Serpent in Paradise
Island of Lost Girls
New York Times, October 29th, 2004
If there's a Paradise, it should be Pitcairn Island. The island, a mile-by-mile-and-a-half crag of dark volcanic rock marooned in the middle of the South Pacific, is home to just 47 people, mostly descendants of the famed mutineers from the British ship Bounty. The islanders pass their days hoeing peppers and sweet potatoes, fishing for shark from flat-bottomed canoes, and shooting down breadfruit from the trees with their muskets.
There are no roads, no cars, no airstrip, no banks, no
currency and no office hours. And, until recently,
Pitcairn, a British overseas territory, boasted of having
no crime. In 1991, when I stayed there for four months, no prosecutions had been brought in the island's two-century history, and none were foretold. The nearest sizable landmass - where you'll also find the closest lawyer, hospital, supermarket, high school and public phone booth - is 3,000 miles across the ocean in New Zealand.
When the mail arrived, lowered over the side of passing
ships into the island's longboat, the Pitcairners opened
the sacks of letters as they sat on the long bench in the square of the only settlement, Adamstown, and chuckled over their contents. The letters were from people pleading for permission to visit this perfect place.
The islanders had reason to laugh. They knew, even though
the wider world learned only recently, that Pitcairn is far from paradise. While distant dreamers imagined the island as an embodiment of perfection, child molesting was endemic. Girls were taken into the banana groves, pinned down and raped, sometimes by more than one man. This week, after a four-week trial, five Pitcairn men - half the men on the island - were found guilty of a horrific string of sexual offenses against minors stretching back more than 40 years (a sixth man pleaded guilty earlier). The island's mayor, Steve Christian, was convicted on five counts of rape against children as young as 12; he was sentenced yesterday to three years. Another man, Terry Young, was convicted of indecent assault on a 7-year-old, and more prosecutions are planned.
Such disturbing crimes are often attributed to the
influences of modern society, from pornography on the
Internet to the dissolution of the nuclear family. But on
the remote island of Pitcairn, you can't tune in to a
single TV channel, while Internet access is only a recent innovation. And the ties of community are very strong; there are only nine families, sharing four surnames. Everything commonly denounced as corrupting is absent. So why is such a pocket-sized island not Paradise, but an outcrop of Hell?
Throughout the trial, victims testified to simply putting
up with abuse because there was nowhere to go and no one
they could tell (in the last decade or so, for instance,
only a handful of outsiders have been allowed to stay any length of time on Pitcairn).
Both perpetrators and victims described this sexual "breaking in'' as normal.
Men could molest without fear of censure. The risks of falling out with your
neighbor/close relative/daughter's rapist were far too great; the Pitcairners
rely on each other for absolutely everything, from sharing the fish and the food
they grow to manning the longboats, the only way of reaching the passing ships
that are the sole source of supplies.
In such an atmosphere, petty tyrants flourish. Steve
Christian, who led many of the attacks, is not only mayor,
but also skipper of the island's longboat and its mechanic. When the nearest mechanic's shop is 3,000 miles away, the ability to fix the island's only tractor or restart the generator is too valuable to be threatened. The community needed Steve Christian.
At a distance, a small community like Pitcairn seems an
Eden compared to the dangers of urban life. We feel such a self-reliant place will provide a blueprint for a rosier future. But as this week's verdicts reveal, isolated communities are neither happier nor healthier places to raise our children. Free from the moderating gaze of outsiders and the rule of impartial law, abuse can continue unchecked. There are no police officers or lawyers to turn to, no place to escape. Big amorphous cities, not small homogenous communities, are where we have the opportunity to flourish.
If anything, the lesson from Pitcairn Island is, for your children's sake, live in New York.