Two hundred and twenty-one years ago yesterday, the English sailors who rebelled against Captain William Bligh set fire to HMS Bounty off Pitcairn Island - an act still commemorated in the formidably isolated British territory, where their descendants torch a cardboard replica every January 23.

In recent years, with Pitcairn struggling to shake off the reputation it acquired after the 2004 paedophilia cases, Bounty Day celebrations on the tiny South Pacific island - where the mutineers and their Polynesian companions fled after the 1789 uprising - have been rather sombre.

But as locals prepare for the visit today of an American cruise ship, the Amsterdam, there is a mood of cautious optimism. For the first time, perhaps, since the child sex abuse trials - which generated lurid headlines around the world - the islanders are starting to feel they may have a future. Much has changed since those trials and subsequent court cases in New Zealand, which led to nine men being convicted of raping and assaulting girls as young as 7.

Infrastructure and communications, long neglected by the British, have been radically upgraded, and Pitcairn has a new constitution. There has even been a modest population increase, to 54 permanent residents.

However, it is not clear to what degree mindsets have changed in a community where child abuse was not only rife for decades - police believe that almost every girl who grew up there was a victim - but also known about and tolerated. Only last November, Pitcairn Mayor Michael Warren, 46, was charged with multiple counts of possessing child pornography. That bombshell, and his re-election as mayor weeks later, dismayed those seeking to rebrand the island as an eco-tourism destination.

"There's a lot of disappointment, particularly about how it looks," says one local. "We're worried about how the world is viewing people here, and what people will think about our attitudes towards children."

A surf-lashed speck of land accessible only by boat, Pitcairn is also having to weather tough economic times. The number of passing cruise ships, which provide a market for locally made wooden carvings and other souvenirs, has dropped substantially.

The New Zealand-based Governor of Pitcairn, Vicki Treadell, has warned that the island must reduce its dependence on budgetary aid - now £2 million ($4.2 million) a year, the biggest per capita expenditure on any British overseas territory.

Despite all this, islanders such as Jacqui Christian, who has identified herself as one of the complainants in the trials, are resolutely positive. Although initially ostracised by the community, she says: "I think people are realising we've got to work together if we want to create any sort of future."

After the trials, which culminated in six men receiving jail terms, Britain and the European Union pumped millions into the island. The Hill of Difficulty, a rutted track leading from Bounty Bay to the one village, Adamstown, was paved, and landing facilities were upgraded. The island acquired telephones, television and high-speed internet. Its first regular boat service was established last year.

Several small businesses have sprung up, including Christian's Cafe, run by Steve Christian, a former mayor and direct descendant of the mutineers' ringleader, Fletcher Christian. His son, Randy, has set up Handy Randy's, doing domestic repairs.

It will take longer - much longer - for Pitcairn to put its ignominious past behind it. Visitors are still banned from taking children to the island, although it now has a resident police officer, social worker and British diplomat. Ms Treadell believes child safety remains a key issue.

According to one outsider, after Warren - an elder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church - was charged "there was a degree of confusion, people were not quite sure what child porn was".

Britain regards tourism as the key to Pitcairn's prosperity, and to luring its young people home. Without a larger population, say officials, the place is simply not sustainable.

Ms Christian agrees. "In 10 years, the majority of our workforce will be retired. If we don't change our demographics, we have no future."

- INDEPENDENT