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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own