The Unusual Colonization of Pitcairn Island (with Video)

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In 1798 the infamous HMS Bounty and her crew staged one of the most well-known mutinies in all naval history. Though far from the first or last mutiny perpetrated by a crew of the Seven Seas, the commandeering of this particular ship has echoed with lega

In considering how law applies to a particular crime, it is often necessary to consider the particular circumstances surrounding it--mitigating and otherwise.

Even while lawmakers are reiterating, “the law is the law,” in reality, it is often the level of guilt that must be considered even when a crime has clearly been committed. And in certain situations, it’s even necessary to factor in certain historical information germane to the case.

Case in point: the unlikely history of the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, a tiny, two-square mile rocky outcropping located in a remote area of the South Pacific, and most notably familiar for the infamous mutiny that led to its occupation by Europeans.

The Mutiny

The focal point of several historically-based Hollywood films such as Mutiny on the Bounty, Pitcairn island was the idyllic paradise chosen by Master mate Fletcher Christian (played most convincingly by Marlon Brando) in 1789 as a hiding place for him and his fellow mutineers after he had led a successful mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty

According to legend, after taking possession of the ship, Christian cast Capt. William Bligh, and eighteen crewmembers loyal to Bligh, adrift in a small boat built to accommodate twelve.  Unable to then man a ship the size of the Bounty with the remaining compliment of nine, Christian sailed to Tahiti where he recruited twelve women and six male islanders, the whole group eventually finding their way to Pitcairn Island.

When the Bounty mysteriously burned shortly after arriving, however, it ended any chance of ever leaving. But, that’s where Hollywood leaves it.

Unintentional Colonists

Piecing together recently-acquired journal entries and diaries, it is now known that the current residents (now numbering about fifty) of Pitcairn come from four families; two of which descend from the Bounty crew: the Christians and Warrens (Bounty members), and the Youngs and Browns (descendants of two sailors who also shipwrecked there, in the 1800s).  Having endured its share of strife and infighting--as any tiny, isolated society with limited resources would--the struggle has, apparently, continued almost to this day.

While initially each mutineer had a wife (three women were shared by the six Tahitian men--which is within their customs), tranquility was destroyed when a mutineer’s wife died, prompting him to steal the wife of a Tahitian man. This set off a wave of civil unrest that lasted over a decade and left only three men alive; Fletcher Christian among those killed.

By the time an American whaling ship happened by this uncharted island in 1808, only one man remained, John Adams, along with 24 children.

By then, the “unusual” mating habits intended to perpetuate life there were already in full swing.  Habits that brought the island and its unique history into the limelight in 2005 when seven men were changed with fifty-five counts of rape, indecent assault, and sexual abuse of girls as young as five years of age; changes reaching back to 1964. This number represents about half Pitcairn Island's current male population.

Accusations first came to light in 1999 when a female islander reported the island’s long-time mating practices to a visiting British policewoman.  This ignited an in-depth international inquiry seeking to depose every living Pitcairn female residing on and off the island (per British law). 

This investigation led to many years of accusations, revelations, as well as issues of legal jurisdiction--and of course, a healthy re-education in Pitcairn Island history.  In 2005, a team of twenty judges, lawyers, and a full court staff descended upon Pitcairn intent on bringing the accused to justice.  (It should be noted that while several of the women said they would like the mating practices to stop, none would file formal charges.)

It was discovered during preliminary inquiry that the population of Pitcairn reached its peak in 1937, when it approached 250.  But since that time, the still relatively-isolated occupants of the island have struggled just to maintain survival levels. 

Eight accusers, whose testimonies were transmitted via video-conference to the makeshift courtroom from New Zealand where most of the accusers now reside, described Pitcairn as a society where men do whatever they want: where abuse and rape is the normal way of life.  But while several Pitcairn women confirmed that initiating girls into sex at age 12 is traditional, many said that sex between men and young girls is purely consensual--acknowledged as the Pitcairn norm.


Defense for the Pitcairn men argued that British justice does not apply to the families of the Bounty mutineers because they (in essence) formally renounced British citizenship when they founded the colony.  And far beyond the moral and legal implications these proceedings entail, most families have a defendant, an accuser, or both, involved.

More than just essential to the population, Pitcairn men are vital to the colony’s continued day-to-day survival; from manning longboats with supplies from passing ships to holding crucial positions as firemen, dentist, postmaster, and minister.  All those involved realize that condemning these men to anything beyond symbolic punishment could ultimately cause these people and their cultural heritage to cease to exist; a power no nation has the right to exert over its subjects.

In 2008, six of the Pitcairn men were convicted of an array of changes from simple assault to rape; among them Steve Christian, heir to Fletcher. Another of Fletcher’s descendants, Dennis Christian, the current postmaster, was also convicted of one charge of indecent assault and two sexual assaults. Currently waiting appeal (and a ruling on British jurisdiction), all the men remain at liberty, tending to Pitcairn society responsibilities.

As one reflects upon the unique history and circumstances involved in this cautionary tale, one can’t help but acknowledge the ironic events that have brought the crimes of Fletcher Christian full circle.  And one can’t ignore culture differences that would, perhaps, put our American sensibilities as odds with many cultures' habits around the world as well.


images via and

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James R. Coffey
Posted on Oct 16, 2010
Posted on Oct 16, 2010