Trouble in Paradise. Uncovering the Dark Secrets of Britains Most Remote Island (Text only)
They claimed that Pitcairn was a laid-back Polynesian society where girls matured early and were willing sexual partners. Britain, they claimed, was trying to cripple the community and force it to close, thus ridding itself of a costly burden. Who was telling the truth, I wondered: the women describing their experiences of abuse, or those portraying the affair as a British conspiracy?
For Britain, the case raised embarrassing questions about its supervision of the colony, now known as an Overseas Territory. Confronted with such serious allegations, however, the government had no choice but to act robustly. Judges and lawyers were appointed, and in , after a series of legal and logistical hurdles had been surmounted, 13 men were charged with 96 offences dating back to the s.
The plan was to conduct two sets of trials: the first on Pitcairn, the second in New Zealand.
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Preparations got under way on the island, where the accused men helped to build their own prison. The locals wanted the press excluded; as a compromise, and to prevent the place from being swamped, Britain decided to accredit just six journalists. Media organisations around the world were invited to make a pitch.
On holiday in Japan at the time, I submitted a rather hurried application, pointing out my long-standing interest in the story. Shortly afterwards, I was informed that I had been chosen as a member of the media pool. In I spent six weeks on the island, reporting on one of the most bizarre court cases imaginable.
Trouble in Paradise
Outside court, I bumped into the main protagonists every day, which was inevitable, since I was living in the middle of their tiny community. The legal saga did not end with the verdicts and sentences handed down on the island by visiting judges. It continued until late , with further trials held in Auckland and the offenders appealing to every court up to the Privy Council in London. As I followed these twists and turns in both hemispheres, my mind buzzed with unanswered questions.
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Why was it that many outsiders persisted in defending men who were guilty of a crime that was normally reviled: paedophilia? Why did they continue to mythologise Pitcairn, although it had failed, in such a dramatic way, to live up to its Utopian image? Why had parents not denounced the perpetrators and kept their children safe? Had anyone outside the island realised what was going on? There were bigger questions, too.
What did Pitcairn tell us about human nature and life in small, remote communities? Is this how all of us would behave if left to ourselves, with no one looking over our shoulder? Balancing on the deck of the Braveheart , I glanced down at the longboat rolling alongside us in the vigorous swell. Between the two vessels lay churning ocean, and a gap that narrowed and yawned alarmingly.
Heart pounding, I leapt. A pair of muscular arms caught me and propelled me onto a wooden bench. It was September , and for the next six weeks, along with other journalists, I would be living on a lump of volcanic rock in the middle of the South Pacific. Our group had been travelling for eight days and was still some way off, separated by seas whipping themselves into furious peaks. But we could see our destination ahead of us: Pitcairn Island, the legendary home of Fletcher Christian and the Bounty mutineers. Limbs that looked like gigantic steel girders sprouted from his black shorts and singlet.
When you first clap eyes on a person charged with serious crimes, they are generally seated in the dock of a court, flanked by prison guards. Randy was skippering the boat that was conveying us to shore so we could report on his trial for five rapes and seven indecent assaults. Next to him stood Jay Warren, another big man, with a dark moustache and Polynesian features. Jay, too, would soon be facing justice, for allegedly molesting a year-old girl.
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Looking back, it was a fitting introduction to the surreal little universe in which we were about to be immersed: a place where the sexual abuse of children is shrugged off, and not even a legal drama generating international headlines can disrupt the rhythms of daily existence. As for us, we had blithely placed our lives in the hands of men who surely did not wish us well. Pitcairn is a crumb of land, roughly 2 miles square, and probably the most inaccessible spot on Earth. Before leaving my home in Sydney, I had found it on the map, with some difficulty: a pinprick in a vast expanse of blue, miles from New Zealand and miles from Chile.
In an era when you can fly from Australia to London in a day, the journey to Pitcairn is a powerful reminder of the size of the planet.
The island is one of the few places in the world without an airstrip. Too remote to be reached by helicopter, it does not even have a scheduled shipping service. Most visitors charter a yacht out of Tahiti, or hitch a lift on a trans-Pacific container ship, which takes more than a week to get there from Auckland or Panama.
As the island does not have a safe harbour, ships must heave to a mile or so offshore, where the community-owned longboats collect passengers and goods. If the seas are rough, which they often are, the captain may decide to press on without stopping. Then it can be months before another vessel passes. Travelling in an official British party, I had taken a slightly different route, flying from Auckland to Tahiti, then waiting three days for the once-weekly connection to Mangareva, a beautiful island in the outermost reaches of French Polynesia and the nearest inhabited land to Pitcairn.
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The four-hour flight was broken by a refuelling stop in Hao, the atoll where the French agents who blew up the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior were briefly imprisoned. As well as the six-person media pool, there were two British diplomats, two English police officers, and an Australian Seventh-day Adventist pastor and his wife.
We saw no other ships, just flying fish, and seabirds skimming the waves, and fields of whitecaps stretching to infinity in every direction. Only an occasional dusting of coral atolls relieved the sensation of dizzying emptiness.
On our second day, at about midday, a grey smudge appeared on the horizon: Pitcairn. The sight of it made my flesh tingle. It was quiet on deck. This was exactly what Fletcher Christian would have seen from the Bounty as he combed the South Pacific for a bolthole from the British Navy in And now the heirs of the famous mutineers were famous for quite different reasons.
Thirteen men had been charged as a result of a police investigation into child sexual abuse, and seven of them lived on Pitcairn, where they accounted for nearly half the adult males.
Those men had insisted on their right to be tried at home; however, the last major court case on the island had been in , when Harry Christian was convicted of murdering his wife and child. The island had no legal infrastructure, only a local court that had not been used for years, even for minor offences. On top of that, it had little accommodation and very few amenities. British officials had chartered the Braveheart to carry everyone, together with their luggage, and a dozen crates of legal documents and evidence.
The loaf-shaped island stretched out before us, silent and aloof, its shores hammered by the relentless waves. Bounty Bay, a small, rock-strewn cove, was a mere chink in an armour of tall cliffs that enclosed Pitcairn almost completely. The island was surprisingly green, with thick vegetation and ochre-red rock exposed by gashes in the escarpments. The Braveheart hovered. Ten minutes passed. Then another ten.
We chatted and joked, affecting a nonchalance that none of us felt. We scanned the scene ahead. The smile on the face of Matthew Forbes, the British diplomat with day-to-day responsibility for the territory, looked strained. I knew that many of the locals were deeply resentful about the trials, and the consequent influx of strangers to the island. The Pitcairners were protective of their privacy and turned down most requests to visit; if the British diplomats and police officers on the Braveheart were undesirable guests, the media representatives were perhaps even less welcome.
Touchy about the way they had been depicted by writers and film-makers, the islanders had more or less banned journalists since the publication in of a travel memoir, Serpent in Paradise , a closely observed study of Pitcairn life, which they detested, along with its English author, Dea Birkett.
I asked Cookie how the community felt about the impending trials, and expressed the hope that we journalists would be able to present a balanced picture. The barristers, their powdered wigs sliding sideways from the sweat, hailed mostly from New Zealand, though their fees were being paid by the British.
A prominent London barrister named David Perry had been recruited to aid the colonists in these aristocratic surroundings. The chief judge, Lord Hoffmann, peered chin down and dubiously through eyebrows as thick as briar patches. Media from three continents took hurried notes. The convicted rapists slept nine time zones away on their rock, a place still without television or radio broadcasts. But the Internet had invaded even Pitcairn, and all home computers there were set on Google Alerts.
At age 12, she fell madly in love with Clark Gable in a movie theater in Norway. The girlhood crush from that Mutiny movie never ebbed, and 15 years later it carried her, like so many dreamers before her, to a life, a husband, and children on Pitcairn. And now to this court, which would determine how her dream would end. Her last visit to London, in , had been so heady and different.
Now Brian was accused of six rapes and was hoping that a successful appeal would keep his case from going to trial. No airplane has ever landed on Pitcairn; no ship ever moored there.