Island of dark secrets

Child abuse used to be a taboo subject, of course, but that does not explain why Britain abandoned t

Until a few years ago, Pitcairn Island had only one claim to fame: it was the haven of Fletcher Christian's band of mutineers, who fled there after deposing the captain of the Bounty, William Bligh. It was a British colony, too, but as far as Britain was concerned, it was a tiny, remote outpost that seemed capable of running itself and never caused any problems.

When allegations emerged in 2000 of systematic child abuse dating back generations, the British government declared itself as shocked as anyone else. Colonial officials had been wholly unaware of the situation, claimed the Foreign Office. The little community - 230 people at its height, now down to about 50 - had its idiosyncrasies, of course, but it seemed a tranquil place, with no crime. And the islanders were all Seventh-Day Adventists.

The protestations of ignorance were repeated as Britain set about organising trials on the rugged, surf-lashed rock, perched in an isolated corner of the South Pacific. Behind the scenes, though, recriminations flew.

Early in the police investigation, at a time when just two victims had been interviewed, Martin Williams, then Pitcairn governor, wrote to his superiors in London: "I have no doubt that these are not unique cases. It is far more likely that they are a continuation of a pattern that has been going on for 200 years."

Williams, who had visited Pitcairn only once, but appeared to have the measure of the place, added: "If we now launch charges against the two suspects, this may well kindle feuds and resentments about similar cases which have occurred over the years . . . about which . . . nothing has ever been done."

Pitcairn, settled by the mutineers in 1790 and still home to their descendants, has been a British possession since 1838. It was governed first out of Fiji, 3,400 miles away, and then, from 1970 onwards, from Wellington, similarly distant. Unlike other territories, the island never had a resident British official. Governors visited fleetingly, the locals put on their best faces, and years, sometimes decades, went by before the next visit.

That, however, was not the only contact between Britain and its far-flung outpost. Although, for much of Pitcairn's history, communication was limited to radio telegrams, and letters that took months to arrive, copious amounts of correspondence flowed between them.

Some of that correspondence, stored in colonial archives in London, Auckland and Pitcairn, makes disturbing reading. In 1950, for instance, Albert Moverley, a New Zealand teacher stationed on the island, notified the governor's office that a relative of the local magistrate had raped a ten-year-old girl so brutally "as to cause the child physical injury".

Another teacher, George Allen, dismayed by a spate of schoolgirl pregnancies, warned British officials that "if such interference with children by grown men continues, then there is bound eventually to be a breakdown in the health and social structure of the community". Those schoolgirls included 15-year-old Vanda Young, who died in childbirth because the baby was "too big for her", according to Allen's predecessor.

The island's birth records revealed that most Pitcairn girls had their first baby between the ages of 12 and 15. (One girl was on her fourth pregnancy by 15.) Britain was sent those records, along with the minutes of council meetings, including a meeting in 1970 at which the "raping or illicit carnal knowledge of a girl aged 11 years" was discussed.

The documents were also seen in London, yet no one saw fit to take any action, it seems, on being presented with allegations of prepubertal girls being raped. The colonial authorities did not even try to find out whether the cases had been properly investigated. And the same applied to murder: one teacher in the 1950s reported that a local man had allegedly strangled his wife (and was now beating wife number two black and blue).

Instead, Britain left Pitcairn to police itself - although the policeman and magistrate were related to everyone in the community and the criminal justice system was a farce. An islander who reported a crime was liable to find his goats gone the following day, or his trees poisoned.

Child abuse used to be a taboo subject, of course, but that does not explain why Britain abandoned the girls of Pitcairn to their fate. More likely, colonial officials regarded the islanders as a bunch of natives with dubious sexual morals, incapable of behaving any better. Their habits were the subject of discreet amusement in both Fiji and Wellington. As for the girls, Britain considered them promiscuous, too.

Since the trials, in which ten men were convicted by 2006, Britain has belatedly focused its attention on Pitcairn. Police and social workers have been sent out, and enormous sums of money ploughed into the island - at least £15m since 2000, according to the latest figures I have obtained. Britain is also giving 50-odd people nearly £2m a year in budgetary aid: surely one of the highest per capita expenditures on any community anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile, the victims of sexual abuse have yet to receive compensation. The UK's criminal injuries compensation scheme does not apply to the overseas territories, and requests for a parallel scheme to be set up have gone unanswered. The women are so frustrated by the government's apparent indifference that they have considered launching a class action.

Kathy Marks is the author of "Trouble in Paradise: Uncovering Decades of Sexual Abuse on Britain's Most Remote Island" (Harper Perennial, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games