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The Far Land - 200 years of murder, mania and mutiny in the South Pacific by Brandon Presser

When travel writer Brandon Presser received a phone call from his editor asking if he would like to venture to remote Pitcairn Island, he (scarcely) hesitated. The very mention of the name Pitcairn conjures up images of swashbuckling pirates, palm-fringed shores and the hardy descendents of steel-eyed mariners who overturned an oppressive leader standing in the way of their pursuit of a tropical idyll. It’s the stuff of movies – and just like the movies – the reality falls well short of the fantasy.

The story of the mutiny on the Bounty has been told and retold; perhaps most famously in the 1962 film starring Marlon Brando which was drawn from the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Nordhoff and Hall’s books had previously inspired the 1935 version of the film, and their own story is as fascinating as their Bounty trilogy, which includes Mutiny on the Bounty. In 2018 Hall, a decorated soldier turned war correspondent, found a copy of William Bligh’s logbook in a London antique shop. Bligh was, of course, the reviled captain of the Bounty. And Hall became so inspired by his descriptions of Tahiti that he persuaded his friend and former fellow prisoner of war, Charles Nordhoff, to join him in Tahiti where the pair embarked on their writing careers.

Hall married a Tahitian woman and spawned a dynasty of Oscar-winning film associates, which includes his grand-daughter, Kate, who reached out to Presser while he was in Tahiti. I wanted more of their story and suspect that this glimpse will lead me to a more in-depth immersion into that family’s legendary lives. I am particularly fascinated by the description Presser offers of Hall, who really was a swashbuckling hero, but also a visionary whose written work seemed to be motivated by other-worldly influences. For example, he wrote a book of poetry under the pseudonym of an 11-year-old girl after a vivid dream which revealed the poems to him in full.

Anyway, I digress. Perhaps my motivation is more to focus on the positive, for this is not a book which offers many glimpses of the paradise the mutineers sought when they overthrew their despotic leader. Instead, motley crew that they were, the mariners washed up on uninhabited Pitcairn, the little-known speck of Pacific rock they sought, and found ominous signs of previous inhabitation; a mystery which still hangs over their descendants like a pall.

The mutineers set about about creating paradise on their verdant isle, but in-fighting, alcoholism, jealousy and a difference in racial attitudes set the scene for a sequel which has more in common with Lord of the Flies, than a return to the Garden of Eden. Violence beget violence until all but one of the original mutineers was left standing: the mysterious John Adams – coincidently a name which did not appear on the ship’s original register.

From this series of violent uprisings on which it was founded, it would not be expected that a peaceful and harmonious society would emerge; and indeed that has proven to be true.

The dark side of Pitcairn still permeates the very fabric of the island and this was no more apparent than when a series of high profile cases of sexual misconduct were brought against prominent island men, including several still living. The 2000 criminal probe, dubbed Operation Unique resulted in interviews with dozens of young women who had grown up on the island and had been subject to sexual abuse. Perhaps it was this most recent stain on the island’s reputation which led to the residents (there are 46) wanting to sanitise their tawdry past and replace that with a vision of the island as a last frontier tourist destination. I suspect Brandon Presser’s book will put paid to that notion.

As the actor Tom Hanks says of The Far Land: “What a book, what a book, what a book!”

Reviewer: Peta Stavelli

Allen and Unwin

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