THE time was now drawing near when an important change was to take place in the history of the Pitcairn islanders. Ever since it had been arranged that the island should be visited yearly by a British ship of war, its arrival was the looked-for event of each year. When Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby was commander in chief on the Pacific station, an officer on board one of Her Majesty’s ships, while on a visit to the island, proposed that the women send a request to the admiral to pay them a visit. A letter was written forthwith, and signed by several of the island matrons and maidens. The admiral was pleased to respond to the letter in person, and arrived at the island in August, 1852, in his flagship, the Portland. His coming was greeted by the people with every demonstration of joy, which reached its height when, gathered beneath a grove of orange trees, they listened to the band that the admiral had kindly ordered ashore, and enjoyed such delicious strains of music as they never had dreamed of. From the admiral down to the humblest seaman, everybody on board the Portland showed kindness to the islanders, so much so that the visits of the Portland were considered by the people as comprising the golden period in their island’s history. The admiral was accompanied by two of his sons, the younger of whom, Mr. Fortescue Moresby, by his pleasant, cheerful ways and winning manners, endeared himself greatly to the hearts of the islanders.
Among the earliest subjects that engaged Admiral Moresby’s attention was the position of Mr. Nobbs as an unordained pastor of the people, and he took on himself the responsibility of sending that gentleman to England, with a letter of recommendation to the bishop of London, requesting him to receive Mr. Nobbs as a candidate for ordination, adding that his faithful services to the people of his adopted home, and the good that he had been the means of accomplishing might be considered in place of whatever deficiency there was in his theological training.
When the Portland left Pitcairn Island, Mr. Nobbs left too, accompanied by one of his daughters, Miss Jane Nobbs, who went as far as Valparaiso, where her brother Reuben was. Here she was received by a very worthy family, who showed her every consideration and kindness. Before Mr. Nobbs could consent to leave his flock, it was arranged that the Portland’s chaplain, Mr. Holman, should remain behind and supply the place of the absent pastor. A lad from the Portland also remained with Mr. Holman. The people on the whole regarded it as a very satisfactory arrangement, although no one could quite fill the place Mr. Nobbs had so long and so ably filled.
Arriving at Valparaiso, Mr. Nobbs took passage on the steamer Orinoco to England, which place he safely reached, and was duly ordained. The late Prince Consort honored him with an interview, and he had also a glimpse of the Queen. Indeed, Her Majesty, in passing, extended to him her royal hand, which he warmly grasped, and heartily shook, after which she quietly, and without a word, passed on. This little incident was often recalled by the worthy man, and always with some degree of amusement at the possible mistake he made at the time. In Mr. Nobbs’ intetview with his Royal Highness, the Prince showed much kindly interest in his far-distant home, and made many inquiries respecting his labors there. A salary of £50 a year was granted him, and, had there been proof that Mr. Nobbs had indeed been promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the naval service, another fifty would have been added. His stay in England was too short to admit of his accepting many of the numerous invitations given him by persons of rank and wealth, but in one particular case he never ceased to regret that circumstances made it impossible for him to attend. This was an invitation to call on Messrs. Wilson and Cook, gentlemen who had sent large gifts of useful household articles to Pitcairn Island a short time before. In May, 1853, Mr. Nobbs reached home again, the whole time of his absence not extending over nine months.
One very sad and fatal accident had happened during his absence. When the Portland reached Valparaiso, Admiral Moresby sent the Virago on to Pitcairn Island, that the people might see a steamship for the first time. She came in the month of January, near its close. On the day that she was to leave, almost everybody was on board, and the vessel had steamed around the little island, much to the wonder and delight of the people. It was toward the close of the day, and when the people were about to return on shore, that a farewell salute from the Bounty’s gun was to be fired. Among those who were attending to the gun was the magistrate, Matthew McCoy. The ramrod used on the occasion was an old, smoothly-planed rafter made from the wood of the cocoanut tree, very hard, and which had been used in building. Unknown to those in attendance was a nail in the rafter. This, coming in contact with the gun, already heated by the sun, caused the powder to ignite before all was ready. In an instant the gun was discharged, and the men attending it were scattered in all directions, several feet from the spot.
The untimely discharge soon brought a small crowd of the people left on shore to the scene of the accident, and, as the disaster was witnessed from the Virago, the boats were quickly got ready, and as soon as possible the doctor and his assistants were at the place. Two young men, William Evans and Driver Christian, were severely wounded, but Matthew McCoy had received his death blow. His right arm was fearfully shattered, and he was, besides, much bruised and injured. The arm was amputated, in the hope that his life might be spared, but all that surgical skill could do was of no avail, for during the night of January 27, 1853, he died. Thus ended, in sadness and gloom, the day that had dawned so brightly, and which had been so greatly enjoyed by all. The dead man was buried with funeral honors, all the officers and men that could be spared from the Virago being present. But no outward display could allay the sorrow or calm the grief of the desolate widow and fatherless children, who so deeply mourned their irreparable loss. Before the Virago sailed, the Bounty’s gun was spiked to prevent it from ever being used again. After having lain and rusted for nearly forty years, it was at length used as the foundation for a flagstaff.
As stated above, Mr. Nobbs reached home in May and immediately resumed his duties as pastor, the people observing that he seemed to have acquired a somewhat more dignified bearing after having been ordained, although his thorough kindliness of disposition and interest in everything that concerned the people’s welfare, remained unchanged.
The arrival of the Portland was most timely, as the people were suffering from the effects of a severe drought, and were obliged to subsist on whatever they could get, unripe pumpkins forming their principal diet. Liberal supplies from the ship’s stores provided them with sufficient food to last until better times appeared. The admiral then left, taking with him Mr. Holman and the lad that had remained with him. The Portland proceeded on her way to the Gambier Islands, but soon returned, going on to Valparaiso. As she came near enough to Pitcairn Island for the people to communicate by signals, one of distress was hoisted, for the islanders, almost without an exception, were suffering greatly from an attack of influenza. Misinterpreting the signal, the Portland kept on, but was stopped when a boat was seen putting off from the land, manned by a few poor fellows, who were hardly able to manage their oars. On learning the cause of their coming, the admiral and his officers at once went on shore, and the report of the men was confirmed by the sight of the pitiable condition of the islanders.
Everything that kindness could suggest was done for the sufferers, all the visitors doing what they could to relieve the distress around them; nor did they take their final leave of the island until there were visible signs of improvement. So attached had all the islanders become to the people on the ship that much real sorrow was felt at parting; indeed, the leave taking was such that men, as well as women and children, wept freely, as they looked their last on the faces of the kind friends who had done so much for them, and who were not ashamed to mingle their tears with the tears of those they were leaving behind. The blessings of a grateful people followed their departing visitors.
Reuben Nobbs, who had accompanied his father and sister home from Valparaiso remained with his family for a few months; but, on the arrival of H.M.S. Dido, in the following year, he prepared to return to his duties at Valparaiso on that ship. But his stay was short, and he was soon home again, as consumption had made rapid progress. Kind and willing hands carried him Mar 2, 1855 from the place where he was landed, for he was universally beloved, and conveyed him to his home, where he lingered on until March 2, 1855, when he died.
Two accidents, each fatal in its nature, happened shortly after this. The first death was the result of a wound in the foot of a lad, caused by the barbed point of an arrow made of iron. Lockjaw set in, and after the terrible agonies that followed, he died. The other accident was sudden, and death was instantaneous. It was on a Saturday, and most of the men were out in their canoes fishing. A young man named Daniel McCoy, with his wife, went to the northwest side of the island, at a place called the Lookout, to fish among the rocks. Several other young people went in the same direction, but separated themselves into different parties to fish.
Dan and his wife went alone to a spot to reach which they must either swim a narrow passage of water, or climb a few steps, and then descend a steep and very dangerous path among the rocks. They chose the latter, and in making the descent the young man lost his hold, slipped, and fell. The fall was not high, scarcely ten feet; but he fell heavily and broke his back. With one dreadful groan, and a last dying look upon his wife, he immediately expired. Almost distracted, she went in search of their companions, who were at some distance from them, fishing. Grief and horror seemed to lend wings to her speed, as she passed over the rough stones and jagged rocks that for the most part formed her pathway. Only a few minutes sufficed for her to reach a spot where she could see her companions, and make them understand by signs that their assistance was required. The frantic cries and wild gesticulations at once convinced them that something dreadful had occurred, and they instantly started to learn what had happened.
It was soon told, and, while some of the fishing party returned with the bereaved wife to the scene of the awful accident, others hastened home to tell the sad news, and to get assistance to carry the body home. As nearly all the men were out fishing, these had to be summoned by means of signals, and as soon as possible a whaleboat was launched to go on the sad errand. In a short time the scarcely cold, lifeless burden was tenderly placed within, and taken back to the home whence, but a few hours before, he had left in all the strength and pride of young manhood. Scarcely anything noteworthy occurred Apr 7, 1855 during the twelve months that followed the death of Daniel McCoy, which took place on the seventh day of April, 1855. Life gradually assumed its ordinary, monotonous round; but every day was bringing nearer the day when everything was to be changed.