Law catches up with 'Bounty' islanders

UK police are being sent to tackle a crime wave on remote Pitcairn Island, reports Tim Minogue
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The Independent Online
Utopia is no more. Pitcairn Island, the South Sea refuge of the mutinous crew of the Bounty, and long thought of as a paradise on Earth, is sliding into lawlessness, according to a report by a senior British detective. Rather than a place where people can enjoy a tranquillity unknown in the crime-ridden Western world, the island, one of the last British colonies, is a place of festering feuds where guns are commonplace.

The situation on Pitcairn is so bad, according to Detective Superintendent Dennis McGookin, that unless it improves, the 38 residents should be evacuated. The Kent policeman travelled 12,000 miles to the colony last autumn to investigate an allegation of rape, and was shocked by what he saw.

"I made a report to the Foreign Office recommending that the island should be abandoned if the residents didn't pull their socks up," he said. "We went there for one incident, but when we got there it turned into numerous incidents. There's alcohol-related crime and violent crime and firearms laws are being broken all the time. There are more guns on that island than anyone needs. The islanders need to get their act together, or someone is going to be killed."

Pitcairn, measuring only a mile by a mile-and-a-half, is at the very centre of the Pacific Ocean, some 3,200 miles from New Zealand and a similar distance from South America. Its inaccessibility made it a perfect hideaway for the survivors of the mutinous crew of the Bounty, led by the Master's Mate Fletcher Christian, and their Tahitian consorts, when they sought refuge from the Royal Navy in 1790.

Pitcairn is featured in the five Bounty movies and more than 2,500 published books and articles. The islanders, descendants of Christian's original 27-strong group of settlers, grow sugar cane, arrowroot and breadfruit and sell baskets and wood carvings of sharks to passing ships.

There is no organised tourism, no airstrip and ships call infrequently. The inhabitants speak Pitkern, a mixture of English and Polynesian. Many 18th-century expressions are still in everyday use including "musket", "yonder" and "tarry". The islanders' most profitable activity is the worldwide trade in the sought-after Pitcairn Island stamps.

Det Supt McGookin was accompanied by Kent Detective Sergeant Peter George, Leon Salt, the New Zealand-based Pitcairn Island commissioner and former island schoolteacher, plus a solicitor to represent the accused. Until Det Supt McGookin began his inquiry, the island had no recent history of serious reported crime, although its early years were a mayhem of racial and sexual violence and alcohol abuse, even by 18th century standards - there were 13 murders in the first three years of settlement. The magistrates court has not sat for 20 years and a three-cell jail, built for the island's bicentenary in 1990, has never been used for prisoners, although it has proved useful for storing lifejackets.

The islanders, all Seventh Day Adventists, are a tight-knit community, suspicious of outsiders. Writer Dea Birkett, whose book about her four- month stay on Pitcairn, Serpent in Paradise, (Picador, pounds 16.99) was published last week, said she was not surprised to hear that there was concern about policing on the island. Ms Birkett was ostracised by islanders after an affair with a local man. She decided to visit the island after seeing the film Bounty, starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.

"When I was planning my trip, I read that it was a crime-free society, a paradise," she said. "But it's only crime-free in the sense of no news of incidents reaching the outside world."

She said that in Pitcairn's closed world, small disputes that would easily be resolved elsewhere often festered for years. During her stay, in 1991, one islander planted upturned nails in the path outside another's house following the felling of some banana trees. Islanders spoke of a woman having been threatened with a knife - but none would report the incident.

Following Det Supt McGookin's report, which said the original allegation against a male islander was unfounded but raised other concerns, the Government has agreed to spend pounds 30,000 a year on an annual tour of duty by a UK-based police officer. The "Pitcairn Island Good Government Fund" takes effect this year and will be the first time the colony has experienced British- style policing.

A Foreign Office spokesman said an officer will visit the island for six to eight weeks a year and operate a community-policing operation. "We must be sensitive to the islanders' feelings but we also have to discharge our responsibility for our dependent territories," he explained. "We hope to have the officer there by the autumn. The pounds 30,000 will cover his salary, transport, accommodation and subsistence on the island. We haven't discussed whether the officer will be armed yet. We can't rule it out at this stage."

Yesterday Dea Birkett said: "No one is independent or uninvolved on Pitcairn. Everyone is related in many ways to everyone else. So there is no impartiality and no one to settle disputes. As a result there are sisters there who have not spoken to each other for years. The trouble with such a small place is that there's no means of escape. If you have an argument with someone, you can't go away for the weekend to cool off."

She explained that the islanders, men and women, take it in turns to act as "police officer", but they have no training. "If someone commits a crime it is almost bound to be the police officer's husband, wife, brother, father, uncle or cousin. Bringing in a British bobby, even for a few weeks a year, is a good idea, but I don't envy him," she said.

"Everyone has a fantasy that Pitcairn is the perfect place, a Garden of Eden. When I discovered that it is as flawed as anywhere else, and wrote that it was, people attacked me. It's a very unpopular thing to do, to destroy someone's idea of Utopia. But being perfect is too heavy a burden for the Pitcairn islanders to bear".

The island's deputy governor, Christopher Shute, based at the British High Commission in Wellington, New Zealand, has just returned from a trip to Pitcairn to explain the new policing arrangements. The UK police officer will train the local officer, who is appointed annually by the island council.

"There is concern that firearms are not always treated with respect," he said. "They are used for all sorts of unusual purposes. Outsiders are surprised to see breadfruit shot out of the trees and sharks killed with shotguns. Guns are often left just lying around. A UK policeman could explain the necessity for gun control."

Mr Shute said there were no plans to abandon the island, although there was always an underlying concern that sufficient numbers should remain to maintain a viable community. "The islanders are adamant that their future lies on Pitcairn," he emphasised. "They have no intention of moving on."