Greetings from Pitcairn Island!

Leaf paintings from the Pitcairn Islands

Here at the Phillips Library we can boast a patron audience of a truly global nature.  Given the unique history of our founding institutions, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem, we have materials and collections from all corners of the world.  This can engender some fascinating requests made through our various reference outlets.  Recently, we received a request from a patron from the remote island of Pitcairn in the South Pacific. 

From "The Pitcairners" by Robert Nicolson

From "The Pitcairners" by Robert Nicolson

In answering the patron’s question, I came across a small collection of papers belonging to Charles Hasket Derby.  The box primarily contains correspondence between Derby and Ivan Christian, a native of Pitcairn Island, in which they discuss trade between Pitcairn and America.  While flipping through the papers I came across a relatively unassuming PEM envelope.  In the envelope I discovered the following five dried painted leaves, in excellent condition.

From MH 77 Charles Hasket Derby Papers, 1919, 1950-1951

Detail of Pitcairn Island leaf paintings

Pitcairn Island is best known for its inauspicious history as the landing place for the mutineers from the ship Bounty in April 1789.  Fletcher Christian, first mate to Captain William Bligh, spearheaded the mutiny.  He and seventeen other sympathizers sent Bligh and the rest of the crew on a seemingly doomed trip in a small boat with no provisions.  Bligh miraculously made landfall after 95 days.  Needing to flee the now irate British navy, Christian abandoned his safe haven of Tahiti, with several natives in tow, and wound up in the remote island of Pitcairn, the site of the original mutiny.

From MH77 Charles Hasket Derby Papers, 1919, 1950-1951

Detail of Pitcairn Island leaf paintings

Though Pitcairn’s population rarely topped 200 in its known history, the islanders were able to support themselves through farming, fishing, and the occasional trade with whaling vessels.  In addition to fruits, islanders frequently traded baskets, wooden carvings, and stamps in the twentieth century.  A newspaper clipping from the Sunday Bulletin in Philadelphia, printed on March 11, 1950, mentions correspondence between George R. Beck and E. Christian which included

“…a dried leaf, hand-painted with flowers and the words ‘Pitcairn Island’…. The pressed leaf was unexplained, but Beck took it to be a bookmarker offered as a goodwill gesture.”

Two months later, Ivan Christian writes Charles Hasket Derby,

Just a few lines to let you know that I am sending to you a parcel containing three baskets, two stamps, six beads, 28 book marks.  I hope you receive them in good condition.

While I cannot be certain that the painted leaves in this collection are from this shipment, nor if they were originally intended as bookmarks, it seems appropriate that they have found their final resting place, over 6,000 miles away, in a library.

From MH77, the Charles Hasket Derby papers, 1919, 1950-1951

Detail of Pitcairn Island leaf painting

For more information on MH 77 or on any of our other materials related to the Pitcairn Islands,  please consult PHILCAT.

2 thoughts on “Greetings from Pitcairn Island!

  1. I have a wood carving of a shark,with natural teeth. The carving is signed on back ,Ivan Christian Pitcairn Island 1980 .

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