The Forgotten Colony: Human Rights in the Pitcairn Islands

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SEATTLE — The Pitcairn Islands is the name given to four small volcanic islands in the southern Pacific ocean, all of which are part of British territory: Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno. Out of the four, however, only Pitcairn is inhabited, and even so its population is minuscule. In 2008, only 47 people lived there. While the image of Pitcairn as an island paradise has endured throughout history, Pitcairn also has had a startling history of rape and child molestation within its tiny, isolated population. Here’s a brief look into these crimes, human rights in the Pitcairn islands and what has been done to help or hurt.

Though technically a British colony, Pitcairn has historically been largely ignored by British officials, partly because of its remoteness; it exists 3,000 miles away from any continent and is smaller than most cities. Perhaps this is why it came as a shock to many who considered the island a small and quaint paradise when in 2004, six men (a third of the island’s adult male population) were convicted under English law of 33 sexual offenses. One of the men accused was Pitcairn’s mayor Steve Christian, a direct descendant of the island’s founder and hero Fletcher Christian.

These allegations rocked the island to its core, in large part because underage sexual activity was considered normal on the island and, when questioned, many of the men under investigation could not understand why their actions could be considered a crime. Sexuality which the British considered taboo was a traditional part of life for the residents of Pitcairn: adultery was ubiquitous, socially approved sex games among young children were common, and even incest and prostitution were present from time to time.

The source of most of the criminal allegations of violations of human rights in the Pitcairn islands, however, stemmed from the practice of “breaking in” young girls at the age of ten to twelve. In fact, it was unheard of on the island to remain a virgin past the age of twelve. While many of these unions were described as consensual by the girls involved, many were not.

The following trials, which took place in a makeshift council chamberĀ on the island, dragged on for years and mainly served to underline the years of neglect by the British which they were now attempting to correct. While the trials brought many serious issues to light, most citizens left the experience embittered and more angry with the British than ever before.

Since then, however, a new Pitcairn constitution has been born and was first enacted in 2010. It contains a new set of rules pertaining to human rights in the Pitcairn islands, along with other crucial ordinances detailing freedom of information, the dissolution of marriage and the powers of the governor. The pace of change has been fast and jarring to the people of Pitcairn. Even so, with its years of human rights violations and British neglect behind it, Pitcairn can, hopefully, move forward and continue to grow as a nation of its own.

Audrey Palzkill
Photo: Flickr

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