Pitcairn: The island of fear

The island has been devastated by a mass trial for child rape. As several men start sentences in a jail they helped to build, Ed Caesar explores the future for this troubled outpost of empire
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Jacqui Christian grew up on an island paradise in the Pacific. The childhood she describes sounds like every over-stressed family's fantasy in her adopted city, London: a serene tropical haven, with no cars, little contact with the outside world, where everyone is a neighbour, or family. "After school we could go riding our bikes or kite-flying anywhere on the island and not worry about being mugged," she says.

But that wasn't the whole story. "There was this other side that we never talked about, where being a girl you always tried to avoid being anywhere with an adult male on your own. The older you got, the smarter you got about who was safe to be around and who wasn't." Her first memory of being sexually abused was when she was three years old.

Jacqui grew up on Pitcairn, two miles by one mile of volcanic British rock in the Pacific Ocean. The island, where at the time of the trial just 47 people lived, is 3,000 miles from Chile in one direction and 3,000 miles from New Zealand in the other. There is no airstrip, nor a regular boat service to the island. Until very recently, it had no internet or television. For most of its 200-year history as a settled colony - since 1790, when Pitcairn was first settled by Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers on the Bounty - the world had done little to trouble Pitcairn, and Pitcairn had done little to interest the world.

But, two years ago, Pitcairn stumbled into the spotlight, when its child sex abuse scandal made waves across the world. In the past fortnight, following a failed appeal to the Privy Council, two Pitcairners, Steve Christian - the one-time mayor of Pitcairn, and a descendant of Fletcher Christian - and his son, Randy, started three- and six-year prison sentences respectively for rape in HM Prison Pitcairn, a new chalet-style pinewood prison they helped to build. They will be guarded by seven New Zealand prison guards, shipped in especially for the purpose.

In 2004, half the island's adult males, direct descendants of Christian and the mutineers, were charged with the rape, indecent assault of underage girls and, in one case, incest. After a five-year investigation by British detectives, during which every woman who grew up on the island since 1950 was questioned, 32 women said they had been abused. Thirty-one men were implicated in the crimes, some of which occurred at least 40 years earlier. Of those 31, many now dead, seven men were tried in a court presided over by three New Zealand judges. Only one was acquitted.

Jacqui is the first victim to give an interview, to the film-maker Nick Godwin. One year after the trial, Godwin arrived on the island to conduct a series of interviews with the sentenced men - at the time still free to move around Pitcairn because of their pending appeal - and other islanders. The results of Godwin's investigation, due to be shown this week in a Channel 4 film, Trouble in Paradise: The Pitcairn Story, reveal an island ripped in two.

Meralda Warren, a woman in her forties, whose brother, Jay, had been the only man acquitted in the 2004 trial, sprang to the defence of the island's men. It was quite normal for girls in Pitcairn, she said, to start having sex "at about 12 or 13". Moreover, it was usually with boys of their own age or slightly older. There was, she insisted, no culture of rape or paedophilia on the island.

"We are Polynesians," she said. "Only in Britain is this underage sex, but not in Polynesia... I first [had sex] at 12. My partner was only a couple of years older. I was never raped and I don't believe other Pitcairn women were raped either."

But this account, conjuring images of innocent assignations behind the bike shed, was not the experience of the island's other women. Stories emerged of men in groups pinning down girls, some as young as eight, and raping them. Like the other girls, Jacqui told no one what was going on. "I don't know whether it was fear or something I just didn't want to face. I knew it was wrong. It felt wrong. It felt uncomfortable, and there are men telling you not to tell anyone else."

Pitcairn, partly because of its geographical position, and partly because of its wilful insularity, has always been a closed environment. The occasional visiting school teacher or social worker apart, outsiders rarely visit. But it was just such an outsider, PC Gail Cox, a British policewoman on a secondment to Pitcairn, who, in 1999, first raised the alarm about a child sex pandemic. A teenage girl told the officer that young girls were frequently having sex with older men. Appalled, PC Cox reported back to her superiors in London, sparking an investigation by two British detectives, Rob Vinson and Peter George.

The man at the centre of the allegations in the 2004 trial was the island's one-time mayor, Steve Christian, who still vociferously denies that he has been involved in any wrongdoing. He admitted having sex with underage girls, but said that, according to Pitcairn law, it was only sex with girls under 12 that was illegal - and even that was only punishable by 100 days' imprisonment. Rape, he believed, took place between strangers.

But, again, the evidence heard in the trial gave a different picture. Two of Christian's victims, appearing by video link from New Zealand, told of vicious rapes. One said that she had been seized by him and by two of his friends, dragged into the woods and forced to have sex. She was 11 at the time and he was 13 . Another said that, when she was 12 and Steve Christian 21, he had taken her up into the mountains on his bicycle and raped her under a bush.

The two detectives who were assigned to Pitcairn under an investigation named Operation Unique, tried to make sense of what had been going on. They came to the conclusion that, because of an apparent lack of law and order, the adult men on the island felt it was their right to do whatever they wished. One man, said George, had admitted that he tried to get girls of 10 or under, because Christian "got them when they were 12, so he had to go younger".

Godwin has his own theory. "Women were certainly complicit in this," he says. "Although we didn't have time to go into it fully in a one-hour documentary, there was certainly evidence that women not only turned a blind eye, but offered up their daughters to older men in some cases.

"The widespread nature of this kind of activity, in my view, goes back to the island's origins, to the mutineers. We know that some of those women [they took] from Tahiti were very young, and I suspect many of those women may not have come of their own accord. We certainly have documentary evidence of men having sex with very young girls in Polynesia in that time. It was very much part of the culture then .... All those things feed into the situation today."

Last month, for the first time in the island's history, a case from Pitcairn arrived at Britain's highest court of appeal for Commonwealth countries, the Privy Council. Four out of the six men found guilty were seeking to have their convictions overturned. They argued that, because of their isolation, Pitcairn law, rather than British law, applied on the island. The Privy counsellors disagreed.

With their appeal crushed, two of those six men have begun their prison sentences. Another islander, Terry Young, will start his five-year term when a relative arrives on the island to look after his ageing mother. Of the three others convicted in the 2004 trial, one, Len Brown, has been granted two years of home detention, on the grounds of his age, and two others have hundreds of hours of community sentences awaiting them.

The situation on Pitcairn has changed already. Most of the island's children have now been shipped off to relatives in Australia and New Zealand. The British government, meanwhile, has poured money into Pitcairn in an effort to develop one of the last bastions of the Empire. Social workers, doctors, and, now, seven police officers have arrived on the island. Pitcairn's first road has just been built, as has its first guest house.

But it may already be too late to save Pitcairn. With half the native adult male workforce imprisoned or under supervision for the crimes that have made Pitcairn infamous, it is going to be hard for the island to soldier on. And the contention of some islanders that "tourism is the future" seems to be an optimistic one, given this scandal.

"I think [the islanders] are hoping that people come back to the island," says Godwin. "It had to happen anyway. It's an ageing population, so they need some young blood. It has been clear for a long time that women were leaving Pitcairn and never coming back, and now, of course, we know why."

Jacqui's story, though, gives the island a strange hope. Despite all that she has experienced, Jacqui still has "a dream" to go home and live in the tiny community where she grew up.

'Trouble in Paradise: The Pitcairn Story' is on Channel 4 on Thursday at 10.35pm