There's Nothing Romantic About Pitcairn

From Eyewitness, 5:00 am on 12 August 2021

From the early 2000s, Pitcairn Island caught international headlines relating to incidents of historic sexual abuse and assault on women and young children on the island.

These shocking stories emerged at least a decade after Tony Washington, a former teacher, lived there with his family.

Pitcairn view of boat harbour, 2006.

Pitcairn view of boat harbour, 2006. Photo: Graham Wragg

"We had interviews with the Kent police who came out from England to interview a number of people including my wife, my children, and myself," Washington says.

As his family were outsiders, Washington believed the locals made sure they didn't know or suspect anything.

One of the most remote communities in the world, Pitcairn has a population of around 50, but in Washington's time, there were about 65 people living on the island.

He recalls one community dinner where a crowd of men aged between 16-25 years-of-age, surrounded his daughter.

Washington managed to fend the young men off. But there were other times when he felt things weren't quite right, but the family carried on none-the-wiser.

When the family relocated to Pitcairn between 1990 and 1992, the overarching decision was informed by a career opportunity - Tony Washington would be appointed as Pitcairn's School Principal and Government Advisor.

Pitcairn school room, 1991.

Pitcairn school room, 1991. Photo: Tony Washington

Another appeal was the simplicity of island life and an experience that would allow them to have some quality family time. They had been sent a home video made by one of the former education officers.

"They were zooming around on a rubber duck and having a great ball of fun, there were cricket and soccer matches," he says.

But although the video provided some insight into life on Pitcairn, Washington says it didn't give them the full picture."

The family would encounter new obstacles. There are no roads on the island, so they would get used to travelling by foot, and usually on uneven and muddy ground. They would also be living in isolation with little, or next to no contact, with anyone outside Pitcairn.

Washington says many an unrealistic view of life on Pitcairn and on a couple of occasions, visitors working on the island for a 6-month stint found themselves at the Washington home, a place where they could air their concerns.

"They could talk about things...including their lodgings, the fact that they had to spend so much money to get there, and it didn't live up to expectations," he says.

Pitcairn community digging arrowroot, 1991

Pitcairn community digging arrowroot, 1991 Photo: Tony Washington

Those visitors were committed to a minimum of 6-months and needed to have 20 thousand dollars in the bank. It was a hefty price to pay to live in an unforgiving environment, where settling in with the locals was also a challenge.

Over the two years, Washington got to know the locals quite well, but it wasn't easy

"They were a bit standoffish at first, but then they knew I was there to do a job," he says.

"One family took us in and showed us how to do crafts, and we had lots of Pitcairn meals there."

During his tenure, Washington made the most of island life and all of its quirks, including contributing to the local newsletter which was distributed to subscribers from all over the world. Making a practical contribution to Pitcairn was also a useful way to pass the time.

A washed out road after a cyclone, 1992.

A washed out road after a cyclone, 1992. Photo: Tony Washington

He also set up a museum that held items like bounty cannonballs and stone adzes. Washington felt strongly that the history was being sold, or taken away by visitors.

"It was a big deal to get a bounty nail, for instance, and people would send me letters asking how to get one," he says.

While Washington openly admits that it was 'the spirit of adventure' that took him to Pitcairn in the first place when it was time to leave there was a sense of relief.

"I knew I had done my job and gained some experience," he says.

"But there's no romance about Pitcairn. It's hard work getting through and surviving, and getting yourself accepted by the people so that you're included and made to feel welcome."

Listen to the podcast to find out more about how the locals mark the landing of the ship their forefathers had arrived on, the rules and quirks of life on the island, and the reason Washington will never return to Pitcairn.