'Mutiny on the Bounty' island faces first trial in history

A rape case has cast a shadow over a Pacific island of 44 residents where magistrates have not sat for a generation
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The Independent Online

The remote island madefamous by Mutiny on the Bounty, the story of Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers who "discovered" it after taking over Captain Bligh's ship, is a place that calls to mind carefree images of palm trees and white sands. It is the most remote outpost of what is left of Britain's colonial empire.

The remote island madefamous by Mutiny on the Bounty, the story of Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers who "discovered" it after taking over Captain Bligh's ship, is a place that calls to mind carefree images of palm trees and white sands. It is the most remote outpost of what is left of Britain's colonial empire.

But the island of Pitcairn, a pinprick of volcanic rock in the middle of the South Pacific, is about to be shaken in a way that will destroy any innocent image it may harbour. Prosecutors are preparing to bring charges over an allegation of rape said to have been committed on the island last year.

If the case goes to a full trial, as seems likely, it could involve transporting British lawyers, judges and even jurors to Pitcairn, at enormous cost. It would be the first trial in Pitcairn's history.

A source at the Foreign Office, which organised the investigation into the alleged rape and is co-ordinating further action, said: "The trouble is that nothing like this has ever happened before on the island. All the decisions about what will happen have to be decided. No charges have yet been brought, but I can see no reason why the public prosecutor would not choose to proceed with it and take it to trial."

Pitcairn is one of the most remote places in the world. A tiny outcrop measuring no more than two miles across, it is about 3,000 miles from New Zealand and 2,000 miles from Tahiti.

Officially it is a British Dependent Territory and is administered by the British High Commissioner in New Zealand, Martin Williams, who is also the island's Governor. Another non-resident civil servant, Leon Salt, is the island's Commissioner. These two officials represent the distant Crown.

But Pitcairn is a largely forgotten world. There are just 44 residents, most of them direct descendants of the 27 mutineers who sought sanctuary on the island in January 1790.

Contact with the outside world is infrequent. There is no airstrip and there are no more than two or three regular sailings every year from New Zealand. Freight vessels on the way from the Panama Canal to Australia or New Zealand pass within 30 miles of the island and may stop off if radioed that someone is ill and needs hospital treatment. The electricity supply, provided by generators, is available for about nine hours a day.

Most islanders are Seventh Day Adventists. They shun alcohol and are largely vegetarian. They speak a mixed English-Polynesian dialect called Pitkern and are largely self-sufficient, their main source of income being the sale of their sought-after postage stamps.

The Foreign Office is conscious of trying to protect this isolated group of islanders from the glare of publicity and the prying eyes of the outside world. The rudimentary magistrates' court has not sat in 20 years, and the island's three prison cells store life-jackets rather than criminals.

But at the same time the Foreign Office has decided that this most recent matter cannot go ignored. The allegation of rape is understood to have been made by an islander who has accused a New Zealand national of attacking her last year.

The allegation was investigated by Kent police, which in 1997 investigated another allegation of rape that had been made against one of the islanders. In that instance no action was taken as a result of the inquiry.

However, in this case the outcome is expected to be different. While Kent police has not yet made its full report to the Foreign Office, an oral report made two weeks ago has convinced officials that further action is likely.

The full report is expected to be completed by the end of the month and the final decision on whether to prosecute and where any trial would take place will then be made by Pitcairn's public prosecutor. The options of a trial location are Pitcairn, New Zealand or London.

Karen Wolstenholme, the island's Deputy Governor, said last night: "I would just like to stress that although this is an investigation into a serious offence, Pitcairn is a small community and I don't want any suggestion that this is getting out of proportion.

"The file has not been completed and no recommendations have been made by the public prosecutor."

But the prospect of a trial and its publicity certainly worries the islanders. Jacqui Christian, a seventh generation descendant of the mutineer, who grew up on Pitcairn but moved to New Zealand to train as a pharmacist and lives in Australia, said: "The last thing we need is for rumour to be spread by the media who make money out of selling gossip. I am not saying that Pitcairn is a model community but I have no facts to comment on. The recent reports of crimes on Pitcairn are distressing."

But not everyone is so surprised. The author Dea Birkett spent four months on the island researching her book Serpent in Paradise, in which she wrote of the closed, insular community.

"I am not surprised by the allegation of rape," she said yesterday. "It would surprise me even more if there was this island where there was no crime and with no problems, which is how Pitcairn has been portrayed for two centuries.

"It is a small island in a remote place and because of that it can be a festering boil of difficulties and problems from which people cannot escape. This does not help when you are trying to investigate anything."

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