By KATHY MARKS

On a grassy slope on the edge of the world, overlooking the savage beauty of the Pacific Ocean, generations of Pitcairners lie buried.

The newer graves are carpeted with wildflowers; others, eroded by the relentless winds, are crumbling monuments to men long dead. Some bear names that, though barely legible, still have the power to make local women shudder.

A few metres away is a grove of banana trees where Randy Christian, one of the current crop of young Pitcairners, allegedly pinned down a 10-year-old girl so a friend could rape her. She claims the pair gagged her, stuffing a shirt into her mouth so her screams could not be heard.

Then they swapped positions, and it was Christian's turn to rape her on the red volcanic earth.

Her father was in a shed nearby, milling sugarcane to make molasses.

Afterwards, the child returned to the shed. She told no one about the alleged assault. For such is life for young girls on Pitcairn, it is claimed, and so it was for their mothers, grandmothers and female forebears.

On this tiny rock in the South Pacific, women say, men have been raping young girls for decades, centuries perhaps. They did it without qualms and hid it with skill. The girls might struggle at first, but they would never tell.

Breaking the cycle of abuse - a cycle allegedly so entrenched that few Pitcairners have been left untouched - depends on three New Zealand judges who will deliver verdicts on Randy Christian and six other men in a peeling wooden courtroom in Adamstown today.

More crucially, it depends on whether the small and fractious Pitcairn community is prepared to repent, rebuild and move on.

Before that can happen, islanders will have to confront the unpalatable notion that the most powerful among them have allegedly been preying on the most vulnerable - and that the cycle began, in all probability, with their swashbuckling ancestors, the Bounty mutineers.

So far, there has been scant sign of self-scrutiny or remorse. Last weekend, the seven defendants converged on Big Fence - the family home of Randy Christian's father, Steve, mayor of Pitcairn and alleged serial child rapist - for an evening of drinking. Amid much high-spirited banter, they took photographs of each other dressed in prison-style uniforms decorated with arrows.

Over the next few days, the joking may stop. The men are charged with a litany of offences that date back 40 years, including molesting children as young as 5. One, Dennis Christian, has already pleaded guilty, and another, Dave Brown, has made limited admissions.

The rest are waiting to find out if they will be convicted - and, if so, whether their final destination will be the six-cell prison that all seven helped to construct last year.

Sentencing takes place on Thursday. But that will not be the end of the story for Pitcairn, nor for the numerous women who claim to have been horribly abused and are still, in some cases, suffering profoundly decades later.

One flew from England to tell the Pitcairn Supreme Court, by video-link from New Zealand, of a wretched childhood of rapes and beatings on "that godforsaken island".

Such descriptions are severely at odds with the popular perception of Pitcairn as a tropical idyll and a living museum, peopled by descendants of Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers.

Seven women travelled to Auckland to give heart-rending testimony about the reality of life in the British dependent territory. But their evidence represented only a snapshot of the misery allegedly experienced by generations of girls on the edge of Empire.

The wider picture includes another six Pitcairn men now living in Australia and New Zealand, who are expected to go on trial in Auckland next year charged with offences as appalling as those outlined in Adamstown in recent weeks.

It also includes a further 17 men named as abusers during the investigation by officers from Kent police in England. They were not charged, either because the women did not wish to pursue the case, or because they were, like Elwyn Christian, already dead.

Christian repeatedly abused two little girls, making them watch while he had sex with his elderly wife and then sexually assaulting them in front of each other. They say he gave them chocolate and treats.

What happened to bring out the very worst in human nature? What made a remote island community go feral? The questions grow ever more complex and vexed.

Were the alleged events the inevitable product of Pitcairn's unique circumstances? It seems glib to blame the mutineers, who fled to Pitcairn in 1790 after their famous uprising against Captain Bligh. Yet some believe their mentality continues to permeate island life.

The early years of the community were marked by murder and violence as well as brutality towards the sailors' Polynesian "wives".

By the time an American sealer arrived 18 years later, all but one of the mutineers, John Adams, were dead. Adams, who had pacified the community with the help of the Bounty's Bible, was surrounded by women and children who all called him "Father". In the ensuing years, Pitcairn always had a dominant male figure. Today that man is Steve Christian.

Left alone by British administrators, who saw Pitcairn as a happy, self-governing outpost, the men allegedly did what they pleased. They lived in a male-dominated society and were accountable to no one.

Asked why the men presently on trial behaved as they allegedly did, one source close to the case replies: "Because they could."

The victims, meanwhile, had no one to tell, for their assailants included magistrates and police officers - while their own male relatives were allegedly abusing young girls themselves. Some parents, it is said, even pushed their daughters in the direction of influential men.

A Seventh Day Adventist pastor and a teacher were always stationed on the island for rotating two-year terms, but the girls say it was out of the question to talk to outsiders.

Some of those temporary residents have since said they sensed a glimmer of what was allegedly going on - but were never, it seems, sufficiently concerned to report their misgivings.

Occasionally a girl would protest, but she would not be believed, and might even be thrashed for bringing trouble on her family. So the girls learned it was pointless to complain and instead submitted, some suffering blighted childhoods in which they were abused by several men.

One later related that, after her first sexual encounter, she realised she had lost her virginity but had never been kissed. The girls could not tell, and they could not leave - at least until they went to school in New Zealand in their mid-teens. Some have never returned, and never will.

In Pitcairn, men are judged on capability rather than on character. Every man is a vital cog, whether he crews a longboat or has a talent for repairing machinery.

Many of the women are intelligent and strong-minded, but say they cannot survive without the men.

So when Pitcairn's silent victims finally found a voice in 1999, thanks to the arrival of an English police officer, Gail Cox, it was the girls who were blamed for speaking out rather than the men who had allegedly abused them. One middle-aged woman calls her daughter, allegedly raped at 12 by a man in his 30s, a "silly idiot" for making a complaint.

"She knew what she was doing," the mother says. "She wanted it as much as him."

Many complainants withdrew from the case after being subjected to intolerable pressure from their families.

The testimony of women, inside and outside court, suggests that few men from the past three generations are untainted. When Kent police knocked on the doors of women who grew up on the island, "we got disclosure after disclosure ... it was staggering", says one officer.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that adult men have long made a practice of targeting young girls. One woman claims "it was the same in my great-grandparents' day".

Another remembers men of her father's age saying that girls of 12 needed to be "broken in" - the precise phrase used to describe Steve Christian's alleged conduct as a young adult a generation later.

There appears to have been a widespread belief that the age of consent on Pitcairn was 12. Old men groped little girls opportunistically. Even family members were not immune. The court heard allegations of incest.

Small wonder that many visitors remarked on the sexual precocity of Pitcairn's children, who - according to one trial witness - simulated sex with each other from the age of 5.

But even the trend for girls to have babies from the age of 12, confirmed by historical records, did not shake administrators out of their torpor. No British officer was sent to the island until Ms Cox arrived.

After a series of men were prosecuted for unlawful carnal knowledge, the island council held a meeting in the early 1970s at which locals were enjoined to consider the error of their ways. Nothing changed.

One of the defendants, Dave Brown, told police that liaisons between adult men and young girls were the norm.

"It seems it's something that's been going on right through the ages," he said. "Someone following someone else. It didn't seem wrong."

One alleged victim put it differently. "It just seemed to be the normal way of life back on Pitcairn, how the girls are treated. Men could do what they wanted with them."

There cannot have been a single adult on the island who did not know what was allegedly going on through the years. Yet nothing was said and nothing was done.

It appears that on Pitcairn a pathological attachment to place has superseded the impulse to shield children from danger. Islanders know who owns every coconut palm, every breadfruit tree growing far off the beaten track.

But it is not merely the physical connection that accounts for their visceral devotion to the island. It is what Pitcairn represents: fame, a livelihood and pride at being descended from heroes.

Walking around the island, it is hard not to feel oppressed by the harrowing evidence heard in court.

Every scenic spot, every landmark, is a crime site. Aute Valley, Down Isaac, The Hollow, Bounty Bay - postcard-pretty places with picturesque names, all allegedly defiled by men who claim to love Pitcairn like their own flesh and blood.

Whether Pitcairn survives the trials will not be determined by the number of able-bodied men who end up in jail. It will depend on whether this tormented community is prepared to stand up and prevent history from repeating itself.

That is the fervent desire of the women who testified so movingly from New Zealand. They want Pitcairners to heal and come together, for the island to be made a safe place for children. If that happens, the trials - far from threatening Pitcairn's survival - could give it the breath of new life it so sorely needs.

Herald Feature: Pitcairn Islands

Related information and links