January 08, 2017

Meet Tom Christian

Last edited: 05.03.2017

Of all remote places on this planet, to me, one of the most fascinating and most intriguing has always been Pitcairn Island (IOTA OC-044). This tiny island in the southern Pacific Ocean has quite a remarkable history, and probably few places speak to the imagination as much as Pitcairn does. The island was settled in 1790 by the British mutineers of the HMS Bounty and the Polynesian men and women that accompanied them, an event retold in numerous books and films since, and therefore still well known today worldwide as the famous Mutiny on the Bounty.

Pitcairn forms the last remaining British Overseas Territory in the Pacific and actually is a group of four islands; Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno. Pitcairn Island, the second largest of the group, measuring about 4 km from west to east, is the only inhabited one. Adamstown, called after John Adams, one of the Bounty mutineers, is the capital and only settlement on the island. The entire population of Pitcairn lives in the capital and counts about 50. The HMS Bounty was set to fire by the mutineers and its wreckage still can be found today at the bottom of Pitcairn's Bounty Bay, where in 1957 it was discovered by an explorer of National Geographic. Pitcairn Island can only be reached by boat.

Tom Christian (1935-2013) (source)
Most of the residents of Pitcairn are descendants of the Bounty mutineers. So is Tom Christian (1935-2013). To the radio amateur community Tom was probably the most well known Pitcairn Islander, as he was a very active ham operator holding the callsign VR6TC and later VP6TC. Tom was the great-great-great-grandson of the leader of the Bounty mutineers, Fletcher Christian. Tom Christian also was the Chief Radio Officer of the official radio station on Pitcairn with callsign ZBP, and for a while also worked as a radio operator on a freighter ship. In 1952, at age 17, he got a training in Wellington, New Zealand to become radio telegraph operator. Tom's wife Betty Christian also holds a ham licence and was assigned the callsign VP6YL. Both Tom and Betty also regularly used ham radio to contact two of their four daughters, Jacqueline VK2CD and Raelene ZL2RAE, in Australia and New Zealand. Imagine what shortwave radio meant to the isolated Pitcairn Islanders before satellite communications and the internet found its way to the island. Unfortunately, OM Tom Christian in 2013, at the age of 77, became a Silent Key. In 1983 he was appointed the MBE - Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Tom Christian was one of the most sought after operators in ham radio ever.

QSL card from Tom Christian from the collection of Jeff Murray K1NSS. Photo courtesy of Jeff Murray.
My interest in Pitcairn was rekindled by a recent posting of Jeff, Murray K1NSS on the Facebook QSL Chasers group, and of course by the announcement of the upcoming VP6EU 2017 DXpedition to Pitcairn, which will take place from February 16th to March 5th, 2017!

Above you can see a photo of a QSL card from Tom Christian from the collection of Jeff Murray. It's lying on top of a copy of the book The Bounty Trilogy. Jeff did not contact Christian himself but found the QSL card in a collection he purchased at a local flea market. The card is a very interesting piece of ham radio history indeed, and definitely is a wonderful keepsake!

Tom Christian in his shack in 1988 (source)
My fascination for Pitcairn was born back in the 1980s when I was still a teenager and an avid shortwave listener. It was born from a small article in RAM - Radio Amateur Magazine written by Dutch journalist and top shortwave listener and DXer Michiel Schaay. Schaay had a column in the monthly RAM magazine with listening tips for SWLs. There was no internet at the time, and club bulletins and magazines like these were the only source of information in those days. Imagine how I was looking forward every month for the new issue of  "the RAM" to appear at the newsstand. Schaay had picked up Tom Christian's transmissions from radio station ZBP a couple of times on 18.407 MHz with official radiotelephone traffic from Pitcairn to New Zealand. Needless to say that from then on I was monitoring this frequency whenever I could, unfortunately to no avail.

Article by Michiel Schaay in Radio Amateur Magazine nr. 104 of September 1989. If you look closely on the map on the southern part of the island you will find the location of the radio station.
Pitcairn is on top of my list of places I'd still very much like to make contact with one day. I'll have to depend on DXpeditions, as I believe there are no active hams left among the inhabitants of Pitcairn. It's going to be a tough one anyway, as for my "little pistol" station from the Netherlands, the Pacific always has been the most difficult part of the world to reach. But who knows, a couple of months ago I also managed to make a contact with Easter Island, which I also thought would be impossible to work. CW hopefully will do the trick someday. I'm not holding my breath though.

Addendum 05.03.2017
An interesting story dealing with the history of wireless stations on Pitcairn can be found here on the blog of Shortwave Central.

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  1. What a life Tom Christian must have had. And I love his QSL card! Thanks, Michael - good luck on a DXpedition to Pitcairn :)

  2. Great article Michael, very interesting, I never managed to work Tom unfortunately. Do you know if Michiel still around yet? I have many of his old publications such as the Longwave Beacon Handbook, Embassy Radio Communications Workbook, and Maritime Radio Handbook, these were always a great source of information in the pre-Internet days. I think he lived in Doorn back then.

    1. If I'm not mistaken, Michiel is still working as a journalist from Doorn. I'm not sure if he's still active in shortwave listening. I haven't seen any radio related publications from him for many years. I really loved his publications, and my old SWL library contains quite a few of his excellent reference works. I remember as a teenager calling with him in Doorn to ask about his publications and having long conversations with him about the hobby. I remember playing tape recordings for him via the telephone to let him hear the shortwave stations I'd received. Michiel is on Facebook, and you might like to check him out there.