Serpent in Paradise
The Guardian, September 18th, 2004
On the last day of August, a familiar scene unfolded in Bounty
Bay, Pitcairn Island. A supply ship arrived after a 10-day sail
from New Zealand, the nearest landmass, and anchored a mile offshore
- the island has no harbour. Pitcairn's men heaved the longboats
down the slipway into the jittery water. The South Pacific surrounding
this mile-by-mile-and-a-half crag of dark, volcanic rock is rarely
still. The previous supply ship, a month earlier, had been unable
to stop long because of fierce storms and huge swell, and sailed
on, carrying most of the cargo with it.
But on this rare calm day, the longboats aligned themselves against
the side of the ship and a rope ladder was thrown down from the
deck high above. The men scrambled on board and began to lower
the cargo over the side, taking care in the pitching open sea
not to damage any supplies as they banged and banged against
the steel ramparts of the ship. Among the regular goods - sacks
of flour, drums of cooking oil, boxes of basic medical supplies,
barrels of fuel - was a large consignment of high wire fencing
and massive steel gates.
" It looked so sad, and it was difficult to hold back the
tears as I saw these items arrive on our island home," writes
Mike Warren, one of the Pitcairn men working the longboats. The
wire fencing and steel gates were for a new development on this
remote outcrop. Pitcairn is building a prison.
Next week, seven Pitcairners - almost two-thirds of the men
on the island, from a total population of fewer than 40 - will
go on trial for sexual offences ranging from gross indecency
and indecent assault to rape. The accused - Jay Warren, Dennis
Christian, Len Brown, Terry Young, Dave Brown, Steve Christian
and Randy Christian - face 96 charges between them. All are against
children who are now adults.
|Approaching Pitcairn Island
These seven men are among the stalwarts of the community. Steve
Christian, 52, is mayor of Pitcairn. He's a good mechanic, able
to fix the all-terrain three-wheel motorbikes, Pitcairn's only
form of transport, and start the tractor's engine when no one
else can. He is also the island's dentist, having done a three-month
dental course in New Zealand many years ago; he can only do extractions.
His family home - known as Big Fence - is the largest on the
island, and his family is the chieftain tribe. Steve is a good
leader, a rare skill on an island where people are reluctant
to tell others what to do. That is why he always captains the
most powerful of the two longboats. His son Randy, 29, the youngest
of the accused, has recently had a baby with his wife Nadine.
He is chairman of the island council's internal committee.
Best friends Dennis Christian, 47, and Terry Young, 43, a descendant
of mutineer midshipman Edward Young, are rarely seen at a longboat's
helm. Both are quiet and, unusually for Pitcairn, unmarried.
For many years, Dennis has acted as the island's postmaster;
Pitcairn stamps are collector's items.
Dave Brown, 46, nicknamed the Mouth because he shouts when he
talks, whose wife and two children also live on Pitcairn, is
Len Brown's son and the brother of Olive, Steve's wife; Len,
76 and the oldest defendant, is the island's best fisherman,
catching fafaye, hoo-oo-oo and nanwe from the rocks, or giant
wahoo and kingfish from the flat-bottomed canoes.
Jay Warren, 45, a family man with three adult children and eight
grandchildren, who long served as island magistrate, faces the
most minor allegation - putting a hand down a girl's bikini in
Bounty Bay, before she swam away.
Some of these accused worked alongside the remaining island
men to bring ashore the ominous load in the longboats. They loaded
the rolls of wire fencing and steel gates on to the back of the
island's only tractor, driving it up the unpaved path, known
as the Hill of Difficulty, which leads up the steep cliff from
Bounty Bay to Adamstown, a scattering of simple houses and the
island's only settlement. They have already built three cells
of the remand centre in which, if they are found guilty, they
could be imprisoned; a further three are under construction.
New security lighting flooded the area. It just remained for
the prison perimeter to be erected.
The decision to proceed to trial had been made less than three
weeks earlier, 3,300 miles away in court number nine, Auckland
District Court. Outside was a drizzly New Zealand afternoon;
inside, the courtroom was a little piece of Pitcairn. In recognition
of the court's unique legal status, on one side of the judge's
bench hung a union flag and on the other the dark blue Pitcairn
flag. Pitcairn is Britain's last overseas territory in the Pacific,
with a governor, who is also British high commissioner to New
Zealand and resident in Wellington; Pitcairners hold British
That hearing was Pitcairn's last chance to extricate itself
from British justice. The defence team had previously argued
that the trials could not continue because, despite Pitcairn's
status as an overseas territory, Britain did not hold sovereignty
over the island. The inhabitants were descendants of "pirates
and traitors", men who mutinied against Captain Bligh on
HMS Bounty in 1789 and fled to Pitcairn Island to escape the
gallows. The mutineers, together with the Tahitian women they
took with them, had settled the uninhabited island (which was
incorrectly charted and therefore extremely difficult to find)
and set their ship alight. By this act of rebellion, the defence
argued, the islanders were declaring themselves a rebel state,
free from British control.
The decision to go to trial has repercussions beyond the fate
of the seven accused. Since its founding, Pitcairn has been perceived
as an earthly paradise.
Walter Brodie, shipwrecked on the island in 1850, wrote that
it was "the realisation of Arcadia, or what we had been
accustomed to suppose had existence only in poetic imagination
. . . There is neither wealth nor want, a primitive simplicity
of life and manner, perfect equality in rank and station, and
perfect content." Pitcairn was paraded as proof of the possibility
of redemption. Four Hollywood movies have been made about the
mutiny, each Fletcher Christian - from Clark Gable to Mel Gibson
- a portrait of youth and hope, striking out for freedom.
||The Hill of Difficulty, leading up from
Bounty Bay to Adamstown
The legend lives on, or admirers of the island would like to
think it does. Organisations such as the Friends of Pitcairn
and the Pitcairn Islands Study Centre condemn the British government
for pursuing the case. For, even if all the accused are acquitted,
Pitcairn's idyllic image will be shattered. The islanders' sexual
practices will be picked over in open court. Whatever the verdicts,
the stain of those accusations will remain.
Pitcairn's fall began in the late 1990s, when an allegation
of rape was made by a visitor to the island on behalf of his
daughter. Two officers with Kent county constabulary, Detective
Superintendent Dennis McGookin and his colleague Detective Sergeant
Peter George, were sent 12,000 miles to Pitcairn to investigate.
They were the first British police officers ever to set foot
on the island. Although the rape case was dropped and a caution
concerning underage sex given, McGookin was disturbed at what
he found: "At the time I was given the job, everyone was
very jealous," he said, "but when I came back and told
my colleagues stories of what really went on there, their attitude
changed." His report for the Foreign Office detailed alcohol-related
and violent crime, and a general carelessness with firearms.
He concluded: "The islanders need to get their act together
or someone is going to get killed."
Two years later, PC Gail Cox, a community police officer from
Maidenhead, sailed to Pitcairn. The Foreign Office and police
maintain that Cox's intended role was to train the Pitcairners
to police themselves, and that she stumbled across further allegations
of sexual abuse against minors. In any case, in November 1999,
two girls told Cox they had been abused. The police had an obligation
to investigate the alleged incidents, and also to establish whether
they were part of a broader pattern. Operation Unique was launched.
Police officers sought out and interviewed female ex-islanders
dispersed over three continents. They uncovered disturbing stories,
some involving children as young as three, some stretching back
more than 40 years. There were two explanations. Either these
stories were the result of an over-zealous trawling exercise
by the officers, and were unfounded. Or they revealed a secret
history of the systematic abuse of Pitcairn girls over four decades.
Much of the responsibility for weighing them up fell to Simon
Moore, New Zealand crown solicitor, appointed Pitcairn's first
public prosecutor in April 2000. He had to make a judgment whether
it was in the public interest to prosecute. "How could I
make the decision sitting at my desk in Auckland?" he said
when I met him in August. In the end, he sailed to Pitcairn,
together with another member of the legal team and Karen Vaughn,
a New Zealand police officer specialising in investigating child
Moore admitted that his reception from some islanders was "chilly".
Others, however, were "courteous", delivering bunches
of bananas to his room. He held a public meeting in the wooden
courthouse on Adamstown Square, only ever used for community
events before, asking the islanders what should be done for the
best. "We spoke with just about everyone, and got a range
of views, from, 'This is the worst thing that could ever happen'
to, 'Yes, you must prosecute.' We weighed them up and thought
about it very anxiously," said Moore. He decided to recommend
In April 2003, preliminary hearings began in the courthouse:
it was to be the first trial in the island's two-century history.
The lawyers, including Simon Moore and Paul Dacre, who had been
appointed Pitcairn public defender, shipped in from New Zealand,
were dressed in black gowns, bar jackets and lawyers' bibs. The
Pitcairners wore T-shirts, usually bearing a picture of the Bounty
and the words Pitcairn Island, as if they were all members of
the same team. Moore read out the 96 charges of sexual offences
against the seven Pitcairn men. Further charges were also laid
against another six former islanders - four in New Zealand, one
in Australia and one on Norfolk Island, where many Pitcairners
live. Extradition proceedings to Pitcairn have been initiated.
Prosecution was never going to be easy. "It's been very
difficult to keep the complainants on board. The police have
been working round the clock to keep them," said Moore.
By the time charges were laid, two of the complainants had withdrawn.
A further eight prepared a petition, claiming the police had
browbeaten them into making accusations against the men. A formal
complaint was made against police officer Karen Vaughn to the
Police Complaints Authority in New Zealand. Kari Young, a Norwegian
married to Pitcairner Brian Young, who has spent most of her
adult life on the island, claimed that the British government
offered women "compensation if they had stories to tell,
whether about themselves or their neighbours" and "put
pressure on the women to fabricate stories". When women
did come forward to tell police what happened to them, they made
it clear from the outset that they did not want their interviews
to be used as evidence. A complaint concerning a three-year-old
- the youngest alleged victim - also fell. Around 10 complainants
remain, all now adults from their early 20s to late middle age.
There is still anxiety that some could withdraw at the last
minute. Most live in Australia and New Zealand, and will give
their evidence by video link, but there are two on the island
- "if they turn up", as one lawyer said.
" There are no secrets on Pitcairn," said Steve Christian,
who faces some of the most serious charges. Some Pitcairners
argue that everyone knew what was happening on the island: no
crime had been committed, it was all a case of cultural misunderstanding.
Having sex from the age of 12 is not only legal under Pitcairn
law, they say, but common practice throughout Polynesia. It is
certainly true that Pitcairners start having children young;
one 22-year-old already has four children. It's also common for
a woman to have her first child by one man and her second by
another, who will nevertheless willingly adopt her firstborn
as his own.
But deputy governor Matthew Forbes, who is in day-to-day charge
of the island, though based in New Zealand, believes this argument
belies the seriousness of some of the charges, suggesting it
is a question of teenagers behind the bike shed. "We're
talking about offences against children at quite a young age,
and I don't accept that that's a cultural norm on Pitcairn or
in Polynesia," he said. Thirty-one of the charges are for
rape. At least one involves two men pinning down a minor; another
placing a penis inside a five-year-old's mouth.
I spent four months on Pitcairn Island in 1991. During my stay,
I witnessed how the division between rumour and reality can become
hopelessly blurred. Living in such a confined place, with nowhere
to escape to except the open ocean, Pitcairners avoid conflict
at all costs. "They're frightened of retribution," Rick
Ferret, who was then the Seventh Day Adventist missionary on
the island, told me. "They're scared that if they say something
against someone, they'll get back at them at some later date.
You rely on everyone, every day, for your life - in the longboat,
climbing the ladder. You just can't walk away from things here."
Whether someone plucked a fruit from your orange tree without
your permission or slept with your wife, you would never directly
confront and accuse them. Instead, the aggrieved would tell someone,
who would tell someone else, who would very likely tell someone
else, who would tell the offender the nature of their transgression.
I remember one very small example of how this worked. I was
staying with Dennis Christian and his parents when another islander,
a teenager, came to visit. Dennis's parents disapproved of smoking,
so I was surprised to see Irma, Dennis's mother, offer the young
girl an ashtray, insisting she make herself comfortable and light
up. The teenager smoked, and Irma nodded and chatted until the
teenager left. Irma's two friends, Royal Warren, Len Brown's
sister, and Nola Warren, were outside sitting on the veranda
weaving pandanus baskets.
Then Irma began speaking in their half-18th-century English,
half-Polynesian pidgin language known as Pitkern - "She
smoke like a hatchet! This place stink. She ought be larn noot
fer smoke [Someone ought to tell her not to smoke]." Of
course, someone would tell her not to smoke - someone to whom
either Royal or Nola would relay Irma's words within the next
couple of hours. But Irma would never tell her direct. The next
time the teenager came round, Irma handed her the ashtray again,
smiling as she did so. The bush telegraph had not worked - the
girl happily smoked.
People would tut-tut about young girls going with older men
to Flatlands, a spot where Pitcairners used to build small wooden
huts as weekend homes - but always behind their backs. I never
heard anyone directly tell anyone else off. Such open disapproval
is frowned upon. The word for "ugly" in Pitkern is "angry".
There's a major drawback to this system of dealing with bad
behaviour. It's impossible to distinguish between mere rumour,
spread out of malice or mischief, and real crimes. The result
is that no accusation, however serious, is taken seriously; it
can always be dismissed as gossip. And the cost of being seen
to point the finger of blame is as great to the accuser as the
accused. (It is no coincidence that the first allegation that
Det Supt McGookin was sent out to investigate was made by an
outsider after he and his daughter had left the island.) If you
are a Pitcairner, you'd be pointing at someone with whom you'd
have to share this same outcrop of volcanic rock for the rest
of your life, whom you would inevitably see every day, and who
would probably be a member of your own extended family. In such
an atmosphere, abuse can flourish.
To understand Pitcairn, you must appreciate Pitcairn's scale.
It is small beyond our imaginations. Wherever you are sitting
now - at home in a row of houses, in a block of flats, in an
office - you will likely be surrounded by more people than there
are on the whole of the island. On Pitcairn, you must find a
partner among the people within just a few hundred yards of you. "You
don't know what lonely is, not where you're from," Dennis
Christian once told me. He is not married, but for all Pitcairners
romantic and sexual opportunities are extremely limited.
Whether they prove to be true or false, these recent allegations
will irretrievably change such a small place. "We are like
one family," says Betty Christian, 59, a grandmother, wife
of Tom Christian, sixth-generation descendant of mutineer Fletcher
Christian and elder in the Seventh Day Adventist church. "Regardless
of our differences and problems, none of our people want to see
Pitcairn closed down and abandoned. Whatever the outcome, all
of us will be affected as we are related to both alleged victims
and alleged perpetrators."
The island used to be governed at arm's length -when I visited,
the governor had never set foot on the island. Now, he has a
representative in residence, and visits regularly himself. Pitcairn
has become the most heavily policed community in the world. Two
rotating Ministry of Defence police officers - one sergeant and
one constable - are now permanently posted on the island, together
with two more investigating officers. Two social workers specialising
in child protection are sent out from New Zealand on three-month
contracts. Under a new Child Protection Ordinance, they've been
given the power to remove a child from its family if they fear
for its welfare.
Some Pitcairners dub the governor a "dictator". They
say that they are continually being spied on by outsiders. "We
have enough outsiders here trying to tell us what to do. We still
need our pure air to breathe without it being polluted with hem
no use sullun comen een [those no-use people coming here]," Meralda
Warren, Jay Warren's sister, writes in the collective email that
goes out to the Friends of Pitcairn.
Last month, a letter signed "By Order of the Governor" was
pinned on the public noticeboard outside the courthouse, reminding
the islanders that an existing ordinance banned the spreading
of malicious rumours on pain of a fine of up to $50.
Recently another, handwritten, edict appeared on the noticeboard: "All
guns are to be handed in to myself or the MDPs [Ministry of Defence
police] the 7th Sept 04," signed Brenda Christian, police
officer, Pitcairn Island. (The post of local police officer is
rotated between the islanders.) Pitcairners have always carried
guns - .22 rifles - which, in their 18th-century vocabulary inherited
from the mutineers, they call "muskets". They use them
to shoot down breadfruit from the trees - the same breadfruit
that Captain Bligh came to the South Pacific to gather. Occasionally,
they may go hunting for the few remaining wild goats that roam
the crags. The Pitcairners feel that the guns are theirs by historical
right. But governor Richard Fell, wary of the upcoming trials,
said, "There are going to be some increased tensions. It's
going to be quite an emotional time for everyone concerned, so
this is to remove increased risk." A Pitcairn woman responded, "We
are being treated as if we are a murdering, suicidal bunch of
good-for-nothing sex-crazed cowboys." Some of the accused
have changed their defence lawyers.
Many islanders say that Operation Unique gathered the forces
of a powerful nation against tiny Pitcairn. "Britain is
treating us all like criminals, like animals," said one
islander. Kari Young wrote to the governor: "It never ceases
to amaze us that so far you, as its governor, have never shown
any compassion for the community or tried to provide fair treatment
for the helpless islanders you are supposed to look after, not
persecute." Along with other islanders, Young claims there
is a history of "restorative justice" on the island,
which could have been used instead, or that a "truth and
reconciliation commission" could have been established.
A few conspiracy theorists think that the British government's
real, hidden agenda is to shut down an extremely costly overseas
territory. The government, sensitive to this accusation, has
planned for all possible outcomes. Applicants for the six posts
of prison officers have already been interviewed and arrangements
made for their passage to Pitcairn - should any of the men be
found guilty. Deputy governor Forbes says that in the event of
convictions and custodial sentences, special arrangements could
be made to allow any guilty men out of prison under correction
staff supervision to help with tasks that the remaining population,
robbed of the majority of its adult men, were unable to handle
- that is, digging the annual arrowroot crop, cutting cane for
molasses, launching the longboats and off-loading supply ships.
And if there are no guilty men and no custodial sentences, Forbes
says he'll order the bars to be taken from the prison's windows,
the wire fencing to be pulled down, and then turn the prison
into tourist accommodation.
The British government, long negligent of its most distant colonial
outpost, is trying to put on a caring face. With no hint of irony,
last month the governor's office in Wellington issued a press
release titled Good News For Pitcairn. It announced £1.9m
in new funding for the island.
Instead of another in the line of retired schoolteachers who
have previously taken the post, a new-style Pitcairn Commissioner
has been appointed - Leslie Jacques, a former merchant banker,
who is responsible for administering and developing the island
from his office in Auckland. Jacques is drawing up grand schemes
for the island's development. His insistent, bright blue eyes
shining, he outlines the extraordinary plans he has in mind for
tiny Pitcairn. First, money is to be raised by selling the Pitcairn
domain name. Then he wants to encourage a cottage industry in
honey, producing 20,000 jars a year. "Japan's greatest delicatessen
chain - 74 stores in Japan - has offered to take everything they
produce!" he says excitedly. Jacques has promised the Pitcairners
that he will construct a sterile packing plant and sow more pollen-producing
flora. He thinks that Pitcairn, despite the difficulties in reaching
it, can become an eco-tourism resort, "now that Antarctica
is getting so overpopulated". "Staying with the great-great-great-grandson
of Fletcher Christian! Americans would pay a lot of money for
that," he says. Then there's diving, abseiling, rock climbing
and "botanical walks for the less adventurous". "Pitcairn
has never been looked at as a business model before," he
In return for all this hard work, the commissioner promises
24-hour power on the island; the generator currently provides
only a few hours in the morning and evening. He'll install satellite
connections in every Pitcairner's hardboard-walled, corrugated
iron-roofed home. The island now has a doctor, where before there
was only a nurse, traditionally the wife of the Seventh Day Adventist
posted to the island from Australia. The Hill of Difficulty will
be sealed, so it's no longer treacherous to carry heavy loads
up the slippery clay path. There's even a feasibility study under
way into providing a landing strip. Jacques's aim is to have
former Pitcairners who thought they'd left for ever clamouring
to come back, and to quadruple the population to around 150,
a figure not reached for more than 70 years. "My job is
to see beyond the trial. There is a future," he says.
The islanders, bearing in mind that the majority of their men
have been charged with sexual assault and may, if found guilty,
face long prison sentences, find that Jacques's promises ring
hollow. Many point out that the cost of the trial - more than £4m
- exceeds any amount of new aid. "I believe in justice and
mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation, but I have never seen
so much money being poured into a system that has so far resulted
in anything but that," says Mike Warren. Jacques concedes, "That's
the biggest challenge - getting the Pitcairners' support."
Betty Christian, meanwhile, hopes that the upheaval will soon
be over. "I am sure that everyone will be relieved when
all this stuff is over and life can really go on the way it should," she
says. But how can it? The Pitcairners will never again be trusted
to pursue their individual way of life. And, if any of the men
are found guilty, Pitcairn will be, in effect, a colony where
the incarcerators and their associates will be a privileged class:
the six New Zealand correction officers, the British police officers
and the doctor and his wife will have flush toilets and better
built houses, even if they're built by the Pitcairners themselves.
A new six-bedded house called McCoys, where the legal teams and
social workers stayed, is nicknamed the Pink Palace, as it compares
so favourably with the islanders' own homes. And all these would
lie close by the six-cell prison, known as the remand centre,
and its adjoining police station - the biggest building on the
The fact is that Pitcairn is already a prison from which nobody
can escape. The harsh seas around Bounty Bay hem in the islanders
far more effectively than any amount of wire fencing or steel
gates. It is this geographical jailing that has always framed
the Pitcairners. But now, unlike two centuries ago, this isolation
cannot put them beyond the reach of the law.
Next week, MV Braveheart will stop off at Bounty Bay, carrying
the two legal teams, judges, stenographers, a court registrar,
prosecuting police officers from Kent county constabulary, Matthew
Forbes, and six members of the media picked to cover the trial.
For the first time, outsiders will outnumber adult islanders.
The defendants will be heard before three judges; there could
be no jury, as there simply aren't enough islanders unconnected
to an accuser or accused to fill a jury box.
The public prosecutor Simon Moore defends the British government
against the criticisms of the islanders. "I'm not a pom-greaser,
but I think the Brits have approached this thing with a level
of commitment. The easiest thing would be to have brushed this
under the carpet, not do anything. That would be the easiest
thing to do. I have nothing but admiration for the British government
for having the courage to recognise what the downside is of all
this, and to be resolved to carry it out."
Members of the defence team take a different view, describing
Britain's actions as "a total over-reaction, like Nazis
going in there with jackboots on. These people have been ruling
themselves for years, then these outsiders come along." They
have made repeated attempts over the past six months to have
the trial delayed or the charges quashed by the Pitcairn Supreme
Court and the Pitcairn Court of Appeal, sitting in different
borrowed Auckland courtrooms. All have failed. Now, with all
other legal avenues exhausted, an application for leave to appeal
has been lodged with the Privy Council in London, claiming that
Britain has no right to judge Pitcairn, and that Pitcairn should
be allowed to judge itself. The application is due to be heard
Meanwhile next week's trial will continue. Since the supply
ship arrived, some of the accused have been busy building the
prison. By now, the wire fencing is erected, the steel gates
are in place. The courthouse, its British and Pitcairn flags
unfurled, awaits the first hearing
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