History of Government and Laws, Part 1
The Development of the System of Government and Laws
of Pitcairn Island From 1791 to 1971"
Printed in and taken from Laws of Pitcairn, Henderson,
Ducie and Oeno Islands, Rev. Ed., 1971
By Donald McLoughlin, B.A., LL.B.
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Situated at latitude 23 degrees 04 minutes South and longitude
130 degrees 06 minutes West, Pitcairn is the only inhabited island
in a group of four islands known as the Pitcairn Group, comprising
Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands. These Islands are themselves
widely scattered, Henderson being 105 miles to the east north-east
of Pitcairn, Oeno 75 miles to the north-west and Ducie 293 miles
to the east, and Pitcairns nearest inhabited neighbour is
Mangareva some 300 miles away to the north-west. The Island being
situated close to one of the main shipping routes between New Zealand
and Panama, the only normal means of access to it is by ships using
that route, involving a journey of some 3,300 miles from Auckland,
New Zealand or 4,200 miles from Panama.
Pitcairn itself is a very small but comparatively high and rugged
island, being a little over two miles long and not more than a mile
wide at its widest point and comprising an area of only 1,120 acres.
Of irregular shape, the Island has on most sides cliffs rising virtually
sheer from the water to a height of approximately 200 feet and on
the western side the land slopes steeply from the sea to a peak
having a height of 1,140 feet. That peak is joined by a saddle-type
plateauhaving a height of 800 feet to another peak of 900
feet on the Eastern side of the Island.
Whilst the Island is in consequence somewhat spectacular in appearance
there is little readily accessible arable land. Of the total area
of 1,120 acres some 27 percent of this is taken up by cliff land
and 34 percent by steeply sloping land leaving only 39 percent of
the area as flat, or comparatively flat, land. Being of volcanic
origin the Island is, however, fertile and most tropical and semi-tropical
fruits grow readily as do a wide variety of root and green vegetables.
As regards fruits, bananas, pineapples, paw paws, lemons, limes,
oranges, mandarines, grape fruit and passion fruit are to be found
throughout the Island as also are coconuts and bread fruit. The
staple subsistence root crops, sweet potatoes, yams, arrow-root
and taro grow freely without much cultivation and other vegetables
such as pumpkins, melons of all varieties, beans, tomatoes, sweet
corn, carrots and cabbages grow readily with cultivation(2).
Although there are a number of ravine like small valleys particularly
to the south and west of the Island there is only one permanent
fresh water spring namely Browns water. This is not, however,
relied upon for domestic supplies as all families on the Island
have their own rain water catchments for such supply and Browns
water is used largely as an emergency supply.
Discovery and Settlement.
Although previously inhabited by a people believed to have been
the ancestors of the present Polynesian race(3)
Pitcairn had been uninhabited for many years prior to its discovery
by Captain Philip Cartaret of H.M.S. Swallow on the
2nd of July, 1767. Unfortunately Cartarets estimate of the
Islands position at latitude 20 degrees 02 minutes south and
longitude 133 degrees 21 minutes West was incorrect with the result
that it was not further reported for some years. In fact the next
report as to its existence was that made by Captain Mayhew Folger
of the American Sealing Ship Topaz who visited the Island
on the 6th of February, 1808(4)
and discovered the community, which had been founded there on the
15th of January, 1790, by nine of the mutineers form the Bounty
together with nineteen Polynesians comprising twelve women and a
girl and six men.
By the time Folgers discovery of the community eighteen
years later, all of the original male population has either been
killed or died with the exception of one mutineer, namely, Alexander
Smith who subsequently adopted the name, and is known to posterity
as John Adams(5). The community
then consisted of the one Englishman, Adams, ten Polynesian women
and twenty-four children of mixed European and Polynesian blood.
After nearly 10 years of bloodshed and strife the little community
had by 1800 settled down under the benevolent leadership of a reformed
John Adams into what has been often described as a model community
regulated virtually by the Church of England Book of Common Prayer,
a state of affairs which was to continue for a further 21 years.
Recognition and The Beginning of a System of Government
Although Folgers discovery of the community was reported
to the British Admiralty and brief references to it appeared in
the press of that time, the fact of its existence appears to have
been forgotten again until the Island and its community were re-discovered
on the 17th of September, 1814, by two British warships, namely,
H.M.S. Briton under the command of Sir John Staines,
Bart., and H.M.S. Tagus under the command of Captain
Pipon, neither of whom had any knowledge of Folgers previous
As a result of this re-discovery of the Island community a considerable
amount of publicity was given to them particularly with regard to
their piety, simplicity and model behaviour. Thereafter, commencing
in 1819, visits by vessels to the Island became increasingly frequent
with the result that, compared to a total of three visits by four
ships which took place in the period from 1790 to 1817, in the next
twelve years no less than thirty vessels visited the Island. The
first of these was the East India Merchantman Hercules,
under the command of Captain Henderson, which arrived in 1819 bringing
a considerable array of gifts purchased from a subscription of 3,500
rupees raised by the Calcutta Journal. These gifts included a 22
ft. cutter, carpentry and agricultural tools, ironmongery, cooking
utensils, cutlery, crockery, cloth, guns, fishing gear, mirrors,
writing materials and a large British ensign. In addition individual
well wishers provided plants, cuttings, seeds and over 1500 books,
mostly of a religious nature(7).
This was only the first of the many supplies of generous gifts made
by well wishers to the Islanders in the succeeding years.
Pitcairn was now well and truly on the map and in addition to
ships of war other vessels called resulting in the establishment
of a substantial bartering trade by which stores were exchanged
for locally grown produce. The Pitcairn Island community soon became
the particular charge of the Royal Navy and warships particularly
from the Valparaiso Station, visited the Island with some frequency,
their commanding officers keeping a benevolent eye on its people.
In these circumstances the little community increased and prospered
and by the time of death of John Adams in 1829 the population had
risen to approximately seventy-five persons including three new
arrivals namely two Englishmen, John Buffett and George Hunn Nobbs,
and a Welshman, John Evans, all of whom married Islanders and founded
Although nine mutineers from the Bounty had originally landed
on the Island only six of them left any issue namely Christian,
Young, Adams, Mills, McCoy and Quintal. Thus the arrival of these
three newcomers with their varying degrees of education and skills,
into the existing small community, had a considerable impact on
it and its subsequent development.
Up to this time John Adams had been the sole mentor and virtual
father of the community. A benevolent but autocratic patriarch he
was not only the undisputed ruler of the community But also its
pastor and schoolmaster. Not long after the arrival of Buffett and
Evans on the English Whaler Cyrus in 1823, Buffett took
over from Adams the conduct of the church services as well as performing
the functions of school teacher. He also commenced the first record
of local events in a register known as the Pitcairn Island
Register in which local events were regularly recorded with
the exception of the year, 1834, until the removal of the community
to Norfolk Island in 1856(8).
With the arrival of Nobbs in 1828 some rivalry developed between
himself and Buffett for the role of mentor of the community but
Nobbs, being the better educated as well as the stronger character
of the two soon ousted Buffett from his position as pastor and schoolmaster.
Until the time of his death, however, John Adams retained the sole
leadership of the community. Shortly before his death he had urged
upon the heads of all families on the Island the necessity of appointing
a chief to succeed him but nothing was done with the result that
on his death the little community was left leaderless(9).
Within a year of Adams death, Nobbs had succeeded in establishing
himself as the most powerful personality on the Island and was maintained
with food by the community in return for his services as pastor
and schoolmaster, but could not be termed its leader as he did not
enjoy any of the autocratic powers wielded by John Adams during
his lifetime nor did he command the absolute confidence of the people.
It is, however, significant that the first step towards the development
of a code of laws, by the drawing up of a set of simple written
laws, was taken on his advice. These first laws were designed to
take the place of the personal decisions of John Adams by which
the little community had been governed until the time of his death.
They were essentially simple ones making provisions for four offences
only, namely, murder, theft, adultery and removing a land mark.
The penalties for the first three of these offences were, death
for murder, threefold restitution for theft and for adultery, by
which fornication was, by virtue of the penalty, apparently meant,
for the first offence, whipping to both parties, and marriage
within three monthsfor the second offence, if the parties
refuse to marry, the penalties areforfeiture of lands and
property, and banishment from the Island.. Unfortunately I
have been unable to ascertain what provision was made by way of
a penalty for the fourth offence, namely, removing a land mark.
Provision was made in these laws for the trial of offenders before
a bench of three Elders who pronounced the sentence(10).
Thus was established the first written laws for Pitcairn Island.
I am not aware of the exact date upon which these laws were made
but in view of the fact that their existence was first reported
by Captain Waldegrave of H.M.S. Seringaptam on the occasion
of the visit to Pitcairn Island by that vessel on the 15th of March,
1830, they would appear to have been made at some time within the
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(2) See Cowell for a more detailed account.
(3) Maude I, pp. 45-6. There is also the possibility
that Pitcairn was in fact first discovered by Pedro Fernandez de
Quirus in January 1606, and to be the island named by him to San
Juan Bartista. See . 68 post.
(4) Delano, pp. 138-44; Maude I, p. 61.
(5) See Delano p. 143, for his account of the reasons
that prompted Smith to assume the name of John Adams.
(6) See Shillibeer pp. 81-97 for a detailed description
of this visit. See also Maude I, pp. 61-2 and Young pp. 32-42
(7) Maude I, p. 63.
(8) See Brodie, pp. 107-153 for detailed entries
in the Pitcairn Island Register covering the period from 1790-1850.
The entries are brief except for the last ten years in respect of
which they are much expanded. See also Maude I, p. 65.
(9) Waldegrave, p. 161. See also Moresby, pp. 27-8.
For an account of the role played by Nobbs and of his background.
(10) Waldegrave, pp. 160-1. See also Barrows
comments on pp. 330-333.
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