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Souvenirs Of Pitcairn Island

08 September 2007 - 29 September 2007

Draw a line between Auckland and the Panama Canal, and about the middle is Pitcairn Island. It was there nine Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian vahine found sanctuary in January 1790. There were other mutinies in the British navy, but the story of Fletcher Christian's rebellion against his mentor William Bligh has captured the popular imagination for more than two centuries. The Pitcairners, who converted en masse to Seventh Day Adventism, have never numbered more than 200, and now number less than 50.

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 turned the tiny speck of rock from one of the world's most remote places to a popular stop on a busy shipping route. The Pitcairners were quick to take advantage, producing souvenirs for the cargo passenger ships which called regularly until the advent of mass air travel in the early 1970s. Most souvenirs are carved of Miro wood which can be worked green or dry. To protect the remaining trees on Pitcairn, the islanders source wood from Oeno atoll, about 80 nautical miles nor Norwest, or Henderson Island 106 nautical miles northeast. Anthropologist John Harre, who accompanied the Pitcairners on a trip to Henderson in the 1960s, says two powered longboats towed a third, which was rowed or "bounced" over the coral reef into the lagoon. The party camped for several days cutting the timber and ferrying it out until the anchored longboats were laden to the gunwales and made the harrowing return journey home.

A visiting Austrian taught the Pitcairners the rudiments of carving sometime in the 1920s and a canon of forms soon developed: flying fish, sharks, birds, turtles, Bounty replicas, longboats, bible boxes, the distinctive Pitcairn Island wheelbarrow, hand chalices and albatross head walking sticks with a shaft made from pit sawn coconut palm. The shapes were roughed out with a handsaw and then shaped with small tomahawks, rasps of descending fineness, and sandpaper. The final finish is made with broken window glass scraping the wood. Sometimes the best carver would do some extra finishing work on other men's pieces, in a sort of quality control system. Handicrafts are still a major part of the islanders' incomes, which they sell to the 20 or 30 cruise ships which stop by over summer.

Adam Gifford