Robert Pitcairn

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Pitcairn Island

Robert Pitcairn
(1752-1770)
Born in Burntisland on 6 May 1752
Discovered Pitcairn Island in 1767
 Lost at sea at the age of 17

Most people have heard of Pitcairn Island, because of its role as a haven for mutineers from HMS Bounty who settled there in 1790. But few have heard of Robert Pitcairn, who discovered the island in 1767 and for whom it is named. (Strictly speaking, the discovery was actually the first known European sighting of the island.)

Pitcairn Island lies in the South Pacific, midway between New Zealand and South America. It (together with the uninhabited Oeno, Henderson and Ducie Islands) is a British dependent territory, ruled by a Governor based in Wellington, New Zealand. Its current population of just under 50 leads a fragile existence based on subsistence farming and fishing, supplemented by income from the sale of postage stamps, handicrafts and honey.

Robert Pitcairn was born in Burntisland, Fife, on 6 May 1752. He was the son of John Pitcairn and his wife, Elizabeth Dalrymple, and the grandson of David Pitcairn, Minister of Dysart Parish Church for 49 years. John Pitcairn and his family were comfortably off and well connected socially. They may have maintained homes in both Burntisland and Edinburgh, a common practice with the upper classes of the day. At least two of John Pitcairn's children were born during the period they lived in Burntisland - Robert and his sister, Katharine, who was born in 1750. Katharine went on to marry Charles Cochrane, a son of Lord Dundonald.

The family had several military connections, the most notable of which was John Pitcairn's role as Major in the British Marines in the American Revolutionary War. This has recently been recognised, and a plaque in his memory unveiled at Dysart. (Please click here for the story.)

Young Robert opted for a career in the Royal Navy, and served initially on HMS Emerald. In 1766, as a 14 year old midshipman, he joined the crew of HMS Swallow under the command of Captain Philip Carteret on a round the world voyage. The Swallow lost contact with her companion ship, the HMS Dolphin, in the South Pacific, but pressed on, looking for signs of land.

The Swallow's log for 2 July 1767 records Robert Pitcairn's sighting and discovery: "It is so high that we saw it at a distance of more than fifteen leagues, and it having been discovered by a young gentleman, son to Major Pitcairn of the marines, we called it Pitcairn's Island."

However, as the weather was stormy, a landing was not attempted at that time.

At the age of 15, Robert would have been immensely proud to have an island named after him. But sadly he would never know how famous his island was to become some 40 years later, when it was discovered to have been the secret refuge of nine of the Bounty mutineers.

Two and a half years after his discovery of Pitcairn Island, Midshipman Robert Pitcairn was a member of the crew of HMS Aurora. On 29 December 1769, she set sail from the Cape of Good Hope on a voyage to India on behalf of the East India Company. Neither the ship nor her crew were ever seen again. It was assumed that the ship was overwhelmed in the Indian Ocean by storm or fire, and that the crew, including 17 year old Robert Pitcairn, perished.

I am grateful to Mark Winthrop for information from his excellent Henderson Island Website; to Paul Lareau for the photograph; and to John Burnett for alerting me to the Pitcairn connection.

Iain Sommerville 2003

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