Chapter 7

Peculiarly Pitcairn


There are many things about Pitcairn that are found nowhere else on Earthat least, not in a similar framework.


Names, Customs, Fruit, and Camaraderie

A Sabbath afternoon walk on 9/4/82 revealed many of these peculiarities.

I joined Brian, Kari and Betty with her girls on a walk which we planned would lead us up to Shiplanding Point. We left Brian's house and headed up by Virgil's old housetermite eaten and nearly ready to fall downand up Bill's Ground toward Milai.

Betty said: "When I home I freezin, now I melten." She also talked about the "wasses" (worst) thing she had to do in the garden was planting sweet potatoes.

Betty gave me a lot of information about terms, the origin of names of island places, and various aspects of the Pitcairnese language.

Kari wore a light summer smock, and Betty told her: "Yous gon freeze when ya get up ha ridge"ha=the. When I asked where we were (at Virgil's house) she said "Hya bin backside o' Bill's Ground"hya=here. 

Betty told me the story behind the name "Milai." The name comes from the Polynesian word "Marea," which was the name for early worshiping grounds. There had been such a site at Milai long before the arrival of the mutineers on the Bounty.

She showed me a candlenut tree, which Pitcairners call "Doodwee." They used to take the oily nuts and string them so as to light them for a torch. The torch was called "Rama," and they used it for fishing for bait at night. The name has been retained and began to be used for the act of collecting bate at night with an electric torch (American=flashlight). "I goin' Rama" means "I'm going to get bait tonight with my torch."

Other expressions that I caught were: "one"=the article "a;" "I no letta you . . .;" and "Puttin a plun in a ripe." This last statement referred to a process that the islanders used to use to ripen green bananas. They dug a hole, placed banana leaves on the bottom, lay on it a green bunch of bananas, covered the bananas with Palm nuts from the Pandanas Palm, and perhaps covered the whole with banana leaves (Betty wasn't sure of the last step); and then they buried it all under dirt. Within two days the bananas were ripe, but their skins were still green.

One of the girls told me about the phrase "peeled eye." When someone receives a scolding he often pulls down the lower lids of his eyes with two fingers to show that he knows that he's been scolded. Or sometimes he will just say "peeled eye." It's a polite way of saying, "I recognize the fact that you scolded me."

We hiked from Milai through the Banyan trees and on up "Jim's ground" to the top. We walked out onto Ridge Rope (a ridge that rises about 200 feet above Down Rope), and rested theredrinking water and enjoying the view while I took several snapshots. Then we went back down to the road, and crossed over to Shiplanding Point. The women and children stayed under the Pandanas Palms eating freshly picked oranges while I went out onto the point to take more pictures. When I reached the end of the rock, Bounty Bay lay about 700 feet below me. I didn't go out onto the overhanging boulder as it had a crack of about 1 inch between it and the main rock. I didn't want to start a landslide, or to be a part of it, so I carefully stayed on the main ledge. It's quite a dizzying view to look strait down from the height of 700 feet.

Betty left with Darlene and Joel, before I returned to the shade trees, so I loped on ahead to catch up with her. We descended the same way we had come, except that we went by way of Ben's house. We found gladiolas in bloom and the children picked some of the flowers.

Betty pointed out the Lantana busha scrub shrub that covers a good part of the island. It's a pest, but it has beautiful flowers, tiny, delicate, growing in bunches that measure only one and a half or two inches across. The flowers change color ranging from yellow to red and sometimes pinkseveral colors often co-exist in the same bunch.

On the next day I went with the men down to Pulau to gather several "sticks" (timbers) that had been cut before. While there the men showed me a bitter orange tree. The oranges looked like any other orange, but when they gave me a slice I found it bitter, almost like a lemononly even more bitter. I sucked on the slice they gave me until I had gotten all the juice from it. As I sucked on the juice I became somewhat accustomed to it, but it had no sweetening at all.

Tom told me the story of a ship that sent men ashore to trade for fruit. "After they'd gone," he told me, "we noticed that several bitter orange trees near the landing had been stripped of their fruitthe sailors had stolen them. We had a good laugh at the thought of how disappointed they would be when they went to eat them out to sea." Tom laughed. "That'll teach 'em to steal fruit."

The fruit isn't without merit, though. It would make a good juice drink if they added water and sugar.

"It tastes almost like lemonade," Tom added. "But I think it tastes better than lemonade."

Charles gave me a piece of fruit from the Roseapple tree. It tasted like an apple, but it smelled and had the flavor of a rose. "It's good for pies," he explained.

Tom pointed out a Snow-fruit tree growing in front of Christy's house. It had a large, spined, dark yellow-green fruit that was about four inches in diameter and ten inches long. Tom said that inside of a ripe fruit is snow white and tastes similar to custard apples, but a little more bitter.

Charles, however, differed: "Take one bite and you think it's the last day of your life."

But Tom insisted that he liked it.


Processing Coconuts

One of the benefits of living on an island such as Pitcairn was the privilege of having plenty of coconuts to eat. (Martha loves coconuts.) But retrieving the meat took special toolsand native know-how.

The soft fiber of the pod is attached to the nut so well that removing it can be difficult. Tom showed me how to do it efficiently. He drove a sharp, pointed iron stake into the ground, and with a quick downward thrust he impaled the pod on the stake and twisted it to remove the husk. He made about 4 or 5 quick thrust-twists . . . and the husk was off.

Later I cleaned the shell a bit so I wouldn't get shell dust in the coconut meat. I split the shell with a quick chop of a machete (bush knife) or a hatchet and allowed the fluid to drain. I opened the shell into two halves and took it to the coconut grater.

This is a specialized tool I'd seen only here on Pitcairn. It consists of a low bench about nine or ten inches off the floor, with an iron bar sticking out of one end. This bar was curved upward, and the end of it is sawed and filed so that it presents many sharp pointsalmost like saw teeth.

I grated the coconut over the teeth by pushing the meat on the inside of the shell over the teeth surface. It fell into a bowl that I'd placed beneath the teeth of the grater. This method grated a coconut in less than 5 minutes so that it is ready for use in cooking.


The Share Out

When the bell in the square rings four times, it signals a public share out. On August 8, 1982, I had been unaware that anything was to be shared out, but I discovered that the Amco ship that had stopped yesterday gave lots of food and other things to be shared among the islanders.

Pitcairners gathered in the public square at about 8 a.m. Everyone brought a pail or bowl for each of the major items that were to be shared out. Charles dished out flour into the bowls, and Steve measured out sugar and oats. The ship had given a number of baking pans of various sizes, and these were shared out as well.

The share-out worked something like this: Carol had a list of the names of island families. Her father Charles stood by the baking pans while Carol's back was turned. As Charles pointed to one of the pans he would call out "This one!" Carol would then call out a name and then tick it off the list. One of the children would pick up the pan and take it to the person whose name had been called.

There was also meat, and spaghetti, oriental noodles and several other items. A real haul. The whole procedure took about an hour, and everyone had a wonderful time while it took place. The children ran around, or rode their bikes. They played and jostled with each other while the adults stood or sat around talking and joking with each other.


The Sugar Mill

I went over to the sugar mill behind Len's house on August 23, 1982. When I arrived about 20 people were working the mill. The mill was under a corrugated iron roof, and consisted of a machine that had two steel drums about 8-10 inches in diameter that touched each other as they rotatedsomewhat like a washer ringer.

The mill was designed to be propelled by human power. Four long poles extended about 8-10 ft. out from the machine, and people pushed the poles in a counter-clockwise direction at a walking pace. One person sat in front of the rollers and fed the stalks of sugar cane into the rollers. The cane was smashed and the juice that squished out ran into a trough that ran perpendicular to and under the rollers. This trough channeled the juice into wash buckets at the side.

Later Steve and Clarice attached a motorbike to the mill about 8 ft. from its center. Two hooked bars were bolted to the side of the bike fork, and then the hooks were nailed into the top of one of the wooden arms of the mill. Only the rear wheel touched the ground.

Clarice climbed onto the bike. She didn't sit on the seat; she stood on the left side of the bike. She held onto the throttle on the right handle-bar with her right hand, and leaned over the extension of the mill with the wooden arm running under her left armpit.

In this position Clarice rode the bike around the mill. She shifted gears and moved at a faster rate, circling the mill every 5 seconds. Olive had to move fast in order to feed cane into the mill at that speed.

After they had squeezed enough juice into the bucket, they carried it over to a nearby shed, and poured it into a large flat metal panabout 3 ft. wide and 6-7 ft. long, and 5-6 inches deep. A fire under this pan boiled the juice into a thick syrup. This was later bottled for use as a sweetener in cooking or as a syrup over pancakes.

People either stood around watching the process, or helped as they were needed. Most of them chewed on sugar cane as they moved about nearby. The tractor brought more cane, and the process continued. They worked all day, and continued the next day as well.

After we left the island we were told that the mill was replaced with a machine that connected to the power take-off of the tractor. Pitcairners will continue to make sugar for years to come, but the feeling of camaraderie will never be quite the same.


Processing Arrowroot and Manioca

Each winter Pitcairners dug up their home-grown crop of Arrowroots and Manioca roots (similar to tapioca) and processed them into a fine, snow-white powder for use as a thickener in custards, biscuits, and pilai. (Pilai is a dish made from green bananas baked in banana leaves. It has the consistency of rubber and some visitors have said it tastes like rubber too),

An Arrowroot measures about one inch thick by five to seven inches long. (I thought they looked like a cross between a shrimp and the body of a lobster.) Each family cultivated its own plants, and these required little care during the growth cycle. When harvest time arrived several families worked together digging up the plants with four-pronged garden forks, and then storing the roots from each family's plot in separate bags.

I joined an arrowroot peeling bee at Ivan's house on a Sunday night in August, 1982, after a community dinner in the court house. We sat on rough plank benches around a long make-shift table made of corrugated iron roofing laid over upright barrels. The arrowroots belonging to each family were dumped onto the table in turn, and we used knives to peel off the outer skins while we listened to music, chatter, and laughter. Other peeling sessions like ours took place in different homes throughout the village.

On the following day, the islanders set up the processing plant in the squarethe first time they had done it in this locationsince it provided the only sizable area of concrete in town. The large, home-made gratera metal drum with holes punched into it from the inside and set into a wooden housingwas turned by the power take-off of one of the tractors. Below the grater lay a long wooden crib of water in which the islanders would wash the starch out of the pulverized pulp.

Again, all the islanders worked together to process each family's portion. The peeled arrowroots were washed in a tub and then run through the grinder by hand. Other hands lifted water by the bucketful from the wooden tank, pouring it over the moving drum to carry the fresh gratings down into the crib. Still others, also using buckets, scooped up the mixture from this reservoir and poured it through wire screens to separate the pulp from the starchy water. This strained liquid was again allowed to fall into the crib.

When it appeared that all the pulp had been removed from the crib, the bucket-handlers ladled the water into large wash tubs, carefully pouring the milky liquid through cloth sacks to remove the last vestiges of the pulp. The fluid was then allowed to rest for about an hour so that the starch could settle to the bottom.

After the settling process had finished, calloused hands carried each large tub to the processor, and poured the water back into the crib for reuse in another batch. Then they scooped out the half-inch layer of starch from the bottoms of the tubs, and stored it in suitable containers.

Later each family washed the starch again, and spread it out on long flat tables, where it dried into a snow-white powder. They stored this starchy flour in air-tight tins to keep it free from moisture and insects.

Manioca roots, though much larger than arrowroots (some grow to as much as two feet long by four or five inches across), were processed in much the same way. The work at the square continued for the better part of a week, and the home work took two or three weeks more. Some islanders estimated that the total amount of processed starch amounted to about 3000 pounds, most of which would be eaten by the time another crop became ready for harvest.

Chapter 8