Pitcairn Island Brandos Last Stand
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Pitcairn Island Brandos Last Stand

The history of the Bounty's occupation of Pitcairn Island brings many legal, ethical, as well as moral issues to the fore in current times. This article explores the concepts of cultural autonomy, human rights and behavior, and of the authority to interfere with a culture that has developed beyond the sphere of social contact.
    In considering how the law applies to a particular crime, it is often necessary to consider the specific circumstances--mitigating and otherwise--surround it.  Even while lawmakers are reiterating, ‘the law is the law,’ in reality, it is the “level” of guilt that must be considered even when a crime has obviously 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 known for the infamous mutiny that led to its occupation by Europeans.

     The focus of several historically-based Hollywood films such as Mutiny on the Bounty (starring Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian), Pitcairn Island was the idyllic paradise chosen by Master mate Christian in 1789 as a place he and his fellow mutineers could hide from British authorities after he had successfully led a 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 man a ship the size of the Bounty with the remaining compliment of nine, Christian then sailed to Tahiti where he recruited twelve female and six male islanders, the whole group eventually making 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.

    Piecing together recently-acquired journals and diaries, it is now known that the current residents 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 shipwrecked there in the 1800s).  Having endured its share of strife and infighting--as any tiny, isolated society with limited resources would, the struggle apparently continues 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 lost.  By the time an American whaling ship happened by the 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 recently 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 of the 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 2004, a team of 20 judges, lawyers, and a full court staff descended upon Pitcairn intent on bringing the accused to justice.  During the proceedings, it was uncovered 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 to maintain survival levels.  Eight accusers, whose testimonies were transmitted via video-conference from the makeshift courtroom in 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 attornies for the Pitcairn men have argued that British justice does not apply to the ancestors 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 or 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 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 (picture above from that year), 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 accused and convicted remain at liberty, tending to Pitcairn society responsibilities as usual.  But 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.

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