A leading Pitcairner told a court in Auckland yesterday that the British dependent territory had always been a civilised society, with moral standards identical to those of other modern communities.

Betty Christian, 62, took the witness stand to testify against six fellow islanders found guilty last year of raping and abusing young girls in the remote South Pacific community.

The six are seeking to have the verdicts quashed, arguing they were not aware that such acts were illegal under English law and would be prosecuted.

Mrs Christian rejected the defendants' claim that the island had been a "lawless" society. Despite their physical isolation, islanders were all well educated and well travelled.

Fellow islanders, including the accused, watched by video-link from the public hall in Adamstown as Mrs Christian appeared before the Pitcairn Supreme Court, sitting in Papakura.

Mrs Christian, the island secretary, rejected the defence argument that Pitcairn had never been British and English law therefore did not apply.

She said that islanders had always considered themselves British.

Mrs Christian said she first heard the notion that the island was not British when former mayor Steve Christian addressed a UN conference on decolonisation a few years ago.

At that time Christian, one of the principal sex offenders, had been interviewed by British police, but his identity was shielded by a court order.

A defence lawyer, Adrian Cook, then informed Mrs Christian last year that the islanders were not British.

He told her that the mutineers had not married their Polynesian female companions, so their illegitimate children assumed the nationality of their mothers.

She dismissed that theory, noting that "the Polynesian side of our heritage has never really been acknowledged".

It was only this year, she said, that a plaque recognising the contribution of the Polynesian settlers was unveiled on Pitcairn.