was “Pitcairn School”    (Pitcairn Islands Sc.# 25)  and inserted this below the vignette – unfortunately they really meant “The School Teacher’s House,” again built from philatelic fund, and in 1958 a revised design appeared and error was with drawn.
    In building up a collection of Pitcairn stamps, it is best to treat the island, its story and geography and culture, as a single topic. Take all the regular and commemorative sets that honor events and places and people directly connected wit Pitcairn, and mount them to tell the story of islands.
    Then you can either totally ignore the international omnibus issues – which mostly have nothing to do with Pitcairn itself – or you can simply mount them separately as a sort of appendix to your “The Story of Pitcairn” collection. But be careful – some omnibus issues, like the 1972 Silver Wedding (but not the 1974 Royal Wedding) and the 8 cent value of the 1977 Silver Jubilee do have island connections.
    Do try and get one of the 1938 radio covers if you can – they make an interesting conversation piece – and perhaps an illustrated pricelist of the carved wood and other island handicrafts to go with the stamps that show these. The islanders also publish a little newssheet that often contains amusing or even frightening stories of life there; it’s called Pitcairn Miscellany and is always worth reading and adding to your collection.
    One last work: please do not expect to be able to find a pen friend on Pitcairn: with around fifty adults, demand from literally hundreds of thousands of keen philatelists worldwide would make their lives impossible! Write to the Postmaster enclosing enough mint Pitcairn stamps to pay for a reply, and ask for a copy of the Miscellany, the handicrafts pricelist, and details of stamps available from his office. You will then have at least one nice envelope, addressed to you from this faraway, isolated, historically unique and fascinating island to incorporate into your collection!

This has been updated from Global Stamp News – November 1990 – Issue #1

Contact's: by Kenneth R. Lake