What happens on Bounty Day?
On Bounty Day morning, islanders dressed in period costume gather at Kingston Pier. Once assembled, a group of around eight islanders board a wooden rowboat. These people are specifically charged with re-enacting the landing of the Pitcairners on the island. The rowboat, which flies the Union Jack, is rowed a short distance from the pier and then, upon a signal, rowed back to the pier. The passengers disembark and are welcomed by two people playing the historical characters of Mr and Mrs Stewart, who were the caretakers of the Island when the Pitcairners arrived in 1856. Another character, the ship’s doctor, (played by Bubby Evans in A Modern Mutiny) wanders about and plies people with an early morning dose of strong alcohol.
Once all have disembarked, the procession walks to the island’s war memorial (cenotaph) to pay respects to the island’s war dead. Handmade wreaths are placed on the monument and then the group sings God Save the Queen. From there they move to the island’s cemetery and congregate around the white picket fence at its entrance to sing popular Norfolk hymns such as The Sweet Bye and Bye, Let the Lower Lights be Burning, Pitcairn Anthem, the John Adams Prayer and The Lord’s Prayer. Meanwhile, children take more of the handmade wreaths down to the graves of notable ancestors and place them next to the headstones. The ancestors chosen for this honour are predominantly the matriarchs and patriarchs among the first Pitcairn settlers to Norfolk Island, but others also take the opportunity to pay their respects to more recently passed or otherwise notable family members.
After the cemetery visit, the marchers usually make their way up to Government House for refreshments and judgement of the costumes, with a prize to the best-dressed family. After this, the march ends and people make their way to the family feast which is set up inside the walls of the old prison compound. Each family has its own table covered in all of the food that Norfolk has to offer: roasted meats such as pork, turkey, chicken, whole trumpeter (fish), and traditional island dishes such as Tahitian-style fish mudda, pilahai, aena, hihi pies, lemon piesand corn bread. Once the feast is over, people will depart to baeliap (belly-up – rest), only to re-emerge in the evening for a night of dancing at the annual Bounty Ball.
A bit of history...
For Norfolk Islanders, commemorating their ancestors’ settlement is also a matter of remembering where they came from, Pitcairn Island, and even further back to the famous mutiny on the Bounty. Pitcairn Island, the origin island of Norfolk Islanders, has its own fascinating story. Pitcairn was settled in 1790 by a contingent of the Bounty mutineers. They were fleeing British retribution and stumbled on the Island which had been mischarted, which made it the ideal hideout. With them they brought women and men from a number of Polynesian islands, primarily Tahiti. Pitcairn was rediscovered in 1808 and by the 1850s, its population had grown so much that the British made plans to relocate the whole island’s community to the larger and less remote Norfolk Island.
The group of 194 persons who were resettled from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island in 1856 were the families formed in the unions of the mutineers and Polynesian women. The surnames Christian, Quintal, Adams, McCoy and Young are all of mutineer origin. Alongside these families were those of the three Englishmen – Nobbs, Buffett and Evans – who married into the mutineers’ families on Pitcairn.
The surnames Christian, Quintal, Adams, McCoy and Young are all of mutineer origin.
The distinctions between Bounty and English families were once important. Initially, only the male descendants of the mutineers marched in Bounty Day, but later on (after the 1950s) they were joined by the women of the community as well as the Nobbs, Buffett and Evans families. Prior to 1956, Bounty Day marchers wore sailors’ uniforms and played the role of the Bounty crew, who marched in formation and ‘fired’ the Bounty cannon through the use of firecrackers.
The 1956 centenary marked a significant move away from this maritime theme and toward a historical re-enactment of the Pitcairners’ first day on Norfolk. Marie Bailey, a Norfolk Island elder who devoted her life to lifting the profile of Norfolk Island culture, was one of the people instrumental in shifting the focus of Bounty Day. She helped to adapt the Bounty Day celebration from a minor, intermittently observed parade, into the mass re-enactment that we see today, complete with period costumes and historical characters.
Ancestry on Display
Bounty Day is explicitly about commemorating the settlement of the Pitcairners on Norfolk Island, but it is also about celebrating. Ancestry is a somewhat abstract concept and is not always something that is visible in everyday life, however by marching in the steps of their ancestors, Norfolk Islanders make their family histories apparent to everyone who participates or watches the march. There are restrictions on participation in the Bounty Day re-enactment and only those descended from the Pitcairn settlers or married to descendants are generally encouraged to march. Marching in Bounty Day is therefore a strong display of who in the Norfolk community is descended from the original Pitcairn settlers.
Recognising a shared history is an important means of creating shared identity. However, people rarely think of their history in the same way it is written in history books. The past is often remembered because of the way that it helps to explain and make sense of the present day. Bounty Day is an important celebration for Norfolk Islanders because it helps them make sense of who they are, where they came from, and how they came to be on Norfolk Island. It is for this reason that Bounty Day is a powerful statement of unity, roots, and belonging.