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The Pitcairn Islands are the only remaining British Overseas Territory in the South Pacific. British authorities had had limited involvement in its affairs, however, until a child sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s led to a major legal investigation on the islands. In 2004 several island men were placed on trial for sex offences and six – amounting to around a third of the adult male population – were given prison sentences. The crimes, some stretching back decades, are believed to have been part of a long history of abuse on the islands.

A critical issue will be the maintenance of the Marine Protected Area, as designated by the United Kingdom government in 2016. A small area has been set aside for the subsistence fishing by the Pitcairn community; otherwise, all industrial fishing has been prohibited. At stake is one of the most pristine ocean environments on the planet.

Pitcairn’s population has long been in decline, with many islanders having emigrated during the twentieth century to New Zealand. There have been recent efforts to attract new settlers with land, though so far there has been limited uptake.

Updated October 2020

Environment

The Pitcairn Islands include Pitcairn, Henderson, Dulcie and Oeno islands. Pitcairn, the only inhabited island, is a small, isolated high island in eastern Polynesia.  

Despite the islands’ small size, they form the nucleus of one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world. The area around the Pitcairn Islands represents a vital ocean ecosystem, which led the United Kingdom government to declare it a Marine Protected Area comprising over 830,000 square kilometres in 2016.

History

The Pitcairn Islands were originally colonized by Polynesians in the 11th century, though after a few hundred years the community disappeared. The main island, Pitcairn, was subsequently reoccupied in 1790 by mutineers from the British naval vessel HMS Bounty and the Tahitian women whom they had brought with them. The remaining population are largely descended from this group.

There was substantial emigration to New Zealand during the latter half of the twentieth century, and Pitcairn now has perhaps the smallest population of any recognized political entity.

Main language: English (Pitcairnese dialect) 

Main religions: Christianity (Seventh Day Adventism) 

Pitcairn Islanders are mainly the descendants of the mutineers of HMS Bounty and the Tahitian women they took to Pitcairn in 1790. With a total population of less than 50 people, there are no minority groups on the island.

Pitcairn is a British dependency administered by a Governor who is the British High Commissioner resident in Wellington, New Zealand. There is an Island Council. The economy is largely dependent on British aid supplemented by some sales of handicrafts and stamps.

Minority based and advocacy organisations

Pitcairn Islands Study CentreWebsite

Sources and further reading

Connell, John, ‘The End Ever Nigh: Contemporary Population Change in Pitcairn Island’, GeoJournal, 16 (2), 1988, 193-200

United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization Working Paper 2006: http://www.un.org/depts/dpi/decolonization/docs_working%20papers_2006.htm

Weingartner, G., The Pacific: Nuclear Testing and Minorities, London, MRG report, 1991.