Is it lights out for Pitcairn Island?

LAST ROW: Pitcairn Island’s famous longboats may become a thing of the past if the island runs out of people.
Claire Harvey
LAST ROW: Pitcairn Island’s famous longboats may become a thing of the past if the island runs out of people.

Lonely Pitcairn Island - famous for a South Seas mutiny and disreputable for its sex - is edging toward social collapse with its settlement facing abandonment.

The last place in the Pacific to see a Union Jack flying over British territory is running out of people and a rescue plan is sputtering.

An official report indicates its 49 mostly older occupants soon may have to move to New Zealand, 5500 kilometres away, leaving the 4.6-square-kilometre rock to nature.

The last one to leave will really need to turn off the lights - Pitcairn's last registered electrician is retiring soon.

There are only 10 men fit enough to row the island's vital long boats and it's a matter of polite debate over how many childbearing capable women there are.

It may be just two or three but some studies say there is only one woman capable of pregnancy.

It makes their latest "Repopulation Plan" moot.

"It is undeniable that the Pitcairn population is diminishing and already is very low," Auckland-based Deputy Governor of Pitcairn Kevin Lynch says.

Wellington consultant Rob Solomon has produced a British government-funded study on Pitcairn's future.

He declined to discuss his findings with the Sunday Star-Times but parts of his report had appeared in the Wall Street Journal this month.

"Pitcairn is too isolated and it will never pay its own way," he warned.

Solomon says a survey of 33 "Pitkerners" living mostly in New Zealand showed only three had any interest in returning. Most spoke of being ashamed of their heritage because of its sex scandal.

Lynch admitted the Solomon Study "suggests a gloomy outlook for Pitcairn" with demographics not looking good and not enough young people to do essential work.

"It is a fact that the older we get the less able we are to carry out strenuous physical work."

The Repopulation Plan calls for migration but Lynch says: "Unfortunately, whilst there have been many enquiries, serious interest in migrating to Pitcairn has been minimal." More accurately: Not a solitary person has shown up.

Last month North Carolina man John Brantley, describing himself as an Anglican Rite Old Catholic priest, tried to raise US$1000 (NZ$1166) through crowd funding so that he could move to Pitcairn. So far he has not raised a cent.

The rocky island has no runway, although Australian Dick Smith offered to build one a decade ago to connect with Mangareva in French Polynesia, 540km away. Solomon's report says "everybody on the island would have to get on the plane for every flight" to make it economical.

The only regular ship service to Pitcairn is from Tauranga, costing $5000 a head. Mail services are now slower than they were in the days of sail.

Pitcairn owes its settlement to the Mutiny on the Bounty, which saw Fletcher Christian seize the ship and set captain William Bligh adrift off Tonga. Christian took the ship back to Tahiti and in 1790 he and eight crew, six Tahitian men and 18 kidnapped Tahitian women arrived at Pitcairn. They burnt the ship and stayed on the island.

The population eventually peaked at around 250 in 1936, all living in Adamstown, the smallest capital in the world.

Its darkest moment came in 2004 when six men were found guilty of 35 sexual abuse and under-age sex charges on the island. They were sentenced to jail for two to six years in a newly built prison - which is now a guest house.

International environmental groups are lobbying London to turn Pitcairn and the nearby islands of Ducie, Henderson and Oeno into the world's largest marine sanctuary. Nine plant species are unique to Pitcairn while the Henderson crake (Porzana atra) is one of its unusual flightless bird species. It has been blessed with rich fish stocks but heavy tuna fishing is feared to be causing serious depletion.

If the people go, a Galapagos giant tortoise "Mrs Turpen", who has lived there 50 years, will be left to her fate. British law makes it illegal to kill, injure, capture, maim or cause harm or distress to her.

Sunday Star Times