Media invasion threatens island's 214 years of secrets

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 12:00am

The sex trial of half its menfolk is an unwelcome intrusion

The media has come to Pitcairn, and the Pitcairners are not happy.

The fabled South Pacific island settled by Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers has spent two centuries shielding itself from the glare of publicity.

Now the mask is about to be ripped off this strange and secretive place, with half of its menfolk facing British justice today in the island's threadbare public hall, on multiple child rape and sex abuse charges.

Few people have ever set foot on the isolated lump of volcanic rock, 5,280km east of New Zealand. A notice outside the weatherboard public hall warns locals of the penalties for spreading 'malicious gossip' to outsiders. Journalists were banned from the island, Britain's last colonial possession in the South Seas, years ago.

That rule means little now. There had been rumours that the longboat which was to transport the journalists assigned to cover the trial would refuse to pick up Pitcairn's most unwelcome visitors. The vessel, was after all, being steered by one of the accused.

But it is hard for such men to break the habits of a lifetime. The arrival of a boat is a major event. Strong arms seized our luggage, and helped us into the longboat. At Bounty Bay, where the mutineers torched the ship to cover their traces, most of Pitcairn's population of 47 had turned out. The wharf was a hive of activity, with people feeding their pet frigate birds and shouting out to each other in Pitkern, the local dialect based on Polynesian and 18th-century English.

The seven men, who are facing 55 charges including 14 counts of raping children, are still living freely in the community. On bail for the past 18 months, their labour is required to keep the island afloat. Even if convicted, they will be allowed out of the newly built six-cell jail under supervision to carry out essential work.

Pitcairn's most respected elder, Tom Christian - who, like many islanders, is directly descended from the mutineers - was happy to talk about Pitcairn's colourful history. But the criminal case, which has plunged the island into its biggest crisis since his ancestor arrived in 1790, was a more touchy subject.

'I can't wait to get this whole mess behind us and look to the future,' said Mr Christian, 68, leaping aboard one of the three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles that are the only mode of transport on Pitcairn's rutted dirt roads. 'In a small community like this, everything that happens affects everyone.'

Meanwhile, a group of the island's women have come to the defence of their menfolk, saying it was customary for girls to have sex as early as 12.

Radio New Zealand said the women called a press conference because they felt their voices had not been heard. The report said many of the women believed the charges against the men were unfair and that consensual sex from the age of 12 was part of island life.

'I was young, but I thought I was hot and if you do that I thought you would become a big girl,' local woman Carol Warren said, admitting she first had sex at 12.

Ms Warren said she wanted the trials over as soon as possible.

'It's like a blight that has been hanging over us for way too long,' she said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse