After 200 years, the law arrives on Bounty Island

Half the adult males in Pitcairn, the tiny island community created by Fletcher Christian, are going on trial over sex abuse. Kathy Marks reports
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The Independent Online

Pitcairn guards its secrets as jealously as the vast Pacific Ocean that encircles it, extending to an unbroken horizon in every direction.

Pitcairn guards its secrets as jealously as the vast Pacific Ocean that encircles it, extending to an unbroken horizon in every direction.

The island was the perfect bolthole for Fletcher Christian and his men, seeking to disappear off the face of the earth after staging their famous rebellion. And it remained a place so isolated that the mutineers' descendants, allegedly, were able to abuse their women and children for decades with total impunity.

Now the blanket of secrecy that has shrouded Pitcairn since Christian spied it from the deck of the Bounty in 1790 is about to be lifted. Seven men, half of the adult male population, will go on trial in the British dependency next week, charged with 96 counts of rape, sexual abuse and indecent assault, dating back to the 1960s.

The case has torn apart the tiny community of 47, setting mother against son and brother against brother. Every family on the island, a speck of volcanic rock in a far-flung corner of the South Pacific, is affected. Another six men, former Pitcairners now living in Australia and New Zealand, face extradition on similar charges.

The trial will be one of the strangest in British legal history, with the entire personnel - judges, lawyers, court officials and police - shipped in from Mangareva, a French Polynesian island 250 miles away. Pitcairn, lashed by some of the world's roughest seas, has no airstrip, harbour or scheduled shipping service. The only way in or out is on boats manned by local men who know every inch of the treacherous coastline.

The legal team left Mangareva, the nearest landfall, on Tuesday for the 36-hour voyage aboard a small chartered vessel, the Braveheart. On Thursday they anchored off Pitcairn, one of the most remote inhabited spots on earth, and wait for stony-faced locals - including some of the defendants - to collect them in their longboats. After landing at Bounty Bay, they will toil up the aptly named Hill of Difficulty, the unpaved road that leads to the one settlement, Adamstown.

Their reception will be icy. After two centuries of running their own affairs, Pitcairners - many directly descended from the mutineers - are outraged that the full force of British law is about to descend on them. They see it as a gross violation of their privacy by meddling outsiders with no understanding of their distinctive way of life. Since the first allegations were aired five years ago, they have steadfastly resisted the prospect of a trial that will expose the innermost workings of their society.

So close-knit and inter-related is the community, perched on a rock two miles long by one mile wide, that it regards itself as one large family. "A family in trouble best deals with its troubles and problems privately and discreetly," one islander, Mike Warren, told The Independent this week. "How would you like it if your family disputes were aired on television for the whole world to see? Would you call this justice?" The "disputes" relate to claims of systematic sexual abuse of girls as young as five by some of Pitcairn's prominent figures. Sources close to the case say the evidence to be aired at the trial, relating to a dozen alleged victims, is only part of a "bigger picture" of abuse stretching back into the mists of time - probably as far as Christian's era. Numerous other men could have been charged, they say, had it not been for the victims' reluctance to testify, many of them pressured by their families.

The first hint of a rotten core at the heart of Pitcairn came in 1996, when Kent Police were sent to investigate a complaint by the father of a 11-year-old girl visiting the island. Officers found she was in a consensual relationship with a teenage boy, but sent a constable, Gail Cox, to train the local lay officer, Meralda Warren.

In 1999, two girls told PC Cox that they had been sexually mistreated by older men in the community. Kent detectives began an inquiry that turned into an international investigation. Over the next two years, they interviewed every Pitcairner on the island as well as those living abroad, in the US, Australia, Britain and New Zealand. With good reason, they named their investigation Operation Unique.

For the Foreign Office, which had left the island to its own devices for years, the scandal on Pitcairn - Britain's last remaining overseas territory in the South Pacific - presented a huge logistical headache. Pitcairn, mid-way between New Zealand and South America, had not hosted a major criminal trial for more than 100 years. An entire legal infrastructure - including a magistrates' court, supreme court and high court - had to be created.

The island's governor, Richard Fell, the British High Commissioner in Wellington, appointed lawyers from the New Zealand circuit to positions including Pitcairn chief justice and public prosecutor. Because of the island's isolation and lack of facilities - it has no cars, no telephones, no pubs, shops or restaurants - New Zealand was persuaded to pass a law allowing for court proceedings to be held in Auckland. The defendants, however, mounted a legal challenge and won the right to be tried on their own doorstep.

Despite that victory, the anger has not abated. The Pitcairn family is now bitterly divided. Most locals consider that the defendants have been unfairly targeted and resent the imminent intrusion of prying eyes, including those of journalists, long banned from the island. A minority welcome the trial as an opportunity to cleanse Pitcairn's soul, but they are fearful of speaking out. "If you're a Pitcairner, you can't go against the family," says one insider.

The community has split along that fault line, with the two camps barely on speaking terms, working together only to ferry in goods from a supply ship that calls by every few months. Tensions are so high that Mr Fell has ordered residents to give up the guns they use to hunt wild goats and shoot breadfruit out of trees. Herb Ford, a Californian academic with close links to Pitcairn, says: "It's like a civil war and, on Pitcairn, you can't get far away from anyone else. Fifteen minutes, and you're walking on water." Jacqui Christian, who lives in Australia but grew up on Pitcairn, where her parents, Tom and Betty, are highly respected elders, says: "The trial had to happen. I believe in a strong future for the island, but you can't have that if there are doubts about the integrity of the people."

It is not only Pitcairners who will suffer if the case sounds the death knell for Britain's last South Seas outpost, already vulnerable because of its dwindling population. Such is the lure of the Bounty legend, romanticised in five Hollywood films, that people around the world regard the island as a metaphor for paradise. Intoxicated by the heady mix of romance, swashbuckling adventure and a tropical idyll, they have turned Pitcairn into their private vision of heaven. Thousands of people who have never visited Pitcairn and know little about the case have been hotly defending the communities' men on websites and in the fan clubs that exist in numerous countries.

Followers of Seventh Day Adventism, meanwhile, to which Pitcairners were converted en masse in the 19th century, idealise Pitcairn as a model religious community. They see it as the place that was saved by the Bible, living proof of the powers of redemption - although nowadays few people set foot in the island's church. Pitcairn is not a utopia, and it never was. The men who seized the Bounty and set Captain Bligh adrift in an open boat chanced upon it after scouring the South Pacific for a haven from British naval wrath. Minuscule and miles from anywhere, it was a matchless hideaway. But within 10 years of being settled by Christian and eight fellow rebels, together with 12 Tahitian women and six Tahitian men, all but one of the mutineers were dead - murdered, mainly in disputes over women.

To the starry-eyed cruise ship passengers who clamber ashore at Bounty Bay for a few hours, Pitcairn is a fantasy land, a kind of living museum. But the reality is far more mundane.

There is no sewerage system on the island and only 10 hours of electricity, provided by a diesel-powered generator. There are no beaches or coral reefs, just steep cliffs, many of which - such as Where Dan Off - bear the names of islanders who met an untimely end. Pitcairn boasts a single palm tree. Locals while away their time watching videos from New Zealand.

The alleged victims who will give evidence by video link from New Zealand next week will testify that, for them, Pitcairn was not paradise but hell. Well-informed sources say that the girls allegedly victimised in past decades are still damaged, unable to form close relationships. Many have turned to drink or drugs. Some have attempted suicide.

All the defendants, meanwhile, have pleaded not guilty, claiming that the case is based on a profound misconception. They argue that the island's culture is still influenced by its part-Polynesian roots and that girls become sexually mature early. Some of the men helped to transform Pitcairn's old one-cell jail, previously used only for storing lifejackets, into a prison in which they will be incarcerated if convicted.

Their supporters accuse the British government of neglecting the island for years, failing to provide funds for essential infrastructure. By contrast, they complain, Britain - which has spent £4m on the case so far - has poured money into Pitcairn to prepare for the trial.

Despite building work, accommodation is so scarce that defence lawyers will be put up at the prison during the seven-week trial. The schoolhouse has been commandeered as a second courtroom, with three judges overseeing concurrently running trials, without a jury.

Mr Fell, loathed by the islanders, concedes that Pitcairn has suffered from a hands-off approach in the past. Previous governors visited once, if at all, during their tour of duty. A teacher and Seventh Day Adventist pastor were sent for rotating two-year terms. There was no doctor until recently. Two MoD police officers are now stationed there, together with social workers and a governor's representative.

Asked whether the British authorities should have kept a closer eye on Pitcairn, Mr Fell says: "The perception was that they were a happy, self-contained, religious island community, who could be dealt with with a soft touch. They had their own mayor and elected council. Once all this is over, one will have to see whether there are any lessons to be learnt."