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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 13:38 GMT 14:38 UK
Bloody history of empire's last outpost
By Joe Boyle
BBC News Online

On Monday, a court on the remote island of Pitcairn found six of its inhabitants guilty of a string of sex offences. The trial has drawn the attention of the world's media and threatened to tear apart the tiny community.

With a population of just 47, it is one of the world's most isolated societies - but does its strange history shed light on its current plight?

The mutineers make a new home for themselves on Pitcairn Island.

Fletcher Christian and his band of willing accomplices mutinied on the Bounty in 1789 and established a settlement on Pitcairn Island a year later.

Christian became the ultimate romantic hero in novels, poems and later swashbuckling films with Marlon Brando, Mel Gibson and Clark Gable all playing his character.

The society he established after the mutiny was perceived to be an idyllic island community, free from the injustices of navy life.

Christian's nemesis, Captain William Bligh, whom he cast adrift on the Pacific Ocean, was painted as the harsh captain, prone to violent outbursts and brutal floggings.

But reality is rarely such a convenient story.


In recent years attempts have been made to resurrect Bligh's reputation at the expense of Christian.

So Christian becomes mad, drug addicted or a repressed homosexual, as Bligh is made into a benign, kindly captain with the good of his sailors at heart.

Whatever the truth of these caricatures, what can be said for certain is the years immediately following the mutiny were bloody and murderous.

Those earlier Pitcairners left a legacy of self-reliance and good humour in the face of adversity
Herbert Ford
Pitcairn Island Study Centre

Christian, along with eight other mutineers, six Polynesian men, 12 women and one baby, made their home on remote, rocky, inhospitable Pitcairn Island to escape courts martial and almost certain execution.

But within three years Christian had been murdered by the Polynesian men, angered at their treatment as virtual slaves by the Europeans.

In the ensuing bloodbath all of the Polynesian men were slaughtered and three other mutineers also lost their lives.

These early years were characterised by chaos.

"They didn't really set up any kind of society," says Herbert Ford, director of the Pitcairn Island Study Centre, based in California.

"They were all chiefs - they had guns and they had women. The Polynesian men they brought with them were treated very much as slaves and this master-servant society soon led to trouble - bloodshed became a way of life."

Until 1800, that was, when the adult male population of the island had dwindled to just one - John Adams.


Adams was a largely uneducated and reputedly violent man who lead the community from 1800 to his death in 1829.

Despite taking part in at least one of the island's many murders, he forged an intensely religious and well-organised society.

"Adams set up a kind of theocracy," says Professor Rod Edmond, expert on South Pacific history at Kent University.

Pitcairn map
Pitcairn lies in the middle of the South Pacific ocean
"He was a patriarch living with this rather strange hybrid mixture of Polynesian and European people which persists right through to the present day."

The islanders remain fervently religious - many are now Seventh Day Adventists.

But the outside world could not be kept out forever.

Adams had feared overpopulation and requested British help to re-settle elsewhere. Two years after his death the entire population of 66 people was moved to Tahiti.

But most islanders returned six months later.

Pitcairn was annexed into the British empire in 1838 and was again evacuated in the 1850s due to overpopulation.

But several of the families descended from the original mutineers once again returned to the isolated outpost, where many of their descendents still remain.


Resisting interference from the outside world has been their way of life for two centuries.

The island was chosen as a settlement precisely because it was incorrectly marked on British naval surveys, making it difficult to find.

Seven men - half the male population - faced trial under the British legal system in a makeshift courtroom over 10,000 miles from the UK.

On Monday, six of them were convicted of a string of sex offences, and one was acquitted.

The islanders had built a jail in preparation and legal teams travelled to Pitcairn from New Zealand.

Despite the initial bloodshed, says Herbert Ford, "those earlier Pitcairners left a legacy of self-reliance, of friendliness to all who come their way, of simplicity and good humour in the face of adversity".

Many believe the islanders will need all this and much more if their unique community is to survive the latest incursion from the outside world.

The BBC's Michael Peschardt
"Feelings run so high that all firearms have been confiscated"

Pitcairn trial officials arrive
23 Sep 04  |  Asia-Pacific
A rock and a hard place
08 Sep 04  |  Magazine
Guns to be handed in on Pitcairn
11 Aug 04  |  Asia-Pacific

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