Just 50 People Live on Pitcairn Island, One of the Remotest Places on Earth

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
Pitcairn Island coastline
The coastline of Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific looks picture-perfect. Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

The story seems quite implausible. In 1789, several sailors led by Fletcher Christian seized control of the HMS Bounty, then set Capt. William Bligh and his supporters adrift in the South Pacific sea. (The story was told in the movies "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "The Bounty.") Fearing prosecution if they settled in a local community, the British mutineers spent several months scoping out remote locales, picking up 19 Tahitian companions along the way. Eventually, the group decided to make their new home on a deserted volcanic island they'd discovered some 1,350 miles (2,170 kilometers) southeast of Tahiti. Today, against all odds, their descendants still live on that same subtropical island, Pitcairn.

Pitcairn is part of the four Pitcairn Islands, a British Overseas Territory considered one of the world's most remote inhabited islands. The other islands in the group, all uninhabited, are Ducie, Henderson and Oeno. Pitcairn is small — just 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) long and 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) wide. It's also rugged, with steep cliffs and no easy way for boats to dock. In fact, visiting ships still drop anchor several hundred yards from Bounty Bay, then are met by residents steering longboats.

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Despite being settled for more than 200 years, Pitcairn's population hasn't changed much. While it reached a peak of 233 in 1937, today the island is home to just 50 or so residents, not many more than when the mutineers first arrived.

Pitcairn Island location
This map shows the location of Pitcairn Island, 1,350 miles southeast of Tahiti (French Polynesia).
Encyclopaedia Britannica/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

With limited acreage and few residents, amenities on the island are minimal. There's a general store, health clinic, post office, museum, library, treasury and tourism center, plus Pulau School, which educates kids through primary school. (Currently, it has just three students.) After that, children typically receive their higher education at boarding school in New Zealand.

Since there's no airport on the island, residents are linked to the outside world mainly via a passenger/cargo ship, the MV Silver Supporter, that travels between French Polynesia and Pitcairn on a limited basis. The trip requires spending at least two nights at sea and there are just 12 visitor berths. The ship comes about once a month.

Interestingly, most native Pitkerners are Seventh-Day Adventists. Originally followers of the Church of England, the mutineers' religion, the group was converted in 1887 by an Adventist missionary and the only church on the island is a Seventh-day Adventist church.

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How Pitkerners Make a Living

In the early days, the settlers on Pitcairn were self-sufficient, growing crops, constructing homes and crafting clothing. After American whalers discovered the island in 1808, ships began regularly stopping in, including English vessels that brought over books and various supplies. In 1898, Britain assumed control of the island and began providing additional assistance.

pubic hall, anchor
Pitcairn's public hall stands behind the anchor of the ship HMS Bounty, the vessel which brought Fletcher Christian and the rest to this island.
Michael Dunning/Getty Images

By 1937, after searching for ways the island could become more self-sufficient, the British government landed on the idea of postage stamps. At that time, the island had no post office and had been using New Zealand stamps. Three years later, in 1940, the Pitcairn Islands opened its first post office. Its initial set of stamps were an immediate hit, quickly becoming popular with philatelists around the globe. Soon stamps were the island's largest source of revenue. However, revenue declined at the end of the 20th century with the general decline in letter writing and stamp collecting.

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Today, while stamps are still available, the Pitkerners power their nano-economy by selling a well-regarded island honey, known for its rich, fruity flavor, as well as handmade crafts such as wood carvings, jewelry, clothing, soap and stationery. Its main private revenue generator, and one to which it is currently devoting much effort, is tourism.

In 2015, the British government established a marine reserve around the islands. At 324,000 square miles (834,000 square kilometers), it's the largest in the world. A few years later, in a bid to foster astro-tourism, Pitcairn applied to be named an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. It received this designation from the International Dark Sky Association in 2019, the only island group in the world to carry it. Pitcairn is also marketing itself to adventure travelers in search of unique, hard-to-access destinations and to cruise ship travelers.

Visitors can sign up to go whale-watching or fishing on one of the island's famous longboats. You can check out the grave of John Adams, one of the original mutineers, then swim in a sea-carved tidal pool. There's a guided tour down a 700-foot (231-meter) cliff, which features ancient Polynesian petroglyphs at the bottom, evidence of earlier inhabitants. And, if you're a certified scuba diver, you can explore the ruins of the HMS Bounty, which the mutineers sank after arriving to avoid being discovered by the British. (Wisely, they did first strip it of all useful items.) You can also simply wander around the island to take in the incredible views. Everything is well signed, and maps are available.

If Pitcairn's marketing efforts are successful, there may be one potential problem: lodging. There are no hotels or resorts on Pitcairn Island, although the tourism department helps arrange accommodations with local families. There is also a smattering of private homes and units for rent.

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Searching for New Residents

Living on a remote tropical island may sound very enticing. But as we said earlier, Pitcairn's population has been decreasing since the end of World War II, with scores of young people opting to live elsewhere. Immigration, Pitkerners know, is key to their future.

To encourage new residents, the island is working to make immigration less onerous. It's now easier to obtain land for a home, for example, as well as subsidized medical treatment. Same-sex marriages are welcome. Yet despite these changes, the government warns you shouldn't move here on a whim. For life on such a remote island can be challenging, both physically and mentally.

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Since there are so few people and so little contact with the outside world, islanders are expected to be able to perform a variety of tasks and pitch in as necessary. And while internet and cell service are available, the speeds and service quality aren't on par with what you'll find in developed and less insolated countries. There is only one television channel, too, although they're working on increasing coverage. As far as jobs, there may be a limited number of government jobs available, but many people support themselves through selling items to tourists or hosting them in their homes.

The government website warns that life on Pitcairn island is not for everyone. "It is not a place to get rich. The island's isolation and small size at times make life on Pitcairn physically demanding and emotionally challenging." Still, the website says, life there is diverse, both quiet and vibrant, and certainly never dull — probably the same conditions experienced by Fletcher Christian and crew more than 200 years earlier.

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