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Island faces death sentence

After 200 years of isolation, famous for little else other than their mutinous ancestors, the people of Pitcairn Island are fighting for their survival as Britain’s last colonial outpost in the Pacific, says a report on the Pitcairn Island website.

Outsiders are asking hard questions about Pitcairn and its future. And a long-running trial in which 13 male Pitcairners, almost a third of the island’s total population, have been accused of serious sexual abuse is now threatening to destroy the fabric of this close-knit community.

Aired at a specially convened British court in New Zealand, the sordid accusations of rape, indecent assault and gross indecency - allegedly committed against women and children - have plunged Pitcairn into its deepest crisis since the Bounty mutineers first arrived in 1790 with their Tahitian women.

The remaining 47 Pitcairners still living on the island are approaching next week’s Burning of the Boat celebration, which recalls how the mutineers set fire to the Bounty to avoid detection by the Royal Navy, with a deep sense of foreboding.

Apart from the shame felt about the court case in New Zealand, there is a real fear that the jailing of so many men, if found guilty, would inflict a death blow to the island’s already weakened economy. A number of houses in Adamstown, the capital, have been abandoned, and more people are threatening to leave.

"We are like one family and whatever decision is made, we are the ones who will suffer," said Betty Christian, a sixth-generation Pitcairner. "Regardless of our differences and problems, none of our people want to see Pitcairn closed down and abandoned."

The island’s women have sent a petition to Pitcairn’s governor in New Zealand saying that removing so many able-bodied men from the island would make it impossible to launch their longboats, their only link to passing cruise ships which occasionally stop at the island.

Many islanders deeply resent what they regard as unwarranted interference in their community by people from Britain and New Zealand, arguing that the investigation has violated their way of life. The island’s troubles began when a Kent policewoman, Constable Gail Cox, was temporarily seconded to the island and began to uncover allegations of sexual abuse against both women and children, some of them going back decades.

A 15-year-old girl who claimed in 1999 that a visiting New Zealander had raped her set the criminal proceedings in motion. The island’s magistrate has ordered many of the details to be suppressed, but they will eventually be aired in open court.

The case affects nearly every family on Pitcairn, yet their overriding concern appears to be for their future.

Those involved in the running of the trial have faced hostility from the islanders - and their reputation was not helped when, during a hearing held on the island in August, two male Crown prosecutors were photographed wearing false breasts and red wigs at a party held on their boat.

"The community feels that the whole procedure has violated our human and civil rights," said Pitcairn mayor Steve Christian. "If trials are held on the island, it affects the lives of everyone as there are no secrets on Pitcairn."

Faced by a mass of evidence collected during a four-year investigation, the defence counsel for the accused men has resorted to arguing about whether a British court has any proper jurisdiction over Pitcairn Island.

Paul Dacre, the barrister representing the 13 islanders, told the court that while the Royal Navy ship HMS Swallow sighted the island in 1767, no attempt was made to claim sovereignty. Furthermore, he said, today’s Pitcairners were not British subjects but indigenous people living in the world’s smallest and most isolated independent nation.

Dacre added: "In burning the Bounty, those persons on Pitcairn Island cut irrevocably, and severed, their ties with the United Kingdom." But cracks were appearing in the romantic façade of Pitcairn long before Cox arrived.

Pitcairn is a speck of land thousands of miles from the nearest hospital and where the entire population is descended from a handful of settlers (nine mutineers, six Tahitian men and 12 Tahitian women).

Source: unison.ie

 
 

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