Tom Christian: Island leader who connected Pitcairn with the world

 

Tom Christian had only a volcanic hill two miles long by a mile wide in the middle of an ocean to ride his Honda motorcycle on, but in his veins there coursed a whole history of 200 years of British worldwide power. The energy that built an empire flipped over in his family's case into naval mutiny, but Tom Christian's great-great-great-grandfather Fletcher Christian, leader of the rebels in 1789 on His Majesty's Armed Vessel Bounty, would have recognised his descendant's fearlessly independent cast of mind.

Tom Christian's MBE from the Queen for services to the Pitcairns, and his law-abiding attitudes, might nevertheless have surprised Acting Lieutenant Christian, who thrust his captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, adrift in a launch and nine months later brought Bounty, with crewmates and Tahitian girlfriends, to the four islands of which Pitcairn, a British colony since 1838, is the second-biggest, 3,000 miles from New Zealand and 4,000 from Panama.

Six generations on, Tom Christian served as a magistrate and for 40 years was Governor's representative on the Pitcairn Island Council. In 2004, when charges of rape and sexual assault were brought against a number of Pitcairn men, he opposed islanders who said "breaking girls in" early was a Polynesian custom, and supported the men's being arraigned before the Pitcairn Supreme Court, which was specially convened under English law on the island.

The accused men included Tom Christian's relation Steve Christian, the islands' then Mayor, who was eventually convicted of five rapes. After the trial Tom Christian was shunned for years by some islanders. But long before the trial, which attracted attention from around the globe, he was already the islander who connected Pitcairn with the values and habits of the outside world.

His daily duties took him with his Honda 870ft up a rough red track to Taro Ground, where Pitcairn's radio transmitter stands. It was put there by New Zealand soldiers during the Second World War for naval communications, and he resolved as a small boy to learn how to use it. He left the island at 17 to do so, and trained in New Zealand from 1952-55, a stay during which he saw cars for the first time.

He was to become Pitcairn's richest native inhabitant, licensed as a radio operator since 1957 and earning NZ$10,000 a year for his service as radio officer of Radio ZBP, "the Voice of Pitcairn". He had the job of making daily reports to the island's administration, located in Fiji until Fijian independence in 1970, and thereafter in Wellington in New Zealand. The reports were made in Morse code until the 1980s brought a radio telephone.

Christian was also a well-known short-wave radio ham, VP6RC/VR6TC, exchanging messages from shore to ships passing on the ocean sea routes, and calling up fellow radio enthusiasts as far away as the US using minimal power from a generator on the island that then ran for only nine hours a day. In recent years he and his wife Betty, whom he married in 1966, moved into the computer age with a website promoting tourism to the island and produce including Pitcairn stamps, baskets, curiosities carved of wood, and honey. The Pitcairn government also offers a distinctive internet domain name," .pn", for sale.

He made several speaking tours to the US, talking about the mutiny and Pitcairn's history. Soon after their marriage he and Betty travelled to California, where they worked for seven months for the radio station of the US-based Seventh Day Adventist Church, of which he was an elder, and to which the Pitcairners converted from Anglicanism in the 19th century. The Isle of Man, from which the Christian family originated, invited him to be a guest of honour at Tynwald Week in 2002.

He is credited with having imported the first battery lights and refrigerators to Pitcairn, as well as motorcycles. In the 1950s he dived for the American National Geographic magazine to bring up nails, wood and fittings from Bounty, still lying in the bay where the mutineers destroyed her. In 1974 he used the radio to appeal for fuel for Pitcairn when Middle Eastern oil producers disrupted supplies, and got some from various sources who heard his broadcast.

Every day he also had to cultivate vegetables on several garden plots for sustenance, and maintain public works including road-surfaces and the aluminium, diesel-powered longboats that bring visitors ashore. The boats must pass through treacherous surf and over rocks, and every three months they go out to meet the airstripless colony's supply ship from New Zealand, anchored several hundred yards out to sea below Pitcairn's 500-foot cliffs.

Explaining why he chose to stay on this speck of red rock where he was born in 1935 – the year of Frank Lloyd's Hollywood film about the mutiny starring Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian – he said: "The advantage is freedom. You don't have to worry about locking doors. I can go down to the valley with my knife and cut bananas or go fishing whenever I want."

In 1971 Maurice Bligh, great-great-great-grandson of the Bounty's captain, paid a visit to Pitcairn, and the two became friends, meeting again in 2005. Tom Christian's own descent from Fletcher Christian was through Fletcher's son Thursday October, then his grandson Thursday October II, great-grandson Daniel, and great-great grandson Frederick, who was Tom's father.

Thomas Colman Christian: island councillor and radio officer: born Pitcairn 1 November 1935; MBE 1983; married 1966 Betty Warren (four daughters); died Pitcairn 7 July 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there