Eco-tourism: Pitcairn strives to live down its terrible past

Mayor faces charges of child pornography, but slowly the island is starting to recover
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The Independent Online

Two hundred and twenty-one years ago today, the English sailors who rebelled against Captain William Bligh set fire to HMS Bounty off Pitcairn Island – an act still commemorated in the formidably isolated British territory, where their descendants torch a cardboard replica every 23 January. In recent years, with Pitcairn struggling to shake off the reputation it acquired after the 2004 child sex abuse trials, Bounty Day celebrations on the tiny South Pacific island – where the mutineers and their Polynesian companions fled after the 1789 uprising – have been rather sombre.

But as locals prepare for the visit today of an American cruise ship, the Amsterdam, there is a mood of cautious optimism. For the first time, perhaps, since the court case – which generated lurid headlines around the world, scandalising Pitcairn's devoted fans – the islanders are starting to feel they may have a future. Much has changed since the trials, held on Pitcairn and subsequently in New Zealand, which led to nine men being convicted of raping and assaulting girls as young as seven. Infrastructure and communications, long neglected by the British, have been radically upgraded, and Pitcairn has a new constitution. There has even been a modest population increase, to 54 permanent residents.

However, it is not clear to what degree mindsets have changed in a community where child abuse was not only rife for decades – police believe that almost every girl who grew up there was a victim – but also known about and tolerated. Only last November, Pitcairn's mayor, Michael Warren, 46, was charged with multiple counts of possessing child pornography. That bombshell, and Mr Warren's re-election as mayor weeks later – under Pitcairn's idiosyncratic laws, he was eligible to stand – dismayed those seeking to rebrand the island as an eco-tourism destination. "There's a lot of disappointment, particularly about how it looks," says one local. "We're worried about how the world is viewing people here, and what people will think about our attitudes towards children."

A surf-lashed speck of land accessible only by boat, Pitcairn is also having to weather tough economic times. The number of passing cruise ships, which provide a market for locally made wooden carvings and other souvenirs, has dropped substantially. The New Zealand-based Governor of Pitcairn, Vicki Treadell, warned recently that the island must reduce its dependence on budgetary aid – currently £2m a year, the biggest per capita expenditure on any British overseas territory.

Despite all this, islanders such as Jacqui Christian, who has identified herself as one of the complainants in the trials, are resolutely positive. Ms Christian – who astounded many observers by returning to live on Pitcairn four years ago – believes that rifts between victims' and perpetrators' families have started to mend. Although initially ostracised by the community, she says: "I think people are realising we've got to work together if we want to create any sort of future."

After the trials, which culminated in six men receiving jail terms, Britain and the European Union pumped millions of pounds into the island. The Hill of Difficulty, a rutted track leading from Bounty Bay to the one village, Adamstown, was paved, and landing facilities were upgraded. The island acquired telephones, television and high-speed internet. Its first regular boat service was established last year. Several small businesses have sprung up, including Christian's Café, run by Steve Christian, a former mayor and direct descendant of the mutineers' ringleader Fletcher Christian. Steve was convicted of five rapes; his sons, Randy and Shawn, were found guilty of gang-raping a 10-year-old. Randy has set up a domestic repairs business, while other islanders have opened a bakery, a hairdresser's, a massage and acupuncture business, and even a nightclub.

It will take longer – much longer – for Pitcairn to put its ignominious past behind it. Visitors are still banned from taking children to the island, although it now has a resident police officer, social worker and British diplomat; Ms Treadell believes "child safety remains a key issue". According to one outsider, after Mr Warren – an elder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church – was charged, "there was a degree of confusion ... people were not quite sure what child porn was".

More than 1,000 photos and videos were found on the mayor's two laptops, and on external hard drives and CDs. A significant number showed adults having penetrative sex with children, and a few were classed as sadistic. Mr Warren told police he had accidentally downloaded them. His case has been adjourned until May; his New Zealand-based lawyer is planning a series of constitutional challenges.

The islanders' response to the allegations suggests attitudes may have evolved somewhat since the 2004 trials. "People were disgusted," says one local. When child protection professionals held a training course on the island a year ago, there was a healthy turnout. Some of the convicted men have reportedly admitted that their conduct was wrong. The island's jail is already empty; thanks to extraordinary leniency shown by the New Zealand-based trial judges and parole authorities, even the worst offenders – including Steve, Randy and Shawn Christian – served little more than two years. British officials are considering turning the prison into visitor accommodation.

First, though, Pitcairn – situated midway between New Zealand and Chile – needs to attract tourists, and provide a means for them to reach the remote island. Jacqui Christian is organising trips from French Polynesia, on a boat skippered by the internationally renowned yachtsman Tony Mowbray.

Britain regards tourism as key to Pitcairn's prosperity, and to luring its young people home. Without a larger population, say officials, the place is simply not sustainable. Ms Christian agrees. "In 10 years, the majority of our workforce will be retired. If we don't change our demographics, then we have no future."