The paradise that's under a cloud

Pitcairn Island, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, has an idyllic reputation. But life isn't easy for its few dozen remaining inhabitants. Now allegations of sexual abuse may prove the final straw.
Click to follow

In Western eyes, the South Seas have always evoked sybaritic images of languidly swaying palm trees and smiling Polynesian women. "The Tahitians know no other god but love," wrote an 18th-century scientist, gladly abandoning reason for passion. "Every day is consecrated to it, the whole island is its temple, all the women are its idols, all the men its worshippers."

The crew of HMS Bounty were similarly overcome when they arrived in Tahiti in 1788 to gather a cargo of breadfruit saplings. After staging their famous uprising against Captain Bligh, Fletcher Christian and his men returned to Tahiti to collect their female companions before scouring the South Pacific for a safe haven, finally settling on Pitcairn Island.

Whether the Polynesians went willingly is unclear; according to one account, the ship set sail as they slept off an evening of feasting on deck. The Englishmen apparently cared little; as they saw it, the function of the women – and the girls – was to serve their needs. And that, allegedly, remains the view of some descendants of Fletcher and his fellow mutineers.

Pitcairn, a pinprick of volcanic rock 3,000 miles from New Zealand, is Britain's last dependency in the South Seas and home to about 50 people, mainly of Bounty heritage. It is one of the most isolated spots on earth and one of the most idealised, thanks to its idyllic setting and the lure of the Bounty legend, the inspiration for five Hollywood films starring the likes of Erroll Flynn, Clark Gable and Marlon Brando.

That mystique, however, is about to be dispelled by claims of widespread sexual abuse on the island. A public prosecutor in Auckland, Simon Moore, is examining allegations against at least 20 men who live or used to live on Pitcairn. If he decides to proceed, the inner workings of this tiny community will be laid bare at one of the most sensational trials of modern times; and, many believe, the death-knell will be sounded for an already struggling community.

Kent Police – who have a historic responsibility for the island – uncovered dozens of allegations during a two-year criminal investigation, most of which are understood to relate to girls aged between 10 and 15 when they were allegedly raped or had sexual relations with teenage boys or adult men.

No charges have yet been laid, but already many of Pitcairn's supporters are arguing that the entire affair is based on a misconception. They claim, variously, that the age of consent on the island has long been 12 or 14, and say that if girls become sexually active earlier than in Western societies, it stems from their part-Polynesian ancestry and should be respected.

That hypothesis does not withstand scrutiny, not least because some victims were allegedly five years old or younger, but it illustrates the degree of protectiveness felt by outsiders with a stake in Pitcairn's Utopian dream. There are fan clubs around the globe where the minutiae of life on the two square-mile outcrop are avidly debated by, among others, Bounty junkies, South Seas fantasists and some followers of the Seventh Day Adventist faith, to which Pitcairners were converted en masse in the 19th century.

In reality, the island does not fit the stereotype of a South Pacific paradise. It has no beaches or coral reefs, not even a harbour, so all supplies must be hauled in by longboat. It is accessible only by sea, requiring an eight-day voyage from New Zealand or three days from French Polynesia. Visitors are greeted by a rugged landscape of towering rocks; the most common cause of death after old age is falling off a cliff.

There are no cars on Pitcairn, and no television, while communication with the outside world is limited to twice-yearly mail deliveries, one satellite telephone and Citizens' Band radio. Locals go fishing, tend their vegetable gardens and carve wooden souvenirs to sell to passing cruise ships. It sounds a delightfully simple existence; in reality, daily life is numbingly ordinary. "It's like a small town in England," said Sheils Carnehan, a New Zealander who taught there for two years. "The only difference is you can't get away."

While some travellers have been charmed by the idiosyncracies of Pitcairners, who still bear the surnames of their mutinous ancestors, others have returned with tales of a claustrophobic, inter-related community riven by petty arguments and long-running feuds.

Far more damaging are the potential criminal proceedings, set in motion by a 15-year-old girl who claimed in 1999 that she had been raped by a New Zealander in his twenties. That was dealt with by islanders and the young man sent away, but it prompted other girls to come forward with accounts of alleged sexual mistreatment at the hands of locals.

A Kent constable, Gail Cox, who was temporarily stationed on Pitcairn, began an inquiry that exploded into a major investigation. Over the next two years, travelling to Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Norfolk Island, police interviewed every woman and girl who had lived on the island during the past two decades, as well as each of the alleged offenders. Their file is with Simon Moore, an Auckland lawyer appointed Pitcairn Public Prosecutor by Britain for the purposes of the investigation.

While the allegations have caused ripples of shock in many quarters, some observers are less surprised. Josh Benton, a journalist with the Dallas Morning News, was struck by the sexual precocity of young girls when he spent a week on the island in 1999. He says: "I would have expected the opposite to be true, because we hear so much about the power of the media in sexualising young girls, yet none of those influences exist on Pitcairn."

Neville Tosen, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor who recently spent two years there, was also perturbed by children's conduct. "I noticed worrying signs such as inexplicable mood swings," he says. "It took me three months to realise they were being abused. I tried to raise the subject at a meeting of the island council, and one gentleman replied: 'Look, the age of consent has always been 12 and it doesn't hurt them.'"

Tosen, who now lives in Australia, says island records and personal anecdotes showed that most women had their first child between 12 and 15. "I think the girls were conditioned to accept that it was a man's world and once they turned 12, they were eligible," he says. "If you look back, it seems that each man had his own particular young girl."

He asked the mothers and grandmothers how they could allow such things. "Their reply was that nothing had changed. They said: 'We went through it too; it's all part of life on Pitcairn.' One grandmother wondered what all the fuss was about. But the girls are damaged; they can't settle or form solid relationships. They did suffer, no doubt about it."

Current residents have declined to discuss the case itself, but Jacqui Christian, whose parents, Tom and Betty, live on Pitcairn, says the notion of a culture of abuse is nonsense. "It's a fantastic place to grow up," says Christian, who went to school in New Zealand at 15 and now lives in Queensland. "There's total freedom and the whole island is your backyard."

Others paint a less blissful picture. After coaching the schoolchildren in public speaking, Sheils Carnehan organised an evening for them to show off their new skills. Not a single parent turned up to listen.

Pitcairn – which is governed from Wellington by the British High Commissioner to New Zealand, Richard Fell – first came to the notice of Kent police in 1997, when Detective Superintendent Dennis McGookin investigated the alleged rape of an 11-year-old visitor by a local man of 19. He concluded that they had been in a long-term consensual relationship, but is understood to have been alarmed by what he described as an epidemic of alcohol- and firearms-related crime.

Those fears were scoffed at by islanders, who said they use their guns to shoot breadfruit out of the trees. For Herb Ford, director of the Seventh Day Adventist-sponsored Pitcairn Islands Study Centre in California, the latest case demonstrates another gulf in understanding. "You can't superimpose British law on a tiny Pacific island which, by dint of a mixture of two cultures a long time ago, is a little different from downtown London," he says.

But the cultural relativism argument is dismissed by Sheils Carnehan: "That's pathetic. They're West- erners; they don't lead a Polynesian lifestyle and most of them have spent time in New Zealand or Australia. If it was culturally acceptable, why did they hide it? They didn't want the outside world to know."

The investigation was conducted as a parallel inquiry was unfolding on Norfolk Island, 900 miles off the Queensland coast, where a shipload of Pitcairners decamped in the 19th century. On Norfolk, still home to 600 Bounty descendants, a prominent businessman, Stephen Nobbs, was convicted last year of paedophilia offences going back 20 years. His lenient sentence – he was jailed every weekend for 48 weeks – angered many locals, who claimed that sexual abuse is rife on the island.

Neville Tosen is convinced that the two cases have similar origins. He points to the early years on Pitcairn, when 13 people were murdered – many in fights over women – before John Adams, the sole surviving mutineer, pacified the community with the help of the Bible. "This is the island that the gospel changed, but the changes were only superficial," Tosen says. "Deep down, they adhered to the mutineers' mentality. They must have known that their lifestyle was unacceptable, but it was too entrenched."

Glynn Christian, a direct descendant and biographer of Fletcher, blames "decades of neglect" by the British government. "There was never a police officer or anyone independent on the island, so these poor girls had no one to tell," says Christian, a former BBC television chef who lives in Auckland. "Pitcairn has been completely left to its own devices. If it were not so isolated, social attitudes would be different."

With Pitcairn's viability in doubt because of depopulation and economic hardship, many people believe that a high-profile trial would be the final nail. At present, there are just enough able-bodied men to man the two longboats, so the jailing of even one or two would have dire consequences. Negative publicity would stem the stream of gifts sent by outsiders, while the cruise ships to which islanders sell handicrafts would probably stop calling.

Recalling the mood when the investigation began, Tosen says: "Everyone got the fright of their lives. Some of the men seemed quite clear they were going to jail. They started cutting firewood for their mothers and their wives and laying in stocks for a long period. The elderly ladies were very worried; they saw their whole future at risk. One said to me: 'They're going to take my son away and hang him.'"

The potential impact on the community is being given substantial weight by Moore during his difficult deliberations on whether to prosecute. He even went to Pitcairn, spending 10 days there to assess the likely effects. Sources close to him say that if a prosecution were to go ahead, a trial would not be held on the island because alleged victims could not be expected to make the trip. The venue would be either New Zealand or Britain, both of which present huge logistical problems.

On Pitcairn, meanwhile, life continues as before. "They carry on fishing, growing their gardens and fixing their lawn mowers," says Tosen. "They know they have to go on leading their day-to-day lives. The first law of Pitcairn has always been survival."