Pitcairn Island, home to the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty, has no airport, no doctor, no supermarket and just 47 inhabitants. But the new century has caught up with it in the shape of sex abuse trials that some residents fear will spell the end of their 214-year-old community.

Seven of the men on this mid-Pacific speck of British Empire could end up in prison if convicted on charges -- some dating back 40 years -- of sexual misconduct, including with underage girls.

Two days' sail from Tahiti, the nearest inhabited island, and 9,250 miles from London, the Pitcairn people lived a secluded life until 1999, when an island woman complained of sexual abuse to a visiting British policewoman.

The investigation that followed has divided the island and shone an unwanted spotlight on it. New laws were imposed, including a child protection act, and government-appointed police and social workers traveled to the one-mile by two-mile island. The trials, before judges but no juries, began Thursday.

Some islanders say they smell a British plot to drive them from Pitcairn. They say imprisoning seven of their able-bodied men would be disastrous because the men are needed to crew the longboats that bring supplies to land from passing ships.

"The Poms intend to cripple the island," one islander said in an e-mail interview, using the Australian slang term for an English person. Like all others contacted, the writer asked not to be identified, reflecting islanders' fear that the British are monitoring their e-mail.

Pitcairn's deputy governor, Matthew Forbes, scoffs at the allegations, saying Britain is pouring millions of dollars into the island.

"If Britain intended all of this to close the island down, we wouldn't be allocating large sums of development money . . . to improve the infrastructure," he said in an interview in the New Zealand capital, Wellington.

The British have beaten back various court appeals against the cases. They are building a special prison on the island and have shipped in judges and attorneys for an expected six weeks of hearings. As a precaution, they have even ordered islanders to hand in the guns they use to hunt food.

Authorities originally wanted to try the suspects in New Zealand, 3,300 miles to the west, but the men won the right to be tried on the island.

Six former Pitcairn men, two of whom now live in Australia and four in New Zealand, are also to be charged with similar sex crimes. No date or venue has been set for their trials.

None of the suspects or alleged victims has been publicly identified, and scant details of the purported offenses have emerged. But Forbes said, "These are very serious offenses . . . in some cases against very young children."

Some Pitcairn people maintain that sex before age 16 is commonplace elsewhere and say their community is being unfairly singled out. At least two Pitcairn women have claimed they were threatened by police if they did not provide information. They said they were also told they would lose their right to compensation.

British authorities say the women's claims will be dealt with under the police complaints process.

The trial will be Pitcairn's first since Harry Albert Christian, a descendant of the Bounty mutiny leader Fletcher Christian, was tried and hanged in Fiji in 1897 for killing his wife and child on the island, according to Herbert Ford, the director of the Pitcairn Island Study Center near San Francisco.

Pitcairn, lying midway between Peru and New Zealand, has long fascinated the world as the refuge of the men who mutinied aboard the Bounty and cast Capt. William Bligh adrift with his supporters in 1789.

But geography prevents it from capitalizing on the past. It has no port and therefore very little tourism. It has quad bikes and Internet service through an expensive satellite hookup, but its income is derived mainly from selling postage stamps to collectors and handicrafts to tourists on cruise ships that anchor at sea and wait for Pitcairners to come out to them in their longboats.

The island needs a more diversified "microeconomy," said Forbes, the deputy governor. The islanders are "joining the 21st century, and when people talk of globalization, Pitcairn is not immune from it," he added.

He doesn't think the trial will ultimately bring much change to Pitcairn life.

The population may be tiny, but the gene pool is kept healthy by marriages to Pitcairn emigres living in New Zealand or Norfolk Island, off the Australian coast, as well as outsiders. A child was born on the island this year.

Meanwhile, the seven accused are free on bail and living among their fellow islanders, still manning the longboats.

Dea Birkett, a British journalist whose 1997 book "Serpent in Paradise" described her sojourn of several months on the island, has written: "Starved of real choices, Pitcairners develop relationships considered unacceptable elsewhere. Sisters share a husband. Teenage girls have affairs with older men. Women have children by more than one partner, often starting as young as 15.

"But faced with such limited choices ourselves," she wrote, "would we act so very differently?"

For 214 years, descendants of the Bounty mutineers have lived in seclusion on their mid-Pacific island. Residents say they fear publicity will change that.