Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Pitcairn and Isolation

On my way to graduate school in 1961 our ship full of Kiwi students hove to for a couple of hours in mid Pacific so that islanders from a long boat could come aboard to sell their carvings. We were off Pitcairn. These part Tahitian/part British descendants had with them carved birds which most of us found of small interest. As the boat gathered speed again one student mused over life on such a remote place, wondering what they did for kicks. We talked about isolation and its effect on people's lives. A bright lad told amusing stories about Saturday nights in Taihape.

When I got to North Carolina all the southern parts of the United States were under pressure to make a belated entry into the 20th century. Freedom buses had just been through several towns with groups of civil rights protestors "sitting in" on segregated lunch bars and theatres. One daring group including several blacks entered a "whites only" restaurant. They were summarily ejected. The modern world came slowly to the South. There was more for me to learn. From Kentucky came stories about the hill-billies and the primitive lives and sexual practices some still followed. I recall stories of incest. Deep southern states like Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia that would produce the very civilised President Jimmy Carter a few years later had, until recently, tolerated ages of consent as low as 12 and 14. Girls had been legally marrying in their early teens. On North Carolina's Outer Banks was a community so isolated that until recent times people had spoken with accents that would have resonated in 17th century England. Talk of antiquated sexual practices there, too.

I hold no brief for child sex. Most societies over time have regarded child molestation as repugnant. The key issue has always been the age of consent. In primitive and isolated societies where women's work was confined to procreation and motherhood, the age was usually low. Before we get too worked up about allegations of sexual exploitation in Pitcairn it is worth remembering that there are still places on the globe that haven't been reached by the inexorable march towards the globalisation of cultural and sexual mores. Nor of modern attitudes towards women, let alone minorities. Indeed, since Pitcairn must be just about the remotest place on earth, I'm not surprised that 214 years after the Bounty mutineers colonised it, the locals still haven't shrugged off the sexual practices of 18th century Tahiti. On a more general plane, those who recall that popular film Mondo Cane will know of other weird practices around the globe. Tormenting bulls, eating foxes' knees, parading bears and freaks, female circumcision and cutting off the arms of adulterers. And what about women draped completely in black, peeping through slits in their scarves? Yet these destructive and/or demeaning practices are still tolerated. There seems no general will to stop them.

The question we face is whether it is our responsibility forcibly to bring the Pitcairners, or any other groups engaged in outmoded practices that we deem destructive of others' lives, up to speed, and if so, how best to do it. The sight of a band of lawyers clad in their bibs and tuckers invading Pitcairn clutching their briefs reminded me of 19th century missionaries bringing the Bible to heathens, sometimes at the point of a sword. It's hard to view the Pitcairn court as a genuine exercise in British goodwill. At best the law is a blunt instrument. In this instance it is working with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Real progress is more likely to be made with increased access to the modern world. Books, better education, and contact with the world's media will do more to break down cultural isolation and unacceptable practices than any court of law. That has been the experience in the American South. Instead of a busy-bodying policewoman on a crusade, what Pitcairners really needed was the money that is being lavished on this extraordinarily expensive court case spent on connecting them to modernity.

Every day there are barbaric customs still being perpetrated in Africa and the Middle East. Most would wilt before the onslaught of freedom, higher education and knowledge - if only we knew how to get round the mullahs and corrupt potentates. Easy access to modern technology shrinks isolation and ignorance. Pitcairn needs help from its British masters, not the devastation currently being wrought on this tiny 47 person society.