Serpent in Paradise
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
Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, home to the few
remaining descendants of the mutineers from HMS Bounty, has long
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
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.
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
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
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;
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
From a distance, it's easy to view such community
spirit as entirely positive; but on Pitcairn, the social conformity
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
It was almost impossible for me, from the wider world,
to understand the limits on the islanders' choices.
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?"
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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,
signed by the current police officer, Brenda Christian.
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
every family will have an accuser or an accused living under
its tin roof. The taboo on speaking out has finally been
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
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
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
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
" 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.