Serpent in Paradise
My Hell In Paradise
October 3rd, 2004
BRIT GIRL'S NIGHTMARE STAY ON PITCAIRN ISLAND
PITCAIRN Island, famous as the refuge of the mutineers of the
Bounty, is at the centre of shocking claims of child sex abuse
- said to have been an accepted part of island life for more
than 200 years.
British writer DEA BIRKETT spent four scared and lonely months
among this isolated community. And she says the claims come as
WHEN I first landed on Pitcairn, I thought I was entering the
last remaining Paradise on Earth. Just imagine it. There's no
bank, no hospital, no currency, no roads, no cars and no office
hours. There's only one phone on the whole island. What more
could a refugee from the modern world want?
The 47 islanders, mostly descendants of Fletcher Christian and
his fellow mutineers, pass their days hoeing peppers and sweet
potatoes, fishing for shark and shooting breadfruit down from
trees with their .22 rifles. The only thing that passes for an
industry there is honey-making.
But this image of an idyllic island has been shattered. When
the trial opened of seven Pitcairners - the majority of the island's
men - for 55 sexual offences against children, including rape,
spreading over 40 years, the allegations shocked the world. But
I'm not shocked. I spent four months living with the people on
this island, and I learned that life at the end of the earth
can be lonely and brutal.
When I arrived there by the only means possible - joining a
cargo ship across the South Pacific and convincing the captain
to wait a few miles offshore while the men came out for me in
their longboat - the first thing I saw was a huge painted sign
hanging over a boat shed. 'Welcome to Pitcairn' it said.
It seemed a good omen. I had wanted to go there ever since,
diving into a cinema on a rainy day in London, I saw a muscle-bound
Mel Gibson in Mutiny on the Bounty.
I thought I'd be happy on this speck of volcanic rock, making
my home among the handful of its inhabitants, the half-English,
half-Polynesian descendants of the Bounty mutineers and the Tahitian
women they took with them.
It took just a few weeks - and an affair with one of the island
men - to show me just how wrong I was. This was an island locked
in its 18th Century past. There was no rule of law. Instead of
Paradise I found a tiny outcrop of Hell.
Every corner of this ramshackle settlement is haunted by the
mutiny. The Bounty's Bible rests in the Seventh Day Adventist
Church, the only brick building on Pitcairn. It's a strict and
often joyless creed. Alcohol and dancing - even with your wife
- are forbidden. I stayed in the home of Irma and her adult son
Dennis, sixth-generation descendant of the mutineer Fletcher
Christian. I didn't need to earn money - I lived for free in
exchange for cleaning, gardening and cooking.
Pitcairn has no airstrip and is 3,000 miles from the nearest
landmass, New Zealand. There were only nine families on the island,
sharing four surnames - Christian, Young, Warren and Brown.
Everyone knew what everyone else was doing, every minute of
the day. They go about barefoot and can read each other's footprints.
And you couldn't avoid detection by driving the three-wheel
motorbikes that are the only form of transport. Terry Young,
Dennis's best friend and the only other unmarried man on the
island, boasted to me: "I can tell all 'em bikes."
In such a small place, the desire for special intimacy with
someone - almost anyone - is overwhelming. I just needed a mate,
for my body and soul. So I slept with Kay Brown. His wife and
child were away in New Zealand. I too had a longtime boyfriend.
Kay spotted I was lonely and easy prey.
I've never had an affair with a married man, before or since.
But Pitcairn can make you act in ways that break your principles.
It is worth bearing this in mind as this dreadful court case
unfolds. The number of choices you have in such a small community
is difficult for us to understand.
||Terry Young and Dennis Christian fishing
The simple fact about sex on Pitcairn is this: If an islander
slept with every female of his generation, his total choice of
sexual partners would maybe reach four or five. As a result they
develop relationships we'd consider unacceptable. Women have
children by more than one partner, often starting as young as
15. Sisters share a husband. Teenage girls have affairs with
older men. And there is no such thing as a private affair on
Within less than a day, everyone was gossiping about my bad
behaviour, and I was accused of being a serial adulterer. I realised
how easy it would be for injustice to flourish. No one would
be prepared to stand up for me if that meant pointing a finger
at family. And everybody was family. I couldn't even turn to
the police for help. The post of police officer rotated among
the islanders and at the time of my affair, the officer was...
I began to imagine the worst. What if I "accidentally" slipped
from the rocks while fishing, or was struck by a stray bullet
intended to shoot down one of the breadfruit? Who would come
forward and accuse a brother, cousin, uncle or parent of such
I began to understand how difficult it must be for some of the
complainants in the trial to speak out. All of them have left
It is as difficult to leave as it is to arrive. Every day I'd
scan the horizon for a passing ship. It took weeks before one
received my radio message and agreed to pick me up.
I departed for Britain and my boyfriend who waited for me and
with whom I now have three children.
As I went out over the swell in the longboat, I realised I was
sailing away not from paradise, but from an unhappy and tortured
back to top