Fletcher's legacy

The islanders of remote Pitcairn are being punished for the crimes of a few

In July 2004 the Tundra Princess sailed from Auckland to Europe with a cargo of 8,000 tons of kiwi fruit. Its captain agreed to divert to Pitcairn Island to deliver the perimeter fence and iron window bars for the prison that was being built there.

Pitcairn has no harbour. The ship drifted two miles out at sea in a storm and islanders came in longboats to collect these shaming supplies. But the captain thought the sea too rough to raise the cranes to unload the containers. To do so might destabilise the ship and damage his $10m-worth of kiwis and he wasn't prepared to risk this. So a longboat bucketed me to Pitcairn's rugged shore and the prison's perimeter fence went with the ship to Panama.

Pitcairn, a remote, unwanted British dependency, is a stark and craggy lump of rock, five miles in diameter, 3,000 miles north-east of New Zealand. Its 49 inhabitants are defined by their geographical isolation. The island itself is a prison, without an airstrip, ferry, or shipping links with anywhere. It has no cafe, hotel, tele vision, radio, telephone or newspapers. Few tourists visit and ships for departure are uncertain. Most French-administered islands in the South Pacific have good communication networks, but not British Pitcairn.

Fletcher Christian sought out the island in 1790. He'd mutinied and shoved Captain Bligh and most of the Bounty crew into an open boat without maps or supplies and he wanted a place to hide from retribution. He knew Pitcairn was uninhabited and wrongly charted. He, eight other mutineers and the six young men and 12 women they'd abducted from Tahiti colonised the island and formed a lawless, rapacious community. All but four of the men were murdered within the first three years.

Two centuries on, Pitcairners have the same surnames as the mutineers. The summer of 2004 marked the start of the trials of seven men for rape and sexual abuse of the island's girls. (Six were subsequently convicted.) Investigations had started after a Kent policewoman went to Pitcairn in 1999 to teach community policing. She gave the girls leaflets about sexual harassment. Accusations followed. British police arrived. They called it Operation Unique. A picture emerged of men who preyed on girls when the chance was there, of rape in bushland or in Bounty Bay, of a girl accosted when she went to collect firewood, of a ten-year-old assaulted as she played tag.

Abuse in this closed society was endemic. It went back to the mutineers, and intervention to stop it was essential. But after the police brought charges, the paraphernalia of British law and retribution was invoked in an astonishing way.

Smiley, a New Zealand builder, took me from the primitive jetty at Bounty Bay up the Hill of Difficulty on his quad bike. Bikes are the island's only means of transport. There are no roads, only tracks that turn to red volcanic sludge when it rains. He pointed out the shop that opens a couple of hours a week, the church, school and courthouse, then he stopped outside the new prison. It looked like a Swiss chalet. It was being built to EU regulations and was smarter than the Pitcairners' houses. He explained that the men who stood to be banged up in it were helping build it. It was good money and they figured if they didn't get it, someone else would. But now those materials were bound for Panama, it wouldn't be finished in time. It would cost £100,000 to charter another ship to bring the stuff back.

It all seemed bizarre. Pitcairn, the most pri mitive of places, hadn't even provision for piped water, yet £5m had been spent on these trials. The process of English law in any high street is expensive but, for this remote island, the costs were phenomenal. Bills were drafted and legions of lawyers and officials employed. Defendants won the right to be tried and, if convicted, imprisoned, on their own territory. The existing prison had been a shed for garden tools. Prison warders were to be brought from New Zealand to manage the new one. There was the cost of chartered shipping and of accommodation for them and all of the judges and others who were to come to the island for the trials.

The crimes of which the Pitcairn men were accused had happened 20 years previously. No one would be protected by locking them away. Victims had left the island or become adults. Nor could the island manage without its men. Their strength was needed to work the longboats and keep the place running. And everyone on Pitcairn was, or was related to, either a defendant or a victim. The trials and worldwide publicity created a climate of suspicion and paranoia, and divided families.

The island needed opening up, not battening down. Restorative justice might have been appropriate, a learning of respect for women, a strategy to steer the islanders away from their closed and guilty past. Benign outside influence was needed. A sum like £5m might have brought infrastructure and enlightenment, not grief. Locking these men up in their own backyard seemed to me as questionable an intervention as that of the Seventh-Day Adventists from Napa Valley who sailed to Pitcairn in 1890, warn ing that when the Messiah arrived again, sinners would be eternally damned, and who within days forced the islanders to repent, abide by the Ten Commandments, and renounce singing, dancing, smoking, alcohol and sex outside marriage.

Confinement creates a longing for freedom. I wanted to get off the island. The longest time between ships had been eight months. I stared out to sea looking for rescue, in much the way the abducted Polynesian women might have stared. After a month, a lone yachtsman chanced by, bound for American Samoa, and I cadged a lift. As I left, I thought of the Mikado's sublime objective: "To let the punishment fit the crime." Pitcairners got a prison within a prison and collective shame.

Diana Souhami's "Coconut Chaos: Pitcairn, Mutiny and a Seduction at Sea" is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£14.99)