pitcairn sex trials end

Speaking of faraway places I’ve been: the sex trial on Pitcairn Island has ended in convictions.
Some background: Pitcairn Island is, depending on your definitions, perhaps the most remote inhabited place on earth. It’s a tiny inaccessible speck in the South Pacific, home to 47 people. Those people have a history: They’re the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the other sailors who led the famous mutiny on the Bounty. (If you watch late-night cable, you’ve no doubt stumbled upon one of the five movie versions of the mutiny, in which Fletcher has been played by such actors as Marlon Brando, Mel Gibson, Errol Flynn, and Clark Gable.)
In 1999, through a series of happy accidents I won’t bother you with, I became the first American reporter in more than a decade to visit Pitcairn. (I think the first since 1986, if memory serves.) I wrote a series of articles about the island and its impending demise for my old newspaper. (Here they are: the main story; a sidebar on the mutiny; a sidebar on getting to Pitcairn; and a sidebar on their language. Some of my photos are here and here.)
Anyway, shortly after I left the island, a child sex scandal erupted. It seems that, for decades, the men of Pitcairn have been having sex with the island’s girls, some as young as 10. After an investigation dragged on for years, 12 men were charged with a variety of sex crimes — six island men and six ex-Pitcairners who now lived elsewhere.
Now the trials of the first six have concluded, and they’re guilty. It’s strange to look down a list of men convicted for child rape and see quite a few I know. The alleged “kingpin,” Steve Christian? I stayed at his house for a week. Dennis Christian? I have a wooden model Bounty he carved in my closet. Dave Brown? I have some honey he gathered in a jar in my kitchen.
This process has been screwed up from the very start. First of all, it’s taken five long years for the charges to be tried. Second, some of the charges are based on incidents 40 years old. I’m not sure what’s gained by trying a four-decades-old sex crime case.
At first, the Pitcairn men argued that they’re Polynesian islanders, and that you can’t judge them with traditional British sexual mores. (Pitcairn is still a British colony, and they were tried under British law.) But we’re not just talking about underage consensual sex here — we’re talking about rape.
On the other hand, the sexual lives of Pitcairn men appear to have been established for centuries — it’s not as if these guys were doing anything their fathers and grandfathers hadn’t done before them. It’s what they were taught from a young age. Dozens of Pitcairn women (past and present residents) stood up to defend their men, saying the island’s sexual habits were just the way things were — they’d had sex at an early age and survived just fine, thank you very much. When something is so clearly ingrained in a culture, the question of individual blame becomes dicey.
But the worst thing the trials have brought, from an island-wide perspective, is division. This is an island with 47 people. They’re all related. And a lot of them hate each other already. (Lots of petty, decades-old disputes.) Now you’ve got many of the women accusing the men of rape, apparently rightly so. The island was near death when I visited five years ago — I can’t imagine how it can proceed with that sort of divide hanging over it. Not to mention the fact that if the men actually end up going to jail, the island simply may not be able to operate. (There are very few able-bodied adults left to do the island’s work.)
I feel worst of all for the girls I met on Pitcairn. There were a handful of young teenagers on the island when I visited. All sweet girls. One younger girl, maybe 8 years old, was so cute and darling and sweet I wanted to cram her into my bag, take her back to the States and adopt her. Her dad was an ass, and it was clear there wasn’t much of a future for her on Pitcairn. I hate to think what she’s been put through in the name of island tradition.

The men will no doubt appeal; they’re currently planning an argument in a U.K. court that claims Pitcairn is not a British colony after all but an independent nation. (Best of luck with that.) But the damage has been done.
All in all, it’s a sad day for everyone. I could have told you five years ago that some of the men on Pitcairn are Very Bad People. But these verdicts likely mean the death of Pitcairn, which has stood as a strange outpost of civilization for two centuries. And that’s sad. To me, at least.
Here are some links to some of the better recent Pitcairn coverage: Claire Harvey in The New York Times, The Herald Sun, and The Australian (she’s been busy!) and Kathy Marks in The Independent. (Kathy interviewed me for a Pitcairn story she wrote two years ago.)

5 thoughts on “pitcairn sex trials end”

  1. OK. It’s sad that the country might die and all (only sort of, though– I’m kind of a fan of giving it back to nature at this point), but if you think about the institution of slavery, rather than child rape, suddenly “these guys weren’t doing anything that their fathers and grandfathers hadn’t done before them” is a tired, old refrain that doesn’t convince. After all, many slaves “survived just fine, thank you very much”… I know the analogy doesn’t necessarily hold completely, but you see where I’m going. Some “traditions” should die. And if it means that the residents have to find somewhere else to live, yeah that’s sad, too, especially for the women who will be double-victims of this whole thing.
    Go ahead, tell me I’m forcing my “western” values on them. I can take it. 🙂

  2. Well, in my mind, you can make a valid argument that imposing U.K. age-of-consent rules on the Pitcairners is illegitimate.
    In Britain, having consensual sex with a sub-16-year-old girl is a crime. That’s a fine standard for the U.K. and a fine standard for the U.S. But I don’t think Pitcairners are necessarily evil people if they think that having sex at 15 shouldn’t be a crime. In that case, I think you could argue the imposition of “Western” values could be out of place. There are some moral questions that are clearly black-and-white — owning human beings is bad, for instance. But some are gray.
    Now, that’s a whole ‘nother matter from NON-consensual sex. That’s a black-and-white issue. Some (although not all) of the charges against the Pitcairners are rape-rape charges (as opposed to statutory-rape charges). I don’t think the “we have our own values” argument has any weight there.
    All that said, it’s just sad. Some of these men are legitimately bad guys, and the rapists should certainly be punished. But some of the men, I think, just did what they were expected to do and what the island’s culture dictated.
    I mean, if you want to use a slavery analogy, when society finally decided that slavery was bad, America freed the slaves and prevented slavery from ever happening again. They didn’t throw all the former slaveholders in jail. That was in part, I think, an acknowledgement that society used to say slavery was okay and these guys were following the flow of the society around them.
    So I’m a little bit torn on what’s right. Just as the island women were themselves a bit torn.

  3. I like what you said about not throwing the slaveowners in jail. I think it’s a good point, in a human perspective kind of way. Unfortunately, I’ve had all humanity beaten from me and am only left with legal arguments ;). So here’s how I distinguish the slavery thing (see how tricky I am? First I use slavery, now I’m saying “it’s not the same”– sorry.) In the case of slavery, it went from being legal to illegal. So they weren’t going to throw people who freed their slaves in jail when it became illegal, since those people followed the law by freeing their slaves. The government might have (doubtful, culturally, but nonetheless) thrown people who refused to follow the new law (by not freeing their slaves) in jail, though.
    And from what I understand, whether or not it’s a good idea that the UK age-of-consent law applied to Pitcarin, it was the law nevertheless, and it had been for some time, right? Since you’re presumed to know the law (at least in the US, but since our legal system is modeled on the UK, I bet it’s the same in the UK and places where UK law–rightly or wrongly– applies), men who were having sex with girls who may have wanted it, begged for it even (it’s possible, I guess), but were legally too young to consent, were committing statutory rape. Since they’re presumed to know the law, they’re presumed to have known they were doing something illegal.
    So then a cold-hearted lawyer would say “let the Pitcariners organize and appeal to the British parliament to lower the age of consent in Pitacarin to 10 [or whatever] if they want so badly to have sex with girls under the age of 16.” Unlikely to succeed, I bet, but that’s how the argument goes.
    Anyway, “that’s all I have to say about that.” (Isn’t that from a commercial?) There are many more pressing things happening in my head right now– mainly wondering if the curse will be broken tonight???
    GO SOX!! (Yes, I’ve converted– how could I not??)

  4. The Rangers fan in you faded that quickly? One year at Harvard Law is all it takes? Sheesh. 🙂
    Separate from all this sex stuff: The supposition that Pitcairners are presumed to know all laws that apply to them is a little tough. This is an island with (until recently) exactly zero presence of British law or law enforcement. The text of British laws are literally not available anywhere on Pitcairn. There may not be more than a couple Pitcairners who’ve ever set foot in Britain. Assuming they know the ins and outs of British law is a nice idea, but it’s just plain impossible in practice.
    Whether or not that’s a legit legal argument, I have no idea. In this country, acts of a state legislature or city council must typically be published in a legal journal accessible at local libraries or, in some cases, a “journal of general circulation” (typically a large-circ daily newspaper). That’s clearly wasn’t done in Pitcairn. The fact that the individual Pitcairners didn’t know the age of consent clearly isn’t an argument — just as it isn’t for a 19yo kid in the States who sleeps with his 16yo girlfriend — but the government’s failure to properly disseminate knowledge of the law generally might be something a creative lawyer could tackle.
    And we haven’t even begun to deal with all the legal implications of the fact that Pitcairn is a British “colony” — a legal status that’s been pretty much on the outs in international law for several decades. Oh, well. My summary: Were I running the show over there, I’d send the rapists to jail, but I probably wouldn’t have prosecuted the cases where both parties were consenting.
    Then again, I’m not a Pitcairn lawyer, thank god.

  5. The rangers fan started fading in 5th grade… But last night was pretty awesome!
    Yeah, they should publish laws in their colonies. Inexcusable. They shouldn’t have colonies, either. 😉

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