How paradise island became outcrop of hell

By Dea Birkett

It should be the Garden of Eden.

In 1789, Fletcher Christian cast the heartless Captain Bligh over the side of HMS Bounty and, with a handful of grass-skirted Tahitians, reached the mischarted island of Pitcairn to found their own private paradise. Today, the mutineer's descendants pass their days hoeing peppers and sweet potatoes, fishing for shark, and shooting down breadfruit from trees with their muskets.

This 1,6km by 2,4km crag of dark volcanic rock, marooned in the middle of the South Pacific, is home to just 40 people. There are no roads, no cars, no banks, no currency, no office hours, and little contact with the outside world. There is no airstrip. Even post is only delivered every few months by passing cargo ships. The nearest landmass - where you will also find the nearest hospital, supermarket, secondary school and phone booth - is 5 000km away in New Zealand.

From afar, Pitcairn is a paradisical vision. Or it seemed so to me.

One rainy afternoon in London, I watched the latest of five Hollywood movies depicting the events of 1789. Outside were the dull, drizzly London streets; on the screen I watched a story of liberation unfold, as Christian (played by Mel Gibson) made a dash across the seas for freedom. The film drew to a close and the credits rolled, with the words… "and his descendants have lived on the island to this very day". I decided to leave for Pitcairn Island.

But this fabulous legend, which took me on an 8 000km sea voyage to Pitcairn's craggy coastline, may be drawing to an end. For the past six years, British police officers have been visiting the remotest community on earth, still a British dependency, and interviewing every single islander as part of a sexual offences investigation. Last month, nine Pitcairn men - almost every adult male on the island - were charged with sex offences ranging from rape to indecent assault. (The names of the accused have not been made public under the island's laws.) Girls as young as seven are said to have been abused.

Such crimes are usually attributed to the influences of modern society, from pornography on the internet to the dissolution of the family. But on the remote island of Pitcairn, there isn't even a television. And everyone is related to everyone else.

There are only nine families sharing four surnames - Young, Warren, Brown and Christian. Everything denounced as corrupting is absent on Pitcairn. There is nothing to blame. So how did such a pocket-sized paradise become an outcrop of hell?

Pitcairn's claustrophobia cannot be exaggerated. On the island's only form of transport - the three-wheeled all-terrain motorcycles - you can reach anywhere on the island with minutes. There is no spot so far away that you cannot hear the crash of the surf. There is nowhere to go, no means of escape.

The history of the mutiny haunts the lush subtropical island. The Bounty's anchor stands on a plinth in the square of Adamstown, the capital and only settlement on the island, no more than a scattering of hardboard and tin-roofed houses, many abandoned. The skeleton wreck of the Bounty itself lies in shallow water just off Ship Landing Point; I dived down and touched the bare ribs of the boat. The Bounty's Bible rests in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the only brick building. In 1887, an American missionary vessel stopped at Pitcairn and converted all the islanders at once. The pigs - forbidden meat - were pushed over the edge of the cliff. Adventism has been the island's one and only faith. It is strict and often a joyless creed.

Alcohol and dancing (even with your wife) are forbidden, and it is illegal to show affection in public.

To the outside world, Pitcairn is the most romantic story ever told. But if you are born on Pitcairn, your life is inevitably thwarted. Questions we ask ourselves and our children - What are your ambitions? What do you want to be? - are inappropriate, even meaningless. Islander Nigger Brown, approaching 40, told me: "When I was 25, I didn't care that I would be doing the same thing for the rest of my life. Now it's a horrible thought that I will never do anything else than what I'm doing now."

Even the most personal life choices are unimaginably curtailed. One night, over an illicit beer, Dennis Christian, unmarried sixth generation descendant of the mutineer, confessed: "You don't know what lonely is. Not where you're from." Dennis had only two women to choose from as a wife, both he'd known since a young child. If an adult male Pitcairner slept with every female of his generation, his total choice of sexual partners would maybe reach five before he died.

It's like being trapped upstairs on a bus for your whole life and being forced to marry and have children with one of the other passengers.

Starved of real choices, Pitcairners develop relationships considered unacceptable elsewhere. Sisters share a husband. Teenage girls have affairs with older men. Women have children by more than one partner, often starting as young as 15. But, faced with such limited choices ourselves, would we act differently?

Indeed, I didn't. In such a small place, where privacy is as foreign as supermarkets and doctor's surgeries, the need for special intimacy with someone - almost anyone - was overwhelming. If only I could forge a relationship, I believed I could survive the island's isolation. I just needed a mate, for my body and soul.

There were only two unmarried men on the island - Dennis Christian and his best friend, Terry Young. Neither of them were for me. So I did something I would not have done anywhere else, something very out of character. I slept with a married man.

Maybe I should have seen what would happen. But I come from a city of eight million, where one individual's actions are lost in the vast swell. I soon discovered there is no such thing as a private affair in such a small place. In less than 24 hours, everyone knew about us but nobody said anything out loud. That's how things operate on Pitcairn - by implication and innuendo. Direct accusations are avoided at all costs; confrontation is anathema. There isn't anywhere to go for a few hours to cool down if an argument breaks out. "The islanders are frightened of retribution," said Rick Ferret, the Seventh Day Adventist pastor.

"They're scared that if they say or do something against someone, that person will get back at them at some later date. You can't just walk away from it here." So accusations are raised through an ancient and very effective weapon - gossip. Once a rumour was whispered, it was as good as true. I was condemned.

Soon the behaviour being attributed to me bore no resemblance to the mild and brief fling that had actually occurred. It was said I was sleeping with just about everyone. There was no one I could call to my defence, not even the man with whom I had had the brief affair.

He was a Pitcairner, and in siding with me he would not only have been unfaithful to his family but to his people.

The affair taught me two things: the first was that under the different pressures of this society I had behaved in a way I would never have expected, perhaps even badly. The second was how easy it would be for injustice to flourish on the island. As an outsider, I had no natural allies.

I became afraid. I couldn't exactly turn to the police officer for help.

Like all government posts, the police officer rotated among the islanders, so was everyone, however competent or incompetent, had a turn. No police officer had ever made an arrest. And at the time of my affair, the police officer was my lover.

Last December, at the British government's request, the New Zealand parliament passed a law allowing for the case against the nine accused men to be heard in Auckland. A trial on Pitcairn seemed impossible. While I was on the island, the court house, not used in living memory, was renamed the public hall.

The three-cell jail had no doors, holes where there should be windows and was used to store life jackets.

This request was the end of an investigation that began six years ago in 1997, when an accusation was made against a Pitcairner by the father of a visitor to the island once they had returned to Australia. That accusation was never pursued, but it set in train a series of visits by British police officers during which time more allegations were made.

Many islanders - men and women - have spoken out against the accusations that Pitcairn suffers from a "culture of abuse".

Yet now there are an alleged 20 victims - almost the entire female population of the island. Nearly every family must have an accuser or an accuser living under their tin roof. Sometimes they will have both, sharing a bowl of rice sweetened with molasses. Still, they continue to live in this isolated spot, refusing to abandon their isolated rock, strangely protecting each other from presumptions of the wider world.

The island's women have petitioned against the men being removed from the island for trial.

By taking the men to New Zealand, not just the nine men, but the whole island's future would be put on trial.

How would Pitcairn's elderly women and children manage to cut the wood, fish for shark, harvest the sugar cane and haul the longboats down the slipway to go out to the ships? Without the longboats, the island would be totally cut off.

On Pitcairn, every person counts and everyone is needed. Whether the men were found guilty or innocent, the 200-year legend would come to a close.

Perhaps that legend itself is to blame for Pitcairn's threatened demise. For, in truth, Pitcairn was never a Utopia and the Pitcairners are not, and never were, an Elysian tribe. These recent charges are not the first time there have been questions over the propriety of Pitcairn's men.

More than 200 years ago, Fletcher Christian either forced or tricked 12 Tahitian women into boarding the Bounty; they wouldn't have left their families and homeland willingly to accompany a bunch of disease-ridden, renegade British seafarers to an uncertain fate. And when the nine mutineers arrived with the dozen women and six Tahitian men at Pitcairn, fighting broke out almost immediately.

The mutineers had claimed a woman each, leaving the remaining three for the six Tahitian men to share between them. - Foreign Service

  • Dea Birkett's Serpent in Paradise, about her time on Pitcairn, is published by Anchor Books in Britain


  • sign up