The story of the mutiny aboard William Bligh’s HMS Bounty is perhaps the most documented rebellion in naval history. Far-less known however is the story of what became of Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers. In their bid to evade capture by the Royal Navy, the mutineers stumbled across an uninhabited island isolated in the expanse of the South Pacific – Pitcairn – where their descendants live to this day.
Supplied annually from New Zealand, the islands have a population of around 50. There is no television, no cars, and the nearest airstrip is a three-day-boat journey away. What may seem like a tranquil paradise is overshadowed by 230 years of violence, depopulation, and, more recently, child-sex scandals.
Subsidised by taxpayers 14,500km away, this last outpost of the British Empire is a unique social experiment. One which reveals the perils of sustained generational isolation, as well as the ever-changing definition of modern morality and the complications caused when those morals are used to judge communities whose customs have not evolved along the same path.
When the mutineers arrived on Pitcairn in 1790 they comprised of nine Bounty crewmen, eleven Tahitian women, six Tahitian men and one baby. Knowing the alternative to refuge in isolation in the far reaches of the Pacific was capture and imprisonment or death at the hands of the Royal Navy, the community embedded itself into Pitcairn, one of four islands which would eventually become the British Pitcairn Island Colony.
Previously inhabited by since-departed Polynesian peoples, the island was adept for the sustenance of a small, permanent community. This failed to prevent violence from breaking out amongst the settlers. Fighting grew so intense that within five years, John Adams was the only surviving male in the community.
Having been granted amnesty for his part in the mutiny, the Adams-led commune began to flourish, and subsequent to official colonisation by Britain in 1838 the population was recorded at 193. This explosion in population size within such a narrow pool of breeders, within such a short period of time, indicates a culture of inbreeding and underage sex – problems which continue to define Pitcairn and its people.
The extended population stretched the island’s resources to the extreme, and under pressure from the crown the islanders agreed to relocate to Norfolk Island, a flax-growing outpost of Australia. However, after a few years 44 had returned, drawn back by their cultural attachment to the rocky Pacific outpost.
Largely left to govern their own affairs throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, the islands persisted in isolation and obscurity for over a hundred years. The islanders converted to Seventh Day Adventism after a visit from an American sailor, and economic self-sufficiency was achieved through the export of collectable stamps.
This all changed in 2004 when, following a tip-off made by a young girl to a visiting British Police Officer, a deeply entrenched culture of rape and under-age sex was exposed. Upon investigation during Operation Unique, headed by DI Peter George and Rob Vinson of Kent Police, a number of Pitcairn women revealed that they had frequently been sexually assaulted as children by men in the community.
These allegations, which stretched back years, unveiled an archaic paradigm in Pitcairn society: a striking inability to grasp the concept of statutory rape. Girls had been having sex with men as far back as any islander could remember. Testaments made by the men accused (seven on Pitcairn, including the mayor Steve Christian, and six abroad) stressed that in Polynesian culture, girls are seen to mature at an early age, and that this was something a judge representing modern British culture could not fully understand or officiate upon.
This was exacerbated by the fact that the islanders had set their own laws throughout the twentieth century, laws which did not explicitly forbid murder or rape. Such activity was seemingly often perpetrated, seldom spoken about, and generally accepted as simply the way things were.
The British, represented by a distant governor based in New Zealand, were conflicted in their approach. Should Pitcairn’s cultural quirks be taken into account, or should British law be enacted in full? The latter was opted for, and an official assault trial took place. The men accused helped to build a prison on the island in anticipation of the verdict. Six men were convicted, all of whom were living at home by 2010.
While it is easy to present the sexual assault trial as an imposition of modern values on an archaic culture, something which the men accused stressed, this is contrasted by the testimonies of the brave women who stepped forward. Those women, who while raised in a society that endeavoured to dismiss such crimes as ‘normal’, took their opportunity to end historical sexual injustices within their community. This came despite the implications it would inevitably have in the short-term for men they had lived with in isolation for their entire lives, and who they were often related to in some form.
Believed by some to be a conspiracy conjured by the British to depopulate the islands, the trials have left deep divisions between those islanders willing to listen to the testimonies of the outspoken women, and those who outright deny any wrongdoing. More often than not, denial is a refusal to accept that minors cannot consent to sex with an adult.
The issue persists: in 2010 Mike Warren, Mayor of Pitcairn, was charged with the possession of indecent images of children. Children aged under 16 must apply for an ‘entry clearance application’ prior to visiting the island, while the Foreign Office forbids any island-based staff to be accompanied by their children. Pitcairn highlights the need for imposed morality in the face of barbaric practices, whether or not such practices are seen as normal within a given community.
Rocked by the assault trials, the islanders now focus on survival. Emigration of their young, primarily to Australia and New Zealand, is casting doubt over the sustainable future of Pitcairn. Invitations for immigrants have been largely ignored, despite the creation of a Marine Reservation around the island and hopes for associated tourism. The costs and distances involved in visiting the island, as well as the negative publicity surrounding the territory, are preventing any such programmes from being significantly profitable.
It remains to be seen whether the scandal and incrimination of a third of the island’s adult men may lead to the extinction of a culture dating back to 1790. Time will tell whether wounds will heal. As a tiny democracy, government will be in the hands of the victims, parents and convicted alike. The coming years will reveal whether a community living in such extreme isolation can recover from a culture-changing scandal to build a platform for successive generations of islanders to persevere in the Pacific.
- YouTube – Trouble in Paradise: The Pitcairn Story
- Photos; Cover Photo: The Telegraph; Map: The Daily Mail