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Serpent in Paradise


Serpent in Paradise
My Hell In Paradise
Sunday Mirror, October 3rd, 2004


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 no surprise...

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.

Terry Young and Dennis Christian fishing
Terry Young and Dennis Christian fishing
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.

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 Pitcairn.

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... Kay Brown.

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 a crime?

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 Pitcairn.

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 place.

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