Paradise lost: Sex verdicts threaten Pitcarin’s survival

Island paradise or hell on Earth? Three New Zealand judges apparently took the latter view as they sentenced six of Pitcairn island’s few male inhabitants to two to six years in prison for numerous rapes and assaults that took place over a 40-year period on the last remnant of the British empire in the South Pacific.

Pitcairn is the resting place of the famous H.M.S. Bounty, which was burned and sunk there by mutineers in 1790. The tiny island, only 2½ by 1½ miles, is inhabited by just 47 men, women and children, almost all of them descendants of the mutineers. One of the most isolated inhabited places in the world, 1,000 miles southeast of Tahiti, the island is only reachable by cruise ship or merchant vessel, since there is no airstrip. About 10 to 15 cruise ships per year visit the island, with only about a quarter able to land passengers ashore via tenders, due to the lack of a harbor and the constant swell.

The subject of five movies and over 2,000 books and articles, the Bounty and Pitcairn have long held a romantic fascination for travelers, and the island has been one of the most prized destinations for cruisers.

Visiting the island in May of 2004 aboard the M.V. Discovery, I found the islanders pleasant, cheerful and fascinating but bitter against what they saw as the heavy-handed and irrational British system of justice. Like many visitors, I was not able to go ashore due to 8-foot waves at the island dock, but all the islanders came out to the ship in their longboat and set up an impromptu market in the ship’s dining room.

Island mayor sentenced to prison

Sentences were handed down to the following men, who made up almost half the adult male population:

• Steve Christian, mayor of the island and a direct descendant of Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutineers. The 53-year-old mayor was sentenced to three years in prison for five rapes against women and girls as young as 12.

• Randy Christian, 28, who is Steve Christian’s son and the island chairman and engineer. Convicted of four rapes and five indecent assaults, he received six years in prison.

• Dennis Christian, 49, the island postmaster. He received community service after pleading guilty to one indecent assault and two sexual assaults.

• Len Brown, 78. He was convicted of two rapes and sentenced to two years in jail.

• Dave Brown, son of Len Brown. He was convicted of nine indecent assaults and sentenced to community service.

• Terry Young, 42, tractor driver. Convicted of one rape and six indecent assaults, he received five years in prison.

Only one of the charged men, the island’s magistrate, Jay Warren, was cleared of the charges against him. Six more Pitcairn men, now residents of Australia and New Zealand, face trial over similar sex charges.

The chief judge, Charles Blackie, acknowledged that the sentences were relatively light but stated that the future of the island could be threatened by harsh sentences. He said the “sentences were tailored to Pitcairn” and “took into account factors unique to the island, such as its isolation, permanent population of less than 50, and dependence on the manpower of its able-bodied citizens.”

Indeed, many residents and supporters around the world fear that the trial and the sentences may doom the island. With no airstrip and no harbor, the island depends for its entire existence on the ability of its few healthy adult men to launch a heavy, 50-foot aluminum longboat to go out to ships to pick up supplies and sell goods. If those men are in prison, the fragile island economy and society may collapse.

Some observers have stated that because of this concern, many of the men sentenced to prison may serve their terms on the island and may be let out of jail when needed for longboat duty.

Bizarre trial

The trial was one of the strangest in British history. The British delegated jurisdiction to New Zealand despite the fact that the island is a British colony. All elements for the trial had to be imported to Pitcairn at huge expense to the New Zealand taxpayers, including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, media mavens, court reporters and their gear and food. Most of these people and their gear had to be landed via the island longboat, usually manned by the accused!

The island’s population almost doubled in size. The island’s community center, normally a place for singalongs and birthday parties, was converted into a makeshift courtroom. The accused men were offered $5 per hour to build their own jail, which has barred windows and a 15-foot-high wire fence. All the accused agreed to build their own future prison.

None of the accusing women attended the trial in person, and all testified via satellite link from Auckland, New Zealand. Women residents of the island complained about this, generally taking the side of the accused men. Amazingly, virtually none of the islanders attended the trial unless compelled to by the court. The island is literally so insular and it is so important not to offend the few other islanders that almost all the residents tried to ignore the allegations and the hoopla of the huge event taking place just yards from their homes.

During the trial, prosecutors painted a picture of a male-dominated society in which underage sex and assaults on children were common. Yet defenders countered with a description of an island culture based on relaxed Tahitian mores about sex, where there was little to do except work and make love and where the absence of potential partners of similar age meant that unusual age pairings were the norm.

Disastrous island history

The sex trial was just the latest in a series of disasters that have plagued the island since the mutiny.

Most moviegoers have the impression that mutiny leader Fletcher Christian was a wise man who was pushed to the breaking point by a tyrannical Captain Bligh. Pushed he was, but wise he was not.

When he settled Pitcairn, Christian divided the island into nine equal parts for the nine English mutineers but ignored the pleas for land by the Tahitian men and women he had brought along from Tahiti. The Tahitian men launched their own mutiny and plotted to kill the Englishmen. Tipped off by the Tahitian women, the Englishmen struck first, slaughtering most of the Tahitian men. Fletcher Christian was killed in one of these battles.

Later the Tahitian women also tried to revolt and build a raft to leave the island. Their rebellion was thwarted and they became the virtual slaves — and sex slaves — of the English sailors.

Soon the remaining Englishmen learned how to brew spirits from a local plant. This led to mass drunkenness, rapes and debauchery. Many of the Englishmen died by falling off the island cliffs while drunk. These cliffs are still commemorated by names such as Where Dick Fell, Where Freddy Fall, Tom Off, McCoy’s Drop, Break’um Hip and the mysterious but ominous “Oh, Dear.” By 1800, 10 years after the mutiny, only one adult male was left.

For a while the island was peaceful, but in 1832 a puritanical busybody named Joshua Hill landed, claiming to have been sent by the British government. He made himself president of the “commonwealth” of Pitcairn, expelled islanders he disliked, introduced severe punishments for minor misdeeds and ruled in a demented fashion for six years. Finally he was removed by a British warship, whose captain confirmed that Hill had no authority from the British government.

On at least two occasions large groups of islanders have been persuaded or forced to leave the island and emigrate to Norfolk Island or New Zealand. As a result, there are about 6,000 persons around the world who are Pitcairn descendants. But, often these emigrants have been unhappy, and many have returned to Pitcairn seeking what they feel is their island paradise.

Was the trial illegal and a waste of money?

The final twist in the Pitcairn story may be the island’s strange future. Defense lawyers argued that the entire trial was illegal because the mutiny on and burning of the Bounty was a declaration of independence from British authority by the Pitcairn islanders.

Thus the British and New Zealand police had no authority to even trespass on, much less investigate, the island. Early in the trial, judges rejected these arguments, but later they reconsidered. They will hear final arguments in the spring of 2005. In the unlikely event that this reasoning is accepted, the convicted men will be free.

Amazingly, troubled Pitcairn could become the latest and smallest independent country on the ITN Official List of Nations!

Cruise ships which will likely visit Pitcairn in 2005 include the Paul Gauguin, World Discoverer, Discovery and Clipper Odyssey.

In next month’s column, I’ll write about the Queen Mary 2.