Byline: William Prochnau, Laura Parker
The venerable Privy Council sits behind the usual barricades of modern life on prime London real estate at No. 9 Downing Street. The court's power has faded from its colonial heights, when one of its decisions banned suttee, the Hindu practice of burning the widow with her husband's body atop his funeral pyre. Now it sits as the court of last resort only to the splinters of an empire undone: British Gibraltar and a lingering handful of island territories in far-off seas.
On a day in the hot London summer of 2006, the smallest of all those colonial shavings, Pitcairn Island, took center stage for the first and surely the last time with a child-rape case that seemed to hover somewhere between Paradise Lost and Lord of the Flies. But it also carried with it-or the case never would have reached this archaic pinnacle-a subplot of a powerful government stumbling out of centuries of neglect. This was Britain's attempt to clean up a mess it had allowed, through inattention, to spin out of control.
Pitcairn is the last holding of the British Empire in the Pacific, a place and people so remote, so unlikely, and, until recently, so lost in time that they often seemed more myth than reality. But the place is real all right. The island emerges alone out of the South Pacific more than 3,000 miles from any continent, a hunk of red volcanic rock not much larger than New York's Central Park. The open sea has pounded at it for millennia, creating a fortress of 500-foot cliffs fringed with just enough vegetation-banyan, coconut, breadfruit-to support a small population. Pitcairn has lured dreamers and adventurers in the two centuries since Fletcher Christian and his tiny band of rogues and Tahitian wives found it the perfect hideout from a British Navy seeking to avenge one of the great maritime heists of all time, the mutiny on the Bounty.
The year was 1789, and the mutineers acted just 23 days after leaving the sensual pleasures of Tahiti. Determined to avoid the hangman waiting in London, the outlaws sailed 8,000 miles before finding Pitcairn. Once there, they burned and sank their ship, then seemed to disappear from the face of the earth. The tale captured the world's imagination, inspiring a novel by Jules Verne, a satirical short story by Mark Twain, scores of other books, and one blockbuster movie after another-five in all. The first was an Australian silent film. Later, Fletcher Christian became Errol Flynn, then Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, and Mel Gibson, a dashing new hero for each generation of the 20th century.
But the movies never moved past sunset endings with a Gable or a Gibson standing with the Tahitian maidens on the cliffs of Pitcairn, looking out over his torched ship and the boundless Pacific, both the evidence and the way home sinking offshore. That was the beginning, not the end, of the odd colony the mutineers founded. Over the centuries Pitcairn, its population rising as high as 233 and now holding at 47, has become a mystical destination for those seeking escape, freedom, and the dream of paradise in the South Seas.
The news that has come off the rock in the last decade shocked the world and tainted the myth. In 2004, six men-a third of the island's adult male population, including Pitcairn mayor Steve Christian, a direct descendant of Fletcher Christian's-had been convicted under English law of 33 sexual offenses, some dating back as many as 40 years. The trials had been held in a makeshift courtroom on Pitcairn. At the Privy Council, on July 10, 2006, the prisoners were appealing those convictions.
Headlines around the world had focused on the criminal case: pitcairn's cloud of vice. But a more dramatic story lay buried in the thousands of pages piled high on a table partly shielding the Privy Council lords from the commoners facing them.
For most of its history, Pitcairn lived with a secret sex culture that defined island life. Adultery was not just routine but pervasive, as was the sexual fondling of infants and socially approved sex games among young children. Incest and prostitution were not unknown. The criminal charges stemmed from a longtime island practice of "breaking in" girls as young as 10.
The legal case had dragged on for eight years and threatened the island's survival. Sharp divisions existed over Mother England's fairness in forcing the weight of English law onto a tiny population as isolated and lost in time as Pitcairn's. Colleen McCullough, the Australian author of The Thorn Birds and wife of a well-known Pitcairn descendant, harshly criticized the British for prosecuting what even the Foreign Office grudgingly conceded was a "cultural trait." She said, "It's Polynesian to break your girls in at 12."
In the court chambers, the chatter hushed as the bailiff entered and intoned the words "Stevens Raymond Christian and others against the Queen."
The barristers, their powdered wigs sliding sideways from the sweat, hailed mostly from New Zealand, though their fees were being paid by the British. A prominent London barrister named David Perry had been recruited to aid the colonists in these aristocratic surroundings. He cautioned the lords who sat in judgment not to regard Pitcairn as just another part of the kingdom, "like an island off Dover waving the Union Jack." But it was a hard haul. The chief judge, Lord Hoffmann, peered chin down and dubiously through eyebrows as thick as briar patches.
Media from three continents took hurried notes. The convicted rapists slept nine time zones away on their rock, a place still without television or radio broadcasts. But the Internet had invaded even Pitcairn, and all home computers there were set on Google Alerts.
The court's most intriguing observer, a handsome woman in her early 60s named Kari Boye Young, her hair now silver gray, sat erect and proud against a far wall. At age 12, she fell madly in love with Clark Gable in a movie theater in Norway. The girlhood crush from that Mutiny movie never ebbed, and 15 years later it carried her, like so many dreamers before her, to a life, a husband, and children on Pitcairn. And now to this court, which would determine how her dream would end. Her last visit to London, in 1990, had been so heady and different. As the wife of the island magistrate, Brian Young, she arrived as one of the official representatives of Pitcairn's bicentennial and had tea with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Now Brian was accused of six rapes and was hoping that a successful appeal would keep his case from going to trial. Two seats away from Kari Young sat a London writer named Dea Birkett, who had enraged the Pitcairners with her 1997 book, Serpent in Paradise. All the islanders cared about, one told Birkett, were "the three F's-fishing, food, and fucking." The two women did not exchange a nod all day.
"Child Abuse on a Grand Scale"
Even when one knows the great distances, it is not easy to comprehend the fullness of Pitcairn's physical, social, and psychological isolation. No airplane has ever landed on Pitcairn; no ship ever moored there. As recently as 1964, the year of the first alleged rape being considered by the court, the island's most advanced transportation system remained a homemade wheelbarrow.
Weather permitting, visiting ships drop anchor 200 to 300 yards off a tiny, boulder-encircled inlet called Bounty Bay and wait for some of the world's deftest sailors to take passengers in by longboat for a landing few ever forget. Just outside the crashing surf, a spotter waits for the right swell and then shouts "Now!" for a hurtling into the surf and over the boulders. As the boat drops down from the wave, the coxswain must go full astern to keep it away from the deadly cliffs and turn it toward a small jetty. All the best boatmen were charged with rape.
Twice we sought permission to visit Pitcairn for Vanity Fair, in 1996 and 2002, and twice we were rejected-first after a year's silence, the second time after we booked passage on a yacht for the final 350-mile open-sea leg from Mangareva, the nearest island with an airfield. Official delays mounted until the skipper refused to make the trip in the unpredictable seas of winter.
In bad weather, not even ships carrying crucial supplies try to stop. Months may pass before another approaches. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria sent her subjects an organ for their church and for two years impatiently asked her courtiers to confirm that it had arrived.
Kari Boye visited Pitcairn three times in the 1970s, paying her way by working as a ship's radio operator before finally staying in 1978 at age 33. She rode the longboat ashore with the exhilaration of a dream fulfilled, carrying a life-size movie poster of Gable saved from that schoolgirl crush. Eventually, she gave it prominent display in her Pitcairn house, Up Tibi, where she settled after marrying Brian, a descendant of mutineer Edward Young. She quickly found that Pitcairn was not a paradise of palm trees and sand. "The coconuts did not fall off the trees into your lap," she told us when we first met her, in Auckland, New Zealand, to which she and her family had moved in 1995. Pitcairn meant hard labor and privation. She worked her small garden of yams and other vegetables every day, just as Fletcher Christian had done. She went for months without flour, eggs, and other provisions as ship after ship passed by. But she was where destiny and Hollywood had sent her, and she was happy. In snapshots, she is long-legged, lithe, and always smiling, her brown hair turned blond by the sun. "We loved Pitcairn," she said. "We lived an ideal life. With the ocean going on forever around you, it made me feel safe being there."
She did not feel so safe at the Privy Council as the arguments wound on. Did Britain even have jurisdiction over Pitcairn? …