Empire's outpost is under threat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2003, 12:00am

The future of one of the last outposts of the British Empire hangs in the balance this weekend as a team of lawyers travels to remote Pitcairn Island to lay charges of sex abuse against up to 12 men.

With a population of about 45, the viability of the tiny South Pacific community was in doubt even before allegations of rape and sexual abuse of girls as young as three first came to light nearly four years ago.

If a significant number of male islanders is found guilty of the charges, Pitcairn would no longer be self-sufficient and its remaining population might have to be evacuated.

It would mark the end of a way of life first established by Fletcher Christian and the Bounty mutineers more than 200 years ago.

Lying half-way between Australia and Peru, Pitcairn is one of the most isolated places on the planet, with no airport, no harbour, no telephones and no regular shipping service. Islanders depended on passing container ships for a passage to New Zealand, but since Christmas, even that link with the outside world has come to an end as newer, larger container vessels bypass the island.

Pitcairn, a British dependent territory, has historical ties with New Zealand, 3,000 nautical miles away. Many of the victims, and some of the alleged offenders, now live in New Zealand.

Under special legislation passed by the New Zealand government in December, the trials will be held under British law, probably in Auckland, later this year.

The arrangement would be similar to that under which a Scottish court was set up in the Netherlands for the Lockerbie bombing trial.

New Zealand's public prosecutor, public defender and court officials will today fly to Tahiti in French Polynesia before boarding a chartered boat for the three-day voyage to Pitcairn, a pinprick of land in a vast expanse of ocean.

'It's fair to say they will have a mixed reception,' said Bryan Nicolson, a spokesman for the British High Commissioner in New Zealand, who also acts as Pitcairn's Governor. 'Some of the islanders will welcome them but others are obviously going to feel under threat.

'They will explain the legal process to the islanders and then the charges will be laid. It's the first step in heading towards a trial.'

After spending five days on Pitcairn, prosecutor Simon Moore will return to Auckland and is expected to lay charges against Pitcairn islanders living in New Zealand implicated in the case.

While Mr Moore has refused to divulge how many face trial, he said in a submission to the New Zealand parliament before Christmas that the alleged abuse included the indecent assault of a three-year-old girl and the rape of a girl aged seven.

Defence lawyer Paul Dacre is expected to argue that the investigation has been so drawn out that the accused have suffered an 'abuse of process'.

The allegations first came to light in 1999, when a 15-year-old girl's allegation of rape prompted a flood of other sexual abuse claims by young Pitcairn women.

The claims were investigated by detectives from Britain and New Zealand. If any of the men are convicted, they would most likely be imprisoned in New Zealand, in what would be a huge blow to the island.

What little money Pitcairn islanders earn comes from selling curios and carvings to passing cruise ships. With no harbour in which the cruise liners can dock, the islanders have to meet the ships in motorised long boats.

Without enough men to crew the boats through the rough surf, the trade would come to an end.

Pitcairn was first settled in 1790, after British sailors led by master's mate Fletcher Christian mutinied against Captain William Bligh of HMS Bounty.

Bligh was cast adrift in a small boat and through a feat of extraordinary navigation eventually managed to reach Timor.

The mutineers, along with around 20 Polynesian men and women, reached Pitcairn, burned their ship and remained undiscovered for 18 years. Many of today's Pitcairn islanders are descended from the original mutineers and share a handful of surnames.

Islanders speak a strange dialect called 'Pitkern', a mixture of 18th-century English and Polynesian languages. 'Boney-boney', for instance, means 'very thin', while a coconut is 'cocknut'.

In Pitkern, a child is a 'little sullen' while 'los bawl', as in 'lost ball', refers to a ship which sails past the island without stopping. The word for swimming, 'naaway' is derived from Tahitian, as is 'supafai', which means 'all broken up'.