In 1787, a small navy vessel named HMS Bounty was sailing in the Pacific. Its mission was to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti and transport them back to the West Indies, where the British would use them to provide cheap food for slaves. Breadfruit plants collected, along with a number of Tahitian women with whom members of the crew had formed relationships, the ship started its long journey home.

The return voyage ran into problems. The ship’s captain, William Bligh, had become increasingly annoyed at his crew’s drunken and incompetent behaviour. Days before, they had allowed Tongan natives to steal one of the ship’s anchors while it docked to pick up supplies. As a result, Captain Bligh had heavily criticised his crew and halved their rations of rum and food.

Early one morning, a man named Fletcher Christian, the recipient of the worst of Bligh’s ire, decided to seize control of the ship. The crew quickly divided into rebels and loyalists and, without the shot of a gun or stab of a dagger, the mutiny succeeded. Bligh and the loyal members of the crew were jettisoned in the ship’s lifeboat. Christian threw the precious breadfruit plants into the sea.

While ex-Captain Bligh and his diminished crew made a heroic 6,500km journey to safety in Timor, Fletcher Christian and the rebel crew flailed around the south Pacific, trying and failing to establish a permanent base, knowing all the while that the navy would surely send out a search as soon as they realised the Bounty wasn’t coming back. Christian turned out to be a worse captain than Bligh. Each time the ship stopped, he lost more of his crew to desertion or the spears of island people.

The Bounty landed for the final time on the shores of an uninhabited volcanic rock. Christian and his band of rebels realised this was the best chance at safety they would come upon. They torched the Bounty and made sure it sank beneath the waves. They were marooned.

The name of the island was Pitcairn, and it was tiny; measuring five square kilometres. The British had named it after Robert Pitcairn, a fifteen-year-old crewman from Burntisland – a long way from Burntisland – who had spotted it through a telescope 22 years earlier. Not only was it tiny, it was remote. Half-way between New Zealand and Chile, it would take 36 hours by modern boat to get there from the next island.

Fletcher Christian’s rebel crew quickly turned in on themselves. By now they were a mix of British sailors, Tahitian women and Polynesian island men who the crew had convinced to join up. The British element of the group viewed the others as inferior to them, almost as their property. They lay about getting drunk and passing the women around. Meanwhile, the Polynesian men did the hard work of farming, catching fish and constructing infrastructure.

This became untenable after one Englishman proposed dividing all the farmland between the British element and excluding the Polynesians. This being the final straw, the polynesians promptly murdered most of the Englishmen. Their British divide-and-rule attitude didn’t work when applied to a community of 30-or-so people. Fletcher Christian, who had actually spoke against excluding the Polynesians, was one of the victims. They cut him up with an axe as he tended to his crops.

Before he died, Christian had had a child with his wife. The child’s name was Thursday October Christian, and he was the first Pitcairn Islander since the island’s original natives left.

Fletcher Christian
October Christian

Over 200 years later, the descendants of the mutineers still live on Pitcairn Island. The current mayor, Shawn Christian, can trace a direct line back to Fletcher Christian, and the islanders still venerate their founding father. Mayor Christian rules over a population of 49, whose dialect bears traces of the Tahitian and Old English of their ancestors. Pitcairn, the residents having made their peace with the British, became part of the empire in 1838, then the largest empire in the world. Along with the Falklands, it is now one of its scattered remnants. The community survives on tourism and grants from the British government.

Because of its location and size, Pitcairn is automatically considered a paradise. But a visit by a policeman in the early 2000s hinted at a darker side to island life. Until recently, the community self-policed, without the help of any official force. When a uniformed police officer visited, she spoke to a teenage girl who informed her she had been raped by at least one of the men. An investigation was launched.

More stories emerged, from women of all ages. Some had been assaulted when they were as young as three, and the stories went back decades. The police arrested seven men; two-thirds of the island’s adult male population, including then mayor Steve Christian. But the British authorities dithered over whether to pursue the case. The islanders’ reception to them had been hostile. Some believed that the police, who had never meddled in island affairs before, had an ulterior motive; that the British government planned to clear the island in order to mine it.

The arrested men claimed that these sexual practices were merely part of their culture, and justified in Pitcairn’s own laws. Pitcairn law states that sex is permissible from 12 years old. They claimed that British laws had never been published on the island. If they had never been published there, how could they apply?

No matter how hard you try, you cannot imagine living in a community like Pitcairn. Having to find a partner within less than a kilometre of where you live, in a tiny community where most people are far closer related than in the rest of the world. About two hours of electricity per day. One dentist. One doctor. Two days travel to the next piece of civilisation. All this makes Pitcairners utterly reliant on each other’s approval and acceptance.

Because of the preciousness of community, Pitcairners have developed a debilitating fear of confrontation. If somebody does something to annoy you – smokes in your house, for instance – you do not tell them. You give them an ashtray. When they are gone, you complain to your friends. They, in turn, tell their friends and those friends will kindly tell the smoker that they should not smoke in other people’s houses, in the hope that they take the hint.

These kinds of practices may keep arguments from breaking out, but they are also a gift to people who want to keep something secret, or who want to lie. When everything is found out indirectly, all facts become rumours. Talk of a serious crime can be dismissed as mere gossip. A victim of abuse who reports it to the police is not only overcoming this fear of rocking the boat, but is probably also accusing a member of their own family, and someone who they must share the same tiny island with for the rest of their life.

Trouble in Paradise: The Pitcairn Story – A Channel 4 documentary about the case on Pitcairn from 2006

In 2004, the regular supply ship to the island carried more cargo than usual. Steel gates, bricks, fencing. The components of a new building: a prison. Pitcairn’s first. All but one of the men had been convicted. Together, they shared 96 charges, from gross indecency to sexual assault to rape.

However, pending an appeal, the men were still free to roam the island. So, being the strongest members of the community and the ones who knew best how to work the island’s small fleet of tractors and other machinery, it was they who lugged the cargo onto the shore and up the hill to the cleared plot of land. They would build the prison themselves, but it would be staffed by British police officers. Life on Pitcairn would never be the same.

Steve Christian, direct descendant of Fletcher Christian, during his trial on Pitcairn. He was convicted of raping several of the island’s children, including his own.

In the early 19th century, when the British finally came upon the mutineers’ Pacific hideaway, they found a devote Christian society. Its leader was John Adams, the last of the mutineers; one of only a few who had escaped murder by the Polynesian contingent. Using the Bounty’s battered and frayed ship’s bible, he had managed to unify the island’s remaining inhabitants under God. Seeing the apparently pious nature of island life under Adams, the British settled for nominal ownership of the island and left, leaving the islanders to pursue an entirely independent way of life. The wreck of the Bounty continued to rot under the sea.

180 years later, when British authorities once again set foot on the island, they found an isolated society where abuse was rife; a community full of secrets, governed by the same family, and bearing the same rebellious, insular attitudes as it had in its founding days. This time, the island’s leaders failed to escape justice.