Sexual Practice on Fletcher Christian’s Curious Isle
Some islanders—most vociferously some of the women—have painted a defiant picture of a culture where under-age sex has been a natural, even fun, part of growing up for more than 200 years. – The Press (Auckland), October, 27, 2004
Pitcairn Island mayor Steve Christian is accused of leading “the boys,” a group of seven men who allegedly spent 30 years sexually abusing underage girls on the tiny Pacific outcrop. – The Australian (Sydney), September 30, 2004
In 1789, in Tahiti’s Matavai Bay, the Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian cut his anchor cable and directed his stolen ship towards a group of islands that existed, as far as he knew, only in nautical anecdote. With him were eight fellow mutineers and their Tahitian wives and servants, some of whom had probably been forced aboard. Christian never found the islands he sought, but he eventually happened upon a miniscule, harborless, uninhabited island called Pitcairn. It was the most remote in the world. It had been seen only once before, by the captain and crew of a distant ship. The island had vanished from their telescopic view almost as soon as it had appeared, and the captain mischarted it. Fletcher Christian took a brief tour of the island, and was satisfied. He drove the Bounty into a creek and set it on fire.
Pitcairn’s interior had fruit and fertile soil and fresh water, and the mutineers found plenty of birds and fish. They built thatched houses with gardens. They began treating the Tahitian men as slaves. The women bore their children. The Tahitian men rebelled and killed eight of the mutineers. The women killed the Tahitian men in revenge. Pitcairn was left with one mutineer, Alexander Smith, and many women and children.
Nearly twenty years passed before other ships sighted Pitcairn. The islanders, gracious and speaking a hybrid of Tahitian and eighteen-century Royal Navy English, hailed the ships from longboats. On the island’s central plateau, according to one report, neat thatched houses and tilled fields were laid out geometrically around a lawn that resembled an English village green. Alexander Smith and Fletcher Christian’s son, Thursday October, had become the island’s authorities. Their houses had shutters and feather beds. The women were bare-breasted beneath decorative bark-cloth shawls. The Lord’s Prayer was said before meals. The story of the mutineers created a sensation in England for a while in the early nineteenth century, and then, for the next century and a half, Pitcairn largely disappeared from the world’s consciousness.
Forty-eight people currently live on Pitcairn. The residents are named for the mutineers: Christian, Smith, Warren, Brown, Young. Halfway between New Zealand and Peru, Pitcairn is a 36-hour open-sea boat trip away from the closest airport, on the island of Mangareva. There is almost no regular transportation to Pitcairn. Rare passing ships, unable to dock, pause off the coast while the islanders, if the sea permits, row out in longboats to ferry people and supplies ashore.
In 1996, a British missionary returned to London from Pitcairn and lodged a complaint that his preteen daughter had been seduced by a local man. British territorial authorities began an investigation. Pitcairnese men, they discovered, routinely had sex with pubescent girls. According to some islanders, both male and female, this custom is consensual, part of a traditional initiation into adulthood. In recent decades, though, a population decline and radical concentration of power seem to have grossly corrupted the practice. In 2004, ten men—half of Pitcairn’s adult male population—were charged with a roster of sex crimes, including child rape and indecent assault.
Social life on Pitcairn is ordered by a caste system in which two paradoxical criteria confer status: Polynesian appearance and directness of descent from Fletcher Christian. Steve Christian, the prime offender, is Fletcher Christian’s closest living relative. He looks Polynesian. His capacious hilltop house is called Big Fence. Before his arrest, he was the island’s mayor, radiographer, dentist (he mainly extracted teeth), and chief engineer. He captained Pitcairn’s longboat fleet. His son and co-defendant, Randy, was chairman of the “Internal Committee,” which administers all public works projects and distributes the island’s few government jobs.
A week or so into their trial, Steve and Randy went shopping at Pitcairn’s small store. They were voluble, cracking jokes and talking with customers. Two women who had testified against them, and then recanted, came in and started chatting with one of the store’s cashiers, Steve Christian’s daughter. It was a common kind of scene: Avoidance is impossible on Pitcairn, and no one is exempt from societal demands. A twelve-year-old girl who has sex with an adult is doing what her mother did; she can expect her father to have sex with other young girls, and she can expect her brother, eventually, to do the same.
During the trial, for which lawyers and reporters and a New Zealand judge traveled to the island, a group of Pitcairnese women held a public meeting to declare the innocence of the accused men. They said nonconsensual sex played no part in island life, and that they themselves had welcomed sex at the cusp of adolescence. “I was 13 and I thought I was hot,” one woman told a reporter from The Australian. “I felt like a big lady.” The men had only been with girls who were “hot for it,” another woman said.
This was the essence of the men’s defense. After testifying that Randy Christian had raped her when she was ten years old, one young woman admitted under cross examination that she had subsequently developed a crush on him and written him love letters. But even as she was writing them she was fending off his attempts to assault her.
The prosecution’s testimony was flatly horrific: a young girl gagged, held down, and raped by two men; another forced to perform oral sex on a man during a communal outing. Witnesses said the abuse had been routine for years, that Steve Christian had reserved for himself the privilege of “breaking in” 12-year-old girls, and that lower-caste men, in response, had sought out ever-younger girls for themselves.
Some of the victims remained protective of their community, and by extension of the accused. They didn’t want the men to face the humiliation of jail, and they knew that Pitcairn could not afford to lose able-bodied adults for long. They wanted, instead, confessions, repentance, and a commitment to reform Pitcairnese society. Whether those hopes were at all realistic will now be determined: Although nine of the ten accused men were convicted, their sentences were short, and all but one have returned to the island.