Books: Christians in a pagan place

Charles Nicholl on the heirs of the `Bounty' mutineers

Serpent in Paradise by Dea Birkett, Picador, pounds 16.99

Though her destination was not notably dangerous, Dea Birkett's journey to Pitcairn Island strikes me as remarkably intrepid. Known to historians as the last resting-place of the Bounty mutineers, to philatelists as a much-prized postmark and to nostalgic imperialists as a last remnant of the British Empire, Pitcairn is a mere speck in the South Pacific, a mile long by a mile and a half wide. Its 18th-century discoverer, Captain Philip Carteret, described it as "scarce better than a large rock in the ocean".

It is 1,000 miles from the nearest large island, Tahiti, and more than 3,000 miles from New Zealand, whence it is nominally governed by a British High Commissioner who has never visited it. The 1991 census gave the population as 40; by the time Birkett arrived it was down to 38. The island's telephone system consists of one party line, its school has nine pupils, its fleet a pair of longboats named Tug and Tin.

Herein lies the intrepidity, in this mix of remoteness and claustrophobia. It is like being stuck in a small village several weeks' journey from anywhere. Add to this the ascetic rule-book of Seventh Day Adventism - drinking and smoking are illegal, dancing and cards frowned upon - and you have a destination more forbidding than the deepest jungle or the iciest pole.

This sort of assignment is Birkett's forte. Her book Jella described a journey on a cargo ship from Lagos to Liverpool. She is one of a tough new breed of woman writers, like the Antarctic traveller Sara Wheeler. She feigned a tenuous research project on the Pitcairn postal service, and packed a trunk with writing equipment, mosquito repellent, a copy of Return to Laughter by the anthropologist Elenore Smith Bowen, a large tin of instant coffee, and "enough tampons to last until my menopause". After many false starts, she got passage on a Norwegian cargo ship plying out of Houston, Texas. Nearing Pitcairn the captain used a chart compiled in 1825 - the most recent available.

Arriving, she is immersed in the rough, awkward intimacy of this remote and inbred community. She is disappointed to find that the "home in paradise" she has dreamed of "resembles a second-hand electrical appliance shop". She is warmed, puzzled and sometimes seared by her hosts, Irma and Ben, and their son Dennis - who is asserting his independence by moving 50 yards up the street - and the large spider which lives in the "duncan", or privy.

Her story is told with candour and humour. She is spikily observant, but there is a deep background note of tenderness for these hardy people. She has some tough trips aboard the longboats, but the deeper dangers are personal - flickerings of sexual attraction, old feuds, loneliness. "There was a pattern to Pitcairn which I could not see, a rhythm which I could not hear, like a dog's whistle when I wasn't a dog." At times she almost buckles under the pressure and longs to say, "I'm off for the weekend. See you soon!" "But there was nowhere to go ... It was the same heavy air, the same tangled weed and trees, the same clawing mud on every corner of the island."

And behind it hovers the ghost-ship Bounty, a true but fantastic story in which "what had happened and what we wanted to have happened were from the very beginning confused". Little is known about the lives of the nine mutineers who settled on the uninhabited island in January 1790, with assorted Tahitians, under the leadership of Fletcher Christian. Most, including Christian, were killed by Tahitians in 1793, but one John Adams lived until 1829. Mystery surrounds his identity: there is no John Adams on the Bounty's muster-list. There are reasons to believe he was Able- Seaman Aleck Smith, but a more colourful theory suggests he was Christian.

Birkett visits Adams's grave, but later learns it was a fake. The original is in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, as is his blond pigtail, catalogued blandly, length 190mm, width 16mm: "The length and width of a garden worm." Most of today's Pitcairners are direct descendants of the mutineers. The surname Christian still flourishes, and confers power and status.

In the last pages Birkett writes that "We all hold a place within our hearts - a perfect place - which is in the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength ... My mistake was to go there." It was certainly not a mistake in terms of good copy. Whatever her regrets, she has written a charming and perceptive account of life in this curiously dour tropical paradise.

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

booksReview: Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments