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.)