Pitcairn, Mangareva and Henderson

By Sam Pepe


Although Pitcairn Island and Mangareva are still inhabited today, their earlier Polynesian civilizations, like Henderson, collapsed due to the heavy dependency on trade with Mangareva, overpopulation on the islands, and deforestation in Mangareva. These also served as dilemmas for later European settlers, however they did not collapse due to the opening of the Panama Canal.


The three islands, Mangareva, Pitcairn and Henderson are located smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between The Americas and Australia. Pitcairn and Henderson, both part of the Pitcairn Islands under British rule, are further away from larger and more populated land than Mangareva. Pitcairn is around 2 and 1/2 square miles and is 300 miles Southeast of Mangareva, while Mangareva is about 15 miles in diameter, and 1000 miles from the nearest "high" islands including Tahiti. However, Henderson is the largest of the three with an area of 14 square miles, and is 100 miles East of Pitcairn, which makes it 400 miles East of Mangareva. There were signs of Polynesian life on the islands from 800 A.D. until around 1450 A.D. when the population ceased to exist. Later, in 1790 British mutineers settled Pitcairn, thus inhabiting the island again. Pitcairn was a very rugged island, with few accessible beaches for boats to pull ashore, no reefs for fishing and an abundance of stone. However Henderson had beaches along one shore and cliffs along the other, reefs surrounding the coast but a limited supply of fresh water. Also, Mangareva had a lagoon filled with seafood, but obtained no stone.

Overdepencdecy on Trade

Although these islands are days apart, (one day from Henderson to Pitcairn and five days to Mangareva) the islands still traded and abundance of goods and materials. A major trading item was volcanic glass-like stone found in an abundance on Pitcairn. The Mangarevans needed this stone, thus they traded the Pitcairns items like animals and different plants including breadtrees. The importance of the breadtrees was that the Pitcairns had no source of wood. Thus the Mangarevans started to cut down their trees, resulting in deforestation. Although Henderson was not included in that trade, they had a lack of fresh water. So in return for fresh water they would trade birds or sea life native to the island for it. This is proven because bones of animals that originate in Henderson have been found on all three islands. Ultimately, for their survival and vital resources, the people of Pitcairn and Henderson used Mangareva as a child uses their mother, for their necassary living.


Although the three islands are both fairly small and have little land to use for agriculture and living conditions, the populations of these three islands continued to grow. When the Polynesians first started living on the islands, the living standard was very high so the inhabitants started to have more children. This resulted in a need for more resources, which led to crises among the three islands. This additionally occurred in later times when the European settlers had overpopulated the Pitcairn Island, resulting in not enough food and a mandatory evacuation from the British to the Norfolk Islands because these islands were said to be able to sustain that amount of people.

Deforestation on Mangareva

Because of Henderson's and Pitcairn's need for wood to build shelter and canoes, and the growing population, Mangareva, the only one of the three islands with usable trees started to deforest the island at a very high rate. The people figured when they cut a tree to make a canoe, they will now have room for personal gardens to grow different types of fruits and vegetables. However, this was not the case. When the trees were uprooted, the then-fertile soil had no constant source of nutrients or protection, resulting in erosion and soil not suitable from agricultural production. When there was no agricultural production happening, the people of the three islands began to starve. The people of Henderson survived as long as they could on what they had, which consisted of sea life and birds, while the Pitcairns slowly died out. However, the Mangarevans turned to cannibalism to feed themselves, helping them to continue to survive, but this time at much lower living standards.

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal helped to bring more life to the isolated islands by now having shipping courses charted near the islands. This especially helped the Pitcairn Island to not fall in the 20th century when their visitors were at an all time low, dropping by over two dozen ships per year since the last century. In 1914 when the canal was built, it charted a specific course to New Zealand right through Pitcairn, which resulted in more ships to bring the desperate people resources.


Diamond, Jared M. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Pitcairn Island (island, Pacific Ocean)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2010. Web. 03 Mar. 2014.

"Pitcairn Islands." Pitcairn Islands. Pitcairn Islands Office, 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <http://www.pitcairn.pn/Pitcairnshistory.php>.

When accessing the currency of this article, it says that it was updated in 2014, which means this year the authors went back and edited stuff to fit relevant information. Additionally, the information found in this article is almost exact to other writings about the Pitcairn islands on Google. Although there were no specific authors named, the article was found on the Pitcairn Government website , which serves as a reliable source for the information. The perspective of this piece was unbiased, forming more of a fact-based history than opinionated.

Weisler, Marshall. "Early Civilisation Part II - Rock Carvers of Pitcairn." Early Civilisation Part II - Rock Carvers of Pitcairn. Pitcairn Government, 2007. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <http://www.stamps.gov.pn/RockCarvers.html>.

When accessing the currency of the article, it is found that it was electronically published in 2007, but that the website had been updated in 2014, proving to be a very current article. Additionally, the information in this article is similar to that in other sources, which means the information is correct. When looking for the author, there is not a specific author, but it is on the territory's government website, thus being reliable. The author also put in bibliography siting multiple reliable sources, including research done by architect Marshall Weisler. The mood if this article is informative, and in no ways shows any chance of choosing I biased side or opinion.