Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book Review: Pitcairn: Paradise Lost

Pitcairn Island has been a fascination to many for decades. Way out in the middle of nowhere in the South Pacific, it was discovered by the British in 1767, and populated in 1790 by a group of mutineers from HMS Bounty and a number of Tahitian men and women led by Fletcher Christian. Alcohol, murder, disease, and a range of other nasties killed off most of the population. John Adams began reading the ship's Bible and the Church of England's Prayer Book. The islanders converted to Christianity and constructed 'a new and peaceful society' that has become legendary. They later became Seventh-day Adventists. Here is what Sir Charles Lucas wrote in Pitcairn's register book in 1829:

Many notable cases of religious conversion have been recorded in the history of Christianity, but it would be difficult to find an exact parallel to that of John Adams. The facts are quite clear. There is no question as to what he was and did after all his shipmates on the island had perished. He had no human guide or counsellor to turn him into the way of righteousness and make him feel and shoulder responsibility for bringing up a group of boys and girls in the fear of God.

He had a Bible and a Prayer Book to be the instruments of his endeavour, so far as education, or rather lack of education, served him. He may well have recalled to mind memories of his own childhood. But there can be only one straightforward explanation of what took place, that it was the handiwork of the Almighty, whereby a sailor seasoned to crime came to himself in a far country and learnt and taught others to follow Christ. (cited in Ford 2008, emphasis supplied)

Idyllic, exotic, Christian, peaceful, crime-free, away from the rest of the sinful world, 'the handiwork of the Almighty'. Wouldn't you just love to live there?

Until recently, you might very well have wanted to. The problem is that, in 2000, a police investigation began that was to uncover widespread, decades-long, multi-generational child sexual abuse that probably goes back to the beginnings of the island. Almost every man on the island is implicated and almost every girl who lived there has been a victim of this abuse. The ensuing trials have torn this small community apart and the romantic mythology around Pitcairn Island is forever gone.

Kathy Marks was one of only six journalists allowed on the island during the trials. Her book Pitcairn: Paradise Lost tells the sickening tale of the generations of abuse, the trials, and the aftermath down to its conclusion in 2007. Well — the conclusion as far as legalities go. The women who suffered at the hands of the incredible evil of men, who were allowed to perpetrate these crimes, suffer on as these pedophiles and abusers are "punished" with sentences that are minimal compared to what they would receive in Australia or New Zealand.

Marks's book is agonising to read. Her story is divided into two parts. The first part is on the island itself as she describes Pitcairn's 'surreal little universe in the middle of nowhere'; the romantic mythology that has developed around Pitcairn — now completely shattered; the courage of one girl who finally speaks out about the pervasive abuse; the wielding of power by a few men who are free of the normal legal accountability of most decent societies; the duplicitous propaganda spread by even the women on the island who try to rationalise away the perverse behaviour of even their husbands and sons; and the trials that were frustrated by women and girls often manipulated to retract statements or withdraw from being witnesses.

In Part 2 of the book, the author "steps back" from the island and views 'Pitcairn from a distance'. How did the myth of Pitcairn develop? What role did politics and power play in the events on Pitcairn? And he silence and collusion of women and visitors who worked on the island. The story is heartrending as Marks documents how these little children were abused and raped as young as 3 years old. The men (and women) on Pitcairn Island accepted that 'this is just the way it is' on Pitcairn. While the image of a Christian society, free from crime, was perpetuated by those living on Pitcairn and authorities that interacted with the islanders, men were brazenly forcing young girls into the forests of the island and destroying their innocence and scarring them for life.

For those of us looking from the outside, it is hard to believe that such perverted evil could go on for so long with noone doing anything about it. It is also difficult to believe that denominational leaders could not have known. The Adventist Church has always had a resident pastor and nurse on the island (SPD Staff/ANN 2001). How could they not know?

Kathy Marks documents a number of people who either suspected or knew of the ongoing abuse and the attitudes of the islanders. These individuals never said anything or, if they did, were dismissed by those in authority. It is reassuring that at least one of the people mentioned in the book, a friend of mine and who lived on Pitcairn for some time in a professional role, was one of  only a couple of people who spoke out about what they were observing on Pitcairn.

Pitcairn: Paradise Lost reveals an incredible litany of evil on a little island we thought was paradise. That paradise has been lost as we have realised that it never was. Kathy Marks's book Pitcairn: Paradise Lost lays bare the real hell of that imaginary paradise — at least what we know. Who knows what else will be uncovered in the future (there is emerging evidence of the oppression and abuse of adult women and child-to-child sexual abuse).

Simone Weil has written that '[w]e must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise.' Pitcairn was an imaginary paradise. We must have the courage to confront and acknowledge the real hell of Pitcairn. The 'handiwork of the Almighty'? I don't think so.


Ford, H 2008, Pitcairn Island & Pacific Union College, Pacific Union College, viewed 15 February 2009, <>.

SPD Staff/ANN 2001, Turning Point for Historic Adventist Community on Pitcairn Island, viewed 15 February 2009, <>.

No comments:

Post a Comment