Original article Refinery29, 30th April 2018

 
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Rhiannon Adam

30 April 2018, 7:30

 

 

In 2015 I spent an arduous three months working on a photography project about Pitcairn, a tiny island measuring just two by one miles, halfway between New Zealand and Chile. It is Britain’s last overseas territory in the Pacific, now home to just 42 islanders and one child. There is one way on and off: by sea, aboard a quarterly supply vessel.

As a child, I was an avid reader. One book that had a particularly lasting influence was the true story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, a rip-roaring high-seas adventure charting the ill-fated mission of HMS Bounty.

In it, the Bounty’s crew mutinied against their austere captain, and seized the vessel. After taking a group of (mainly female) Tahitian captives, the men went in search of Utopia, eventually heading for Pitcairn, an uninhabited and mischarted island where no one would find them. The Pitcairners of today are largely descendants of this motley crew.

Over the decades, the story has been made into multiple blockbuster films, cementing the idyllic image of Pitcairn as the rebel’s paradise. In 2004 this romantic façade was torn apart, when eight Pitcairn-born men were convicted of sexual abuse, much of it against children. Six of these men still live on the island; one is the current mayor.

In 2015, I headed to Pitcairn for 96 nights, to try to disentangle fact from fiction. Though most of my friends and family expressed concern for my safety, I (naively) assumed that the islanders would be on their best behaviour, seeing my arrival as an opportunity to change their narrative.

 

Once on the island, however, the reality was harsh – each day became a mental battle for survival. I was frequently referred to as the "only woman of breeding age", a phrase I had to learn to laugh off. One man took it upon himself to wait for me, naked, in my bedroom after the power was switched off (it runs from 7am to roughly 10pm daily). On a different night I awoke to find him attempting to open my window and climb inside; on another occasion he tried to cajole me into having sex on a piece of heavy machinery, giving me "the choice" between the "rock crusher, bulldozer, or tractor". I ended up reporting him to the island police. I knew that by doing so I was putting myself, and the future of the island, at risk.

Pitcairn’s map and sinister place names took on a new kind of terror – "Where Minnie Off", "Oh Dear", "Nellie Fall", "Where Tom Off", etc. – it would have been so easy for me to vanish without a trace. Only then did I have a real sense of how difficult it must have been for the women and girls attempting to call time on their abusers.

It was the hardest project I am ever likely to make, changing dramatically during its course. Almost everyone who took part was photographed in solitude, away from prying eyes, the loneliness of the islanders emerging from the very staging of the portraits. The expired Polaroid film I used seems to obscure the island, alluding to the magical power of the Bounty story. Together, the resulting images are filled with a sense of melancholy stillness, and a very Pitcairn-specific type of claustrophobia, a feeling I’ll probably never shake.

Ships Landing Point

Sitting high above the Landing at Bounty Bay is the perfect place to watch for passing ships. On the island I spent much time up there looking down at the strip of Adamstown buildings, and scanning the horizon in hope of newcomers – a hope for news and fresh conversation.

Ship’s Landing used to be used as a kind of lighthouse – islanders would stand up there in shifts, waving a lantern to guide and warn. These days Pitcairn is off the main shipping paths, and visitors are rare. When boats do arrive, they are now announced on VHF Channel 16, and given instructions vocally. The only lantern lit at Ship’s Landing during my stay was a beacon created to celebrate 70 years since VE Day.

This was taken on expired Polaroid film; somehow the abstract colouration hints at a place that is always just out of reach. Though I was there for months, I felt that there was always a gauze between myself and the island. Occasionally, I was able to penetrate it, but for most of my time, I felt disconnected from the place and the people, held at arm's length by most. No matter how long you spend on island, you will always be an outsider.

Longboat "Moss"

There is no safe harbour on Pitcairn. Bounty Bay is a tiny inlet, and a trained longboat coxswain must aim the aluminium longboat at the rocks and wait for the swell, turning at the last second to enter the bay.

Passing cruise ships rarely land; instead, islanders sell their wares by heading out on the longboat and climbing onto the ship by rope ladder. Here, more than three-quarters of the islanders sit aboard the longboat, Moss, heading out to a cruise ship. Had this longboat sunk, Pitcairn would have been decimated.

The longboats are also used to ferry cargo and passengers to and from the Claymore II. In desperate times, the longboats have also been used for medical evacuations to Mangareva, where navigation is conducted solely by compass, and islanders must cross hundreds of miles of open ocean before landfall.

On Pitcairn, the longboats are the island’s lifeline. Without them, the island would be completely cut off. When the men stood trial on Pitcairn, they ferried their own prosecutors to shore in these boats. When the trials first took place, many islanders were worried that prison sentences would kill the island due to the lack of longboat crew. However, once convictions were handed out, they were allowed out of HMP Pitcairn to man the longboat.

Aute Valley, Pitcairn Island

When most think of the South Pacific, images of swaying palm trees and white strips of soft sand come to mind. Pitcairn is nothing of the sort. It is rocky and volcanic, emerging abruptly from the Pacific as if by accident. It was here that the Bounty’s mutineers made their home, finding in this most austere of islands the perfect hiding place.

Pitcairn’s rocky coast is ridden with names of places laden with tragedy: Oh Dear, Dan Fall, Nellie Fall, Lin Fall, McCoy’s Drop – these are just a few. While on the island, and particularly in my early days when hostility was at every corner, I couldn’t help but wonder if I too would end up with a drop named after me.

Usually, proximity to the sea is calming, as though the continuum between land and water provides a sense of freedom; a means to escape. While on Pitcairn, however, the height of the island, the lack of beaches, the towering cliffs, created a sense of claustrophobia; of entrapment.

I remembered the story of the mutineers and empathised with the Tahitian women who tried to build a boat to escape their rugged confines. Like then, the ocean is still an insurmountable wall.

The Loneliest Child in the World

Cushana, aged 6. The only child living on Pitcairn Island during my stay. Cushana is the youngest of five, but is the only child left after her siblings left for New Zealand to finish their schooling.

Cushana is ferried to and from Pulau school by the island police officer, Brenda Christian. At no time is she left alone.

Her childhood is very different from that of the older Pitcairners, who describe a youth with no rules and absolute freedom. If Cushana’s world is controlled by the blue Pacific that circles the island, her life is dictated by the apparent threat of her neighbours. Cushana has a ‘safe adult’ list, and is instructed to associate only with those on it. On an island of just 42 people, Cushana’s contact list is limited.

When she grows up, she wants to travel to London, see snow and meet the queen.

Cushana’s Doll, Te Kiva Bounty

A doll belonging to Cushana Warren-Peu sits dusty and open-legged among the cobwebs above her bed. Even the most innocuous sights on Pitcairn seem to allude to the dark past. Filth and squalor is apparent at every corner, as though the islanders have given up.

Man and baby, Pitcairn

Famous ‘man and baby’ Athena copycat poster sits in a long empty bedroom, abandoned when its owner left at 15 for school in New Zealand, before the trials. It sits, ominously, at the end of the bed. A sinister hint of what was to come.

Mattress

Tania’s room lies empty. Steve and Olive Christian’s daughter’s room in their sprawling home, Big Fence, is now left untouched, filled with the accoutrements of childhood and a Princess and the Pea stack of mattresses, still partially made up with pink sheets. In Tania’s room the absence is felt – a girl’s room, of dusty pastels, abandoned at 15, never to be returned to. A youth forgotten.

An Old Rooster and a Young Chick

This sign hangs at the entrance to Steve and Olive Christian’s home, Big Fence. Steve Christian was convicted of multiple rapes of underage girls. His wife, Olive, sat at the eye of the storm. Her two sons, husband, father and brother were all implicated and convicted in the sexual abuse trials.

Big Fence was my home for more than half my time on the island. It will forever be associated with the extended Christian family, or the ‘Big Fence Gang’ as the convicted men were collectively known.

Len Brown, after a stroke

Len Brown, the island’s oldest male, is Olive Christian’s father, and Belinda's (see later slide) grandfather. He was also convicted in the trials, but due to his age served time only as home detention.

After a severe stroke, he now lives with his son-in-law Steve’s sister, Brenda. When he was young, Len was athletic and would swim against the current, around the whole of Pitcairn Island.

Olive Christian, public works

Olive cannot believe that the trial outcomes were true. Denial maybe, but that is understandable. After all, her brother, two sons, father and husband were all convicted.

Today, Olive scurries between multiple government jobs (the island’s only employer). It seems that being busy provides a necessary distraction from her troubles. Here she maintains the roads, strimming seemingly invisible weeds from the dirt, resembling a kind of Storm Trooper.

Brenda Christian

Brenda is Steve Christian’s sister, and mother to Andrew Randall Christian. She lived off-island for many years, working on an army base. It was there that she met her second husband, Mike Lupton Christian. Mike appended the Christian surname to his own. It was, however, not for equality reasons. Instead, this was a commercial choice – souvenirs signed by the Christian family are worth more because of the implied closeness to Fletcher.

Brenda serves as the island’s community police officer, now overseen by an off-island police officer brought in from New Zealand. All policing decisions are taken in collaboration. Brenda was responsible for smoothing the "David situation" over, and attempting to manage the island gossip machine. Malicious gossip is, incidentally, a fineable offence on Pitcairn and is enshrined in the Pitcairn law book.

Her home is derogatorily known as "Pommy Ridge" because of her time off-island. Steve once said in an interview that his sister "didn’t understand" the island because she is "British". Brenda would beg to differ.

Pawl Suspicious

Pawl Warren is one of the "good guys". He left Pitcairn aged 6, returning as an adult when his father, Keane Warren came back to build a house. Pawl volunteered his services, and brought his young family to the island.

The catalyst for the trials came after a party at Pawl's house. A young girl was raped by an off-islander, Ricky Quinn (a distant cousin). Gail Cox, the visiting Kent police officer (sent to train the island’s own officer) heard the girl crying on her way home. After conducting a series of interviews, Cox discovered a worrying trend and concerning attitudes to underage sex. It was this singular event that set the ball rolling.

Pawl’s children now all live off-island, and he keeps many in the community at arm's length, preferring to socialise with visiting off-islanders. He became my personal bodyguard, offering a safe haven to retire to when the pressures of island life became overwhelming.

Sue O’Keefe, former warden

To monitor the prisoners, wardens were brought from New Zealand, one of whom, Sue, fell in love with ‘Pirate Pawl’ Warren – and returned to Pitcairn permanently, one of the only new settlers since the trials took place.

Though they have each other, the ravages of isolation can be seen across Sue’s face, aided by chain smoking and cheap alcohol

Kevin Young at Up Tibi

Kevin is Steve Christian’s first cousin and the first person I met on island. He is a born Pitcairn islander, but spent many years in New Zealand’s air force. In his early 60s, he made the decision to move back to Pitcairn to try to set up a business to bring an alternative funding and population stream into the island. His optimism was infectious, if the realities of his plans seemed impossible to imagine.

Here, Kevin sits on his bed in his new home, Up Tibi (later renamed Kate Fence). On Pitcairn, building materials are in short supply and high demand. It can take several years to gather all the necessary supplies due to cargo restriction; the alternative is to take over an empty house when one becomes available. Up Tibi is the former home of one of his distant relatives, a man who was convicted in the trials, Brian Young.

Brian was the only convicted man who managed to leave Pitcairn permanently for New Zealand. It is a generally accepted fact that the convicted men would be denied permanent settlement visas (and in some cases, even transit visas) due to the severity of their crimes, except for passage to the UK. Brian was allowed off with special medical dispensation.

Steve Christian’s black eye

Steve Christian, former mayor, and Fletcher Christian’s nearest living descendent, sports a black eye. Steve is the unofficial ‘monarch’ of Pitcairn, so placed because of his ancestry. Here, that means something.

Steve was untouchable and his reign as ringleader of the “Big Fence Gang” was absolute. He was forcibly removed from his role as mayor and was convicted of five rapes of young girls. His souvenirs still sell the best, for every curious tourist wants to rub shoulders with Fletcher’s issue, and most are willing to overlook the convictions to associate with an islander of Mutinous ascendants.

Steve finds eye contact difficult, he will look anywhere apart from directly at you. His mouth usually slightly agape, twisted into a smug half-smile of indignation. He seems impenetrable, untroubled by the past, his own truth being the only one that counts.

Belinda, a pseudonym

This image features one of the girls who testified in the sexual abuse trials of 2004.

It was the only image or reference of her that I found anywhere on the island, most were unwilling to acknowledge her existence, including her own parents and brother. This was discovered stashed in the back of an album destroyed by water in the last remaining traditional dunnage house on Pitcairn (made from washed-up materials thrown overboard by passing ships). The girl was repeatedly raped by Randy Christian, her first cousin. On one occasion, Randy and his brother Shawn stuffed a T-shirt in her mouth and raped her in turn. Both were convicted for their crimes.

Her face has been obscured and distorted, as though the physical environment of Pitcairn itself has slowly destroyed her, or erased her. In a sense this may be one of the most powerful images of my trip, drawing the parallel between Pitcairn’s particular geography and some of the lasting effects on its people and diaspora. When I left Pitcairn, I too felt emotionally destroyed – to leave the intensity behind was the greatest sense of freedom I have ever experienced.

Pitcairn Mayor, Shawn Christian

Mayor Shawn Christian, direct patrilineal descendent of Fletcher Christian, leader of the Bounty mutineers. Convicted of two rapes and one count of aiding and abetting a rape. Shawn, like his father, evaded my attempts to be photographed wherever possible.

Only in my last week did we finally align, and only after I had sat with him (in his mayoral role) to dissect a complaint I had made against his cousin. Shawn’s portrait haunts me, I can see it sometimes when I close my eyes – real island memories have been replaced by my pictures, or the obsessions of making them.

His eyes stare blankly into the abyss, pupils wide. He dressed for the occasion, a flowery shirt. But even this does not cheer the scene. The weight of his troubles seems impossible to bear. You could be forgiven for thinking he was a patient at a Victorian asylum – being the mayor of Pitcairn would certainly have been maddening enough.

When I look back at this image, I am reminded of the island as a prison – all on it are trapped in a kind of purgatory. If Pitcairn’s days are numbered, where will they go? To Britain, more than 14,000 miles away – the only country obliged to settle them?

Due to a legal loophole, Shawn is able to take on Pitcairn’s highest office despite his record. It is now up to Shawn to steer the island into its future and it is he who is ultimately responsible for its public image. With repopulation necessary to ensure the nation’s survival, it is perhaps counterproductive that the mayor himself is a convicted felon, a man reticent about being revealed in public.

 

Jesus

Pitcairn used to be a staunch Seventh Day Adventist island. As Adventists, the Sabbath is on a Saturday, and there is to be no drinking or gambling. At one time, all alcohol was banned, and later, when restrictions were eased, it was necessary to purchase a licence to consume it.

Religion is a key part of the Pitcairn story, with John Adams allegedly having taught literacy using the Bounty Bible itself, a book held under lock and key in the church itself. When visited by Adventist missionaries, Pitcairn seemed the perfect pious community, and ripe for the plucking.

It became the SDA church’s crowning glory – a paradise of morality. The church funded various projects and passage off-island to attend SDA conferences. It also provided teachers for the school. In recent years, the role of pastor, usually a role held by an off-islander, has been increasingly difficult to fill. Pitcairn is no longer good press for the church.

A tatty and aged picture of Jesus sits curled up in an empty bedroom, as though he too has been forgotten.

 

Christian’s Cave

Christian’s Cave sits like an all-seeing eye surveying Adamstown. It is so named, as this was the spot where Fletcher himself would sit as his own madness closed in – watching over the tiny community that he had founded and scanning the horizon for passing ships.

I wondered whether Fletcher was looking for ships not to raise the alarm, but as a way out, and I ruminated on whether he was purposefully distancing himself from the goldfish bowl below.

I too took solace in the cave. Most islanders are unable to clamber up the steep slopes to its entrance, and those who can are disinterested. Loose rock and spiky “grab-a-leg” seedlings make the walk hair-raising and uncomfortable. There are no barriers to be found, just a cliff edge vanishing into the blue.

I was happy to take the risk, as I knew that I would not be bothered up there. Though if I made the pilgrimage for privacy, that I did not find. There is nowhere quite as conspicuous as Christian’s Cave.

It is visible in almost every outdoor photograph that I took, a reminder of the Mutiny past. If Pitcairn has an iconic location, this is it.

 

Royal Warren, nee Brown

Royal Warren was one of the most agreeable islanders that I met. She lived with her two children, warring siblings Melva and Mike – a family of devout Seventh Day Adventists. While I was there, Mike was on trial for child pornography, and was naturally suspicious of me. I battled through, and forged, I suppose, what one could call a friendship with Mike, or at least by Pitcairn standards.

I reserved judgement while his trial was taking place, playing dominoes at their home while Royal looked on. This came as a surprise to me, for the crimes for which he was convicted in 2016 (after my departure) were abhorrent to me, but perhaps this was my truest Pitcairn experience – the ability to take a person at face value, to judge only by my own experiences of them. On Pitcairn you take friendship wherever you can and in whatever form it appears.

I often wondered what Royal was thinking of – her sharp and curious eyes flickering occasionally, before settling into a distant stare. She always looked as though she was remembering a better time, when life was easier, and then she would remember where she was, and what her family was going through, and her eyes would glass over in reticence.

 

The Devil Makes Work For Idle Hands, Irma Christian

Before you saw her, you heard her. Her lilting Pitcairn twang peppered with accentuated intonation, shaky and slightly lisping, where her false teeth became slightly loose. At points, her voice pierces the air, vacillating between the proper English accent of a 1900s governess mixed with the projection of a priest, and an unintelligible birdlike chatter. She was rarely quiet, talking to herself when no one was around, and occasionally bursting into song. Her laugh was rapid and erupted in bursts, in a kind of high-pitched monotone, carefree… somehow at odds with her diminutive stature.

I once had a school report that said my smile would light up Siberia. I always remember it as that’s all it said about me. I don’t think I knew what a smile like that looked like until I saw Irma’s… She smiled with her whole body, as though every bone in her skeletal frame had suddenly become childlike again… she was so slight that the beaming grin on her face seemed to become at least 50% of her body mass.

I was amazed that she could be so small and still be breathing, walking, functioning. She wore sweatpants and a sweatshirt every day, usually in mismatched bright block colours – hot pink, aqua, electric blue. Like someone from an '80s exercise video about to spring into action. Though she was now frail, she fizzed with a kind of frantic energy. Here she is peeling ‘wild beans’ – a Pitcairn staple that most don’t like. Her fingers as knobbly as the beans themselves.

Irma told me stories about going to Buckingham Palace – “Have you been, dear?” she asked, with genuine interest. “No” I said. “Oh you must. London is divine.” Dennis would walk in, and suddenly her voice would flip “Wussin yourley doing?” she would ask as he walked into the kitchen to prepare dinner. For dinner, Irma would push food around her plate and sip on a high-calorie milkshake, the same as my grandmother used to drink. Sadly, Irma passed away in 2016, leaving her son, Dennis, alone. I often think of her and how I was lucky to share her last birthday just before I left, where she gave a public speech about the future of Pitcairn and how islanders must be more open to outsiders. I always suspected she may have been talking about me – Irma, unlike so many others, was never afraid of the fickle tides of public opinion.

 

Dennis Christian

This image is of Dennis Christian, postmaster. Dennis has a distinctive look – slightly darker skin than the rest, with black sprouting hair and Polynesian features, a rounded short torso, with slim legs protruding from his cotton shorts.

On island his nickname is “Sambo”. The first time I heard him called that, I gasped. Clearly British political correctness has bypassed Pitcairn Island.

Dennis ‘celebrated’ his 60th birthday when I was there and I saw him sitting alone, pondering his life and what was left of it. He has never married, nor had a girlfriend.

The closest he ever came was to a visiting American graphic designer who painted the dolphin mural on the wall at Steve Christian’s house, Big Fence.

But, he said, sadly, "She was an artist, like you, what was she going to do on Pitcairn Island?” He speaks openly about his loneliness, one of the few islanders willing to do so, and is also relatively happy to discuss the trials. He was the first man to plead guilty. As a result, he had a lenient sentence – of community service.

But something seems different about Dennis, a sense of remorse, a sadness that pervades his being despite his seemingly effervescent cheerfulness.

When I was on island, he was living with his mother, Irma. He had built himself a new house but had never moved into it. We spoke about what would become of him when birdlike Irma was no more, and he sighed. What would be his purpose? His reason for being? Irma was his sole driving force.

Irma died in 2016. I often think of Dennis, alone, and it makes me well up a little. Since the trials even friendships are fractured and people keep themselves to themselves within family groups, but Dennis has no parents, children, or brothers and sisters on island. It’s now just him, calling out that ‘dinner’s ready” to an empty chair.

 

Cushana and the frigates

Cushana, Pitcairn’s only child waits for the frigate birds that circle the landing with detritus from the day’s catch, feeding the giant birds by hand. When they swoop down they appear bigger than her. A storm was brewing and the rain approaching across the sea, the wind was picking up, and Cushana’s joyous yelps were vanishing with the gusts.

I watched her shiver with excitement and wait for the right moment to let go, once the frigate had successfully grasped its prize.

Watching Cushana and the frigates reminded me that here we were at the intersection between man and nature.

It is impossible to divorce the Pitcairners from their rock; the two are inexorably linked. The isolation and landscape creating the personalities and attitudes of our living characters, as though they come from the pages of a book, or as if their geographical location is a device or literary construct.

Sometimes the parallels between the island and its people can seem too neat a metaphor, but fact and fiction are the Pitcairn reality.

 

Big Fence / Pitcairn Island is currently on show at Francesca Maffeo Gallery and runs until 9th June.