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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 June, 2003, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
'Sins of a few' trouble Pitcairn
By Michael Brooke

Bounty Bay, Pitcairn (Credit: Peter McHugh)
Pitcairn was colonised by the Bounty mutineers

A couple of months ago I was looking down into the blue waters of Bounty Bay.

The leaves of the coconut palms rattled in the south-easterly breeze.

Pure white tropicbirds rode the updrafts sweeping the cliffs, the better to show off their extravagant red tail plumes.

A commemorative plaque, erected in 1990, recorded the arrival of the Bounty mutineers 200 years earlier.

I was on Pitcairn, home to a distinct culture and language.

Close community

Idyllic? Scarcely, for I knew that a legal bombshell, the greatest catastrophe in the island's 213-year recorded history, had exploded.

Pitcairners are up in arms because they feel that someone with minimal knowledge of life on a Pacific island has decided that the British idea of justice should prevail

My acquaintance with Pitcairn stretches back over 13 years.

It is an extraordinarily isolated, rugged fertile lump of rock, 3,000 miles (4,800 km) from New Zealand.

Such isolation has always meant that the community has had to stick together to survive.

The best of community spirit is visible in the manning of the longboats, the 45-foot (13-metre) open aluminium boats that power past the crumbling jetty of Bounty Bay, crash through the Pacific rollers and rendezvous a mile or so offshore with passing ships.

Everything but everything comes ashore via those longboats - food, 45-gallon oil drums, the metaphorical and actual kitchen sink.

Everybody helps unload at the quayside, but it is the crews who handle the boat while it is rising and falling 20 feet (6 m) alongside the hull of a 20,000 ton cargo vessel who do the irreplaceable man's work.

Up in arms

Tales of Pitcairn at its worst began to reach me about two and a half years ago.

Now, several island-based men have been charged with sexual offences, some involving children.

The Pitcairners are up in arms because they feel that someone with minimal knowledge of life on a Pacific island has decided that the British idea of justice should prevail.

It is the governor, whose day job is British High Commissioner to New Zealand, who has borne the brunt of the islanders' wrath.

Yet the key decisions about the nature of the judicial process have been made at high levels in Whitehall.

The most obvious concern is the sheer expense, well in excess of Pitcairn's shoe-string expenditure.

Financial controversy

Normally around 250,000 ($415,000) of revenue a year pays for an administrative unit in Auckland, which arranges the vital transport of goods and people and the regular issue of postage stamps.

Compare this with the financial tap which gushes freely, courtesy of UK taxpayers, to fund this judicial process.

A Pitcairn logistics team, with swanky offices in Auckland and a chief residing in an Auckland hotel for two years, has built remand space on Pitcairn for six accused, plus accommodation for prosecution and defence lawyers.

A commode has been imported for the presiding judge.

It is not obvious to anyone on Pitcairn why the legal bottom cannot sit itself upon the cliff-top lavatories, the aptly-named 'long drops' that serve everyone else's daily needs.

Investigating officers from the Kent Constabulary have winged to and fro between England and New Zealand in business class seats.

'Unfair' punishment

There has already been huge expenditure on accommodation, on video-conferencing equipment, on the Ministry of Defence policemen who have been stationed on the island doing three-month stints for the past 18 months and on social workers who are largely shunned by the community.

Home to 46 residents
Lies halfway between New Zealand and Peru
Language is mix of 18th century English and Polynesian
Alcohol is still technically banned
The expenditure is running into millions.

Meanwhile the community is desperate to see its facilities upgraded.

One such improvement would be re-surfacing the Hill of Difficulty - the often-muddy and treacherous road connecting Bounty Bay and the township where everyone lives, Adamstown.

500,000 ($835,000) was earmarked by the Department for International Development for this project.

Then, around two years ago at the very time news of impending charges filtered out, the money ceased to be available.

No wonder the community feels it is being punished for the alleged sins of the few.

Despite this feeling, the material needed for the trials could not have been installed without the co-operation of the Pitcairners.

Some islanders contributed to the building of the remand centre.

The longboat crews brought the materials ashore.

Britain's 'revenge'

Of course they did. That is the Pitcairn way. Yet the crews stand to be emasculated if either those charged are removed to New Zealand for trial, or if any convicted are jailed.

Although Tony Blair has failed to answer letters from Pitcairn appealing for the trials to be held on their island, the islanders do not want independence.

"We've got no money, no brains, no people, no nothing," says an over-modest Betty Christian, among the most articulate of Pitcairn's womenfolk.

It will take the wisdom of several Solomons to save the best of this small, marvellous, imperfect speck of cultural diversity, and to ensure that Betty Christian has no excuse for asserting that, 213 years after the Bounty mutiny, Britain was at last taking revenge on the mutineers.

Pitcairn sex charges detailed
11 Apr 03  |  Asia-Pacific
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10 Apr 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Pitcairn 'threatened' by sex trial
07 Nov 02  |  Asia-Pacific

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