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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September, 2004, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
A rock and a hard place
Pitcairn from the air - courtesy of Pitcairn Islands Study Center

By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

Their community divided by a sex abuse trial, life for the 47 people on one of the world's most isolated islands has become very difficult. But was it ever straightforward?

Somewhere in the South Pacific, roughly half way between Peru and New Zealand, lies Pitcairn Island, one of the few places in the world so far flung the word "remote" just doesn't do it justice.

In an age of mass tourism the island has no airport and rarely gets visitors - the only face to face contact the 47 residents have with the outside world provided by an occasional passing ship.

Now, some 214 years after it was famously settled by the sailors behind the mutiny on the Bounty, the British territory is making an unhappy return to international attention.

Seven men, roughly half of its adult male population, stood trial on sex abuse charges.

Six of them were found guilty, and one was acquitted.

The case has caused deep divisions in the tiny community, making life very difficult indeed.

And it was never that easy to begin with.

Fat of the land

"People think of a tranquil South Pacific island, with sandy beaches and people just lying around," says Herbert Ford, head of the Pitcairn Islands Study Center, based in California.

Island is two miles by one mile
Pitcairners speak mix of English and Tahitian
Electricity available 10 hours a day
Transport by all terrain motorbikes
Co-operative shop open three times a week
Holidays are taken on uninhabited Oeno
Arrowroot, sweet potatoes and yams among crops
Climate between 19C and 25C
Police officer backed by two British police
Six person jail for 30 adults
Seventh Day Adventist church
First child in 17 years born on Pitcairn in 2003

The problem is it's just not like that. For a start there aren't really any beaches to speak of, just rocks and cliffs.

A trip from the landing point up the muddy Hill of Difficulty (all the roads are unpaved) towards Adamstown (the one and only settlement) will provide further evidence that Pitcairners are not just kicking back and living off the fat of the land.

If they're not out fishing, there's every chance that they will be farming, hunting or fixing their homes and machines. This is not an island where you can just call in a plumber to attend a leaky tap. Self reliance is everything.

"You don't just run down to the shop to get some food, or get something fixed," says Mr Ford. "It could be six months before something you need arrives from New Zealand."

It's not just spare parts that have to come the thousands of miles by sea from Auckland or Wellington. Everything that can't be sourced on the island has to come in by ship - whether that's flour to make bread, or wool to knit a jumper.

Think of planning your family shop some eight months ahead and doing several months' worth all at once.

While evenings may offer the chance to watch that favourite video again (so long as the electricity is on), it's also a time for weaving a basket or carving a curio to sell to passing ships.

Other vital income to pay for fuel, communications equipment and so on comes from the lucrative sale of collectible Pitcairn Island stamps and some of the purest honey in the world.

'Rural slum'

Clearly then, this is not an island for lovers of creature comforts to visit, let alone somewhere to settle. But therein lies its appeal to many of those who call it home.

After several short trips to Pitcairn, Kari Young married an islander and spent the next 15 years there, before moving on to New Zealand so her children could attend school. She still considers the island home and spent six months there earlier this year.

Pitcairn - courtesy of Pitcairn Islands Study Center
Life on Pitcairn requires resilience

"It's a beautiful place, the scenery is wonderful and the water is so clear," says Kari, 59, who left Norway in search of greater isolation.

"I have always tried to tell my family how it is to live on Pitcairn, but they have absolutely no idea. It's impossible to describe it."

Visiting the island for the BBC, correspondent Simon Winchester was similarly entranced by the "amiable rural slum of muddy lanes and small shacks, hot and humid and surrounded by an all too visibly empty sea that stretches, limitless, on every side".

Population problems

In the 1930s, Pitcairn had a population of more than 200, mostly descended from the original islanders - the band from HMS Bounty led by Fletcher Christian, and their Tahitian companions.

The furthest you can go is for a 15 minute walk
Dea Birkett

With its current population just half the number considered necessary to sustain the community, the island has a serious problem.

"They would love to have 30 to 40 Pitcairners who are currently living abroad to come back," says Herbert Ford. "But unless there's an economic reason to do so they're not going to."

Turning to outsiders to boost numbers does not provide easy solutions, although a young British couple whose stay on the island is now approaching a year look likely to be voted permission to stay.

By and large Pitcairners are not enthralled by many of those who turn up.

"There have been people in the past who wanted to live a hippy lifestyle without responsibilities. They all left," says Kari Young.

The journalist Dea Birkett, who rankled many islanders with her book Serpent in Paradise - an account of her year there - says only those accustomed to remote living and who have useful skills need apply.

"I came from one of the biggest cities in the world, London, and I went to the smallest, most remote village in the world and I was surprised to find it difficult."

She adds: "You can't go anywhere. You can't go away for a weekend, it's a 10-day boat journey to New Zealand if there's a ship, which there isn't. The furthest you can go is for a 15 minute walk."

Divided camps

Population problems pale into insignificance compared to those now casting their shadow over the community.

The trial, which started on 23 September, prompted the governor - the British High Commissioner to New Zealand - to demand islanders turn their weapons in, lest things get out of hand.

The case has already divided the island into camps; the accused, the accusers, those who think British law should prevail and those who don't.

It's difficult to see how the island's future will be anything but difficult in the aftermath of the trial.

"If everything had been normal on Pitcairn we may have moved back," says Kari. "But I can't see a time ever coming."

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