Pitcairn Island's splendid isolation shattered by unwelcome arrival of 'malicious gossip-mongers'

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The Independent Online

For what seemed like an eternity, the vessel bringing the eyes of the outside world to Pitcairn hovered offshore, waiting for its occupants to be collected. Suddenly the longboat appeared, speeding through the South Pacific surf, steered by one of seven men facing British justice in the island's threadbare public hall tomorrow.

The media has come to Pitcairn, and the Pitcairners are not happy. The fabled island settled by Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers has spent two centuries shielding itself from publicity. Now the mask is about to be ripped off this strange and secretive place, with half of its menfolk going on trial on multiple child rape and sex abuse charges.

Few people have ever set foot on this isolated lump of volcanic rock located 3,300 miles east of New Zealand. Journalists were banned from the island, Britain's last colonial possession in the South Seas, many years ago. A notice outside the weatherboard public hall warns locals of the penalties of spreading "malicious gossip" to outsiders.

There had been rumours that the longboat, manned by locals familiar with the treacherous coastline, would refuse to pick up Pitcairn's most unwelcome visitors. But it was hard, perhaps, for the men to break the habits of a lifetime. The arrival of a boat is a major event, whether it brings supplies from New Zealand or cruise ship passengers to whom islanders can sell their carved wooden replicas of the Bounty .

Strong arms seized our luggage, and helped us into the longboat. At Bounty Bay, where the mutineers torched the ship to cover their traces, most of Pitcairn's population of 47 had turned out. The wharf was a hive of activity, with people feeding their pet frigate birds and shouting out to each other in Pitkern - the local dialect based on Polynesian and 18th century English.

The seven men, who are facing 55 charges including 14 counts of raping children, are still living freely in the community. On bail for the last 18 months, their labour is required to keep the island running. Even if convicted, they will be allowed out of the newly built six-cell jail under supervision to carry out essential work.

Pitcairn's most respected elder, Tom Christian - who, like many islanders, is directly descended from the mutineers - was happy to talk about the island's colourful history. But the criminal case, which has plunged the island into its biggest crisis since his ancestor arrived in 1790, was a more touchy subject.

"I can't wait to get this whole mess behind us and look to the future," said Mr Christian, 68, leaping aboard one of the three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles that are the only mode of transport on Pitcairn's rutted dirt roads. "In a small community like this, everything that happens affects everyone."

On the surface, daily life appears unchanged on Pitcairn, where the locals perform government jobs and grow fruit and vegetables in the fertile red volcanic soil. But beneath its placid exterior, this is a community at war with itself. In the village square of Adamstown, the only settlement on the island, stand a handful of public buildings including a library and post office. A carpet has been laid in the public hall, where the alleged victims of generations of abuse will give evidence from New Zealand by video-link.

Pitcairn's population has been almost doubled by the influx of lawyers, judges, court officials and police officers. The island is the most remote inhabited spot on earth, accessible only by a 36-hour voyage across the high seas from French Polynesia.

To glimpse the island for the first time is a curious feeling. This is a place so romanticised, so shrouded in myth and fiction, that to see it appear - after a day and a half at sea with only churning blue water in every direction - makes the flesh tingle.

It announces itself first as a tiny smudge on the horizon. This is what Christian must have seen as he scoured the South Pacific for a safe haven. As you get closer, the speck becomes a loaf-shaped chunk, two miles long by one mile wide, carpeted with coconut palms and Norfolk Island pines.

The island is surprisingly green and lush, ringed by a fortress of towering granite cliffs that descend to a rocky coastline lashed by high waves. A sign near the boatshed points to the "final resting-place of the Bounty ". Carved high into a granite hillside is Christian's Cave, where the Bounty's first mate - still revered by modern-day islanders - was said to have watched out for ships bringing British justice. Now, 214 years on, justice has finally arrived.