The story of the Mutiny aboard William Bligh’s HMS Bounty is perhaps the most documented mutiny in naval history. Far-less known however is the story of what became of Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers. In their bid to evade capture by the Royal Navy, the mutineers stumbled across an uninhabited island isolated in the expanse of the South Pacific – Pitcairn – where their descendants live to this day. A blend of Old English, Scots and Tahitian – Pitcairn language and culture is a living history.
Supplied annually from New Zealand, the islands have a population of around 50, are free of television and cars, and are a three-day-boat journey from the nearest serviced airstrip. The seeming tranquillity of this isolated island paradise is not reflected in the over 225 year social history of Pitcairn, which has been defined by violence, depopulation, and, more recently, child-sex scandals. Subsidised by taxpayers 14,500km away, this last outpost of the British Empire serves as a social experiment, revealing the perils of sustained generational isolation.
When the mutineers arrived on Pitcairn in 1790 they comprised of nine Bounty crewmen, eleven Tahitian women, six Tahitian men, and one baby. Knowing the alternative to refuge in isolation in the far reaches of the Pacific was capture and imprisonment or death at the hands of the Royal Navy, the community embedded itself into Pitcairn, one of four islands which would eventually become the British Pitcairn Island Colony. Previously inhabited by Polynesian peoples, the island was adept for the sustenance of a small, permanent community. This did not however prevent violence from breaking out amongst the settlers, who fuelled by ethnic divisions, alcoholism and sexual grievances began warring with one another. The fighting was so intense that within five years, John Adams was the community’s only surviving male.
Granted amnesty for his part in the mutiny, the Adams-led commune began to flourish. By the time of official British colonisation in 1838, the population was recorded at 193. This explosion in population size within such a narrow pool of breeders, within such a short period of time, indicates a culture of inbreeding, a problem which continues to define Pitcairn and its people. The extended population stretched the island’s resources to the extreme, and under pressure from the Crown the islanders agreed to relocate to Norfolk Island, a flax-growing outpost of Australia. However, after a few years 44 had returned, drawn by their cultural attachment to the rocky Pacific outpost.
Largely left to govern their own affairs throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, the islands existed in isolation for over a hundred years. Brief contact came with a visit from an American sailor, who converted the islanders to Seventh Day Adventism. Economic self-sufficiency was achieved through the export of collectable stamps. Unaffected by the advancements of modernity, Pitcairn society changed little, and became a time-capsule of early 19th century Britain. This all changed in 2004, when a young islander girl informed a visiting British Police Officer of a deeply entrenched culture of rape and under-age sex.
Upon investigation during Operation Unique, headed by DI Peter George and Rob Vinson of Kent Police, a number of Pitcairn women revealed that they had frequently been sexually assaulted as children by men in the community. These allegations, which stretched back years, unveiled an archaic paradigm in Pitcairn society – a striking inability to grasp the concept of statutory rape. Girls had been having sex with men as far back as any islander could remember. Testaments made by the men accused- seven on Pitcairn, including the mayor Steve Christian, and six abroad – stressed that in Polynesian culture, girls are seen to mature at an early age, and that this was something a British judge could not fully understand or officiate upon. This was exacerbated by the fact that the islanders had set their own laws throughout the twentieth century, laws which did not explicitly forbid murder or rape. Such activity was seemingly often perpetrated, seldom spoken about, and generally accepted as simply the way things were.
The British, represented by a distant governor based in New Zealand, were conflicted in their approach. Should mediation be employed in an appreciation of the peculiarity of Pitcairn custom? Criminal charges would lead to the imprisonment of a third of the islands male population, severely impacting the islanders chances for survival. Or, should British law be enacted in full? The latter was opted for, and an official assault trial took place. The men accused helped in the construction of a prison in anticipation of the verdict. Six men were convicted, all of whom were living back at home by 2010.
The sexual assault trials on Pitcairn are bizarre in that judges were required to enforce 21st century laws upon men with 18th century attitudes. That is not to take away from the islander women, who while raised in a society which endeavoured to dismiss such crimes as ‘normal’, took their opportunity to end historical sexual injustices within their community. This came despite the implications it would inevitably have in the short-term for men they had lived with in isolation for their entire lives, and who they were often related to in some form. Believed by some to be a conspiracy conjured by the British to depopulate the islands, the trials have left deep divisions between those islanders willing to listen to the testimonies of the outspoken women, and those who outright deny any wrongdoing. More often than not, denial is a refusal to accept that minors cannot consent to sex with an adult.
The issue persists: in 2010 Mike Warren, Mayor of Pitcairn, was charged with the possession of indecent images of children. Children aged under 16 must apply for an ‘entry clearance application’ prior to visiting the island, while the Foreign Office forbids any island-based staff to be accompanied by their children.
Rocked by the assault trials, the islanders now focus on survival. Emigration of their young, primarily to Australia and New Zealand, is casting doubt over the sustainable future of Pitcairn. Invitations for British immigrants have largely gone ignored. The creation of a Marine Reservation has fuelled hopes for tourism, but high costs, long distances, and negative publicity are preventing this from being significantly profitable. Moving forward as a community from the paedophilia scandal will take time. As a tiny democracy, both the victims and the convicted will have a say in the island’s future.
- YouTube – Trouble in Paradise: The Pitcairn Story
- Photos; Cover Photo: The Telegraph; Map: The Daily Mail