The third installment in a series on my favorite islands is probably… my favorite island? Of all? I just kind of can’t believe this shit really went down.
So the Pitcairns are an overseas territory of the United Kingdom that lies halfway between New Zealand and Peru, or about 3,400 miles off the coast of Chile. It takes about six hours to get from Chile to the Pitcairns on an airplane. So let’s just start off by saying that this spot is super, super remote.
These are volcanic islands and there are four of them, but only the main island, also called Pitcairn, is inhabited because two of them are atolls and one is a coral island and so it’s all rubble and sinkholes. The islands are spread out over hundreds of miles, so no one ever really goes to the other ones. Everybody lives in the capital city of Adamstown.
So Pitcairn is my favorite/least favorite island because the deal with Pitcairn is that it is the actual site of the real Mutiny on the Bounty. The HMS Bounty itself still lies at the bottom of Bounty Bay in Adamstown, as it has since 1790. This is a real historical event and not just a novel: The British mutineers ganged up against Captain Bligh and half of the ship, then teamed up with a bunch of Tahitians they’d probably kidnapped and settled on the main island, Pitcairn, then went BACK to Tahiti and kidnapped some women, and brought them back to their sweet new settlement. And that’s where they stayed, isolated, in the middle of the ocean.
As such, everyone who lives on Pitcairn Island today is by and large descended from the original British and Tahitian settlers. Which is apparent in the surnames of the population: just about everyone’s last name is Young, Brown, Warren, or Christian, per the mutineers. They speak English and Pitkern, which is spelled Pitkern and is a mishmash of 18th-century English and Tahitian. Notably, Pitckern slang includes a bunch of old-timey maritime sayings, like the word “whettles,” stemming from victuals (“vittles”), meaning food. It’s also notably influenced by the King James Bible and Seventh-Day Adventist literature.
Pitcairn has some pretty marvelarious place names as well, although fewer than Orkney and Shetland, owing to it being super-small. A list of the ones that I like include:
- Red Allen
- Where Freddie Fall
- Bitey Bitey
- Oh Dear
- Break Im Hip
- Bop Bop
- Little George Coc’nuts
- Ugly Name Side
- Down the God
- Flattie Heywood
- Stonepeoplefightfor [sic]
So here’s the other weird/horrible bomb re. the unbearable smallness of Pitcairn that’s captivated me:
It seems that for the first three centuries or so, it was totally culturally fine for grown men in Pitcairn to sexually assault the island’s teenaged girls. For YOU SEE, in 1999, a British police officer was on a temporary assignment in Adamstown and she started to notice that the kids were really sexually, ahem, open with each other… as well as toward adults. And she was like hang on just one second, so she started asking questions and uncovering signs of rampant sexual abuse. A study of island records uncovered that most girls—not women, girls—had their first child when they were between 12 and 15 years old.
It turns out that the island’s populace had just arbitrarily decided that age of consent was 12. Without consulting the British crown, which turned out to actually disagree on this point. Also, a bunch of the adult men were just, like, subsequently ignoring the whole consent part and helping themselves.
There was also this general idea among the islanders that they had rejected the British crown when they muntineered and burned the Bounty, so they’d thereby rejected their British citizenship in 1790 and they weren’t a British colony and they didn’t have to do what the UK said. But the UK was like, yeah, the thing of that is: We still own you? Consult your money and see whose face is on it? So you can’t actually rape little girls if you want to keep using that money.
So the British authorities did a bunch of research and interviewed everyone who’d lived in Pitcairn over the last 20 years, many of whom had moved to New Zealand, and quite a few women were like, yep, got raped by grown men all the time, nobody cared. They came up with 55 charges against seven different men, including the mayor of Adamstown, ranging in ages from about 30 to late 70s. And so they had a trial, and they also tracked down a bunch of alleged perpetrators who weren’t living in Pitcairn anymore and held a separate trial for them in Auckland later.
As well, a handful of the sexual assault charges were against kids who were, like, a whole lot younger than 12. Like, 5.
Meanwhile, the island’s mothers and grandmothers were totally resigned to this practice, and they became outraged by the trials—they were like, what’s the big deal, it’s just part of our culture. We got raped in the watermelon patch when we were trying to do our chores. There was also a sentiment, from the women!, that the 12 and 13-year-olds had been willing participants, so it was not rape.
But here’s the rub. If you try to incarcerate seven of the islands’ adult men from a population of 47 people, that takes away a serious chunk of the labor force. And they’re living on fish and breadfruit over there. They need every able-bodied adult they can get.
So in addition to these men being husbands and fathers whose families needed them, Pitcairn couldn’t get anything done without them, and the failure of the settlement was looking very possible, 300 years after it was founded. The islanders began to think they had been unfairly bullied by the UK. It was amaaaazing. Some people—again, largely the women—decided it was a conspiracy theory on the part of the British to close the island down. And they honestly believed this.
For the record, one woman, the island’s secretary, did break ranks with the other women and claimed that it was, in fact, frowned upon to rape little girls. And that they absolutely knew they were British subjects and that British law applied to them.
In the end, six of the seven dudes were actually convicted, and the UK had to build a prison on the island, but they also had to let the guys out constantly in order to help man the longboat whenever anyone needed to come in or leave Pitcairn, or things like that, and a few of them got community service instead because the community super needed them. So, I dunno what the standard of excellence is on Pitcairn these days. You’d think they’d have learned their lesson, but maybe they’re back at it, raping in protest or something. Ugh.
Anyway. Thaaaaat’s Pitcairn, ladies and germs! My mind is blown apart anew from writing this. I emphatically recommend Google Earth-walking through charming, half-colonial English/half-shantytown-ass Adamstown, if you feel like being weird for a while.