Pitcairn Island, an island that has fascinated me for decades, more so for its isolation and minuscule size and population than its history as the destination of the Bounty mutineers, made international headlines in 2004 when seven of its men went on trial for sexual assault, rape and gross indecency. Decades of silence were lifted when two teenaged girls revealed their stories to a visiting policewoman. Police descended on Pitcairn in 2000 and uncovered a history of sexual assault against children that had been going on for generations, and perhaps from even the earliest days of the island’s settlement by the mutineers. How could these crimes, the worst crimes imaginable against children, have been allowed to continue on this “paradise island”? In such a small society, how could the parents of the victims not know about it?
Kathy Marks was one of only six journalists allowed on Pitcairn to cover the sexual abuse trials. Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed is her account of the court cases and their aftermath on such a small society. Marks also tries to understand how such abuse could have persisted decade after decade, without anyone doing anything about it.
Pitcairn is a closed society, remote and practically inaccessible. Its population of less than fifty has survived for over two hundred years with only infrequent contact with the outside world. Thus when police and media arrived to interview the women and question the men, they were met with a wall of resistance. Outsiders were stepping onto their island and threatening them with who knows what. Many islanders believed the entire sexual abuse scandal was a concoction by the British government in an attempt to “shut down” the island. To close the colony by resettling the islanders would save the government millions. If the seven convicted men were sent to jail and with more men under suspicion, the lack of men as fit and able workers would decimate the island. Thus the Pitcairners genuinely feared that they would lose their families, their friends and the island they knew as home.
When the sexual abuse allegations were first made, the island was cloaked in denial. Marks writes about a meeting between the journalists and the Pitcairn matriarchs shortly after she arrived on the island:
“We had been summoned to Big Fence, it turned out, to be told that their menfolk were not perverts or hardened criminals: They were decent, hard-working family types. No islander would tolerate children being interfered with, and no one on Pitcairn had ever been raped. The victims were girls who had known exactly what they were doing. It was they who had thrown themselves at the men.”
“The talkative ones explained that underage sex was the norm on Pitcairn. Darralyn Griffiths, the daughter of Jay Warren, one of the defendants, told us in a matter-of-fact way that she had lost her virginity at thirteen, ‘and I felt shit hot about it, too, I felt like a big lady.’ She was partly boasting, partly censorious of her younger self, it seemed to me. Others clamored to make similar admissions. ‘I had it at twelve, and I was shit hot, too,’ said Jay’s sister, Meralda, a woman in her forties. Darralyn’s mother, Carol, fifty-four years old, agreed that thirteen was ‘the normal age,’ adding, ‘I used to be a wild thing when I was young and single.’ Olive Christian described her youth, with evident nostalgia, as a time when ‘we all thought sex was like food on the table.'”
The police and the journalists soon discovered that more than just two teenaged girls had been raped. They uncovered a web of abuse spread across the entire island. Over the course of several years, investigators interviewed every single woman who lived on Pitcairn going back forty years, even women who no longer lived on the island. Most of them had stories like Catherine’s:
“Catherine gave detectives a lengthy statement, listing a number of Pitcairn men who she said had assaulted her during her childhood. She added that this was ‘a common thing on Pitcairn,’ remarking, ‘You won’t get a girl reaching the age of twelve that’s still a virgin.’ Although the islanders all knew it went on, she said, it was seen as ‘part of life,’ and no one complained about it.”
Marks, like me and I am sure most readers, was incredulous that no one, not even the girls’ parents, was aware of what was happening to their own daughters. Surely if your daughter of twelve–or, tragically, often younger–was raped, you’d know about it. Lost Paradise tells another story, where girls didn’t speak out or if they did, their parents didn’t do anything about it. In a community with a population of less than fifty, the rapists were men everyone knew (or were even related to). Confronting a rapist would mean rocking the boat of this tiny insulated community, and no one wanted to disturb the peace.
Lost Paradise was full of stories from women who lived the first fifteen years of their lives in fear, afraid of being jumped and raped or being violated as they slept. When you live in one of the most isolated communities on the planet, with only a fellow islander as a police officer who is more an officer in name than in actual practice, you soon realize that there is nowhere to run and no one to turn to. Victims were too scared to tell anyone, even their parents. Since fifteen-year-olds traditionally left the island to pursue secondary education in New Zealand, the only hope of relief was the arrival of one’s fifteenth birthday.
While the sexual abuse continued and was accepted among the adult population as a Pitcairn way of life, outsiders living on the island were less inclined to see it as normal behaviour. However, they too were affected by the sensitive need to keep the Pitcairn community together and to keep their little secret strictly to themselves:
“While Tosen [the Seventh-day Adventist pastor on the island] had long had his suspicions, he was appalled to find out the scale of the alleged abuse. Above all, he was at a loss to comprehend how the older women, the mothers and grandmothers, could have allowed it to happen. It seemed obvious to him that they must have known. He and Rhonda spoke to the matriarchs. ‘We said to them, “Where were you when this was going on? You’re the elders of the island, surely you must be unhappy?” And they replied that nothing had changed. One of the grandmothers said, “We all went through it, it’s part of life on Pitcairn.” She said she couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.'”
No one ever had any proof that these sexual assaults were occurring because no one was talking about it. I however still find it hard to believe that a resident pastor, one who had suspicions that sexual abuse was going on, would not alert the authorities in New Zealand. The island’s teacher in the late sixties, Albert Reeves, was an outsider and he too should have noticed any changes in behaviour or academic performance of the girls in his class. However, when the teacher himself was charged with rape, you can see why not even outsiders could be looked upon to offer any help to the victims. Marks writes:
“The abuse was hidden, but it was not invisible.”
And no one did anything about it until the revelations from a fifteen-year-old girl opened a can of worms two centuries in the making.
If one couldn’t even count on one’s own parents for support after making these revelations, the teens who told their stories were soon ostracized by their community. Parents valued community unity over justice for their daughters:
“However, as Catherine’s and Gillian’s experiences demonstrate, the main reason that complainants dropped out was pressure: from their relatives and from the Pitcairn community, that uniquely small, close-knit collection of families, as interlaced as a wisteria vine, and just as strangulating. Pressure had been applied since 2000, when the gravity of their predicament had started to dawn on the islanders. As the investigation gathered pace, they looked around for scapegoats, and rather than blame the men, they blamed the women for speaking out. The unforgiveable crime, in the Pitcairners’ eyes, was not sexually assaulting children, but betraying the island.”The men were not shunned, not even by parents living side by side with their daughters’ alleged rapists. No outraged mobs surrounded their houses; there were no fights, nor even harsh words traded. The vitriol was reserved for the victims who had broken the Pitcairn code of silence.”
The tightest bond was that among the small Pitcairn community. It was unbreakable. It ranked above all other allegiances, and anyone who threatened to break down this community–by perhaps sending its men to jail–did so alone, at her own peril:
“Not only are open confrontations avoided, but the pressure to conform to communal norms is intense. And those norms have to be accepted even if they become warped: Anyone who challenges the ‘Pitcairn way’ risks being made an outcast. A former teacher says, ‘The Pitcairners can be incredibly mean and vindictive. If the community turns against you, it is absolute hell.’
“Like a family that is determined to stay together, the islanders have to take whatever communal life throws at them. They have to be able to accommodate any kind of behavior, and that includes their children being abused.
“The interdependence of the community is the key to understanding why generations of parents failed to keep their children safe, and why older women, including those who were victims themselves, insist on defending the men.”
Bringing justice to the women of Pitcairn Island meant repopulating the island twofold, with lawyers, judges, media, police and technicians. A new jail was constructed (just in case it was needed) by the only men fit enough to build it–those who were on trial. Since there was so little accommodation on the island for all the outsiders, the defence lawyers slept in the new jail cells. Marks takes you through each trial and verdict. She describes what life was like on Pitcairn after six of its seven men were given extremely lenient sentences. In no other jurisdiction would a man convicted of multiple rapes be given two or three years behind bars. That the sentences were served on Pitcairn, with the only other prisoners one’s own neighbours, made it seem to some of the victims that the men were spending their time at the Pacific Hilton. Some felt that the men should have been transferred to a “real prison” in New Zealand so that they might experience terror and fear, and know what their victims are still living with.
Have two hundred years of sexual abuse against girls finally come to an end? Marks wonders. With diplomatic officials and an outside police presence finally resident on Pitcairn, one might be inclined to think so. The public awareness of sexual abuse, as well as the jail sentences handed down to those who were guilty, might be big enough deterrents. However it might not be possible to change Pitcairn men’s attitudes by merely a short jail sentence:
“Pitcairn was ‘a society where the majority of adult males felt they were untouchable,’ says Max Davidson [a police officer on the island]. It was a sexual predators’ paradise, and when that paradise crumbled, the men blamed their misfortune on the girls. Brian Young, who had sex with a fourteen-year-old when in his early thirties, protested that ‘she was very convincing…I was just like a dog being towed behind.’
“As well as the girls, the men blamed the police. They blamed the British government. They blamed Tom and Betty Christian. And when their lawyers failed to get them acquitted, or to sway the Privy Council, they blamed them, too.”
They blamed everyone but themselves. I fear that the sexual abuse of girls on Pitcairn might not be over yet.