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Author Brandon Presser on the Pacific’s Most Remote and Infamous Islands

By Mae Hamilton

Jun 7, 2022

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Today, Pitcairn is home to about 50 people—many of them descendants of mutineers and their Tahitian wives.

Today, Pitcairn is home to about 50 people—many of them descendants of mutineers and their Tahitian wives.

All about the ill-fated voyage of the HMS “Bounty,” how Presser spent six weeks on the Pitcairn Islands, and the finer points of free tropical fruit.

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Buy nowThe Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania, and Mutiny in the South Pacific, $28, Bookshop.org

To call The Far Land author Brandon Presser well-traveled is almost an understatement—the journalist and Tour Group TV host has visited over 130 countries and written more than 50 books about travel. Although he’s spent months in places like Thailand, Japan, and Iceland, there’s one destination that has always intrigued him: the mindblowingly remote and troubled Pitcairn Islands, which made headlines in the early 2000s for a long history of sexual abuse and child molestation. In 2018, he boarded a freighter bound for the remote British Overseas Territory and spent six weeks there. 

In the winter of 1787, the HMS Bounty, helmed by Captain William Bligh, left England for Tahiti in search of breadfruit saplings. After an arduous 10-month journey, the Bounty arrived in the South Pacific in October 1788, where the crew would remain for five months. When it came time to depart, the sailors were naturally reluctant to leave the tropical paradise, and 26 days after they set sail from Tahiti, 25 crew members—led by acting-lieutenant Fletcher Christian—mutinied. After setting Bligh and officers who were still loyal to him adrift in a small boat mid-Pacific, the mutineers and about a dozen Tahitian women settled on the island of Pitcairn, located some 1,000 miles from Tahiti—disaster would soon follow. (Miraculously, Bligh survived only to be set on yet another breadfruit quest upon his return to England.) And though nearly seven generations have passed since tragedy befell the mutineers, a pall of mystery and misfortune still plagues the island. 

The tale of the Bounty and its rebellious crew has become the stuff of legend and was even immortalized in two popular Hollywood productions: in the 1935 film, which saw Clark Gable playing Christian, and in the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty, this time with Marlon Brando in the starring role. In The Far Land, Presser effortlessly weaves together the Bounty’s history with his own modern-day expedition to the islands, by alternating between timelines in each chapter. Through his modern retelling and examination of the Bounty’s history, Presser creates a temporal bridge that spans hundreds of years and masterfully connects the island’s violent past to its tumultuous present. 

Travel journalist and author Brandon Presser spent six weeks on Pitcairn.

What is it about the age of exploration that intrigues you? How did you even get into this subject?

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I’ve been working as a travel writer for 15 years and the destinations that really piqued my interest always have a unique cultural element. For me it’s not really about going to a far recess of the Earth that’s desolate just for the sake of having said that I’ve been there. I really value cultural interaction, meeting people from other places, and understanding what daily life is like in a place. How are we all on this planet together but living such different lives? 

The age of exploration really exacerbates that notion. These were people who were living completely disconnected from the other parts of the world at a time when we weren’t globalized, at a time when our cultures weren’t informing each other, when we didn’t have the internet and social media. So, you had this sort of Galápagos syndrome where everyone was creating religion, culture, customs, completely on their own. Dipping into these isolated worlds is so fascinating and compelling to me. 

What were some things that you were prepared for on Pitcairn and what were the things that were totally unexpected?

The entire trip was about five or six weeks, which included travel to the islands and back again. It was rough because the transportation is so limited, and I think I booked my spot on the freighter 11 months in advance. I had a whole year to get excited about it. Going there I was like, “Yeah! I’m throwing up in a bucket. This is all part of the journey.” I just had so much pent-up excitement about visiting my version of what other people think of the end of the world like Antarctica. For me, this was my end-of-the-world trip. 

I thought that the Pitcairners would be more excited that I was there than they were. I wasn’t going with a book in mind. I wasn’t going as a hard-nosed journalist trying to scoop the island. That’s not really my vibe, but a lot of people were very cordial and then sort of shied away from me. They would be like, “Oh, we should go fishing” and then I wouldn’t be able to find them for five days. This is an island the size of Central Park in New York City. That wasn’t necessarily disappointing, it was just surprising. But as I kind of fathomed it a little bit more, with their perspective on how the news and media has treated the island over the last 25 years, I understood that skittishness. 

Since the islands' population is so small, Pitcairn's community is extremely tight knit.

What was the food like?

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I never felt healthier than I did on Pitcairn. There’s food growing on every tree. Fresh fish whenever you want to go fishing. It’s so prevalent that it’s banal to the locals. So, the freighter brings in canned chicken and canned meats, and eggs and all of these things that you would find in a survivalist’s basement because they’re so sick of the fresh fruit. But that was something that really struck me. I actually came home back to Manhattan and before I left, I would never buy fancy fruit at Whole Foods because you can imagine how expensive papaya is at the Tribeca Whole Foods. But when I got back, I was like, this is a worthy investment in my health because I was feeling great. I was eating papaya. I’d cut up a whole papaya, squeeze a lime over it, and I was eating that every day for months. 

That sounds like heaven. I remember there’s a part in the book where a girl is talking about how she visited New Zealand and refused to buy a banana because it wouldn’t taste right. It made me think like, what have I been missing out on my whole life?

Exactly. That was Isabelle. She bites into a banana and she’s like, “I haven’t had fruit in months!” And I asked her, “Why? You can get them everywhere.” She had been in New Zealand with her family for months and had just returned to the island. She said, “Oh, because in other places you have to pay for fruit.” By the end of that scene with Isabel, I’m like “Eh, only chumps would buy fruit.” I became a convert.

Pitcairn Island is about the size of New York City's Central Park.

When people finish your book, what do you hope they take away from it?

I kind of used the book to create a bit of a bait and switch. It presents itself as a swashbuckling adventure with pirates and nautical history. But my goal was to fool you and actually create something different that I wanted everyone to consume. For example, the Tahitian women have never been given their place in the narrative in any retelling in the Bounty history before. They’re so marginalized and so infantilized because they spoke broken English. But they were incredibly intelligent women, and my goal was to give them their rightful place in the narrative. 

But the most compelling thing for me overall was all of the characters. I want you to feel confused by everyone because humans are confusing and everyone is motivated by their own interests. It’s very Game of Thrones in that regard, and I think that was another reason why the history was so compelling to me because it’s one of the most human stories I’ve ever come across. 

>>Next: Selema Masekela on the True African Origins of Surfing

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