History of Government and Laws, Part 3
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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Joshua Hill and the Pitcairn Commonwealth
The influence of Nobbs and Bennett was at a low ebb and the Island
without any effective leadership when in October, 1832, there arrived
from Tahiti in the schooner Maria a personality who
in turn was to have a considerable impact on the island community(16).
This was one Joshua Hill an interfering and slightly insane old
busy body who had taken a gratuitous interest in the community and
on his arrival took upon himself the task of correcting and organizing
it to his own satisfaction. Posing as a person of authority sent
from England for that purpose he took upon himself the role, if
not also the title, of Governor of the Island. With the apparent
authority he soon succeeded in supplanting Nobbs as both pastor
and school teacher. Having consolidated himself in those capacities
he next directed his attention to the affairs of government of the
Island. His first step in that direction was to convert the existing
bench of three Elders, established in 1829, into an organization
which can only be described as unusual for such a small community
which then numbered seventy-nine persons.
He constituted Pitcairn a Commonwealth ruled by himself
as Governor, or President, assisted by a Chief Elder, three Elders,
three Sub-Elders, and four Cadets, all dominated, if not actually
appointed by him. Hill then ruled the community through a Privy
Council consisting of himself, the Chief Elder, the three Elders
and the three Sub-Elders. Through the medium of this body Hill,
as virtual dictator, proceeded to draw up and pass laws of an arbitrary
nature and to his own pleasing. Imprisonment was introduced as a
punishment and the Islands first prison was built to house
the intended prisoners. In his favour it must be said that he succeeded
in establishing a temperance society on the Island and is said to
have put an end to the distillation of Liquor. As against that he
intimidated and ruled the Islanders with the zeal of a fanatic.
The persons against whom Hills activities were primarily
directed were the three other expatriates, Nobbs, Evans and Buffett,
whom he is alleged to have described as louse foreigners.
He lost no opportunity to belittle and malign them before the other
members of the community and did his best to drive them from the
Island. An Act was passed by Hill in his Privy Council depriving
their children of any right to the lands or other property of their,
the childrens, mothers. He also had the firearms of Nobbs,
Buffett and Evans taken from them and deposited in his own bedroom
and was alleged to have kept a loaded musket under his seat in the
church for the purpose of intimidating any possible opposition.
The crowning indignity was the public flogging of both Buffett
and Evans by Hill for offences, the exact nature of which is not
clear, against the new laws. According to Buffett, his offence was
that of making known a plan by Hill for the removal of Buffett and
his wife and family from the Island. A contemporary writer, however,
stated that the offence for which Buffett was tried was one which,
he had committed some five years earlier(17).
By his own account, Evans offence was that of requesting from
Hill a copy of a new law enacted in July, 1833, creating the offence
of High Treason. Most probably the offences for which
Hill purported to deal with both of them were against that law.
offences, Hill proceeded to try them without any of the usual formalities
of a charge or the taking of evidence from witnesses. Upon convicting
them Hill then proceeded to administer the punishment himself by
publicly flogging them. Evans received one dozen lashes with a cat-o-nine-tails
of somewhat drastic proportions. As regards Buffett it would appear
that he received twenty-four lashes from the same instrument. The
only authoritative statement on this affair is a record of the sentence
imposed upon the latter which Hill wrote out and delivered to Buffett.
A true copy of that document was made to Dr. Bennett on the occasion
of his visit to the Island in 1834. Together with letters written
by Hill from Pitcairn Island, it gives a clear indication of the
man himself. It reads as follows:--
Pitcairns Island, 5th August, 1833.
It only remains with us to deliver the sentence of the
law, which is:And this court doth accordingly adjudge, that
you receive forthwith three dozen lashes with a cat, upon the
bare back and breech, together with a fine of three barrels of
yams or potatoes, to be paid within one month, or, in default
thereof, an extra barrel will be required for this re-iterated
contempt of court.
(Signed, &c., by the whole court.)
Moreover, John Buffett, the sentence of the court, is
that whether with or without your family, you are to leave this
island by the first vessel that may present herself thus; for
if you do not, punishment and imprisonment will be the consequence.
(Signed by the whole court.)
N.B. And, moreover, it is resolved by the court that in
case you, John Buffett, should persume to deviate from the re-iterated
promise which you made to the said court, on the 5th instant,
touching your future rule of action (i.e. good conduct and the
assurances which you then made, duly to respect the public functionaries
of this island), whilst thus you may remain upon it, that the
residuum of your said punishment (twenty-four from thirty-six)
shall be duly inflicted.
But, on the contrary, it may be observed, in limine, that
the executive, wishing always peace and tranquility and good order,
which, with the help of the blessed Lord, it has determined to
maintain and enforce. In the event, therefore, of a manifest reformation
of your rule of action and erroneous actions and principles, the
executive is ever ready and willing to take into due consideration,
so far as circumstances may permit, and may prove compatible with
the general interest and welfare of the commonwealth, touching
the premises, and in relation to the said rule of action which
you may hereafter think just to pursue, and the good behaviour
which circumstances render it expedient that you shall adopt;
otherwise, in due course, the said balance of a dozen or fourteen,
which shall remain due to you, must be settled accordingly.
(Signed, &c., aforesaid by the court.)
I hereby certify that the foregoing are true extracts
and copies from the originals deposited in the archives.
Pitcairns Island, 5th August, 1833.
(Signed) J. HILL
To John Buffett, Pitcairns Island(18).
From that extraordinary document it would appear that Buffett
received roughly twenty-four of the thirty-six lashes imposed, the
balance being held over any possible future infractions by of the
law as interpreted by Hill.
As a result of the treatment meated out to them by Hill, Nobbs,
Buffett and Evans together with their families finally left the
Island in March, 1834, being removed to Tahiti at their own request
by Captain T. Stavers of the London Whaler Tuscan(19).
With the removal of the leaders of the opposition Hill appears
to have turned his attentions toward the remaining Islanders who
soon regretted the departure of their former friends. From his actions
and particularly from letters written by him at that time there
can be little doubt that Hill was distinctly mentally unbalanced.
His influence with the Islanders had begun to wane particularly
after a violent outburst at the Islanders in the course of a church
service, and finally ceased as the result of an altercation which
he had with one of the Islanders named Arthur Quintal. This arose
over Quintal remonstrating with Hill for threatening to execute
Quintals daughter, or at least make her suffer severely, for
the offence of stealing yams. In the course of that altercation
Hill, whose mental unbalance was now apparent, drew his sword on
Quintal and inflicted minor injuries to him before being forcibly
disarmed by other Islanders. So ended the regime of Joshua Hill.
Nobbs, who was then residing as a missionary on nearby Mangareva,
was sent a message, through the captain of a passing schooner, requesting
him to return and resume his functions as school teacher. Both Nobbs
and Evans duly returned in October, 1834 and Buffett returned shortly
Although Hill remained on the Island until 1838, he no longer
exercised any power there and as a result of a public inquiry held
on board H.M.S. Actaeon in 1837 he was removed to Valparaiso
by Captain Bruce of H.M.S. Imogene in 1838(20).
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(16) See Young, pp. 75-85 for a detailed account
and Brodie, pp. 174-216; also Maude I, pp. 70-72.
(17) Young, p. 78. Perhaps the real position was
that whilst Hill in fact punished Buffet for his early misdeed his
pretext for doing so was in relation to the offence stated by Buffett.
(18) Brodie, pp. 188-190.
(19) Brodie, pp. 184-192; and Maude I, P. 71.
(20) Maude I, pp. 71-2; Brodie, pp. 77-8, and
Young, pp. 77-85 for a detailed contemporary account.
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