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Co-edited by Dea Birkett
Amazonian: The Penguin Book of Women’s New Travel Writing

Serpent in Paradise


Serpent in Paradise

'You Don't Know What Lonely Is'
Sunday Telegraph, October 1st, 2004

This week seven men from Pitcairn, a remote Pacific island with a population of 45, go on trial for sex crimes against children. Dea Birkett, who has lived on Pitcairn, explains why the charges, shocking as they are, come as no surprise to her

Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, home to the few remaining descendants of the mutineers from HMS Bounty, has long been depicted as a kind of earthly Paradise.

More than 200 years have passed since Fletcher Christian and his followers settled on this lonely speck of volcanic rock in the South Pacific, hoping to create a society free from any outside interference. This week, their dream of an unspoilt Eden - of simplicity, equality and perfect liberty - which has been reinforced over the years by countless books and by four Hollywood films, will be put on trial.

Approaching Pitcairn Island
Approaching Pitcairn Island

Within days, seven Pitcairn Islanders - the majority of the adult male population - will stand in a makeshift dock in the island's simple, white-painted wooden courthouse. They face 96 charges concerning various sexual offences, 31 of them for rape. All the offences concern minors; some of the allegations go back more than 40 years.

The accusations are shocking; but I'm not shocked. In 1991, I spent four months on this mile by mile-and-a-half surf-bound crag, researching a book; and I learned how life in such a small place can push even the best to do the worst. The Pitcairners are not bad people, any more than they are the idealised creatures of myth: they simply live in a place where it is very hard to be good.

As I sat in various libraries planning my trip, Pitcairn appeared to have all the elements needed for an earthly Eden: no roads, no cars, no banks, no currency and no office hours. I found out that Pitcairn Island stamps were, at the time, the island's main source of income, while individual islanders earned a living by selling baskets and carvings to passing ships.

The nearest large land mass - also the nearest hospital, supermarket and secondary school - is New Zealand, 3,000 miles away. The 47 islanders pass their days hoeing peppers and sweet potatoes, fishing for shark and shooting breadfruit from the trees with their .22 rifles (in the "Pitkern" language - a quaint mixture of Polynesian pidgin and the mutineers' 18th-century English - guns are called "muskets", and the permanently rough seas are known as "illy illy").

There are just nine families on the island, and four surnames - Warren, Young, Brown and Christian. There are so few men that the accused have had to help build the new six-cell prison, erecting the tall wire fence behind which, if found guilty, they will be incarcerated.

There is no airstrip, so the only way to reach the island is aboard a cargo vessel that passes on its way between New Zealand and the Panama Canal. And that's how I arrived, gingerly descending a ladder thrown over the side of the ship into a longboat manned by islanders.

The first thing that caught my attention was an enormous painted sign hanging above the boat sheds at the landing - "Welcome to Pitcairn". I stayed in a house made of hardboard and corrugated iron with Ben and Irma Christian and their son, Dennis, unmarried at the age of 38.

The family home was stuffed with electrical appliances - freezers, deep-fat fryers, microwaves - but these could seldom be used, since the expense of transporting barrels of fuel to the island meant that the communal generator was run only in early mornings and early evenings.

It wasn't electricity, flush toilets, cappuccinos and a 24-hour corner shop that I soon came to miss, but privacy; and, with it, the understanding that everyone is an individual. On Pitcairn, almost every activity - digging for arrowroot, boiling sugarcane to make molasses, launching the longboats - is done by all the islanders together.

The Pitcairners appear impressively choreographed as, always together, they clear the red mud paths of the rampant foliage, fish from their canoes or even just paint the long bench that lines one side of the square in Adamstown, the island's only settlement.

From a distance, it's easy to view such community spirit as entirely positive; but on Pitcairn, the social conformity is stifling. In 1887, an American Seventh Day Adventist missionary vessel stopped at the island and converted the entire population. Since then, the island has stuck relentlessly to this strict and often joyless creed. Alcohol and dancing are banned; it's forbidden by law to show affection in public - even holding hands.

It was almost impossible for me, from the wider world, to understand the limits on the islanders' choices.

Dennis Christian told me: "You don't know what lonely is. Not where you're from."

Dennis had only two women to choose between as a wife, both of whom he'd known all his life. One night, over an illicit can of Carlsberg smuggled off a passing ship, he confessed to me, "How can I fall in love and marry them?"

If a male Pitcairner slept with every female of his generation, his total choice of sexual partners would perhaps reach five before he died. As a result, islanders develop relationships we would consider unacceptable. Women have children by more than one partner, often starting as young as 15.

One 22-year-old already has four children. Sisters share a husband. Teenage girls have affairs with older men. There is an area in the high centre of the island called Flatlands, where the islanders have built wooden shacks among rows of pineapples; they wistfully call them "holiday homes", and go there for trysts.

Using the island's only motorised transport - three-wheeled all-terrain motorcycles - you can reach anywhere on the island in minutes. Wherever you stand, you hear the crash of the surf. There's nowhere to go; no escape. If you're born on Pitcairn, your life is inevitably thwarted.

Questions we routinely ask ourselves and our children - What are your ambitions? What do you want to be? - are totally inappropriate. I struck up a friendship with Kay Brown, a Pitcairner in his late thirties, who told me:

" When I was 25, I didn't care that I would be doing the same thing for the rest of my life. Now it's a horrible thought - that I will never do anything else than what I'm doing now."

In such a small place, the need for special intimacy with someone - almost anyone - is overwhelming. After a couple of months, I began to feel that need, too. If only I could forge a relationship, I believed I could survive the isolation. So I spent a night with Kay Brown.

I soon discovered that there could be no such thing as a private affair. Everyone knows everyone else's business. The greeting when you meet someone is, "Bout you gwen?" - "Where are you going?" But the question is redundant: the Pitcairners, who walk without shoes, can read each other's footprints on the red mud paths.

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

So I shouldn't have been surprised that, within less than a day, everyone on the island knew about my fling. But no one said anything; at least, not to me. That, I was learning, is how things operate on Pitcairn. Direct accusations are avoided; the answer to a yes-or-no question will be "Semiswe" ("Seems that way"), which could mean anything.

" Why?" is habitually answered by "Ka fut" ("Don't know"). Confrontation is avoided at all costs.

" The islanders are frightened of retribution," said Rick Ferret, the Seventh Day Adventist pastor. "They're scared that if they say or do something against someone, that person will get back at them at some later date. You rely on everyone, every day, for your life - in the longboat, climbing the ladder. You can't just walk away, here."

We do not yet know whether the accusations made against the seven island men are true or false; but I know that, on Pitcairn, the division between rumour and reality can become hopelessly blurred. Word spread that I was a serial adulteress.

When I arrived at the school house, I was greeted by the teacher's wife, a New Zealander, exclaiming, "So you're sleeping with my husband!" An older woman had come to her home to "let you know". If the teacher's wife hadn't told me the gossip, I would probably never have heard it.

I could hardly turn to the police officer for help to stamp out the rumours. Like all government posts, the role rotates among the islanders, so everyone, however competent or incompetent, has a turn. No police officer had ever made an arrest. At the time, the officer was Kay Brown.

He never interfered. When one of the island women buried nails, points up, in the mud outside her nephew's house - after he had cut down a banana tree she claimed was hers - there was no accusation, no hearing, no punishment.

" But someone could have badly hurt their feet," I complained to Dennis, "and we're thousands of miles by sea from the nearest hospital!"

When I asked what would happen about the incident, he replied, "Nitho" - "Nothing". The relationships between the parties involved were too tangled; it was in no one's interest to intervene.

Even if Kay had become involved in the banana tree dispute, he could have done nothing. While I was on the island, the sign outside the courthouse - not used in living memory - was repainted and the building was renamed the Public Hall. Its three jail cells had no doors, and holes instead of windows. It was used to store life jackets.

The majority of the complainants in next week's trial have left Pitcairn, probably for ever. They will give evidence via satellite link from New Zealand. It is hard to imagine that they will be welcome on the island again.

I learned at first hand how Pitcairners can react when their shortcomings are exposed. In the book I wrote about my time on the island, Serpent in Paradise, I told the truth about the place and the people as I had found them. I know I can never go back.

Fletcher Christian's great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter, Brenda Christian, who was not even living on the island when I was there, later told a journalist: "I'd like to see her hanged."

The Pitcairners are not violent, nor murderers; but while on Pitcairn, with no impartial outsider to turn to in a dispute, I began to imagine the worst. If I "accidentally" slipped from the rocks while fishing, or fell from a canoe into the surf while looking for shark, or was struck by a stray bullet intended for a breadfruit, who would stand up and say that it was no accident? Who would accuse a brother, cousin, uncle, parent?

As the trial approaches, concern about violence - possibly involving the large numbers of unwelcome outsiders on the island - has risen. Richard Fell, Governor of Pitcairn (the title is only a small part of his role as British High Commissioner to New Zealand), recently issued an edict that led to a handwritten sign being pinned up on the Public Notice Board in Adamstown's central square.

It read: "ALL GUNS ARE TO BE HANDED IN TO MYSELF OR THE MDP'S BY 7TH SEPT 04 ". The edict, issued on behalf of the Ministry of Defence Police, now posted on the island, was signed by the current police officer, Brenda Christian.

Another islander emailed me recently from the island, saying that she hopes everything will soon return to what passes for normal on Pitcairn.

" I am sure everyone will be relieved when all this stuff is over and life can really go on the way it should," wrote Betty Christian. But how can it? For the first time, the finger has been directly pointed and accusations have been made. Almost every family will have an accuser or an accused living under its tin roof. The taboo on speaking out has finally been broken.

If any of the men are found guilty and are given custodial sentences, their time behind bars will be intolerable. They are accustomed to living outdoors, fishing and farming - in my time on the island, I saw only one man reading, and he was mocked as the island's "scribe".

I was the only person who ever borrowed a book from the dust-covered one-room library. What will they do, sitting in a tiny cell all day, every day? What is the point of imprisonment on an island that already resembles a prison?

Could there have been another way? Many Pitcairners say that the British Government, which has ignored its furthest-flung dependency for decades, is "acting like a dictator". The cost of the trial to the British taxpayer - more than £4 million - is far greater than any aid the island has received in the past.

The expenditure includes shipping out three judges, two legal teams, British police officers, New Zealand social workers and British Government representatives on a specially chartered survey vessel, MV Braveheart.

The islanders have argued that this is not the way to right any wrong. They say that a form of "restorative justice" could have been used, with Pitcairners judging Pitcairners, rather than a formal trial and the threat of long custodial sentences.

But Matthew Forbes, Pitcairn's New Zealand-based Deputy Governor, says such demands belittle the seriousness of the charges, putting them on a level with "teenagers having sex behind the bike shed, which it wasn't. 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 says.

Simon Moore, a New Zealand Crown Solicitor who was recently appointed as Pitcairn's Public Prosecutor, is even more dismissive of any attempt to make allowance for local customs in such cases.

" One wonders how culturally acceptable it is when complainants are certainly not encouraged to complain about what's happened to them, and where people don't speak openly about it occurring," he told me. "You've been there," he added. "You know what I'm talking about."

Even if all the men are cleared of the charges against them, the future seems likely to hold further grotesque twists and turns. The British Government says that if the prison is not needed, the bars will be taken down from the windows, the wire fencing will be removed and the cells will be turned into hotel rooms for tourists. Pitcairn, so the official plan goes, will become a new eco-tourism destination, with the real-life descendants of the Bounty mutineers as the main attraction.

It doesn't sound much like Paradise any more. But then, it never really was.

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