Note: I wrote previously about the historic mutiny on the Bounty, a true story from 1789 that has since been immortalized in many books and films and remains popular to this day. Consider this blog an extension of that.
Following the now-infamous 1789 mutiny against Captain William Bligh on the HMS Bounty, the ship’s acting captain, former first mate Fletcher Christian, chose to return to the pleasurable tropics of Tahiti to gain supplies and then go forth to find a suitable island for a new colony.
Many of Christian’s fellow mutineers elected to stay in Tahiti upon their arrival, while Christian and eight other men chose to journey onwards, accompanied by six Tahitian men and 12 women, the latter of which had grown enamored of the sailors when they had stopped in Tahiti prior to the mutiny.
Christian’s desired island paradise proved elusive. He and his men attempted to settle in nearby Tubuai, but encountered hostile natives and abandoned the settlement after only two weeks. The Bounty scoured the South Pacific for thousands of miles in search of a better spot.
Rummaging through Bligh’s ship library one day, Christian stumbled upon a name — Pitcairn Island. It was prohibitively isolated — roughly equidistant from Peru and New Zealand — moreover, it had initially been mischartered when the English had discovered it in 1767.
While tiny (a mere two square miles), Pitcairn’s terrain was very rugged, the island was unpopulated and inaccessible, and the land was thickly forested. Most importantly, the men had freshwater sources and suitable land for farming. By the time the mutineers arrived, they were sold. They burned the Bounty down to the waterline and left the remains in the tiny inlet that was the closest thing to a harbor.
Part 1: Chaos
Despite the initial joy the men had at founding their own settlement with their Polynesian companions in tow, the situation on Pitcairn soon deteriorated. The Tahitian men who had considered the mutineers their brothers began to get the short end of the stick on Pitcairn. The mutineers divided Pitcairn’s arable land into nine plots for each of them, but the Tahitian men received nothing and were effectively made their servants. All of the Englishmen took Tahitian wives, but the six Tahitian men were made to share three women among them. Unsurprisingly, this created an awful atmosphere of sexual tension on the tiny island.
This culminated in a veritable free-for-all, resulting in violent skirmishes. All of the Tahitians and many of the mutineers eventually met grisly ends, including Christian himself, who was allegedly hacked to death and dismembered with an axe while tending his crops. His precise date of death remains unknown and his burial site was never found.
By 1798 — a full nine years after the mutiny — Pitcairn was relatively stable, with a number of mixed-race children having increased the population. However, mutineer William McCoy concocted a powerful brew of spirits from one of the island’s plants; subsequently, many of the islanders developed serious drinking problems. McCoy eventually committed suicide by jumping off a cliff while intoxicated, while Matthew Quintal threatened to kill the entire community while he was in a drunken stupor. Fearing for their families, the only two remaining mutineers, Ned Young and John Adams, murdered Quintal.
Part 2: Redemption & Rediscovery
Weary of the bloodshed, Young and Adams began to lay out their plans for Pitcairn’s future. A well-educated man, Young taught Adams how to read by using the Bounty‘s Bible, which affected Adams deeply. Adams converted to Christianity shortly before Young’s asthma-related death in 1800; suddenly, Adams was the only father figure to a tiny community of nine women and two dozen children.
Back in England, all of the mutineers had either been tried, hanged, or acquitted, Bligh was still languishing in the Royal Navy, and Britain was at war with France. The whereabouts of the notorious Fletcher Christian & Co. remained a total mystery until 1808, when American merchant Mayhew Folger stumbled upon Pitcairn.
Folger, commander of the whaling ship Topaz, was astonished to be greeted by three Polynesian-looking men who all spoke perfect English and were devout Christians. Upon meeting Adams, Folger informed British officials of his discovery, gushing about the Christian values of the Pitcairners.
Once the Napoleonic Wars subsided six years later, two naval officers descended on the island. Adams, by now very elderly, told them the story of the young colony and his conversion, eventually getting an amnesty deal out of it. By now, the legend of Pitcairn — an unspoiled, isolated territory of well-mannered, multiracial Christians — was in full swing and would never die. Despite the island’s mutinous beginning, the British chose to annex Pitcairn and make it a crown colony in 1838.
Part 3: Increasing Fame
It is impossible to overstate Pitcairn’s isolation. It’s nearest neighbor (Mangareva, French Polynesia) is over 300 miles away. The nearest developed countries are New Zealand (3,300 miles) and Chile (3,600 miles). Pitcairn has no harbor, no airstrip and has never been home to more than 200 people. The island has only one school and teaches from kindergarten up to age 15, upon which Pitcairners finish at a school of their choice in New Zealand. Nearly all of Pitcairn’s inhabitants are descended from at least one mutineer, and they remain fiercely protective of their legacy.
Pitcairn’s jurisdiction also includes the uninhabited islands of Henderson, Oeno and Ducie. Oeno and Ducie are coral atolls, while Henderson is an uplifted coral island, and they were annexed to the Pitcairn territory in 1902. Henderson is seven times larger than Pitcairn and has a thickly forested interior that could theoretically hold a small human population, but it has a lack of freshwater resources and has never been knowingly inhabited.
The only way on or off Pitcairn is ludicrously complicated: take a flight to Tahiti, wait for the weekly flight to Mangareva, then board a cargo supply ship on a 30-plus hour open boat journey to Pitcairn. Once you arrive, you will see that there’s no safe anchorage, so you must wait offshore as the islanders bring out an aluminum, diesel-powered longboat, which will then ferry you to shore. If the weather is bad or the waves too choppy, you might not be able to get on the island at all.
But I digress.
By the 1850s, the Pitcairners were outgrowing their island and had suffered a series of devastating droughts, so they appealed to Queen Victoria for help. She offered them Norfolk Island (roughly halfway between Australia’s east coast and New Zealand’s north island) and they left in 1856. A former penal colony, Norfolk Island, like Pitcairn, had lush vegetation and an isolated location, but after 18 months, a number of Pitcairners chose to return to their homeland. (Today, Norfolk Island is an external territory of Australia and has a population of roughly 1,700, around half of which are Bounty descendants.)
Formerly a devout Anglican community thanks to John Adams, the Pitcairners eventually converted to Seventh-day Adventism en masse in the 1890s, largely due to the work of American missionary John Tay. Among other distinctives, Adventists worship on Saturdays instead of Sundays and strictly adhere to teetotalism and vegetarianism. At one point, all alcohol, dancing and public displays of affection were outlawed on Pitcairn.
Part 3: The Enduring Legend
The only reason the Bounty story — and, by extension, Pitcairn — is remembered today is due to the series of Bounty-related novels and films. American authors Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall wrote a trilogy of books recalling the historic events: Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island. These were followed by epic Hollywood blockbusters In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and The Bounty (1984), which cemented Fletcher Christian as the legendary rebel, flanked by his brave midshipmen and adoring, scantily-clad Polynesian women.
It doesn’t take a genius to see why the average joe would be enamored of the Bounty story. He could also fantasize about living like a modern-day Pitcairner, isolated from the whole world and taking pride in raw, blue-collar, relaxed living.
In the 20th century, Pitcairn began to enjoy more exposure to the outside world. Cruise ships would frequently make pitstops, allowing wealthy westerners access to the island. Pitcairners would hop aboard the cruise liners and work their charm, selling woodcarvings of the Bounty, authentic locally-sourced honey and fish, and breadfruit-based meals. Philately also became an unexpected source of revenue for Pitcairn due to the island’s rare assembly of stamps. In more modern times, Pitcairn began selling internet domain names with their “.pn” suffix.
Visitors were blown away by the islanders’ self-reliant lifestyle, as well as their kind spirit and warmth. Children were educated. Adults were hard-working, good-humored and well-behaved. By all accounts, Pitcairn was peaceful, orderly and well-grounded.
Pitcairn was also the pride and joy of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the second-most widespread Christian denomination in the world. Islanders were ferried around the globe to attend church conferences, and the SDA church itself pumped large amounts of money into the island’s infrastructure. Ministers — usually from Australia or New Zealand — were told they had the easiest job in the world and that the islanders were the most pious, sincere group of believers around.
Part 4: Trouble Begins
In 1997, a Pitcairner, 20-year-old Shawn Christian, was questioned by visiting British detectives for the alleged rape of an 11-year-old girl, the daughter of the local Seventh-day Adventist minister. The case was dropped due to lack of evidence, but Christian claimed the sex was consensual. He was let off with a warning.
In 1999, after a party at a local man’s house, an island visitor, Ricky Quinn, was investigated for a sexual assault on an underage girl. A New Zealander, Quinn had multiple marks on his record, including several drug offenses, but he had cousins on Pitcairn, so he was allowed on the island for several months.
By coincidence, a British police officer, Gail Cox, happened to be on Pitcairn at the time. Despite the island’s alleged crime-free nature, the UK had been concerned about the adequacy of Pitcairn policing for sometime, and had sent Cox to train the local officer, Meralda Warren.
By this time, Pitcairn had only about 50 permanent inhabitants and had been suffering a long-term population drain to New Zealand and Australia, mainly for education and work opportunities. Only four primary families remained on the island, and each had its own place in the Pitcairn hierarchy.
Once Cox began her initial investigation, she noticed a very troubling pattern among young girls on Pitcairn. Many were alarmingly precocious, showing knowledge about sex-related topics even as young as five or six years old. Cox heard rumors that the accepted age of consent in Pitcairn was only 12. The island’s schoolteacher, Sheils Carnahan, and the resident Adventist minister, Neville Tosen, mentioned inexplicable mood swings among island children, as well as inappropriate jokes about island girls among the Pitcairn men.
What was equally alarming was the openness of the adult women on Pitcairn. Many of them viewed sexual activity between young kids, or between young girls and adult men, with a collective shrug. That claimed that (among other things) Pitcairn had been historically neglected by the British and that it was in line with Polynesian customs to “break in” girls for sexual activity at a very young age. Many of the adult women bragged about losing their virginity before they hit puberty and staunchly defended the Pitcairn men as vital to the life of the community, attacking anyone who disagreed as racist or ignorant of Polynesian life.
Eventually, the truth came out: Pitcairn was a veritable haven of pedophilia. Nearly every able-bodied male on the island had raped or indecently assaulted scores of girls over the course of the past few decades. Several off-islanders who now lived in New Zealand were also accused. Nearly everyone was related, closely or distantly, to both an accuser and a defendant.
Wary of Pitcairn’s inaccessibility as well as the obvious logistical challenges, the British government pondered whether or not to prosecute. Eventually, they did, and seven island men were to go on trial for a combined 55 counts of child sexual assault and/or molestation. Among them was Steve Christian, the mayor of Pitcairn and a direct descendant of Fletcher; Randy Christian, Steve’s son and a very influential man in his own right; Jay Warren, the former island magistrate; Len Brown, the oldest man on the island at the time; Len’s son, Dave Brown; Terry Young, descendant of mutineer Ned; and Dennis Christian, the Pitcairn postman.
A combined herculean effort from both Britain and New Zealand helped arrange judges, prosecutors and lawyers for what became one of the most bizarre, disturbing and historic trials in UK history. A pool of six journalists were accredited for the trials, which lasted six weeks on Pitcairn in the spring of 2004. Providing for an impartial jury proved to be impossible due to the community’s tiny size.
After an extremely expensive and drawn-out legal battle, the sentences were handed down by the British judges. Jay Warren was the only man acquitted, while Dennis Christian — who had cooperated with investigators and formally apologized to his victim — received community service. Due to his advanced age and mental state, Len Brown was given a light sentence of home detention. Steve Christian, Randy Christian and Dave Brown were all sentenced to terms in the newly-built Pitcairn prison, which the men had built themselves.
Several other men, including Brian Young and Shawn Christian, were tried separately in New Zealand and sentenced there. Only one non-islander was ever named at the trials: Albert Reeves, a New Zealand schoolteacher who allegedly molested a student or two when he lived on Pitcairn from 1969-70. Suffering from dementia, Reeves was deemed unfit to stand trial and his accuser dropped the charges.
Part 5: How It Happened
Lots of people were dumbfounded by the pattern of abuse and the code of silence surrounding it on Pitcairn. But the more I read about this strange and harrowing story, the more sense it made.
Pitcairn is formidably isolated and has an enticing history to it. The culture has always been raw, untamed, and male-dominated. You have to be self-reliant and the community has to cooperate on many things, whether they like it or not. Pitcairn was founded, effectively, by pirates and the early years were fueled by sexual jealousy, violence and alcohol abuse. Combine this history and these modern elements with a neglectful colonial power and you have a recipe for disaster. It also didn’t help that megalomaniacs like Steve Christian used their ancestry and island status to intimidate people.
On the other hand, you can find widespread child abuse virtually anywhere in the world. Big cities, small towns, Native American reservations, religious cults, etc. While it’s tempting to view Pitcairn as a real-life Lord of the Flies scenario, the reality is more complex than that.
The main difference, in my opinion, is the mythological image of Pitcairn as a tropical island paradise. To many people, Pitcairn will always be a perfect place to live, regardless of the crimes committed there. To others, the island will always be a crowning achievement of Adventist missionary work, even if (as of recent reports) only three islanders attend church regularly. The romanticized past will largely obscure the ugly present, and the islanders see to it that the myth prevails above all else.
People from all over the world chomp at the bit to get a glimpse of Pitcairn and meet the mutineers’ descendants. Cruise ship passengers go out of their way to buy Pitcairn arts and crafts. They bicker in internet message boards about obscure details of the island and debate the merits of the various Hollywood films. They follow the Pitcairn online newspaper, the Miscellany, and fawn over images of the islanders’ children. Unfortunately, many self-described friends and fans of Pitcairn believed the islanders’ version of events and joined in the growing chorus of conspiracies. Speaking of which…
Part 6: Conspiracy?
Let’s put on our tin-foil hats for a second.
Britain and New Zealand have made a shadowy pact with each other to get rid of Pitcairn as an overseas UK territory and forcibly relocate the population. Making up for years of neglect, the UK wants to rid itself of an expensive, headache-inducing burden in the middle of the South Pacific.
Therefore, alleged victims were bribed, evidence was planted, and the islanders’ reputation was dragged through the mud. Additionally, the Pitcairners, despite being a British territory, were completely unaware that their laws (including laws against rape) applied equally on Pitcairn itself.
Pitcairn couldn’t function without the longboats being crewed by the men, so the conspiracy was intended to rob Pitcairn of its able-bodied men, and by extension its livelihood. Every single girl who accused a Pitcairn man is either a liar, delusional, or both. Every single sexual encounter was, in fact, consensual, and having sex at a very young age is a time-honored Polynesian custom.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Not really. That argument was, in fact, used by the vast majority of the island women to defend the men who had abused children for decades. For many of them, underage sex was was as natural as watching the grass grow.
Was Tahiti a hotbed of child rape and sexual experimentation back in the day? While there is certainly abundant evidence that the Tahitians were very promiscuous by 18th century standards, there is not much to indicate that assault or abuse was widely practiced or tolerated. Investigators into the modern-day crimes on Pitcairn noted that, while abuse was tacitly accepted, it was never done publicly.
“In India, they have child brides. We might not agree with that, but at least it’s out in the open,” says Sheils Carnahan, the former island schoolteacher. “If this was really Pitcairn culture, then why keep it secret?”
Similarly, one of the accused men who lived in New Zealand was alarmed that he could be jailed for his offenses and made comments to his lawyer to that effect. He was clearly aware how child abusers were treated in most prisons.
“The irony is that we’ve got convictions for really serious offending and had them confirmed on appeal, and these people are locked up for really serious sexual crimes, and yet their supporters will still come out and say that it’s all cultural,” remarked Simon Moore, one of the case’s prosecutors. “Which, apart from being not true, is offensive, racist and patronizing.”
Part 7: Objectors & Naysayers
While I may have created the impression that Pitcairn was an echo-chamber of toxicity, there were a few outsiders in the community besides the resident teacher and pastor.
For example, Mike Lupton-Christian is a British expat who married Brenda Christian, Steve’s sister. Vaine Peu, a Polynesian man from the Cook Islands, married a Pitcairner, Charlene Warren. Both men were unfamiliar with Pitcairn before they settled there and staunchly supported the island women. Peu, in particular, repudiated the idea that Polynesians historically experimented with or “broke in” young girls. “Sex with a 12-year-old? That’s not normal,” he said shortly before the trials started. Lupton-Christian quipped that if something similar had happened to his own children in London, there would only be one trial — his own, for murdering the would-be rapist.
Other outsiders, such Kari Boye Young, wife of Brian Young, were more ambivalent. Kari, a Norwegian, relocated her kids from Pitcairn to Auckland when they were still relatively young. Like many outsiders, Kari knew that child abuse and molestation were rife on the island, but refused to believe Brian’s accusers and declared the trials a miscarriage of justice.
One of the few native islanders who defended the women was Pawl Warren. Known affectionately as “Pirate Pawl”, Warren’s daughter was good friends with the girl who was assaulted by Ricky Quinn after the house party in 1999. Warren has Pitcairn bloodlines and was born on the island, but spent most of his childhood and early adulthood in New Zealand. He returned to Pitcairn in the early 90s after seeing the Hollywood Bounty films and growing nostalgic.
Pirate Pawl is one of the few Pitcairners who has a firearms license. After the trials, most of the islanders had their guns confiscated due to fear of suicide. Breadfruit still grows on the island, and Pawl uses his shotgun to shoot the so-called “mutiny fruit” down from the trees — although by his own admission, there are a few other places (read: people) on the island he’d prefer to point his rifle toward.
Similarly, Tom and Betty Christian, one of the most respected couples on the island, took a courageous stand. Tom, who sadly passed away in 2013, was Pitcairn’s long-time ham radio operator. In addition, he traveled the world speaking about Pitcairn’s unique society, starred in several Pitcairn-based documentaries, and was an elder in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He and Betty appeared to have mixed feelings about the trial at first; Betty once commented that the Pitcairn men “were young and wild once, but now they know better.” Nevertheless, Tom and Betty eventually testified that Pitcairn was, in fact, a British possession and the islanders were feigning ignorance about not knowing the laws. This made them almost permanent outcasts in the community.
Tom and Betty’s eldest daughter, Jacqui, was one of the few victims who spoke up without using a pseudonym. Jacqui had been subject to repeated and relentless sexual assaults on Pitcairn before leaving at age 15 to go to an Adventist high school in New Zealand and later to pharmacy school in Australia.
Jacqui was living in London at the time of the trials, but amazingly, she chose to go back to Pitcairn and try to set a better example. Jacqui hopes that Pitcairn will slowly rebuild its reputation as the island faces an uncertain future.
Part 8: What Now?
The islanders all received very lenient sentences at the Pitcairn prison. Many were allowed out early on good behavior, much to the dismay of their victims. Randy Christian, whose crimes had been the most severe, still only got a three-year sentence and was out in two. Steve Christian, meanwhile, was forced out as mayor and replaced by his sister Brenda, causing deep division in the community. Brenda was eventually replaced by Mike Warren, who was later arrested and charged on child pornography charges in 2016. Shawn Christian, Steve’s son, was later elected mayor despite his record.
Jacqui Christian returned to the island to a frosty welcome; many islanders refused to speak to her at all. However, Steve Christian eventually volunteered to help her clear some land for a new house, and she was even named to Pitcairn’s influential internal committee.
Pawl Warren, meanwhile, rarely interacts with others in the community and frequently opens up his home to island visitors. He calls his house “Switzerland,” as only there are you allowed to speak openly.
There are signs that the wounds are healing. Irma Christian, Dennis’s mother, passed away in 2016, but before she died, she made a speech at the town hall stressing the need for Pitcairn to be more hospitable to outsiders.
Pitcairn is at a crossroads. With a permanent population of only 47, the island is in desperate need of new blood (both figuratively and literally). It should come as a surprise to no one that the vast majority of Pitcairn expats, particularly women, refuse to return.
From 1991 to 2012, a mere two children were born on Pitcairn, and there is currently only one child on the island — Cushana Warren-Peu, the 10-year-old daughter of Vaine Peu and Charlene Warren. Cushana has a list of safe adults to contact and is driven to school daily by Brenda Christian, now the island’s police officer. At no time is she left alone.
Even prior to the trials, Pitcairn has never been known as a pleasant place for outsiders. The majority of immigration and tourist inquiries are rejected; as recently as 2013, nearly 700 inquiries are made each year, but not a single application has been formally lodged. A recent research study predicted that by 2045, if nothing were done, only three people of working age would be left on the island.
Pitcairn will actually pay migrants to live there and give them a plot for their own land, but they are prohibited from taking part in local work until their probationary period is complete and must have a minimum of NZD $30,000 in savings.
According to Pitcairn’s official immigration website, “No one will migrate to the Pitcairn Islands for economic reasons, as there are limited government jobs, a lack of private sector employment, as well as considerable competition for the tourism dollar.”
Immigrants are desperately needed to replenish the Pitcairn population and ensure the island’s future. Whether they come from the UK, New Zealand or elsewhere is inconsequential. Without this, the island will revert to nature and the community will die off.
The most important question that needs answering, obviously, is whether or not Pitcairn is safe.
“I believe in a strong future for Pitcairn, but you can’t have that if there’s any risk to children,” says Jacqui Christian. “If we can make it better for the little kids growing up now, and the generations after them, then it will all have been worthwhile.”
A trained pharmacist who has lived in the UK, New Zealand and Australia before returning to her homeland, Jacqui remains optimistic about Pitcairn’s future and has attempted to bring new industry to the island; she has even discussed opening up an acupuncture and massage retreat.
Others aren’t so convinced, including Peter George, one of the detectives who interviewed Shawn Christian on the sexual assault charge in 1997.
“If police and social workers were to go away, the sexual abuse would be back within five to ten years,” George claims.
Rhiannon Adam, an Irishwoman who now lives in London, visited Pitcairn in 2016 for three months to conduct a photojournalism project. Nearly all the islanders were hostile to her while she was there and proved despondent when forced to talk about the trials. While her experience wasn’t entirely negative, Adam remarked that the Pitcairners remain indifferent to outside opinion. “It’s their rock, and they’ll do what they like with it,” she said.
Former island commissioner Leslie Jaques feels similarly: “If mindsets don’t change, Pitcairn will die with these people. No one will come home, and if no one comes home, this will be the last generation. The old people will die, and the young people will leave. This is the last throw of the dice for Pitcairn.”