IN EARLY November 1967, Sir Arthur and Lady Porritt set off from London for New Zealand, writes Kenneth Bain. They sailed on the Shaw Savill passenger-cargo liner Ceramic - across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and out into the vast South Pacific. It was not a native son's conventional homeward journey.
With the ship's progress a leisurely 14 knots, Porritt had ample time to contemplate his metamorphosis from that of surgeon to two monarchs and the royal household in London for 21 years to that of Governor-General of the Dominion of New Zealand. At 67, new fields beckoned; and his days of distinguished medical leadership and practice seemed over. Well not quite, as things turned out, in isolated mid-ocean.
Midway across that 15-day antipodean maritime journey lay the lonely island of Pitcairn, refuge of Fletcher Christian's Bounty mutineers and their descendants since 1790, and Britain's smallest populated colony. It was the practice in those days for the Shaw Savill vessels to divert a little from their Great Circle route to New Zealand and stand off Pitcairn, drifting for two hours or so in unanchorable mid-ocean, if weather and sea permitted. Then the Pitcairners would come out in their long-boats, clamber up the ladder of the swaying ship, sell their curios and carvings to the passengers, barter for supplies with the crew, and collect the cargo and mail for the island. There was no time for the passengers to attempt to get ashore and often it was far too hazardous. But Porritt did so.
The circumstances were exceptional and unexpected. As the ship approached the island, the captain received an urgent request for medical help. There was no resident doctor; only a qualified nurse who was the wife of the Seventh Day Adventist pastor from New Zealand. She had on her hands a serious and worsening case of pneumonia. The patient was the wife of the Government Adviser.
'I'll go,' Porritt said and did so, a reluctant captain notwithstanding. He climbed down the swaying ship's ladder, jumped on to a bucking Pitcairn long-boat, thence through two miles of turbulent sea to the tiny Bounty Bay. He trudged up the steep, glutinous mud-track to the square in the township of Adamstown and to a greatly relieved island nurse. Porritt stayed with his patient for two hours, before he was satisfied that he could return to the ship.
Safely back on board, Porritt did not give it a second thought. For him, Governor-General designate or not, medical response to an emergency on a remote South Pacific island was essentially no different from attendance on the sovereign in London.
'Mercy Mission by Vice-Regal Sea Doctor', proclaimed the Fiji Times, suitably impressed. So were all of the 100 awe-struck islanders. And so indeed was I, as I received the Pitcairn report in the British South Pacific Office in Fiji. A life had undoubtedly been saved.
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