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Pitcairn and Bering: A Tale of Two Islands
Bill Tuttle, January 2003
The sea captains and sailors, naturalists, and cartographers who explored the Pacific Ocean left their indelible marks in the annals of world discovery. Motivated by a thirst for knowledge, dreams of conquest, or desire for wealth, they greatly enlarged our knowledge of nature and the physical world, and their exploits, triumphs, and tragedies resonate even today.
Two remote islands - Pitcairn in the south and Bering in the north - occupy unique places in the chronicle of the Pacific, one for its role in a world-famous insurrection, the other because it laid the foundation for studying the geography and wildlife of the North Pacific. Zegrahm passengers will relive the adventures when they land on each island during separate voyages this year.
Tiny Pitcairn Island is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. The story of Pitcairn's founders has fired the imagination of the world for more than two hundred years, resulting in novels and films. While the name Pitcairn may evoke only incomprehension, the mutiny on the Bounty is instantly recognized.
On 28 April 1789 a group of sailors led by Fletcher Christian seized control of HMS Bounty. Seeking to escape the inevitable British punishment, Christian and eight mutineers, along with 12 women (whom they took as wives) and six men from Tahiti, settled Pitcairn, a volcanic island first sighted in 1767. Every Eden has its serpents, however, and all the Tahitian men and nearly all the mutineers died when the Tahitians revolted. Other mutineers died from alcohol, internecine violence, and disease until only John Adams remained. Under his stewardship, peace returned, and the surviving 10 women and 23 children persevered. Today, Pitcairn remains isolated and rarely visited, inhabited by roughly 60 direct descendants of the Bounty mutineers. (To read more on the South Pacific, click here.)
More than 60 years earlier, and thousands of miles north of Pitcairn, Danish sea captain Vitus Bering undertook two voyages of geopolitical and scientific significance. Tsar Peter the Great commissioned Bering to explore the Siberian Far East and Alaska, to determine if Asia and America were separate continents, and to map the American west coast. During his explorations Bering discovered the southern route around Kamchatka; founded the town of Petropavlosk; built two ships, the St. Peter and St. Paul; and sighted the Alaskan mainland.
Returning to Russia, the St. Peter wrecked on an uninhabited island Bering. He, along with almost half the crew, died of scurvy and was interred on the island. Although Bering perished, his explorations had a lasting and profound impact on the exploration and settlement of the Russian Far East and the west coast of North America - the sea, strait, and island named for him reflecting his importance.