THE year 1848 is remembered as the first year when the 2 of May, the Queen's birthday, was kept as a holiday. The young men, with Mr. Nobbs at their head, started the celebration. The Bounty's old gun was made to do duty on the occasion in firing a salute in honor of Her Majesty, and every old musket that could be put to such a use, with as heavy charges as could be carried, was pressed into service to assist the Bounty's gun in making all the noise possible. The one bell on the island was kept ringing merrily, while, to add to the other sounds, cheer after cheer rang from the throats of the whole community, who had assembled to show loyalty to their sovereign.
The bell was a gift presented to the islanders in 1844 by the people on board the Basilisk, man-of-war, to be used for calling the worshipers to church. For years a bugle horn had been used for this purpose, and when that wore out, a musket took its place, one shot being fired as the hour for divine service approached. The musket was in use at the time of the Basilisk's visit. The beautiful, deep-toned bell, that was so thoroughly appreciated, at once displaced the discordant old musket, but never had it rung so merrily, nor so long, as when it lent its aid to celebrate the Queen's birthday.
But, with all the noise they were able to produce, they felt that something important was lacking. They had no song suitable for the great occasion. The national anthem was then unknown, and what were they to do in this dilemma? Fortunately, the question did not long remain unanswered. The loyal-hearted and enthusiastic Mr. Nobbs proved himself equal to the occasion. A song was quickly composed, and heartily, if not harmoniously, sung by the untrained voices of the islanders, to the tune of "The Girl I Left behind Me." The concluding stanza—
"We'll fire the gun, the Bounty's gun,
And set the bell a-ringing,
And give three cheers for England's Queen,
And three for Pitcairn's Island,"
was followed by a succession of ringing cheers, repeated until the hills echoed again with the sound.
The memory of that day, with all its noise and merriment, and the simple pleasures that were so thoroughly enjoyed, was kept fresh in the minds of the women, who determined not to be outdone by the men. Accordingly, they made what preparations they could for their celebration, when the day came around again.
Let me tell you first something about the dress of the women of that period. They no longer wore exclusively, Sundays as well as week days, the homely frock gathered into a band around the throat, and beneath this frock a scant petticoat such as had been worn since they had known the use of the needle. Gradually, gowns, long waisted and bone ribbed, after the patterns sent on shore by ship captains' wives, and also from time to time sent to the island by friends in England and elsewhere, took the place, for Sunday wear, of the primitive frock that had been worn so long.
Every woman's ambition was to possess a gown, and, notwithstanding the difficulties attending the cutting and fitting, each one was supplied, the more elderly women wearing a pattern differing somewhat from that which the younger women wore. Mr. Nobbs did what he could to advance the tastes of the women in regard to dress, and upon his wife devolved the dreadful task of cutting and fitting, made thus dreadful because there was no previous knowledge of the art; and several days would elapse before even one garment would be ready for the needle. Fortunately, some of the younger women were quick to learn, and, in spite of limited advantages, they were soon able to take the burden from Mrs. Nobbs' hands. Occasionally help was given them by some of the ship captains wives that visited the island. Knitting was also taught by them, but soon became a lost art.
On the Queen's birthday in question, the matrons and maidens decided to dress in their best—white gowns preferred—and spend the day as their fancy led them. One old grandmother proposed that a knot of white ribbon be worn on the left shoulder, which was done, strips of cloth supplying the place of ribbons. When the twenty-fourth day of May arrived, cloudless and beautiful, it was greeted with loud and loyal cheers from all, while the women and girls rose with the dawn to array themselves in honor of the day, and surprise their husbands and brothers, fathers and lovers, with their display, as all their preparations had been kept secret.
The men were invited to come and join in the merry making, and they obeyed with alacrity. All work was laid aside, and everyone entered heartily into the sports and games that followed. The older women attended to the babies and prepared the early supper, the materials for which had been supplied beforehand. After the plentiful repast, all were at liberty to enjoy themselves as they pleased. The daughters of the mutineers, being now themselves the grandmothers, entered with zest into the sports, and contributed not a little to the general entertainment by reviving many of the games learned from their Tahitian mothers.
They introduced into their games and sports the beating of calabashes with sticks, performed with extreme precision, to which the players kept time, moving with noiseless step and an easy grace that was pleasing to witness. This performance was called the ihara. Another native dance, the uri, was performed by Susannah, the girl of fifteen who came in the Bounty, now an old woman of seventy-four, and blind in one eye. She displayed remarkable liveliness in honor of the Queen's birthday, and her performance provoked mirth from the younger people, who had never seen the dance before. This old woman died in the September following, 1850, at the age of seventy-five, being the last survivor of those who came to the island from Tahiti sixty years before.
The merry players kept up the dancing to a late hour. What mattered if most of them danced with bare feet; that did not affect their light-heartedness and happiness. A drum and tambourine supplied all the music they wanted. The island boasted one fiddle, but no one considered himself sufficiently expert in the use of the bow to volunteer his services. At last the simple enjoyments of the day ended, only to linger in the memory as a bright and pleasing recollection.
The singing of the islanders had been improved as the years passed. When John Adams had the sole care of the young community, he did not neglect entirely the training of their voices, although the result was not all that could be wished. He succeeded in impressing on their memories one simple and plaintive air, which, slightly modified, was made to suit either common, short, or long meter. This was the only attempt at singing made by the islanders until Buffett came amongst them. The ninety-fifth psalm of Watts' Version was a great favorite among the people, and that to which John Adams' tune was oftenest sung.* Buffett soon sought to introduce at least a change of tunes into the services of the church, and, being gifted with a good voice, he managed, with the help of an accordion, to lead the people a few steps further on. A book of church music given him at Tahiti supplied a variety of tunes, but nothing more was attempted than the simple air. Nor were the tunes sung in unison, as the following incident will show.
* It was a custom with the three daughters of John Adams, even until advanced age, to meet together, and read a portion of God's word. They would unfailingly close their devotions by singing the tune their father taught them. A stanza from the second psalm, which they always sang, found in the Scottish Bibles, seems peculiarly associated with the plaintive air. It is as follows: —
"A sure decree I will declare,—
The Lord has said to me,
'Thou art my only Son; this day
Have I begotten thee.'"
On his first visit to Norfolk Island, and at his special request, the three ole ladles sang the above to the late and much-loved Bishop Selwyn, their pleasant acquiescence and unaffected, simple manners winning for them the admiration and esteem of the good bishop and his lady.
In the earlier part of 1850 a ship touched at the island on her way to California. Five gentlemen, four of whom were passengers, came on shore. The fifth was the supercargo of the vessel. The day following was Sunday, and the visitors attended service in the little church with the islanders, Mr. Nobbs officiating as pastor, while John Buffett led the singing. If the visitors expected to derive pleasure from that most delightful part of public worship, they were disappointed. The effect produced by the congregation, singing without regard to time or tune, was so discord ant and jarring that Mr. Carleton, the supercargo, declared that the sounds grating upon his ears nearly compelled him to take his hat and leave the house.
The next day, Monday, the ship was seen at a long distance from the island, but, thinking that the captain would certainly return for his passengers, no apprehensions were entertained that they would be left behind. But so it proved, and the only explanation that could be given of the captain's conduct was that the wind, which was favorable, was steadily increasing, and he did not want to lose it. He left his passengers to the hospitality of the islanders, and the kind favor of the first captain that should call going the same way, and took away with him one of the islanders who was on board when the ship sailed. This man went to California and returned by way of Sydney.
When the surprised and forsaken passengers ascertained that they had been left behind, they wisely decided to make the best of the circumstances. Mr. Carleton, who was highly gifted with musical talent, mentioned to John Buffett the matter of trying to improve the singing of the people. In reply he was requested to undertake the task. This he at first declined, saying that he would not have the time he should require to produce anything like a satisfactory result, and so would rather not attempt it. However, as no opportunity came within the week for him to leave the island, he finally yielded to Buffett's earnest and oft-repeated requests, and consented to make a beginning.
He invited all who were willing to come, to meet every evening at one of the houses, and from among them he chose such as seemed to possess some musical ability. These he instructed particularly, that they might be able to carry forward the work. The pleasing results produced by harmony of sounds served to awaken in the hearts of the learners such eagerness and anxiety to do their best as to greatly encourage their teacher in his efforts. With the determination to succeed, it was not very surprising that in the short space of one week they accomplished a result beyond their highest hopes, and when Mr. Carleton took his departure the second week after, it was in full confidence that the important work which had so well begun, would not be left to stagnate. Nor was he mistaken. An old man used to tell how he was affected by the first sounds of harmony that he heard. He said: "The first tune I listened to was Devizes. Buffett was singing the air, and Mr. Carleton the bass. I stood by open mouthed, drinking in the sweet sounds, and thinking it must be like heaven."
When Mr. Carleton left the island, he was accompanied by Mr. Brodie, one of the four passengers, who pleaded that the captain should take him, instead of any of the others, as there were accommodations on the ship for only two. This gentlemen afterward wrote an interesting account of the island, which he published. Baron de Thierry, one of the remaining three, continued the work begun by Mr. Carleton. He attempted to teach drawing also, but without success, possibly because the fingers of his pupils, having from earliest childhood been trained to use the hoe and to manage the wheelbarrow, could not be made to hold and carry the pencil. The baron one night when Mr. Carleton was engaged in teaching his singing class, caused the singing to give place to a hearty burst of merriment. One of the pupils, with her strong, clear voice, was ascending the scale, and as she arose to the highest notes without any apparent effort, enunciating every syllable clearly and distinctly, the baron called out: "Stop, stop. No one but my daughter is able to do it like that."
The enforced stay of the five gentlemen on Pitcairn Island was productive of one of the best and most satisfactory results, for all the subsequent pleasure and delight that the people, both of Pitcairn Island, and Norfolk Island, derive from music, instrumental as well as vocal, had their origin in those early lessons taught by Mr. Carleton. The memory of this man is revered and loved among the people, who owe to him so much of the pleasure they receive from this high and ennobling art.