A RUGGED volcanic island, two miles long by one mile wide, precipitous, verdant and fertile, with a normally benign climate.
That is the island of Pitcairn, refuge of Fletcher Christian and the Bounty mutineers in 1789 and home to a declining number (52) of their descendants. It is 3,300 miles to New Zealand; 4,100 miles to Panama. The highest point is 1,100 feet; and from it, a full-circle horizon of South Pacific oceanic isolation. Ben Christian, Island Secretary and Secretary to the Pitcairn Island Council for a quarter of a century from 1962, lived there with his wife Irma throughout his life.
I first met him on Pitcairn in 1968. Not quite on Pitcairn. A short tubby man climbed up the ship's ladder and bounded over the gunwale. He was barefooted. His denims were faded, there was a long knife in his waist-belt and he wore a woollen skull cap with a pompom. He took this off as he reached the bridge. 'Welcome,' Ben always said to the captain. 'Welcome to Pitkern (the Pitcairners' pronunciation of their island home), and thank you f'r comin'.'
He was then and remained a gentle, kindly man, not typical of the disputatious individualism of many of his fellow Pitcairners. He was a model elder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church to which all members of the community adhere. He had only once previously been away from Pitcairn.
While devoted and hardworking, he had little formal education and suffered noticeably from lack of training in basic administrative skills. So he was seconded later that year to the British South Pacific office in Fiji with which he corresponded at that time from Pitcairn.
Isolated though their island home may have been, Ben and Irma kept contact with the outside world through ham radio links - not least for a time with Tristan da Cunha, that other even more remote island of the South Atlantic roaring forties.
With an annual island budget of less than pounds 300,000 and no taxes to administer, except for token gun and bicycle licences, the Island Secretary's financial responsibilities were not exacting. Ben would go to his tiny office at Adamstown Square about twice a week. It was quite enough; and the peculiarities of the virulent Pitcairn fairweather mosquitoes, which came out in the daytime and not at night, made his office the worst place on the island - so the people said.
The Island Secretary's inward mail from a rare ship-day call was never less than eccentric. I looked through Ben's files on one occasion. A women's club in Maine wanted a Pitcairner to discuss the proposition that 'the saga of Pitcairn offers the world the way to a meaningful life'; a retired police officer from Chicago offered to command the Pitcairn land and seagoing forces for a modest supplement to his pension; and a 1970 Cadillac would be shipped freight- free to the roadless island in return for a monopoly franchise for the sale of Pitcairn Island carvings in the United States. A university in New Zealand indicated that 50 members of its Department of Linguistics wished to undertake an on-the-spot study of the Pitcairn language and its people; and a Brazilian student of anthropology sought to cohabit with any Pitcairn woman for the purpose of a thesis on the sex habits of island communities.
'Not much here to worry about,' said Ben, as he resumed his interrupted wood-carving. 'We jus' have to see that Pitkern goes on being Pitkern - for the sake of all the people.'
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