Good riddance to tarnished paradise island of Pitcairn

As six men are found guilty of child sex abuse, Kathy Marks reflects on the dark and claustrophobic intimacy of her weeks in the South Pacific
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The Independent Online

It was the closest that Pitcairn had ever come to civil insurrection. The spark was the Clipper Odyssey, an American cruise ship that anchored offshore so that passengers could tour the island immortalised by the Bounty mutineers.

The vessel had called by a fortnight earlier, and a group of lawyers, journalists and police officers spent a pleasant afternoon drinking cocktails on deck. Marooned for weeks on Pitcairn for the child sex abuse trials, we were grateful for a change of scene.

But our brief escape provoked a furious row at the next council meeting, where Steve Christian, Pitcairn's influential leader, claimed that our supposedly drunken antics had shamed the island.

Christian, who was forced to resign as mayor yesterday after receiving a three-year jail sentence for five rapes, claimed one journalist was so intoxicated he fell over in the longboat afterwards and inadvertently exposed himself.

So when the Clipper Odyssey returned, battle lines were already drawn in the British dependent territory. The word on the mud-caked streets was that Christian was determined to keep us off the ship. After lunch, everyone gathered at the wharf.

News filtered through that the tour operator did not want us on board, reportedly following an intervention by Christian's cronies. But the company did not reckon with Matthew Forbes, the British deputy governor, who was also planning to spend time on the ship. The veto effectively prohibited him from boarding a vessel anchored in British territorial waters. The deputy governor had a quiet word with Mike Messick, the company's co-owner. Hey presto - the ban was lifted, and the uprising against Pitcairn's colonial rulers was nipped in the bud.

The incident illustrates the dynamics that have made this assignment a peculiar challenge. Rarely do journalists live in a tiny community while writing about it day after day. Rarely, too, do we put our lives in the hands of men who detest us for publicising their crimes - as we did every time we boarded the longboat.

It is impossible to overstate the claustrophobic intimacy of Pitcairn, where the 47 locals live cheek by jowl in Adamstown, the only settlement. When I walk out of the four-bedroom house that I share with four other journalists, I see a banana plantation where a 10-year-old girl was raped by Christian's son, Randy. He received a six-year jail term on Friday for four rapes.

Our next-door neighbour is 78-year-old Len Brown, who raped a young girl twice and can often be seen on his front porch, carving wooden curios. Close by lives Dennis Christian, given community service for three sexual assaults.

The six guilty men, who are free on bail pending the outcome of legal arguments, are omnipresent. Descending the Hill of Difficulty for a swim at Bounty Bay, I passed Steve Christian driving a mechanical digger. In the general store, which opens for three hours a week, I saw Randy Christian browsing the dusty shelves. Dennis Christian sold me some stamps in Pitcairn's tiny post office. Life took on a particularly surreal air when the cruise ship visited, discharging its American passengers. It was like a game of make-believe. Let's make believe that there isn't a child sex trial going on. Let's make believe that Pitcairn is the paradise island of popular fantasy.

The daily interaction with the guilty men is punctuated with contradictions. One afternoon I had a friendly chat with Terry Young, another child rapist, after buying a wooden shark he had carved. The next day, he pushed me aside as I tried to take his photograph on the way to court.

The cruise ship row was all about power. Until the trials, Steve Christian controlled everything on Pitcairn. Now he is no longer in control and his smile is wearing thin.

If the men lose their final appeals, they will serve their sentences in a new six-cell jail down the road from where they live. Their families will be able to visit them every day. They will be allowed out to man the longboats and carry out public works. There are worse punishments.