Trouble in Paradise

Settled in 1790 by mutineers from the storied H.M.S. Bounty, Pitcairn Island is one of the British Empire’s most isolated remnants, a mystical hunk of rock that was largely ignored until 1996. Then Pitcairn’s secret was exposed: generations of rape and child molestation as a way of life. Delving into the South Pacific island’s past, the authors chronicle its 10-year clash with the British legal system, which ripped apart a tiny society.

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    T he venerable Privy Council sits behind the usual barricades of modern life on prime London real estate at No. 9 Downing Street. The court’s power has faded from its colonial heights, when one of its decisions banned suttee, the Hindu practice of burning the widow with her husband’s body atop his funeral pyre. Now it sits as the court of last resort only to the splinters of an empire undone: British Gibraltar and a lingering handful of island territories in far-off seas.

    On a day in the hot London summer of 2006, the smallest of all those colonial shavings, Pitcairn Island, took center stage for the first and surely the last time with a child-rape case that seemed to hover somewhere between Paradise Lost and Lord of the Flies. But it also carried with it—or the case never would have reached this archaic pinnacle—a subplot of a powerful government stumbling out of centuries of neglect. This was Britain’s attempt to clean up a mess it had allowed, through inattention, to spin out of control.

    Pitcairn is the last holding of the British Empire in the Pacific, a place and people so remote, so unlikely, and, until recently, so lost in time that they often seemed more myth than reality. But the place is real all right. The island emerges alone out of the South Pacific more than 3,000 miles from any continent, a hunk of red volcanic rock not much larger than New York’s Central Park. The open sea has pounded at it for millenn...