The Pitcairn Islands – the last British Overseas Territory in the Pacific – comprises four remote islands: the namesake Pitcairn Island itself, plus the uninhabited Oeno, Henderson and Ducie. What’s rarely mentioned about Pitcairn, between the infamous Bounty story and the 2004 sex trials scandal, is that it’s a place of incredible natural beauty. The island’s 5 sq km surface is almost entirely sloped and has a varied landscape – from desolate rock cliffs that look over an infinite expanse of sea to lush hillsides bursting with tropical plenty.
The nearest inhabited island to Pitcairn is Mangareva in French Polynesia, 480km or a 36-hour boat ride away. Besides a few hundred cruise ship passengers per year (who often only spend an hour or two on Pitcairn when the ship passes), the only visitors are a few yachts, occasional groups of boat-chartering birders and a handful of intrepid tourists.
In January 1790 the Bounty mutineers arrived on Pitcairn after a long search for a remote hideaway, far from the long arm of British naval justice. Led by Fletcher Christian, the party was made up of eight other mutineers, six Tahitian men, 12 Tahitian women and a child. Once they were settled on the island, the Bounty was burnt both to prevent escape and to avoid detection. Chaos and bloodshed ruled the first years, largely due to the English mutineers’ slave-like treatment of the Polynesian men. By 1800, Adams (who had recently discovered religion), was the sole surviving man along with 10 women and 23 children.
Adamstown was a neat little settlement of God-fearing Christians when American Captain Mayhew Folger rediscovered Pitcairn Island in 1809, solving the 19-year mystery of what had happened to Christian and the Bounty after the mutiny. By this time British attention was focused on Napoleon and there was no interest in the surviving mutineer who was guilty of a decades-old crime.
Pitcairn didn’t hit world headlines again till 2004 when six men, including most heads of the community, were found guilty of a string of sex offences, including rape and indecent assault, on young girls. Life on Pitcairn changed irrevocably. Deep within the closest knit society imaginable, sisters, daughters and wives were pitted against uncles, fathers and brothers and, just as often, each other. In response, Britain has paid more attention to this speck of a colony than it has since the days of Bligh. From a new jetty on the opposite side of the island to Bounty Bay, to a state-of-the-art telephone system, the island has gotten back on its feet and everyone hopes the years of sex abuse have ended.
Although Pitcairn’s population grew to 223 before WWII, depopulation rather than overpopulation has become the major concern. With British funds being poured into the island for development since 2004, a few ex-islanders are being lured home. The presence of British officials and government workers has raised the population to around 60.
These days, the islanders do a busy trade turning out curios for visiting ships, including woven round pandanus baskets, models of the Bounty and a variety of miro wood carvings. Pots of local homey and Pitcairn Island stamps are other island must-haves.