Mutiny on the Bounty Part II: Delivering Justice on Pitcairn Island

Who hasn't wished to get away from it all and live on a secluded island somewhere—away from phones, cars, the stresses of everyday life? Since the mutineers of the famous "Bounty" landed in 1790, Pitcairn Island has been such a paradise in the world's collective mind. Halfway between New Zealand and Peru, this lonely chunk of volcanic rock in the South Pacific has been the romanticized subject of five motion pictures and over 250 books.

But the locals, particularly the young girls, knew Pitcairn as something quite different than an island Eden. A few years ago, an investigation aptly named "Operation Unique" ripped off Pitcairn's veil of seclusion and revealed a cultural tradition of child sexual abuse. Fifty-five sex-related charges dating to the 1960s were levied against seven Pitcairn men (half of the adult male population) and Pitcairn's trial of brother against sister against mother-in-law against father ensued—this because almost all of this beachless island's 47 residents are inter-related.

Pitcairn's circumstances stem from its peculiar history: it was settled by Fletcher Christian and eight other mutineers after they seized the HMS Bounty and set Captain William Bligh and 18 loyal men afloat in the dangerous South Pacific.

The investigation was kickstarted by Gail Cox, a Kent policewoman, who began uncovering tales of child sexual abuse while she was temporarily assigned to the island. Columnist Jeanette Winterson discovered that girls as young as 13 were prostituted to sailors on passing ships—partly to make up revenue that had been lost since the decline of the island's sale of postage stamps, its traditional main income.

After authorities interviewed every woman who had lived on Pitcairn over the past 20 years, they filed charges such as rape, sexual assault, indecent assault, and molestation against many of the island's most powerful men—including the mayor, his son, the postmaster, and a former mayor.

What happened next was the island's first major criminal trial in 100 years—and a true logistical nightmare. Just to reach Pitcairn, the entire court personnel endured 36 hours on a ship through some of the roughest seas in the world. The island has no airstrip, harbor, regular shipping service, sewage system, cars, phones, bars, shops, or restaurants and has just ten hours of diesel-powered electricity per day—not quite equipped for an influx of visitors.

Despite the difficulties, the trial ended with convictions for all but one of the defendants on 35 of the 55 total counts. Only Jay Warren, former magistrate (now the office of mayor), was cleared of an indecent assault charge. Contemplating the island's particular circumstances—with all of the convicted in prison there would be no one to man the longboat that is the only way on or off the island—judges handed down sentences ranging from community service to 6 years in prison.

Pitcairn's circumstances stem from its peculiar history: it was settled by Fletcher Christian and eight other mutineers after they seized the HMS Bounty and set Captain William Bligh and 18 loyal men afloat in the dangerous South Pacific. Christian stopped in Tahiti to round up 6 Polynesian men and 12 women to provide native knowledge and companionship and dropped anchor in what is now called BountyBay. After taking everything useful from the ship, Christian and his men burned the Bounty—an act still celebrated annually on Pitcairn.

The early years of life on the island were turbulent, though, with only one man left standing in 1800 after thirteen of the other men (including both mutineers and Polynesians) had been murdered in disputes over women. Original mutineer John Adams remained, converted the island to Seventh Day Adventism, and became its leader and the namesake of Pitcairn's only settlement: Adamstown.

The unique history of Pitcairn is part of the explanation for the common practice of its adult men having sex with young girls—part of their Polynesian heritage, they say, in which there is a belief that girls sexually mature early. On Pitcairn, most girls have their first children between the ages of 12 and 15. One resident commented that the "age of consent has always been twelve and it doesn't hurt them." The girls, now women, however, disagree and cite their inability to form close relationships, alcohol and drug addictions, and suicide attempts as proof that Pitcairn's custom was not harmless.

Public opinion on the island is split. Some feel that the British government is conspiring to close down the island by coercing women to press charges and removing all the young, able-bodied men from society. On the other hand, others feel that the trial can mark a new start for the island by bringing different people and values into power.

So, with the convictions, is the Pitcairn story over? Not quite. First there is the outstanding issue of whether Pitcairn is subject to British law at all. Pitcairners argue that its forefathers renounced their British citizenship by burning the Bounty in 1790 (a capital offense) and that the British government never made a formal claim on the island or informed its residents they were British subjects.

These arguments were rejected by the Pitcairn Island Supreme Court, a specially established tribunal of New Zealand judges authorized by the British government, and the appeal will be heard by Britain's Privy Council this year. Those convicted in the Pitcairn trial were freed on bail until this decision is made, but constitutional experts say that it is unlikely the defendants will prevail.

Then there's the matter of more charges. Authorities say that the 55 counts against the Pitcairn Seven account for only one-third of the cases they know about concerning people in New Zealand and Australia. Indeed, another six men formerly of Pitcairn but now living abroad have been charged with 44 counts among them and will go on trial later this year in New Zealand; still more charges are forthcoming.

And so, Pitcairn's image as an idyllic paradise has been forever tainted. If we want to daydream about life on a deserted island, perhaps it's better to stick with fantasy—call up a skipper, his first mate, a professor, an actress, a sweet country girl, a millionaire and his wife, and plan a three-hour tour instead.