The Far Land

200 Years of Murder, Mania, and Mutiny in the South Pacific


By Brandon Presser

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For fans of The Wager and Mutiny on the Bounty comes a thrilling true tale of power, obsession, and betrayal at the edge of the world.

In 1808, an American merchant ship happened upon an uncharted island in the South Pacific and unwittingly solved the biggest nautical mystery of the era: the whereabouts of a band of fugitives who, after seizing their vessel, had disappeared into the night with their Tahitian companions. 
Pitcairn Island was the perfect hideaway from British authorities, but after nearly two decades of isolation its secret society had devolved into a tribalistic hellscape; a real-life Lord of the Flies, rife with depravity and deception.
Seven generations later, the island’s diabolical past still looms over its 48 residents; descendants of the original mutineers, marooned like modern castaways. Only a rusty cargo ship connects Pitcairn with the rest of the world, just four times a year.  
In 2018, Brandon Presser rode the freighter to live among its present-day families; two clans bound by circumstance and secrets. While on the island, he pieced together Pitcairn’s full story: an operatic saga that holds all who have visited in its mortal clutch—even the author. 
Told through vivid historical and personal narrative, The Far Land goes beyond the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty, offering an unprecedented glimpse at life on the fringes of civilization, and how, perhaps, it’s not so different from our own. 


chapter 1


February 2018

The bed was twice as long as it was wide. A plank, really, with a yellowed mattress well worn by the various sleeping shapes of a family that had inhabited the house for generations. I lay flat on my back—it was too humid to tuck my legs under the sheets just yet, and the pedestal fan on the floor craned its neck high enough to let the little swivels of air tickle the bottoms of my feet.

Why were they late? I had already switched off the light—a futile attempt to slow the parade of roaches and moths that descended upon the dwelling every evening. I hid my iPhone deep beneath my pillow to check the time—the glow from the screen mustn’t escape the room and alert the lurking creatures. It was 10:03 p.m. Yes, they were definitely late. Minutes felt like hours as I waited, gulping the fan’s last breezy blasts, the mugginess still unabated.

I could hear them coming. The faint putter of their quad bikes grew louder as they trundled down the dirt track. They parked so close to the house that I could listen to their furtive footsteps as they searched for the dial in the overgrowth. And then it happened: everything shut off. My fan, the only noise, sputtered to a gentle halt, yielding to the oppressive, flat heat, which mummified me as I lay motionless in the dark. I was now keenly aware of my breathing as I began to descend—deeper and deeper—into this newfound sea of quietude, swimming through the leagues of soundlessness. There was no dull hum from the refrigerator in the kitchen, no distant ambulance rushing to save a life. Nighttime was different here. The silence was complete.

Every evening at 10 p.m. the island’s power shut off. When I first arrived, the electric cuts would catch me off guard. Sometimes I’d be brushing my teeth, other times I’d be scribbling notes over a cup of tea. But now I was prepared: a cool shower first, a glass of water by the bed, and several crucial minutes of ventilated air before the stillness.

The island’s lifeline was a single generator, but diesel fuel was costly and scarce, so a weekly schedule—like a chore wheel—was devised among the islanders denoting who, each night, would be responsible for staying up past their bedtime to turn on the quiet. Locals dreamed of a more sustainable energy source like solar panels, but progress is painfully slow in a place where everything arrives by a boat that takes three months to deliver its supplies. No airplane has ever landed here—the volcanic crags are too steep to support a runway, and the distances too vast for a small craft, like a helicopter, to make the trip. Only a hulking cargo freighter dares to brave the journey but four times a year, the same vessel that brought me here and the same one that will—God willing—get me off this rock on its next passage.

Until then, I would perform my nightly ritual—a study of silence.

It was still too hot to slip my feet under the covers. I wriggled my toes and made strange little shadows in the starlight that shone through the window. But there was no glass in the frame. No, there hadn’t been a pane in the window for years—decades, maybe. The whole house had become overwhelmed by nature. Long vines reached through the shutters like the spindly tentacles of a kraken ready to drag the entire structure out to sea.

My thoughts turned to Fletcher Christian and how he had contemplated the quietness here. Did he fear he would perish from the unrelenting humidity? Did the shadows of the night play tricks on his stony gray eyes? Upon arriving on the island, Christian scoured his ship’s timbers to build himself a cabin—now a whisper of a ruin beneath the floorboards of this rickety, shitty house. He then torched the rest of his vessel in the bay, forever condemning himself to life as a castaway.

Christian was the ringleader of a band of nine infamous mutineers who, in April 1789, commandeered His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty and, along with their Tahitian brides, launched a quest to find an idyllic island that had been incorrectly plotted in the British Navy’s nautical logs. Dubbed Pitcairn, after the fifteen-year-old deckhand who had first spotted it, the green dot was scribbled on a big blue chart of the Pacific some two hundred miles west of its actual location due to an error in longitudinal reading. After many months at sea, Christian and his men finally found their promised paradise—by the end of their third year, almost all of the mutineers would be dead.

It wasn’t fever or thirst that had racked the castaways, but the inextricable qualities of humanity that led to their most violent demises. You can call it love, jealousy, or greed, but really it was the need for power disguised as the pursuit of happiness.

Now, I don’t want to spoil everything just yet, but in a way you already know this story. It’s the oldest one the book: the ineffable quest to return to paradise. So foolish were the nine mutineers who pinned their Edenic dreams on a place fiercely governed by the laws of the wilderness. So foolish were the thousands of people who followed over the centuries, hoping to change their fate on this two-mile bump in the sea. They would all come to realize that we can travel to the farthest recesses of the planet, but we are never truly able to escape ourselves.

Perhaps I was a fool too, even though I knew full well that it would not be an island idyll. But Pitcairn called out to me nonetheless, much like it had to the liars, thieves, and despots of years gone by. And now, lying in my pooling sweat, it was hard to remember why.

Pitcairn has captured the imagination of many. Mark Twain wrote about it. Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novelized the origin story of the island’s settlement in a triad of spellbinding books. Oscar-nominated movies have been made, a Broadway musical too. But I was the only obsessive who had turned his infatuation into an actual trip—a journey famously described by a National Geographic explorer as taking longer than getting to the moon.

A journalist by trade, I couldn’t shut off the electricity in my brain that had sparked years of travel across the world—from the glacial shelves of Svalbard to the tribal lands of Papua New Guinea—in search of my next story. I needed to know what happened when you fell off the map.

So from New York City I had set out in search of an outcrop not much larger than Central Park. Commercial liners dwindled to puddle jumpers—with each leg of the voyage the aircraft got smaller and smaller, like Russian dolls, until there were no more planes. Days and nights were then spent in the windowless hold of the rusting freighter as it cruised through seas so ruthless and vast that the British Navy, despite its best efforts, was never able to locate the mutineers’ hideaway. The giant blue swells heaved the shipping vessel through one final swath of the Pacific—long thought to be lifeless—until it finally reached the last place on Earth.

Maybe Pitcairn was never meant to be found.

I should wait until the morning to ponder these questions further. Besides, the critters were coming now—spiders and vermin. I gently slid my legs under the covers and pulled the sheets up to my chin. Yes, tomorrow I’ll boil a cup of water from the cistern and swirl in a heaping spoonful of Nescafé crystals. With the clarity of caffeine, I’ll stare into the stony gray eyes of the descendants of Fletcher Christian from across the breakfast table and try to understand why, seven generations later, there are still forty-eight souls who have chosen to remain exiled in this wilderness.

Until then I must unbusy my mind and sleep—it’s the only way to pass the time until dawn, when a spin of the chore wheel tasks the next castaway to flick on the diesel generator and rescue me from this silent, wretched heat.

chapter 2


February 1808

The hunt was over, but the deck of the Topaz remained varnished in burgundy like a banquet table after a bacchanal. There were no more seal pelts to be found as the small vessel drifted up from the bottom of the world toward the equator in its desperate search for supplies—the situation had become dire.

Captain Mayhew Folger slowly ran his tongue along the crowns of his teeth, examining every crooked ridge and valley—some porcelain, some bone. Saliva began to pool in his mouth as he desperately swallowed every drop of the sweaty, salty spittle. The sloshing of the half-empty casks was mocking him—but no, he must save the rum for trading when they finally reached civilization.

Although his crewmen loathed skimming the Antarctic waters for furs, Folger preferred the polar conditions to the vastness of the South Seas that now surrounded him. The chilly nip of the wind kept him alert, and the purple glow of the infinite sunshine had a captivating quality. He enjoyed sailing from iceberg to iceberg, stringing them together like pearls on a necklace. But now, the canvas jackets and woolen socks were buried deep within the ship’s hold next to a final supply of sea biscuits pocked by burrowing maggots. Even in his linen tunic, his skin was irritated by the muggy midday heat.

The days were palpably shorter now, and there was something about the darkness of a tropical night that unnerved Folger; a stormy sky was indistinguishable from the rollicking waves. The light, refracted by the beads of humidity in the air, haunted him too, casting shadows on the distant clouds and creating peculiar shapes that piqued his imagination: a serpent, a tiger, his mother, a scythe.

Folger stared off the stern of the ship, bored. Today, his idle mind saw a sprawling city along the horizon—towering smokestacks and church spires looming over rows of town houses and factories. Perhaps it was Boston; it had been almost a year since he had left home.


The excited cry from the crow’s nest startled Folger; he clamped down on his tongue until it bled. “It’s land, sir,” repeated the young crewman as he negotiated his way through the tangle of cordage. He pointed in a westerly direction and handed Folger the spyglass. Through the rusting oculus appeared a snaggletooth of stone protruding from the rolling waves.

The Topaz’s two masts creaked and yawed as they altered course to race toward the islet against the quickening afternoon. Folger unfurled his nautical charts and studied them like an incantation. He moved his gaze from point to point, naming each dot on the map under his breath as he touched them with his quill: Nuka Hiva, Marutea, Mangareva, Tubuai. There was nothing, however, plotted in the seas that lay ahead.

Although not an explorer, Folger clenched his jaw in excited anticipation. It was the early nineteenth century—surely the entire world had been already discovered. So how then had this little island evaded the marauding English, French, Dutch, and Iberian navigators who greedily claimed each landfall in the name of their respective empires? It must be empty or of little worth.

A second call from up high interrupted Folger’s quiet speculation. “Fire! Captain, I see a fire!” By now the ship was close enough to appreciate the island’s verticality: an impregnable battlement of granite and red rock with a carpet of lush green undergrowth. The castle governed a sprawling kingdom below—sharks and whales its loyal subjects. Without an obvious harbor, Folger dropped anchor only a few hundred yards offshore and was stunned to watch his entire rode unravel before the iron clunked against the ocean floor. High on the ridge, the glow of several campfires was easily noticeable in the waning twilight, and as evening set in the glittering embers became indistinguishable from the banner of stars.

Who were these isolated souls that had never been touched by the industrializing world?

Old tales of vicious savages quickly circulated among the crew. Feral tribesmen once ruled this faraway realm of the planet, and perhaps this was their final bastion. Some sailors begged to raise the anchor and steer the vessel away, others clamored to go ashore. Folger saw only one option: he would deploy two rowboats at first light to garner new provisions. Forfeiting the potential opportunity to restock their supplies would have mortal repercussions.

Weary from a restless night’s sleep, Folger ordered all twenty of his crewmen to the main deck in the gravelly light before dawn to tug levers, source oars, and ready two dinghies to be lowered into the unrelenting swell. While monitoring their progress, he marveled at a time, years prior, when he had weighed the occupational hazards of captaining a merchant’s vessel. Freezing to death on the ice sheets of Antarctica or being looted by pirates were the two main scenarios that worried his wife back home, but dying by the hand of a warrior from an undiscovered nation had never crossed his mind. It was, however, his decision to launch the exploratory foray, so he would be a man of intention and lead the party ashore. Folger paused to glimpse the horizon just as the rising sun splashed across the sea. He wondered if he’d live to see the end of this very short day.

A half whisper—“Captain”—broke Folger’s introspection. His second mate was hastily pointing back toward the island, where a small outrigger canoe had been deployed from the shore. Uneasy, the crewman began to reach for a sealing pistol. Folger squeezed the sailor’s forearm tightly, urging him to drop the firearm. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

From the mysterious island came three young oarsmen who fiercely paddled against the crashing waves. Each stroke, performed in unison, moved them closer to the Topaz with astonishing speed. Their clothing was rudimentary—small swatches of tapa cloth strung around their waists for modesty—save a straw hat with a wide brim and large black feather worn by the eldest of the three rowers, who steered the vessel from the back.

Folger locked eyes with the man in the hat: like two slate pebbles in shallow pools. He then raised both of his arms high in the air to show that he wasn’t harboring a weapon. Through the biggest smile he could muster, Folger let out a booming “Hello!” And the strangest, most unexpected sound was returned: a perfect echo—“Hello”—in crisp and proper English.

“Who are you?” the man in the straw hat continued.

Stunned, the sealers exchanged silent glances during an extended pause. They were over nine thousand miles from Great Britain.

“This is the ship Topaz of the United States of America. I am its master, Captain Mayhew Folger.”

“We do not know of America… Is it in Ireland?”

By now the relentless swell was knocking the outrigger against the hull of Folger’s ship. He flung a rope over to the islanders, and as they fastened the two vessels together he studied them more closely. Their tall, bare bodies showed not a trace of indulgence—each muscle and sinew rippled across their hairless chests. And although they spoke the king’s English, they bore few European traits—their lean anatomies lacquered in the same auburn tint as the wood of their tiny craft. All three were teenagers but possessed a certain wide-eyed innocence often lost in adolescence.

“Who are you?” Folger continued the volley.

“We are good Englishmen.”

“Where were you born?”

“In this place which you see.”

“How then are you Englishmen if you were born on this island?”

“Because our father is an Englishman.”

“Who is your father?”


“John, who?”

“Don’t you know him? Our Father John?”

Folger paused. It was clear that the young men knew that a wide world existed beyond the confines of their tiny island, but they hadn’t grasped the concept that humans are not all acquainted with one another.

The man in the hat broke the silence. “Then perhaps you know Captain Bligh?” Folger did. And the mood immediately shifted among his crew. Everyone in the seafaring world knew William Bligh, commander of the HMAV Bounty, who was famously betrayed by his lieutenant Fletcher Christian and several other sailors, then cast out into the abyss when they seized control of the ship. If Bligh had once surveyed this island then surely it would have been dutifully logged. Could Father John be one of the mutineers? They were never heard from again after commandeering Bligh’s vessel. Was this their island hideaway?

“What is your name?” Folger asked.

“Thursday October Christian.” He puffed his chest. “For the day and month on which I was born.”

Christian. Yes, this couldn’t be a coincidence. There must be a relation to Fletcher Christian. “I would like to invite you and your Father John aboard to be my personal guests,” continued Folger, eager to learn more.

The three oarsmen unraveled the tethers and returned to their island with the invitation. For the next two hours, Folger paced back and forth with anticipation until he saw the raft reemerge from the island, but without an additional passenger. “Father John would like you to be our guest instead,” Thursday October said, gliding up against the ship ready to welcome Folger on board.

Pangs of curiosity overpowered Folger’s sensibilities. He dashed to his quarters and searched for his finery—a ruffled cravat and a navy blue tailcoat. There was no time to make a contingency plan should he be held prisoner on the island; he slid a furring knife deep in the pocket of his trousers as a precautionary measure.

Progress was slow as the fierce undertow dragged the canoe further out to sea before hurling it earthward on the crest of each tidal crush. A final wave ambushed the oarsmen as they made landfall, tossing Folger onto his hands and knees in the shallows of a small beach. Sopping wet, he reached for Thursday October’s helping hand. The young men in their loincloths seemed unfazed, already dried by the midday sun. Folger cursed the impracticality of his overly formal vestments, which weighed him down like chain mail.

“Come. We invite you for a meal.” Thursday October led the way up a treacherous path snaking toward the settlement high above. Folger gasped for breath as they climbed. “Had I known…” Step. “I would have brought along a barrel of rum from my ship as a thank you.” Step. “Or even to trade for more supplies…” Step. “I would be so grateful to benefit from your island’s fecundity.” Another step.

Thursday October stopped and looked back at Folger trying to keep his balance. “We are a society free of vice and sin,” he said, then turned around to continue the lead. “We are in need of nothing here.” He paused once more at a felled coconut, smashing it open with the single strike of a nearby rock, and handed it down to Folger. “But I can see that you are in need.” Folger slurped the contents of the coconut dry, letting the juice splash across his face. The sweet fizz washed away the fetid aftertaste of cured meat and seawater that had settled on his palate, and lent him enough vitality to finish the slog up toward even ground.

On the plateau, the relentless foliage had been twisted and tamed into what approximated an English common—a gated clearing patrolled by waddling chickens. On the far end of the pen sat a man and woman under the sprawling canopy of a single banyan tree. Rising when he noticed Folger’s arrival, the man took several steps forward until he reached the perimeter of the tree’s shade, where he waited. The woman stood close behind—his consort.

Folger hoisted his posture as he approached them and sucked the air through his teeth, now blanched with coconut milk. “I’m Captain Mayhew Folger of the American merchant vessel Topaz.”

“I’m John Adams,” the man said, his voice too gentle to escape the shadows in which he remained. As they shook hands, Folger studied him more closely. He had a dark complexion—so tan from the unyielding sun that it was hardly different from the tawny skin of the Polynesian woman at his side. Long, wiry shanks of hair—tendrils perpetually damp and encrusted with sand—tumbled down from a large straw hat that hid his balding crown. He was definitely an Englishman, and wore a sailor’s costume stitched for a younger man—his belly now pressed against the white linen fabric, testing the threshold of its buttons. If he were truly a mutineer from the Bounty, then he couldn’t be any older than forty or forty-five; the tropics had ravaged him. His eyes were sunken in—chasms, really—too deep to discern any meaning from his glances, but then Folger noticed a certain look of pity mirrored back in his direction.

Still wet, Folger attempted diplomatic airs in vain, combing his strands of straight brown hair with his fingers to distract from the gauntness of his face. He was surely five or ten years younger than Adams, and much more handsome, but navigating the depths of the Pacific had uglied his mien as well.

“You must be tired from your journey. We have prepared a banquet for you,” Adams continued. “But first I’ll need your knife.”

Folger, surprised, feigned confusion. “My knife?”

“Yes, your knife. The one in your pocket. I need it.” Adams’s tone seemed suddenly stern as he extended an empty palm. Folger reluctantly ran his hands through the folds of his trousers, excavating the rusty blade.

“There is no violence here.” Adams raised his other hand, lifting the bound pages of a tattered Bible into the sunlight.

“You are a society free of vice and sin,” rehearsed Folger.


Adams’s wife took the weapon and vanished into the two-story house behind the great banyan. Folger slowly followed, passing a crackling fire that warmed an iron cauldron. He ran his fingers along the intricacies of the exterior walls—the remnants of a ship’s keel, too elegant to have been crafted by the island’s rudimentary tools—and glimpsed a room full of European furniture through the open entryway.

“I was told you’ve heard of the Bounty,” interrupted Adams.

“Yes, I know of the Bounty. Everyone knows of the notorious Fletcher Christian and the Bounty.” Folger had memorized the ship’s manifest like a nursery rhyme, but John Adams was not one of the names of the nine mutineers. “It is you, however, that I do not know.”

“I was there, I assure you. But that was a long time ago—another lifetime really…”

Folger wanted to prod further but was interrupted by a procession of islanders coming to examine their very first visitor. Under the generous awning of the banyan tree, they laid down the trappings of a feast: pale yams and plantains boiled in coconut milk, roasted chicken, grilled fish, and a whole hog speared from snout to tail. Over thirty people gathered in the square, mostly teenagers and children dressed in simple bark cloth like Thursday October. They were too bashful to make eye contact with Folger, save one young girl brandishing an undaunted smile of brilliant, bright teeth. She handed him a delicate hibiscus flower more radiant than the autumn maple leaves back home in New England and led him by the hand toward the outdoor hearth. Folger slinked off his coat, still sopping wet, and sat with the others on the ground as they passed around dishware—an indiscriminate assortment of naval china and hollowed-out gourds. Adams joined the circle and said grace:

Suffer me not, oh Lord to waste this

Day in Sin or Folly but let me

Worship Thee with much Delight.

Teach me to know more of Thee and to

Serve Thee better than I have ever done before.

That I may be fitter to dwell in Heaven

Where Thy Worship and Service are Everlasting.

“Amen.” Folger could barely temper his starvation as he inhaled the meat and vegetables, pausing only to field Adams’s questions.

“Tell me, Captain, what have I missed after all this time?” Adams asked, half muffled as he mashed a boiled yam with his teeth. By Folger’s calculations, it had been almost two decades since the Bounty’s mutineers sought refuge at the end of the world—a world that had changed so dramatically since the dawning of the new century. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, inspiring thousands of new immigrants to cross the Atlantic. And the French had cut the heads off their monarchs, wanting liberté


  • “An expertly reported account of one of the biggest nautical mysteries of the 18th century. Presser combines his own experiences on Pitcairn… with the captivating retelling of the true story.”—Condé Nast Traveler
  • The Far Land swells in the cause and effect of actions of passion. Brandon Presser's fascinating narrative of the relentless consequences of the Bounty mutineers asks: were they brave or damned? They lived so very troubled ever after. You can’t make this stuff up!”—Tom Hanks
  • "Meticulously researched…Armchair adventurers will appreciate the author’s sharp and sympathetic eye, showing us the mechanics of a truly remote civilization. Presser’s detailed account provides a sense of authority to a story too bizarre to be anything but true.”—Kirkus Reviews
  • “A highly accomplished travel writer, Brandon Presser's The Far Land hits a lot of my pleasure centers: remote islands, then-and-now non-fiction, historical mysteries and forthright travelogues. The first night I started reading, I dreamed about Pitcairn Island.”—Maggie Shipstead, New York Times bestselling author of Great Circle
  • “Brandon Presser moves far beyond the Mutiny on the Bounty to the devastating tale of the Pitcairn Island settlement, a real-life Lord of the Flies tragedy. As Brandon finds when he makes a protracted visit to the island, it’s a story still unwinding and a definite reminder that island and paradise are two words which often don’t go together. It’s a tale which seamlessly blends his new take on the mutiny and its aftermath with his own experiences on Pitcairn today.”—Tony Wheeler, co-founder, Lonely Planet
  • “Presser debuts with a fascinating account of what happened after the HMS Bounty mutineers settled on the remote South Pacific island of Pitcairn in 1790. [He] expertly intertwines the historical and contemporary elements of the story and brings Pitcairn’s unusual culture to vibrant life. Readers will have a tough time putting this one down.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “It’s easy to assume that nothing new could be unearthed or written about [the Bounty]. But in his debut book, travel journalist Brandon Presser does exactly that, and brilliantly… [He] has managed to create a fact-based book that reads as grippingly as any thriller…an incredible, unforgettable tale.”—BookPage, *starred review*
  • The Far Land uncovers the almost unbelievable true story of Pitcairn Island, while taking readers on an exciting journey to one of the most remote communities in the world… Presser excels at depicting the strangeness, but his novelistic account of what happened to the original colonists is stranger and bloodier—and unforgettable in its shocking details… Lord of the Flies pales in comparison.”—Shelf Awareness
  • “A mash-up of an 18th-century adventure novel and the darkest episode of ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ imaginable.”—New York Times Book Review
  • “Riveting and obsessively researched."—Bloomberg
  • “Sometimes, the greatest adventure doesn't require packing a suitcase… I gasped with Presser as he unveiled truths about settling of the island, and I wandered along with him as he discovered both the beauty and the complexity of that island today.”—Boston Herald
  • “Through his modern retelling and examination of the Bounty’s history, Presser creates a temporal bridge that spans hundreds of years and masterfully connects the island’s violent past to its tumultuous present.”—Afar
  • “[A] meticulously researched page turner that marries adventure stories with crime cliffhangers. Travelers will especially enjoy the colorful descriptions of Tahiti's culture and customs. Presser's eloquent writing and masterful storytelling will capture you from the very first sentence until the last.”—Travel + Leisure

On Sale
Mar 8, 2022
Page Count
352 pages

Brandon Presser

About the Author

Brandon Presser was born in Ottawa, Canada, and has lived in Paris, Tokyo, and New York City. Called a “rough-and-tough adventurer” by Entertainment Weekly, he has visited over 130 countries, and his travel writing has been featured in numerous publications including Bloomberg, Harper’s Bazaar, Condé Nast Traveler and Lonely Planet. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University.

Learn more about this author