TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The mutiny on the ship the Bounty is a tale told in several movies, but many people don't realize that the story is based on a real event and that Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers fled with some Tahitian women to a remote island in the South Pacific. They never left, and the descendents of Christian and his mates still live on Pitcairn Island, which has come to be regarded by many as a tropical paradise.
But my guest, journalist Kathy Marks, said there was a dark and sinister side to the Pitcairn community. In 2000, allegations surfaced that men on the island had been sexually abusing young girls there, perhaps for generations.
The sensational accusations touched most of the families on Pitcairn and led to trials on the island, which previously had never even had a jail. Among those accused was Steve Christian, the mayor of Pitcairn and a descendent of Fletcher Christian.
Marks, a correspondent for the London-based Independent newspaper, was one of only six journalists who covered the trials. In her book "Lost Paradise," Marks tells the story of the extraordinary case and considers what the disturbing events in the isolated community tell us about human nature. She spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Kathy Marks, welcome to FRESH AIR. You describe Pitcairn Island, at one point in the book, as the remotest inhabited place on earth. Describe this island and its isolation.
Ms. KATHY MARKS (Journalist, the Independent): It is an incredibly isolated place. I think what brings that home to you, first of all, is the difficulty in getting there. Pitcairn, in 2009, still has no airstrip, not even a safe harbor. I traveled there from Australia. It took about a week to get there.
DAVIES: A week.
Ms. MARKS: A series of flights from Australia, followed by a very rough, 30-hour boat voyage from a distant corner of French Polynesia. Now, having made that rather grueling journey, you then anchor about a mile off Pitcairn and wait for the island's men to bring out the longboat. That's the only way of getting on and off the island still - is the traditional boats that the men steer.
What I found curious when I first arrived in 2004 to report on the first trials of Pitcairn men, the islanders brought out their longboat - it drew up alongside us and I was quite astonished. I looked out and saw that the two men who were driving the longboat were two of the men who were about to go on trial for very serious child sex offenses. And I thought gosh, this is going to be quite an unusual assignment, and this is quite an unusual place.
DAVIES: And the population is what, around 50 or so?
Ms. MARKS: It is just over 50, I believe. Yes, it ebbs and flows, but it's around 50.
DAVIES: Now the inhabitants of the island, many of them are descendents from the mutiny on the Bounty, which of course was a mythic tale on the high seas, which is memorialized in several Hollywood films, and probably a lot of people don't realize that it's actually based on a real story.
Briefly recount the story of the mutiny on the Bounty and its connection to the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island.
Ms. MARKS: Well, William Bligh - Captain William Bligh, of the Royal Navy, had been given a command by the then-king of England to go and collect breadfruit from Tahiti. He took a ship full of men on HMAV Bounty, and William Bligh's crew got quite friendly with the local women and loved the place and the beautiful environment, beautiful women and so on.
After they left, the men, a number of the men mutinied, let by Fletcher Christian, overthrew William Bligh, put him out in a small boat and commandeered the Bounty. Now, the mutineers then went back to Tahiti and actually kidnapped some of the local women, a dozen or so, and took off with them on their journey, on their quest for a hiding place.
DAVIES: After Fletcher Christian and the other shipmates, you know, took the vessel, the Bounty, from Captain Bligh, they were, in effect, fugitives on the high seas. And so they find this tiny, little, uninhabited island, Pitcairn, which was very, very, small - they ditch the Bounty and burn it, right? Right there in the harbor?
Ms. MARKS: That's right. They burnt the Bounty off the coast of Pitcairn in order to cover their tracks completely. Of course, that meant that they were then marooned on the island. There was no way they were ever going to get off. So that was their choice, that they were going to be forever outlaws, and they were going to start a new life, a new society, truly in the middle of nowhere, truly away from the outside world.
DAVIES: And so you had a handful of English men, Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers, and some Polynesian women, and as the story unfolds, in the years afterwards, they fell into fighting amongst themselves, right?
Ms. MARKS: That's right. There were nine mutineers led by Fletcher Christian. There were also half a dozen Polynesian men that they took with them, and there were a dozen Polynesian women, whom the Englishmen took with to be their so-called wives.
Now there weren't enough women to go around, so the early history of Pitcairn is actually very violent. Within 10 years of these people settling on the island, all but one of the men was dead, and the vast majority were killed in fights over women - who was going to have which woman and so on.
So you've got that very violent early history. That was then followed by a period when Pitcairn seemed to become a very Christian society, led by John Adams, the one surviving male who was one of the mutineers.
He claimed that he'd converted to Christianity, having found a Bible in the wreck of the Bounty, and he was so moved by what he read inside the Bible that he then converted and persuaded everyone else on the island to follow suit. And when the island was finally then rediscovered by visitors, by a series of ships, captains who passed by and chanced across the island, they found and then later described to the outside world this incredibly Christian, pious society with morals of the highest order and so on.
So that was how Pitcairn was seen, really, for a couple of centuries, until you know, the recent stories came out that then gave a very different image of the place.
DAVIES: So you had this place that for 200 years has been inhabited by the descendents of Fletcher Christian and his co-mutineers and these Polynesian women, right? Now, tell us a little bit about - it is an incredibly isolated place. What do the people on the island do for a living, and do they have electricity and television and alcohol and cigarettes and other things that you see in Western society?
Ms. MARKS: Well, they have quite a few of the trappings of Western society in terms of ovens and beautiful kitchen equipment and stereos and DVD players and so on. Until recently, electricity was an issue, though they had diesel generators, and they only had electricity for 10 hours a day. That is still the case, in fact; electricity is rationed.
Until recently, and certainly when I was there in 2004, there was no television. There were no telephones. You could barely get shortwave radio. I mean, if you wanted hot water, you have to make a fire. There's only one shop on Pitcairn, which opens very intermittently, about three times a week for just an hour.
So everything comes in by ship. It goes into this little shop, and over the course of the next weeks and months, the supplies run down until the next ship arrives. So in some ways, life is quite basic.
On the other hand, the Pitcairners do make quite a good living from various sources. Now, the main one is, because there's such a lot of interest in Pitcairn around the world - and that's because of the very romantic story that we've been talking about, the mutiny on the Bounty, the fact that the island is still populated, to a large extent, by descendents of the mutineers -Pitcairn souvenirs, T-shirts, the stamps are always very highly sought after, the Pitcairners make wooden carvings - all these things they used to sell by mail order and now over the Internet. And they also sell them - cruise ships come to Pitcairn in the summer and people come ashore and buy things.
And the last thing is that people on Pitcairn - it's an incredibly fertile place, it's a volcanic island - you can grow just about anything there, and people do.
DAVIES: Well, Kathy Marks, let's talk about this child sexual abuse case, which rocked the island and got such international attention and which you covered. First of all, let's just clarify - who governed the island? What was its connection to British law?
Ms. MARKS: Well, Pitcairn, for about 150 years, had been a British colony. So it was a sort of long-distance British governing. The governor or one of his officials would visit the island very occasionally, and the islanders would smile and behave nicely, and the governor would give them some kind of gift, like a piece of furniture, and then everyone would say goodbye, and that would be that for sometimes a few years, sometimes 10 years. Early in the 20th century, I think a good 20 years or more went by without anyone visiting.
DAVIES: But in effect, you have a British possession, which is really isolated and which is run by the islanders themselves, really, isn't it?
Ms. MARKS: That's correct. The islanders did run their own affairs through an island council. They elected their own magistrates, police officers and so on. These people were not trained. They were obviously related to just about everyone else on the island. So law and order was not exactly as we know it in other parts of the world.
DAVIES: Right. So you have an isolated island, which essentially governs itself in this small community. How did the sexual abuse first come to the attention of outside authorities?
Ms. MARKS: Well, there were things that were known about for many, many years and decades, but it was not until 1999 that it kind of burst into the open, as it were. Now what happened then was, an English policewoman was posted to the island on a short-term posting for a few months to do some training with the locals. And while she was there, the policewoman, Gail Cox, was confided in by a 15-year-old school girl who I've called Belinda in my book. That's obviously a pseudonym.
What Belinda told Gail Cox was that when she was 10, she'd been raped by two local men and that a number of other incidents of abuse and assault had also taken place, starting when she was about five or seven years old.
Now Belinda was the first person ever to speak to someone involved with the law or the police service, and these were obviously incredibly serious allegations. So they were reported to the British authorities. The British authorities brought in detectives who began to investigate, and pretty soon they found out that this - unfortunately, this Belinda was not the only alleged victim. There were dozens and dozens of victims who were now living all around the world because they'd grown up on Pitcairn, but they'd left the island. They were living in New Zealand, Australia, the U.K. One was in Los Angeles.
DAVIES: There's a fascinating moment in the narrative at which it's clear that there's a wider problem here. And you describe this as - there are these two detectives, Peter George and Robert Vinson, who go to talk to one of the men accused of having assaulted one of these young women, Sean Christian, and they say well, they had underage sex with another woman, who you call Catherine. They go and talk to Catherine, and what does Catherine tell the detectives?
Ms. MARKS: Well, what she said was I can't help you with what you're investigating, as in those specific allegations made by Belinda, but what I can tell you is that when I was a child growing up on Pitcairn, I was raped by Belinda's father. And she went on to tell the detectives basically, this is the norm, this is the way of life and that you won't get a girl on Pitcairn who reaches the age of 12 or 13 who's still a virgin, and everyone knows about it, but no one does anything about it because that's just the way life is on Pitcairn. So at that point, these two British police officers realized that there was a wider problem that needed to be looked at.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kathy Marks. Her book is "Lost Paradise." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: Now when you arrived in 2004 to cover this incredible trial of Pitcairn men for child sexual abuse, you were one of six reporters who were there to cover the case, and you arrive, and as you say, you have to - the ship has to dock offshore, and a longboat from the island is rowed out to the - or I guess it's motorized now, but it comes out to the ship and fetches you and brings you ashore.
And the first day, you were invited to meet with some of the women on the island, you and the other reporters there to cover the trial. What was their purpose?
Ms. MARKS: Well, it was a very, very bizarre experience. You're right; we were invited to a meeting of the island's women at Big Fence, which was the house of Steve Christian, the island's mayor and also one of the defendants who was about to go on trial.
DAVIES: And a descendant of Fletcher Christian, right?
Ms. MARKS: And the descendant of Fletcher Christian. Now when we got to Big Fence, we found pretty much all of the adult women on the island gathered there to speak to us, and what they wanted to tell us was, with these trials of seven men just about to start, it was all a load of rubbish. No one had ever been abused on Pitcairn. No child had been raped. No girl had been abused.
They told us the whole thing had been made up by the British government, that there was a hidden agenda, which they believed was that Britain wanted to close down the island. It was a drain on the British purse. Britain could no longer be bothered maintaining this very remote and expensive colony.
We asked them, you know, what about these girls who were claiming that they had been very seriously abused by adult men when they were growing up, over the course of years and decades, going back in the history of the island?
Well, we were told, the girls had all made up their stories. Yes, there was underage sex on the island, but that was an island custom. It was just like the rest of Polynesia, they said, and the girls or the women who were about to give evidence had all been bribed to make up their stories.
These were women, some of whose daughters had spoken to police. They said that the girls had led the men on, you know, that it was all the girls' fault. They were promiscuous, and that's the way Pitcairn girls are.
But you know, Dave, just - even during that meeting things didn't add up. There was a woman sitting near me, Carol Warren(ph), and she said to me at one point, you know, someone tried it with me, and you know, I knew it was wrong, and I just ran away. And then in the next breath, she was saying to me, oh the girls have all made it up, you know, and my own daughter, you know, she's a silly idiot. I don't know why she spoke to the police, and she's just, you know, she's so forward, that girl. She led the men on.
So I thought well, you know, this doesn't quite add up. Here's a woman telling me that she was abused or she was the victim of an attempted assault as a girl herself. I think she said she was about seven or eight. And the next breath, she's saying that it's all nonsense. No one's ever been abused on Pitcairn. No one's ever been raped.
DAVIES: Apart from the content, what they were telling you, I'm wondering, what kind of impression did you have of these women, I mean, just their general affect and demeanor? Did they seem any different from women that you would meet in Australia or New Zealand?
Ms. MARKS: They were pretty feisty women, which you know, makes you think as well. Because if these are Pitcairn women, then you know, why have they allegedly spent generations being abused by men? Pretty feisty, quite funny. You know, they're - a lot of laughing, sort of quite crude, you know, a lot of sort of sexual talk and laughter about sex.
The thing that struck me most, I remember, was that I felt that no one looked me in the eye directly. It was like they were sort of wearing - almost like they were wearing masks, you know. I felt that there was a real barrier and that no one was really speaking directly.
DAVIES: Now as the accusations emerged and the charges were filed and the trial approached, there became an energetic campaign on the island and around the world to paint the accused molesters as the victims. And of course, part of the argument was that there's this Polynesian culture of promiscuity and early sexual activity. But when you read these cases, it's not like these are close cases. I mean, these are children who were held and raped by much older men and clearly very, very traumatized by it.
It raises the question of what about their parents? I mean surely their parents must have known that this was happening. I mean, how did they react to these accusations, and I mean, were they shocked? Were they outraged? These were, after all, their friends and neighbors who had molested their children.
Ms. MARKS: Well, their parents did know it was happening, and I believe that when the allegations emerged formally a few years ago, they were no surprise to anyone. Everyone who lived on Pitcairn over the years, over the generations, knew exactly what was going on. You've got a tiny community; what you've got is just about every man in that community who's offending.
Now their wives know what's going on, but what are you going to do? If you're the mother of a girl that's being abused, what can you do that... You can't - there's no one to complain to - the people in authority are doing it, as well. Your own husband or brother is doing it. If you complain about someone else doing it to your daughter, then the whole place will collapse, because Pitcairn depends, for its survival, on male muscle-power. It's a place where physical work is absolutely essential, or the place just cannot function. So this is a male-dominated society, where men were doing exactly what they pleased. The women knew what was going on. They'd been victims themselves as kids. And incredible though it seems, with literally one or two exceptions, they did not raise a voice in protest.
DAVIES: You know, we should say that a lot of people from the island, over time, did emigrate, did leave and lived in New Zealand in particular. So there were women who fled and made lives elsewhere.
We should move the story along and tell people about the trial. I mean, there was - this was a trial before judges, not a jury, and was essentially a matter of the victim's word against the accusers, and the initial trial on Pitcairn Island was, I guess, what, seven defendants? Or nine?
Ms. MARKS: Yeah, it was actually seven separate trials that were sort of running concurrently. So there was one case going on, but it was seven discrete trials, with the victims giving evidence, not in person, but over a video link from New Zealand.
In fact, nearly all the girls who grew up on Pitcairn did emigrate. You know, they left there as teenagers to go to school, to finish their schooling, and they never went back - not surprisingly.
DAVIES: So this must be a trial unlike any other. I mean, these terrible accusations in this tiny place. Give us a feel for what it was like.
Ms. MARKS: Yeah, I mean, I think it would be fair to say that it was probably one of the most unusual trials in British criminal history, perhaps the most unusual.
The trials that were held in a rather ramshackle community hall, which had in the past doubled as a courthouse but hadn't been used for that purpose for a good 30 years or so. Now what you have is a very incongruous sight of every day, the lawyers and judges traipsing through the very rough, unsealed roads there in their long, black gowns, very formal British court attire, in contrast with the defendants, who basically arrived in their usual gear, which was shorts and T-shirts and often barefoot, now having these very harrowing allegations made by video link by the victims in New Zealand. But I mean, apart from the men, who obviously had to be in court, none of the islanders were there to hear them.
I mean, that was something that struck me day after day was that the public seating in the court was empty. It was almost like the people of Pitcairn were pretending that the trials were not happening.
GROSS: Kathy Marks, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Their interview will continue in the second half of the show. Marks is the author of the new book "Lost Paradise." Dave is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: So the women tell their stories in this trial, and then in a subsequent one in New Zealand that involved men who had been on Pitcairn but who are living abroad. What kind of verdicts were rendered and what kind of punishment was imposed?
Ms. MARKS: Yes, seven men went to trial on Pitcairn and these were men who actually lived there. Six of them were found guilty. Subsequently, there were three trials that took place in New Zealand, of men - Pitcairn men who lived in New Zealand or Australia. And of those three, two were found guilty and one pleaded guilty. So in the end, you've got ten men who've been through the court system, nine guilty. Six of those men were given prison sentences. One was quite old, he was about - he was in his late 70s and he was allowed to serve his sentence at home.
The other five went to prison on Pitcairn. And I should mention that the sentences that were handed down were extremely lenient, some people would say. Normally that kind of offending would - would result in 10 to 15 years in prison. These guys received a maximum of five or six years. And under the probation system, they were allowed to apply for parole after a third of that time, and for home detention earlier than that. The result of all this is that two years on, that prison is -is now occupied by only one remaining inmate, Bryan Young(ph) and he is about to have a parole hearing and by the time you go to air, he may actually be out of prison. So no one's - no one's been behind bars for more than two years. They've had fairly lenient sentences.
DAVIES: And that's for multiple child rapes.
Ms. MARKS: Multiple child rapes. I mean Steve Christian, for instance, he was convicted of five rapes, Bryan Young numerous rapes of two girls who were aged under 10. You know, we're talking very serious criminal offending here.
DAVIES: As you said, several men were sentenced to prison terms but they ended up not serving very long. And they are now released and the island goes on. How have the scandal and the trials changed Pitcairn Island?
Ms. MARKS: In some ways, a great deal, mainly because the emergence of the scandal, I think, shamed the British government into realizing that they had neglected this place for two centuries and that they better do something about it now. In a material sense, firstly a lot of the infrastructure has been upgraded, the roads - one of the roads has been sealed and they've got a rebuilt jetty and - and so on. So that side of things, plus communications - they have now got television, including CNN.
They've now got telephones, so they're not quite so isolated. And I think the British government is trying to sort of create a sort of tourism or eco-tourism industry focused on Pitcairn to sort of try and make the place self-sufficient economically. On the other hand, I would say that things have not changed that much because there is still a very strong sense of communal denial about the crimes that we know did take place there. The men who served the rather ludicrously short sentences still maintain, to this day, that they did nothing wrong. And the rest of the community, at least publicly, backs that up and says, you know, that the trial was a travesty of justice and, you know, a terrible episode in Pitcairn's history, but, you know, they're - they're sort of putting it past and now getting on with their lives. So you don't get any sense that this very, you know, these momentous events of, you know, holding these trials - because, you know, there was a - there were years of preparation, the whole process took nearly 10 years - you don't feel that things have changed significantly. On the other hand, you know, my understanding is that privately some of the women in particular, some of the older women who were present at that meeting we talked about earlier in the conversation, you know, are starting to admit, look this did happen to me. Look, it was wrong. Children shouldn't be treated like that. I have been affected, and so on. But I - you know, I think that probably in a very small way things are changing below the surface.
DAVIES: Do you think the abuse continues or has it stopped?
Ms. MARKS: I don't think the abuse continues right now, because once it came - once the allegations were first made a few years back, the first thing that Britain did was to send police officers to the island, and social workers, and also a government representative. So for the past 10 years, there has been quite a number of outsiders on the island and I don't believe that any of the men there would be so silly as to engage in that kind of behavior when they are being supervised so closely. However, I also believe that if those outsiders were to go away tomorrow, that behavior would start again straight away because it's ingrained in the mentality of the men of Pitcairn, that this is - this is an okay thing to do, you know. There's - there's nothing wrong with it and, you know, that's what you do if you can.
DAVIES: Steve Christian, who was one of the defendants, now out of jail is - is he the leader of the island again?
Ms. MARKS: That's right. I mean Steve is a man who I think is in about his middle late 50s now. He's been the community leader pretty much since he was in his teens. He is a classic alpha male, you know, he is a little bit more savvy, I'd say, more self-confident than some of the islanders. None of them are terribly well-educated, but I would say that Steve has just got a little more (unintelligible) than most. And, you know, for the - for the past, let's say 42 years or so, he's really been looked up to by everyone else in the community. He's is the person who keeps the place going. He knows how to get things done. He's got incredibly good practical skills. He was the chief supervising engineer. And, you know, he can mend or do just about anything with his hands.
I was told one story about the islanders who were coming back in - from visiting a ship in a longboat - very rough seas - and at one point Steve realized that the boat's rope had got caught in a propeller, quite dangerous situation. Evidently he'd jumped off the boat, cut the rope, and was back in the longboat before most people had even realized anything was amiss. So that's a kind of bloke he is. Smart, self-confident, and I think with an enormous sense of entitlement. Steve, I think, you know, during the trials, I could see Steve Christian couldn't quite believe this was happening. This was his rock, his island, his little empire, you know. All these outsiders were coming in and everything was out of his control for the first time in his life.
And I mean he almost sort of cracked up in front of us, as the weeks went by, in a gradual way. So that was just an interesting thing to observe, I guess. You know, someone who had always had their own way and done what they wanted, taken what they wanted, and very much sort of benefited from the - the fruits of the island and - and, you know, the interest of outsiders - was suddenly not in control, was on trial and, you know, did eventually go to prison. Having said that, he's now out and, you know, although he is not allowed to hold a public position again for a while, you know, he will be able to soon. And there's no question that he will be reelected mayor or whatever, you know, the community leadership position becomes empty.
DAVIES: Well, Kathy Marks, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Ms. MARKS: Thank you, Dave.
GROSS: Kathy Marks spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Marks is the author of "Lost Paradise." Dave is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News.