Visiting Pitcairn: Life With The Modern-Day Mutineers On The World’s Most Mysterious Island

 

Have you ever gone on vacation and stayed in the home of a mayor-turned- … wait for it… wait for it… convicted child rapist?! That’s right. My host was the mayor, and now he is a convicted child rapist. Better yet, he is a direct descendant of the Bounty mutineers, and more than two centuries following the usurpation of British rule, a similar scenario is playing out — with my host in the lead. Where shall we begin?

Pitcairn – in the middle of nowhere

This kind of setting is just par for the course when Staatenlos (yours truly) ventures to Britain’s last overseas territory, the ultra, ultra, ultra-remote Pitcairn. I think you can tell this is not your average island-hopping adventure. And as such, it calls for a basic amount of background knowledge.

Some of you may not be familiar with the Bounty mutineers, or for that matter, may not have even heard of Pitcairn. I shall explain…

Pitcairn from the Sea

 

Who were the Bounty mutineers?

In 1789, a ship belonging to Britain’s Royal Navy, the HMS Bounty, was on a mission in the South Pacific. Members of the HMS Bounty crew got fed up with the captain, and they carried out a mutiny.

The mutiny was led by Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian (More on the “Christian” name momentarily). While some mutineers were later arrested, a crew led by Fletcher hid and ended up settling on Pitcairn Island. The Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn reproduced with Polynesian women they brought from Tahiti, creating a biracial group of islanders whose descendants, albeit few in numbers, remain in Pitcairn today.

View of Pitcairn Island

Modern Pitcairn is the last remaining British overseas territory in the South Pacific. The island has a population in the low 40s, as in there are fewer than 50 people living in Pitcairn. That makes it the world’s least populated national jurisdiction.

There are actually three other islands that are part of the Pitcairn Islands territory, but they are uninhabited. All of the action is on the main island, Pitcairn Island. And that is where our story picks up.

Well, not yet…

As you might imagine, getting to Pitcairn isn’t so easy. It’s not like people say, “This year I’m going on vacation to Tahiti, Bora Bora and Pitcairn. What a lovely trio of islands. So marvelous.”

To reach Pitcairn, I boarded a cargo ship – because there is no airport. That’s right — not a cruise, not a ferry, but a cargo ship. The vessel, the MV Claymore, departed from Mangareva (remember that underrated, relatively untouched French Polynesian paradise of an island) with myself, eight other passengers and a small crew.

We were an eclectic group that included Britain’s consul to Easter Island (remember my Moai friends?), a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor (more on him/his faith in a moment) and a guy coming to fix the Internet. Literally, there was an Australian man who was sent on our cargo ship to Pitcairn to fix the Internet on the island. As a spoiler, he was supposed to have fixed the Pitcairn Internet after a few days, but it didn’t happen and he had to end up staying a couple weeks.

This Internet issue was frustrating. However, if you recall, I broke my phone while in Mangareva, so it wasn’t like I was going to be spending my days in Pitcairn doing nothing but surfing the web. After all, there are goats to see!

Back to sea… The 50-year-old cargo ship was actually pretty comfortable. It wasn’t the vessel that was the problem. It was the voyage. The weather was much worse than expected and the sea was rougher than expected. It took 35 hours to get from Mangareva to Pitcairn, 5 hours more than expected. And all of the passengers aboard the MV Claymore — except me — got seasick.

How did I avoid seasickness? I had a special concoction. It’s a drug called scopolamine, and it has quite the reputation.

Scopolamine, which has nicknames that include Devil’s Breath, was supposedly used as truth serum by witches hundreds of years ago and Nazis more recently. Nowadays, there are countless stories of how criminals in Colombia use scopolamine to essentially snatch victims’ free will and get them to do anything (the famous “millionaire ride” to max out your credit card).

When used in a low dose, however, scopolamine treats motion sickness. You put on a patch and you’re good to go, at least in my case.

 

My Hosts And The Child Rape Case

Steve and Olive Christian

After I finally arrived in Pitcairn, I settled into my homestay with my hosts Steve and Olive Christian. Having the same family name, Steve Christian is a direct descendant of Bounty mutineer leader Fletcher Christian. Taking after his forefather, Steve Christian developed a reputation for being the leader of the island. Indeed he served for several years as the mayor of Pitcairn. Olive is a great cook, and both of the Christians are very hospitable.

Steve Christian’s political career came to a crashing halt, when in 2004, he, along with six other Pitcairn islander men, were put on trial for raping and sexually abusing underage girls. It was a wild case garnering international headlines like “Trouble in Paradise.”

Adamstown – the capital village

On one side, British prosecutors and law enforcement were alleging that it was commonplace for teenage girls on the island to be forcibly raped by the men and that girls as young as five were being sexually abused as well. Alleged victims testified in the case.

On the other side, defenders of Steve Christian and his fellow defendants, who included my hosts’ close relatives, argued that there was a complete misunderstanding of culture on Pitcairn Island. As part of the local Polynesian culture, it was commonplace for male teenagers and even islander men to have sex with underage teenage girls, but the sexual relations were all consensual. Likewise, backers of my host argued that British law did not apply in Pitcairn, which was loosely governed by its own set of laws.

The Pitcairn Prison

Ultimately, my host and five other men on the island were convicted of a variety of rape and sexual abuse charges. They ended up serving time in a prison — arguable a cozy one — that they actually helped build. Other men from the island were also tried and convicted in New Zealand. The ordeal ended up with nearly 50 percent of the adult males on Pitcairn Island being in prison at one time. Also, I believe a majority of Pitcairn’s men have now served time in the prison. Additionally, four police officers arrived on the island, making Pitcairn the most policed jurisdiction per capita in the entire world. This all resulted in division and infighting among the islanders, in a sense, splitting up families. Crazy, hah?

 

Life On Pitcairn

As I alluded to, Steve Christian is not much of a fan of the United Kingdom and its rule of Pitcairn. He wants Pitcairn to be independent from the UK, a new mutiny per se.

After all, while everyone on the island speaks English (in its funny Creole form called “Pitkern”), Pitcairn is geographically and culturally a world away from Britain. Pitcairn is 14,821 kilometers away from London, and on the island, the locals have their own way of doing business.

In addition to previously being Pitcairn’s mayor, Steve Christian simultaneously served roles, such as being the island’s dentist and engineer. Basically everyone on the island works. The islanders help one another build homes, roads and any little thing needed for survival. They used to export stamps, though that business tanked in the aftermath of the spread of email.

The children go to school, a school, the lone school on the island. When I visited there were only three kids at the school.

During daytime, my hosts were busy working. They worked in a new “supermarket”, or store on the island, and they tended to goats. Once they took me on an ATV ride to feed their goat. ATVs are a common form of transport on Pitcairn Island, and goats are the preferred livestock.

Bananas for the goats

You don’t see any cattle or pigs on the island… and that brings us back to our good old friend, the Seventh-Day Adventist pastor. The pastor who traveled with me on the MV Claymore to Pitcairn was coming to visit his new congregation. He is the new pastor for the island.

Pitcairn’s population is Seventh-Day Adventist, and it has been for more than 100 years. Hence a variety of things were banned on the island. Alcohol was banned on the island, and it did not become readily available until the 2000s. You still see goats, instead of cattle and pigs, as Seventh-Day Adventists are supposed to keep a strict diet.

But religion has largely died off in Pitcairn. Now only three people regularly go to the church. And my hosts drink a lot of alcohol…

 

What On Earth Did I Do on Pitcairn?

Most evenings we got drunk. Drinking with Steve Christian makes for great conversation, as he is a very interesting, if not an internationally infamous man. Impressively, he actually manages to keep his criticism of the British government lightly toned, even when drinking. He kind of speaks in riddles. He gives hints. It’s clear he wants an independent Pitcairn – without EU subsidies (the Brexit will solve that)

Still a part of the UK

During the day, I would venture off in similar fashion to my days in the more tame French Polynesia. I did a lot of hiking and exploring, climbing the islands’ peaks on its steep ridge. There were several very nice viewpoints, as well as a cave I really liked. The cave is supposedly where Fletcher Christian would watch for approaching ships and hide when necessary.

Christians Cave

Down the steep ridge, I visited some sea life. Pitcairn has a large pool with a lot of fish that basically serves as an aquarium.

St Pauls Pool

Also the island has its own Galapagos tortoise. Mrs. Turpin, aka Mrs. T, is Pitcairn’s oldest resident.

Miz T – the Galapagos tortoise

Collecting bananas while on ATV rides was also a hobby of mine on Pitcarin island. Just thought I’d throw that in. 😊

Due to heavy rains before I visited, the island mud roads were hardly walkable. There is one tarred road going through Adamstown, however.

Adamstown Street

Fun Pitcairn Facts

On an island with as rich of a history as Pitcairn and one with such bizarre contemporary circumstances, there must be some fun facts about the territory… one would imagine. Well indeed there are!

Did you know…??

Pitcairn has more public toilets than residents. That is my favorite fact about the island. It’s also a convenient fact. When you’re out and about exploring this “uncivilized” island, you actually have a plethora of toilet options.

Exploring Pitcairn

There are also more water fountains/water bottle filling stations than residents… maybe. I’m actually not sure if this is a fact. But it is also convenient how there is a large supply of fresh water on the island, and you can easily fill up your water bottle while you are out and about.

We have already harped on the small population and how a large percentage of the island’s adult males was convicted of sex crimes and imprisoned. We don’t need to go back to that. Also, you already know that following the rape case, Pitcairn became the most world’s most policed jurisdiction. This doesn’t affect you, the tourist, though. Don’t’ worry.

 

Leaving The Island

 I departed Pitcairn with some members of my original crew. The Seventh-Day Adventist pastor apparently liked the island. I’m not sure if religion is alive and well in Pitcairn, but maybe it will make a comeback. By the way, after the Bounty mutiny, most of the settlers killed each other or died of disease before turning to the Bible as a new guide for a peaceful society. Possibly the pastor has a similar playbook.

Reflecting on my experience while on a more comfortable MV Claymore ride, I realize I am blessed (Not that I am religious in the Christian sense). Not many people get to visit this incredibly isolated territory full of such crazy stories. On top of that, I actually lived for a week in the home of the modern-day Bounty mutineers.

They even got a sand beach

Maybe it’s the anarchist inside me, but I’ve got to say, this convicted child rapist and his supportive wife are great hosts. And if you genuinely want to explore the world and understand other cultures, there may be no more fulfilling trip than venturing to Pitcairn and staying with the descendants of the mutineer Christians.

 

Stay: Accomodation on Pitcairn is via homestays or self-catered apartments. There are no hotels in the classical sense.To get into the island culture, a homestay is very much recommended. Of course, stay with the Christians at Big Fence. 

 

Eat: If you have a homestay, you will experience authentic Pitkern cuisine like goat curry. Well, I am a seafood allergic, but there is still plenty of local food and vegetables to try – and you dont need too miss your international brands either. After all, you came with the cargo ship just bringing them in. There is no restaurant, but a store to shop for basic supplies.

 

Drink: Until recently, Pitcairn had a total ban on alcohol. This is over now and many islanders seem to be quite keen drinkers. They even produce sugar cane to brew rum.

 

Connect: Apparently, Pitcairn now even has a LTE network. However, the guy trying to repair it made it impossible for me to test even basic internet access on Pitcairn. Do not expect anything to work if you go there. Make a digital detox.

 

See: The island is very green and walkable, despite some steep hills. You may rent an ATV, but basically you can hike everywhere or just hitchhike if lucky (everyone will offer you a ride). Highlights are the Eastern and Western viewpoints and a visit to famous tortoise Miz T. You want to see the HMV Bounty? There are almost no leftovers – but you may scuba dive to see the wreckage site.

 

Do: Snorkel at St Pauls Pool – basically a great aquarium. Go hiking, watch the sunset and delve into Pitkern culture. Every Pitcairn resident is more than happy to talk with you.

 

Go there: There is no airport – and the rugged island will never allow one. The next airport is Mangareva in French Polynesia 36h by boat. From there, you can connect to Tahiti twice a week. The MV Claymore supply ship goes 12 times a year from Mangareva – every 3 months in 3 cycles. You need to book well in advance to reserve a cabin.

 

Alternatively, once in a while cruise ships pass Pitcairn. While you are able to spot the island, big cruise liners rarely bring their passengers onto due to limited infrastructure. If you want to set a foot on the island, you should go with the two German cruises yearly passing Pitcairn, my host Steve told me (MS Europa and MS Bremen).

 

Go next: Going straight south you hit Antarctica, going straight nord you will land in Alaska. If hopping back westwards to Mangareva is not an option for you, the normal choices (if you have a own boat) are the Marquesas Islands in the north-west or Easter Island in the east.