30 September 2004

Cultural Conundrum on Pitcairn

By Gwynne Dyer

Is it “culturally acceptable” for adult men to have sex with twelve-year-old girls if everybody is doing it? That is what the defence lawyers for the seven men — half of the adult male population of Pitcairn Island — who are currently on trial for sexual assault and child sex abuse extending back over the past forty years have claimed. Some of the alleged “victims” say so, too.

“I was a wild one then, and I wanted it,” said Carol Warren, one of a group of thirteen Pitcairn women (a majority of the island’s adult female population) who held a press conference on 29 September to support the seven accused men and assert that sex with adolescents is part of Pitcairn’s history. She herself started having sex with Pitcairn men at twelve, she said. “You can’t blame the men. We know better now, and I would never recommend that for girls now, but it was the way then.”

The family names on Pitcairn are English-sounding (Christian, Warren, Brown and Young), but the people are not English. They are descended from nine British sailors who mutinied against Captain Bligh on the warship “Bounty” in 1789, and from a dozen Tahitian women whom they took with them when they sought out Pitcairn, an isolated dot lost in the South Pacific, to hide from the vengeance of the British navy.

Eight of the nine mutineers who settled on Pitcairn, a previously uninhabited island, died by violence within a decade. But the British navy did not find the little community for a generation, so there was no punishment — and it has clung to the island, currently numbering forty-seven residents, for over two centuries.

It is one of the smallest and most recent cultures on earth, a genuine Anglo-Polynesian hybrid — even the language Pitcairners speak among themselves, Pitkern, is a mixture of old-fashioned English and equally old-fashioned Tahitian — and it is as eccentric as you would expect such a tiny society to be. People growing up in a social universe that includes only half a dozen potential mates of the same generation are likely to develop some peculiar sexual customs.

On the British side, the Pitcairners’ ancestors were brutalised sailors from a navy where violence was the first resort, not the last. On the Polynesian side, they came from a society that traditionally considered girls sexually mature at twelve. Then they spent two centuries in almost complete isolation with no government, no courts and no police. No wonder they ended up a bit strange.

Even consensual sex between adults and twelve-year-olds is not acceptable in any modern society, and some of the Pitcairn women who grew up this way (and subsequently left the island, in most cases) have been deeply scarred by the experience. Rape is never acceptable, and there is lots of evidence that violence and compulsion were commonplace in the sexual behaviour of many, perhaps most Pitcairn men. “You get abused, you get raped. It’s a normal way of life on Pitcairn,” said one of the witnesses, now living in New Zealand, who testified by video link from Auckland.

Without prejudging the guilt or innocence of the seven men on trial, it’s clear that anybody found guilty of the crimes of which they are accused — rape and child sexual abuse — would go to jail for a very long time if they lived in a normal society. But in our own very large societies, only a tiny minority of men commit such crimes. It is obviously different when this behaviour becomes the norm, and is accepted even by most of the victims as normal. When you count the further six Pitcairn men, now living abroad, who face trial on similar charges next year, an absolute majority of the present generation of adult male Pitcairners are accused of rape and child molestation.

To say that a behaviour is “cultural” does not make it acceptable, but it does argue for a different approach to those who have committed what the larger culture defines as crimes. The behaviour must change and the violence and abuse must stop, but if the British-run court finds all the accused men guilty and locks them up for five to fifteen years, this little society will die. There will not even be enough grown men to man the longboats that go out to meet the passing cruise liners that are the island’s main link with the outside world.

There are some among the Pitcairners who suspect that this is Britain’s hidden goal — to destroy the viability of Pitcairn society so that the islanders leave and Britain no longer has to spend money supporting them — but the signs are that the colonial authorities have thought this through, and do not intend to shut Pitcairn Island down. During the eighteen months since the seven men now on trial were first charged, they have been free on bail — and employed in building a six-cell jail in the island’s only settlement.

The work paid well, even if they may be building their future home. At least it would be on the island, and the jail terms that are handed down, should they be found guilty, would probably be the sort of weekends-only sentences that would leave them free to go on supporting the community. It is hard for a big, rich society to reform the ways of a tiny one without mangling or crushing it in the process, but Britain does seem to be trying.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“It is…customs”; and”Even…Auckland”)