Destroying Pitcairn

27 November 2003

Destroying Pitcairn

By Gwynne Dyer

“We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” as some US officer allegedly said during the Vietnam War. British justice is now about to do the same thing to the Pitcairn Islanders.

In an attempt to avert that outcome, defence lawyer Paul Dacre recently told the ‘Pitcairn Island Supreme Court’, sitting in Wellington, New Zealand, that it had no jurisdiction over the 47 people who live on the world’s most remote inhabited island. They were, he claimed, effectively a sovereign community, because the mutineers of HMS Bounty who settled the South Pacific island in 1790 had severed their ties to Britain when they burned the ship and hid themselves on Pitcairn to escape the wrath of the British navy.

Dacre wrapped it up in legal language — “The Pitcairn community remains a self-governing community, a community which can exercise its own sovereignty over itself and…has a set of rules and regulations which cover the situation which allegedly occurred on the island” — but his plea is a desperation measure that is bound to fail, since Britain has actually governed the island for many generations. However, the situation’ is truly desperate: about half the adult men of this ‘sovereign community’ face trial before the court next year on charges of rape, indecent assault and gross indecency going back over decades.

The investigation was triggered in 1999 by a 15-year-old girl who claimed to have been raped by a visiting New Zealander. A British policewoman, Constable Gail Cox of the Kent Police, was sent to the tiny, inbred island (there are only four family names) to investigate, and gradually other girls came forward with accounts of sexual mistreatment as well. The investigation broadened, and eventually detectives spoke to every woman who had lived on Pitcairn in the past twenty years, travelling to New Zealand, Australia and Britain. Then they brought charges against thirteen men, about half of the adult male Pitcairn Islanders in the world.

The seven men who currently live and work in New Zealand have already been charged; the six who are at home will soon be extradited and brought to New Zealand. The island’s women have petitioned against the men being removed from Pitcairn for trial, since without them there won’t be enough able-bodied men to get the long-boats that are the only link with passing cruise-ships down the slipways into the sea and back up again. (There is no airstrip and no harbour.) If the men facing trial are all jailed, it will end the Pitcairn community’s 200-year history.

With few men to do the heavy work of cutting wood, harvesting sugar-cane, and fishing for shark at home, and little money being sent back from those working in New Zealand, the island would probably have to be abandoned. On the other hand, the alleged crimes are very serious, in one case involving the abuse of a three-year-old girl, and at least some of the charges against some of the men are probably valid. Nobody would quibble if the British authorities acted this way against a gang of sexually abusive men operating in south London, but is it really the appropriate response for a tiny and unique community in the South Pacific?

To understand all is not to forgive all, but a bit of understanding rarely hurts. This is a community descended from the original nine mutineers who set Captain Bligh and the loyal members of HMS Bounty’s crew adrift in a lifeboat, tricked or forced a dozen Tahitian women into accompanying them to Pitcairn, and then killed each other in fights over which man would get which woman. (Within three years, only four mutineers were still alive.) In 1887 the entire community was converted by an American missionary to Seventh Day Adventism, since when alcohol, dancing, and even public displays of affection have been illegal on the island. And within this tiny, joyless community, the average person’s potential mates can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Dea Birkett, a British journalist who is one of the few outsiders to have spent a significant amount of time on the island, has observed that “if the average male Pitcairner slept with every female of his generation, his choice of partners would maybe reach five before he died. It’s like being trapped on the upstairs of a London bus for your whole life, and being forced to marry and have children only with one of the other passengers.”

Birkett, who preemptively confesses to having had a disastrous affair with a married man during her stay on the island, believes that the sheer isolation of this community explains a lot: “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 so very differently?”

We don’t have to answer that question, but right now an entire community is being judged by a court that is bound by law to assume that the rules which apply in London apply equally in Pitcairn Island. Sexual abuse is always a grave matter, but this is not a situation that calls for blind punishment. Nobody wins if the community is destroyed.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“The investigation…world”; and “With few…Pacific”)