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Pitcairn Islands Study Center

News - November 19, 2003

Contact Study Center:

PHONE: 707-965-6244
TEXT:   707-229-1340

Contact Herb Ford:
PHONE: 559-592-0980 or

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  [California Study Center]


PITCAIRN ISLANDS STUDY CENTER, Pacific Union College, Angwin, California USA.

Herbert Ford, 559-592-0980, 559-732-0313.


                        ANGWIN (Napa County) Calif., August 20, 2003—The people of Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific Ocean, descendants of sailors who mutinied in the late 18th century on H.M.S. Bounty, are about as close to a modern-day mutiny against their current British overlords as were their forebears against the infamous Captain William Bligh.

                        According to first-hand reports reaching the Pitcairn Islands Study Center on the campus of Pacific Union College here, an aura of tension, distrust and suspicion hangs heavily over the little one-by-two-mile island against their British-appointed governor who heavy-handedly legislates their lives from thousands of miles away in Wellington, New Zealand.

                        Fewer than 50 in number, a majority of the Pitcairners say Governor Richard Fell has turned their island into a virtual police state in connection with sex abuse charges made against some Pitcairn men, while at the same time they say he ignores basic human rights and the worsening infastructure needs of their island.

                        Hearings relating to the charges are currently being held in Auckland, New Zealand, hearings which are not only challenging the jurisdiction of the court which may try the Pitcairn men, but also the authority by which Governor Fell has rewritten the laws of Pitcairn Island and appointed the judges, magistrates, prosecutors and defenders. New ordinances regulating living on Pitcairn have been issued in unprecedented numbers by Fell, each carrying the weight of law.

                        The governor’s dogged pursuit of prosecution of the sex charges by way of traditional downtown London criminal trial procedures doesn’t fit either their culture or their years of successful on-island prosecution of crime, and is tearing the social fabric of their island apart, the Pitcairners say.

                        The islanders have repeatedly made clear that “no one on Pitcairn or anywhere else has suggested that the allegations of sexual misconduct be ignored. Rather, they have repeatedly asked to have involvement in the design and implementation of the process through which this matter should be dealt with. Instead, the structure as a community, their culture and their inter-relationships have all been ignored.”

                        They also charge that by the recent sacking of former Pitcairn Commissioner Leon Salt, a New Zealander, the governor has rid his off-island staff of the one official who the Pitcairn people feel understands their needs and works in their behalf. They wait to see if Fell will follow their wishes as to appointments of the island’s school teacher and medical officer whose terms of service are now expiring. In all these matters they accuse Fell of acting like the worst of British colonizers over their subjects.

                        For his part, Mr. Salt is attempting to bring legal action against Fell for his unjustified dismissal, and is seeking reinstatement. Fell, Salt says, “is cowering behind a cloak of diplomatic immunity to prevent me from bringing action against him. This stance is contrary to the published policy of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”

                        Words like “overlord” and “dictator” are being used in Pitcairner communications to the governor as characterizing his governorship. Most pleas for a loosening of what the islanders consider gross governmental overkill are either ignored or characterized by Fell as “politically motivated.” In answer to several recent requests for better handling of medical emergencies, Fell accuses the Pitcairn writers of attempting “to score political points.”

                        The depth of Pitcairn feeling about their governor’s go-it-alone control of their lives is summed in a recent letter to him from a Pitcairner:

                        “You, Sir, are bordering on dictatorship,” says the writer. “You have made countless decisions on your own which do nothing more than upset 60 to 70 percent of the islanders.

                        “If this were to happen in the U.S., New Zealand, the UK or Australia there would be protests in the streets, perhaps rioting, and even some violence too, and the entire nation would be in an uproar. Yet we have not resorted to extreme measures because we are not like that. I am now calling for the entire structure in the way Pitcairn is governed to be reviewed and changed to adequately meet the needs of the people of Pitcairn, not how YOU see it but how WE see it.

                        “You have contradicted the very title of the Overseas Territories White Paper, ‘Partnership for Progress and Prosperity’,” says the Pitcairn writer. “You acted alone, Sir. No partnership here! All you’ve done is upset the majority of the Islanders, and you call that progress? “

                        Perhaps what galls the Pitcairners most - and causes them to fear - is the governor’s dogged insistence on trying the men who have been charged by using all the traditional wigs and robes, the legal bells and whistles of downtown London justice, all of which are completely foreign to the simplicity of Pitcairn life.

                        They decry Fell’s unwillingness to give any serious consideration to accepted processes of justice that have been successfully used in Canada and other Pacific islands with small, indigenous groups like theirs. Particularly, they have learned that the accepted legal process called “restorative justice” has held the various groups together throughout and after trials, rather than tearing them apart as they contend Fell’s approach is doing to Pitcairn.

                        All of the approximately 30 adult Pitcairners live under virtual house arrest as Ministry of Defense police, social workers and the governor’s personal watchdog move lazily among them with nothing to do but loll in the sun and keep their ears open for the inadvertent slip of the tongue which might be shuttled to the prosecution team in New Zealand to help seal the Pitcairn men’s fate.

                        This cadre of lolling “spies” as some Pitcairners call them, form a sharp contrast to the hard-scrabble life of the islanders which is comprised of constant work in their gardens, fishing, handling the island’s longboats to sell curios and food to passing ships, and scores of other tasks.

                        The net effect of the islanders’ estrangement from what many on the island call their “do-nothing-for-Pitcairn” governor, coupled with the effect of the forthcoming trials, has reduced Pitcairn life to a heavy and constant cloak of depression and gloom.

                        In the latest Wellington-directed assault on the fabric of Pitcairn life, Fell appointed social workers have been attempting to insinuate themselves into the lives of Pitcairn’s children. Not welcomed in the majority of Pitcairn homes where the feeling is that there is absolutely no need for them on Pitcarin, the social workers have now started entering the school life of Pitcairn youngsters with lollies, soft drinks and “bribes,” according to one report.

                        The first lot of social workers placed on Pitcairn (they rotate on and off the island every few months) were heard to declare, “These children are not safe with their families,” and “These people don’t know how to look after their children,” allegations that are totally un-buttressed by fact which infuriate the Pitcairners.

                        Writing recently to Fell, a Pitcairner summed up the situation on Pitcairn: “Since your appointment as Governor any prospects for a bright future have dimmed to a pinprick-sized flicker. Morale is at an all-time low, due to the stupendously outrageous sex-abuse charges, the imposition of a police state; the inexplicable presence of two - count ‘em, TWO - social workers . . . and the firing of (our) most useful representative (Leon Salt).

                        “The math adds up to an eerily hidden agenda which can only be guessed at, because decisions are being made and policies are implemented with absolutely no consultation with the people.”

                        While acknowledging that Pitcairners have benefitted from a new health clinic and generator under Fell’s governorship, this Pitcairner charges “these amenities are for the support of ‘your’ people; the cops, the social workers and your representative.

                        “Pitcairners have been forced to look on as well-appointed new facilities were built to accommodate ‘your’ people, who represent oppressors. And what an insult that Pitcairn men were also made to construct the very facility you have planned for their incarceration.

                        “The facilities are completed; your henchmen are in place; the trial is proceeding; it was only logical that (former Pitcairn Commissioner) Leon Salt be unceremoniously dumped to remove the last official pro-Pitcairn voice. Salt has been replaced by a businessman with no clue about matters of service to Pitcairn. Salt has the support of the majority of Pitcairn Islanders, as well as the support of former Government Advisors who served Pitcairn throughout the past fifty yeas; yet none of this seems to strike a chord in you. Pitcairners are spitting mad and they have every right to be angry!”

                        The writer than states, “The wants and needs of the Pitcairn people are simple and easily remedied:

                        “Send your policemen home from their paid holiday; the same with the social workers. None of them are needed or wanted on Pitcairn.

                        “Reinstate Leon Salt to his rightful position as Commissioner, and allow him to get back to work for the Pitcairn people.

                        “Terminate this senseless persecution of the Pitcairn men. If there truly are grounds for prosecution, let the (Pitcairn) people deal with it as they have in the past, without the charade of wigs and robes.”

                        Professional and legal counselors are now supporting the Pitcairners in moves they may be making toward an acceptable degree of independence as put forth by the United Nations’ Committee of 24. This UN group concerns itself with fostering varying degrees of independence for some 15 small colonized territories of the world one of which is Pitcairn.

                        A recommendation to the Pitcairners by a Australian academic who has long monitored the deteriorating situation on Pitcairn is that the islanders refuse to discuss his agenda with Governor Fell when he arrives for a scheduled visit soon until a thorough-going discussion and some action about independence for the Pitcairn people have taken place.