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Pitcairn's declining stamp sales blamed for social embarrassment
By Rob Haeseler
Waning interest in the collecting of Pitcairn Islands stamps is being blamed for a social
scandal on tiny Pitcairn Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Faced with a loss of
income from the sale to foreigners of Pitcairn's popular postage stamps, the island's 44
inhabitants are resorting to other means to pay their utility bill.
Passengers from a cruise ship inspect native crafts on Pitcairn Island, recently the site
of a social scandal blamed on the declining sale of the island's popular postage stamps.
Click here for a larger image. "Child sex is common, with girls made available
at 12 or 13," Jeanette Winterson wrote of Pitcairn in Britain's Guardian newspaper on
May 15. "This has probably been the way of things for 200 years, but now island women
are angry that girls are offered to passing sailors and tourists, to boost income lost
from stamp collecting. Yes, stamps were the only thing the Pitcairners had to sell to help
pay for their electricity. Now that stamp collecting is deeply unsexy, the only thing left
to sell is sex."
Pitcairn's population has plummeted from a high of approximately 230 during World War II.
As every schoolboy knows, most Pitcairners are descended from British mutineers and
Tahitians who burned the HMS Bounty at the volcanic island group in 1790, after earlier
casting adrift the ruthless Capt. William Bligh.
Sales of Pitcairn stamps, which were first issued in 1940, brought in foreign currencies
and raised several thousand pounds a year for the islanders, who used the money to fuel
their electric generator. The inhabitants also sell crafts to the passengers and crews of
cruise ships that call at Pitcairn. One such exotic stopover is shown in the photograph
accompanying this story. Pitcairn's one-room post office is shown in the background of the
picture, beyond cruise passengers shopping for carvings of sharks and whales.
The age of jet travel and the remoteness of the 2-square-mile island -- which is midway
between New Zealand and Peru -- has caused a sharp decline in ship visits. Mail arrives by
ship every two months, and there is one satellite phone on the island.
Many of Pitcairn's offspring are sent to New Zealand at age 16 to finish their schooling.
Most choose not to return to the island, which has been likened to a rural slum by some
visitors. But change may be in the wind. The island's adults voted recently to allow a
consortium to develop the atoll with two airports, lodges, a hotel and a fish-processing
plant all tied together by sewer and water systems. The islanders would get 10 percent of
While environmentalists warn of the impact of tourism, the islanders have become the
biggest boosters of development. Mayor Steven Christian, who is descended from Fletcher
Christian, the mutinous first mate of the Bounty, was interviewed by the British Observer.
"The community decided to go ahead and see what happens . . . ," he
said. "Pitcairn is on its last legs. We've tried everything to increase our intake of
dollars. We need to encourage young people -- we're very short of young people. It's a
dwindling population, and if anything can attract our youngsters back, this development is
In 60 years, more than 500 stamps have been issued in the name of the Pitcairn Islands.
The plural form embraces the atoll's uninhabited Henderson, Oeno and Ducie islands, none
of which has ever been known to produce a postal marking. Pitcairn is governed by a
British high commissioner in New Zealand. Fiji administers postal affairs. The address for
the Pitcairn Philatelic Bureau is Private Box 105696, Auckland, New Zealand; e-mail:
The paradise that's under a cloud
Pitcairn Island, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, has an idyllic reputation. But life isn't
easy for its few dozen remaining inhabitants. Now allegations of sexual abuse may prove
the final straw.
By Kathy Marks
23 January 2002
In Western eyes, the South Seas have always evoked sybaritic images of languidly swaying
palm trees and smiling Polynesian women. "The Tahitians know no other god but
love," wrote an 18th-century scientist, gladly abandoning reason for passion.
"Every day is consecrated to it, the whole island is its temple, all the women are
its idols, all the men its worshippers."
The crew of HMS Bounty were similarly overcome when they arrived in Tahiti in 1788 to
gather a cargo of breadfruit saplings. After staging their famous uprising against Captain
Bligh, Fletcher Christian and his men returned to Tahiti to collect their female
companions before scouring the South Pacific for a safe haven, finally settling on
Whether the Polynesians went willingly is unclear; according to one account, the ship set
sail as they slept off an evening of feasting on deck. The Englishmen apparently cared
little; as they saw it, the function of the women and the girls was to serve
their needs. And that, allegedly, remains the view of some descendants of Fletcher and his
Pitcairn, a pinprick of volcanic rock 3,000 miles from New Zealand, is Britain's last
dependency in the South Seas and home to about 50 people, mainly of Bounty heritage. It is
one of the most isolated spots on earth and one of the most idealised, thanks to its
idyllic setting and the lure of the Bounty legend, the inspiration for five Hollywood
films starring the likes of Erroll Flynn, Clark Gable and Marlon Brando.
That mystique, however, is about to be dispelled by claims of widespread sexual abuse on
the island. A public prosecutor in Auckland, Simon Moore, is examining allegations against
at least 20 men who live or used to live on Pitcairn. If he decides to proceed, the inner
workings of this tiny community will be laid bare at one of the most sensational trials of
modern times; and, many believe, the death-knell will be sounded for an already struggling
Kent Police who have a historic responsibility for the island uncovered
dozens of allegations during a two- year criminal investigation, most of which are
understood to relate to girls aged between 10 and 15 when they were allegedly raped or had
sexual relations with teenage boys or adult men.
No charges have yet been laid, but already many of Pitcairn's supporters are arguing that
the entire affair is based on a misconception. They claim, variously, that the age
of consent on the island has long been 12 or 14, and say that if girls become
sexually active earlier than in Western societies, it stems from their part-Polynesian
ancestry and should be respected.
That hypothesis does not withstand scrutiny, not least because some victims were allegedly
five years old or younger, but it illustrates the degree of protectiveness felt by
outsiders with a stake in Pitcairn's Utopian dream. There are fan clubs around the globe
where the minutiae of life on the two square-mile outcrop are avidly debated by, among
others, Bounty junkies, South Seas fantasists and some followers of the Seventh Day
Adventist faith, to which Pitcairners were converted en masse in the 19th century.
In reality, the island does not fit the stereotype of a South Pacific paradise. It has no
beaches or coral reefs, not even a harbour, so all supplies must be hauled in by longboat.
It is accessible only by sea, requiring an eight- day voyage from New Zealand or three
days from French Polynesia. Visitors are greeted by a rugged landscape of towering rocks;
the most common cause of death after old age is falling off a cliff.
There are no cars on Pitcairn, and no television, while communication with the outside
world is limited to twice- yearly mail deliveries, one satellite telephone and Citizens'
Band radio. Locals go fishing, tend their vegetable gardens and carve wooden souvenirs to
sell to passing cruise ships. It sounds a delightfully simple existence; in reality, daily
life is numbingly ordinary. "It's like a small town in England," said Sheils
Carnehan, a New Zealander who taught there for two years. "The only difference is you
can't get away."
While some travellers have been charmed by the idiosyncracies of Pitcairners, who still
bear the surnames of their mutinous ancestors, others have returned with tales of a
claustrophobic, inter-related community riven by petty arguments and long-running feuds.
Far more damaging are the potential criminal proceedings, set in motion by a 15-year-old
girl who claimed in 1999 that she had been raped by a New Zealander in his twenties. That
was dealt with by islanders and the young man sent away, but it prompted other girls to
come forward with accounts of alleged sexual mistreatment at the hands of locals.
A Kent constable, Gail Cox, who was temporarily stationed on Pitcairn, began an inquiry
that exploded into a major investigation. Over the next two years, travelling to
Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Norfolk Island, police interviewed every woman and
girl who had lived on the island during the past two decades, as well as each of the
alleged offenders. Their file is with Simon Moore, an Auckland lawyer appointed Pitcairn
Public Prosecutor by Britain for the purposes of the investigation.
While the allegations have caused ripples of shock in many quarters, some observers are
less surprised. Josh Benton, a journalist with the Dallas Morning News, was struck by the
sexual precocity of young girls when he spent a week on the island in 1999. He says:
"I would have expected the opposite to be true, because we hear so much about the
power of the media in sexualising young girls, yet none of those influences exist on
Neville Tosen, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor who recently spent two years there, was also
perturbed by children's conduct. "I noticed worrying signs such as inexplicable mood
swings," he says. "It took me three months to realise they were being abused. I
tried to raise the subject at a meeting of the island council, and one gentleman replied:
'Look, the age of consent has always been 12 and it doesn't hurt them.'"
Tosen, who now lives in Australia, says island records and personal anecdotes showed that
most women had their first child between 12 and 15. "I think the girls were
conditioned to accept that it was a man's world and once they turned 12, they were
eligible," he says. "If you look back, it seems that each man had his
own particular young girl."
He asked the mothers and grandmothers how they could allow such things. "Their reply
was that nothing had changed. They said: 'We went through it too; it's all part of life on
Pitcairn.' One grandmother wondered what all the fuss was about. But the girls are
damaged; they can't settle or form solid relationships. They did suffer, no doubt about
Current residents have declined to discuss the case itself, but Jacqui Christian, whose
parents, Tom and Betty, live on Pitcairn, says the notion of a culture of abuse is
nonsense. "It's a fantastic place to grow up," says Christian, who went to
school in New Zealand at 15 and now lives in Queensland. "There's total freedom and
the whole island is your backyard."
Others paint a less blissful picture. After coaching the schoolchildren in public
speaking, Sheils Carnehan organised an evening for them to show off their new skills. Not
a single parent turned up to listen.
Pitcairn which is governed from Wellington by the British High Commissioner to New
Zealand, Richard Fell first came to the notice of Kent police in 1997, when
Detective Superintendent Dennis McGookin investigated the alleged rape of an 11-year-old
visitor by a local man of 19. He concluded that they had been in a long-term consensual
relationship, but is understood to have been alarmed by what he described as an epidemic
of alcohol- and firearms-related crime.
Those fears were scoffed at by islanders, who said they use their guns to shoot breadfruit
out of the trees. For Herb Ford, director of the Seventh Day Adventist- sponsored Pitcairn
Islands Study Centre in California, the latest case demonstrates another gulf in
understanding. "You can't superimpose British law on a tiny Pacific island which, by
dint of a mixture of two cultures a long time ago, is a little different from downtown
London," he says.
But the cultural relativism argument is dismissed by Sheils Carnehan: "That's
pathetic. They're West- erners; they don't lead a Polynesian lifestyle and most of them
have spent time in New Zealand or Australia. If it was culturally acceptable, why did they
hide it? They didn't want the outside world to know."
The investigation was conducted as a parallel inquiry was unfolding on Norfolk Island, 900
miles off the Queensland coast, where a shipload of Pitcairners decamped in the 19th
century. On Norfolk, still home to 600 Bounty descendants, a prominent businessman,
Stephen Nobbs, was convicted last year of paedophilia offences going back 20 years. His
lenient sentence he was jailed every weekend for 48 weeks angered many
locals, who claimed that sexual abuse is rife on the island.
Neville Tosen is convinced that the two cases have similar origins. He points to the early
years on Pitcairn, when 13 people were murdered many in fights over women
before John Adams, the sole surviving mutineer, pacified the community with the help of
the Bible. "This is the island that the gospel changed, but the changes were only
superficial," Tosen says. "Deep down, they adhered to the mutineers' mentality.
They must have known that their lifestyle was unacceptable, but it was too
Glynn Christian, a direct descendant and biographer of Fletcher, blames "decades of
neglect" by the British government. "There was never a police officer or anyone
independent on the island, so these poor girls had no one to tell," says Christian, a
former BBC television chef who lives in Auckland. "Pitcairn has been completely left
to its own devices. If it were not so isolated, social attitudes would be different."
With Pitcairn's viability in doubt because of depopulation and economic hardship, many
people believe that a high-profile trial would be the final nail. At present, there are
just enough able-bodied men to man the two longboats, so the jailing of even one or two
would have dire consequences. Negative publicity would stem the stream of gifts sent by
outsiders, while the cruise ships to which islanders sell handicrafts would probably stop
Recalling the mood when the investigation began, Tosen says: "Everyone got the fright
of their lives. Some of the men seemed quite clear they were going to jail. They started
cutting firewood for their mothers and their wives and laying in stocks for a long period.
The elderly ladies were very worried; they saw their whole future at risk. One said to me:
'They're going to take my son away and hang him.'"
The potential impact on the community is being given substantial weight by Moore during
his difficult deliberations on whether to prosecute. He even went to Pitcairn, spending 10
days there to assess the likely effects. Sources close to him say that if a prosecution
were to go ahead, a trial would not be held on the island because alleged victims could
not be expected to make the trip. The venue would be either New Zealand or Britain, both
of which present huge logistical problems.
On Pitcairn, meanwhile, life continues as before. "They carry on fishing, growing
their gardens and fixing their lawn mowers," says Tosen. "They know they have to
go on leading their day-to-day lives. The first law of Pitcairn has always been