Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealedby Kathy Marks
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Pitcairn Island -- remote and wild in the South Pacific, a place of towering cliffs and lashing surf -- is home to descendants of Fletcher Christian and the Mutiny on the Bounty crew, who fled there with a group of Tahitian maidens after deposing their captain, William Bligh, and seizing his ship in 1789.
Shrouded in myth, the island was idealized by outsiders, who considered it a tropical Shangri-La. But as the world was to discover two centuries after the mutiny, it was also a place of sinister secrets. In this riveting account, Kathy Marks tells the disturbing saga and asks profound questions about human behavior.
In 2000, police descended on the British territory -- a lump of volcanic rock hundreds of miles from the nearest inhabited land -- to investigate an allegation of rape of a fifteen-year-old girl. They found themselves speaking to dozens of women and uncovering a trail of child abuse dating back at least three generations.
Scarcely a Pitcairn man was untainted by the allegations, it seemed, and barely a girl growing up on the island, home to just forty-seven people, had escaped. Yet most islanders, including the victims' mothers, feigned ignorance or claimed it was South Pacific "culture" -- the Pitcairn "way of life."
The ensuing trials would tear the close-knit, interrelated community apart, for every family contained an offender or a victim -- often both. The very future of the island, dependent on its men and their prowess in the longboats, appeared at risk. The islanders were resentful toward British authorities, whom they regarded as colonialists, and the newly arrived newspeople, who asked nettlesome questions and whose daily dispatches were closely scrutinized on the Internet.
The court case commanded worldwide attention. And as a succession of men passed through Pitcairn's makeshift courtroom, disturbing questions surfaced. How had the abuse remained hidden so long? Was it inevitable in such a place? Was Pitcairn a real-life Lord of the Flies?
One of only six journalists to cover the trials, Marks lived on Pitcairn for six weeks, with the accused men as her neighbors. She depicts, vividly, the attractions and everyday difficulties of living on a remote tropical island. Moreover, outside court, she had daily encounters with the islanders, not all of them civil, and observed firsthand how the tiny, claustrophobic community ticked: the gossip, the feuding, the claustrophobic intimacy -- and the power dynamics that had allowed the abuse to flourish.
Marks followed the legal and human saga through to its recent conclusion. She uncovers a society gone badly astray, leaving lives shattered and codes broken: a paradise truly lost.
Pitcairn Island was first settled more than 200 years ago by Fletcher Christian and other mutinous crew members of the HMS Bounty, along with several Polynesian women from neighboring islands; the community has always been small, but a mythology has built up around it as a remote, idyllic paradise. "Pitcairn is thoroughly civilized," agrees Marks, a British journalist based in Australia, "except in one respect... children were almost routinely raped and assaulted." In 2004, Marks was one of just six journalists allowed on Pitcairn to cover the trials of several islanders accused of repeated sexual abuse of teenage and preadolescent girls; her eyewitness accounts of the proceedings, and the hostility of Pitcairners, still subject to British laws, who believed their entire society was under persecution by the outside world, is gripping. She systematically demolishes the argument that Pitcairn was a different culture, where "underage sex was the norm," and considers why outside observers-from the British government to local schoolteachers and priests-let the abuse continue unchecked for decades. The crimes are disturbing enough, but the Pitcairn community's rallying around its most brutal sexual predators, and their relatively light punishment, is a truly unsettling story, even in Marks's restrained retelling. (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Pitcairn Island has been fantasy fodder for generations as an isolated tropical island originally populated by mutinous H.M.S. Bounty sailors and their Polynesian concubines. Not all has been well in that paradise, however. Investigations begun in 2000 eventually led to child rape charges against some of the tiny island's most powerful men. The trials were held on the island, with only six journalists authorized to observe-among them Marks, who had 20 years of newspaper experience and was reporting for two papers. Marks stayed on the island for six tumultuous weeks and continued her research from abroad. Her troubling story depicts a community in which child rape and other abuses had become widely tolerated over generations. Marks rarely lets her outrage outpace her reporting, despite the lurid content. Although her effort falls short of ethnography, her speculations about the involuted nature of sexuality and power on the island are convincing. This somewhat disorganized, emotive account will leave readers shaken. Recommended for all public libraries and any academic libraries that collect true crime.
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Pitcairn Island, a British outpost floating in a remote corner of the South Pacific, was until recently considered a tropical paradise. Seldom visited, it is a place of extreme isolation, with no airstrip and limited sea access. The rocky outcrop is inhabited by about fifty people, most of them descended from Fletcher Christian and his fellow HMAV Bounty mutineers.
The sailors fled to the island to evade British law, but for the next two centuries Pitcairn was, to all appearances, trouble free -- stabilized by religion, with negligible crime, and largely capable of running its own affairs. Just before the dawn of the new millennium, that perception was turned on its head.
In December 1999, several Pitcairn girls claimed that they had been sexually assaulted by a visiting New Zealander. By chance, a British policewoman was on the island, and one of the girls confided that she had also been raped by two local men in the past. An investigation into those allegations developed into a major inquiry that saw British detectives crisscross the globe, interviewing dozens of Pitcairn women. Their conclusion was that nearly every girl growing up on the island in the last forty years had been abused, and nearly every man had been an offender.
I first read about the investigation -- codenamed, quite coincidentally, Operation Unique -- in 2000, when snippets surfaced in the British and New Zealand media. At that time, I was a relative newcomer to Sydney, where I am based as Asia-Pacific correspondent for the Independent, the British national newspaper. The story had immediate appeal, combining Pitcairn's mutinous history with a glimpse of life darkly played out on a far-flung island -- an island that also happened to be a British colony, one of the final vestiges of Empire.
What struck me, even at that early stage, was that sexual abuse seemed to have been part of the fabric of life on Pitcairn. I tried to visualize what childhood must have been like for the victims, living there with no means of escape from their assailants.
At the same time, certain Pitcairners -- including women on the island -- were loudly denying that children had ever been mistreated. They claimed that Pitcairn was a laid-back Polynesian society where girls matured early and were willing sexual partners. Britain, they claimed, was trying to cripple the community and force it to close, thus ridding itself of a costly burden. Who was telling the truth, I wondered: the women describing their experiences of abuse, or those portraying the affair as a British conspiracy?
For Britain, the case raised embarrassing questions about its supervision of the colony, now known as an overseas territory. Confronted with such serious allegations, however, the government had no choice but to act robustly. Judges and lawyers were appointed, and in 2003, after a series of legal and logistical hurdles had been surmounted, 13 men were charged with 96 offences dating back to the 1960s.
The plan was to conduct two sets of trials: the first on Pitcairn, the second in New Zealand. Preparations got under way on the island, where the accused men helped to build their own prison. The locals wanted the press excluded; as a compromise, and to prevent the place from being swamped, Britain decided to accredit just six journalists. News organizations around the world were invited to make a pitch.
On holiday in Japan at the time, I submitted a rather hurried application, pointing out my long-standing interest in the story. I also mentioned that I would be able to file for the Independent's sister paper, the New Zealand Herald. Shortly afterward, I was informed that I had been chosen as a member of the media pool.
In 2004, I spent six weeks on the island, reporting on one of the most bizarre court cases imaginable. Outside court, I bumped into the main protagonists every day, which was inevitable, since I was living in the middle of their tiny community. Some of those encounters were civil, others were less so, but I was able to observe at close quarters how Pitcairn functioned: the gossip, the feuding, the claustrophobic intimacy -- and the power dynamics that had allowed the abuse to flourish.
The legal saga did not end with the verdicts and sentences handed down on the island by visiting judges. It continued until late 2007, with further trials held in Auckland and the offenders appealing to every court up to the Privy Council in London. As I followed these twists and turns in both hemispheres, my mind buzzed with unanswered questions.
Why was it that many outsiders persisted in defending men who were guilty of a crime that was normally reviled -- pedophilia? Why did they continue to mythologize Pitcairn, although it had failed, in such a dramatic way, to live up to its utopian image? How far back, I asked myself, did the sexual abuse stretch -- to the time of the mutineers? Why had parents not denounced the perpetrators and kept their children safe? Had anyone outside the island realized what was going on?
There were bigger questions, too. What did Pitcairn tell us about human nature and life in small, remote communities? Is this how all of us would behave if left to ourselves, with no one looking over our shoulder?
Is Pitcairn a cautionary tale, a real-life version of Lord of the Flies, that chilling story of a group of schoolboys who descend into savagery on an imaginary island?
Are there more Pitcairns out there?
Copyright © 2009 by Kathy Marks
Meet the Author
Kathy Marks grew up in Manchester, England, and studied languages. She has been a journalist since 1984, working first for Reuters news agency and then for national newspapers in Britain, including the Daily Telegraph and The Independent. Since 1999 she has been based in Sydney as The Independent’s Asia-Pacific Correspondent, reporting from Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, East Timor, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, and the South Pacific. She has covered major stories around the region, including the post-independence violence in East Timor in 1999, the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, the civil war in Indonesia’s Aceh province, the Indian Ocean Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 and the 2006 Java earthquake. In 2004 she was one of six international journalists who travelled to Pitcairn Island for the child sex abuse trials.
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