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History of Government and Laws, Part 5

“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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Removal to Norfolk Island

Whilst enjoying a standard of living comparable at least to that of most other Colonial settlers elsewhere, the population was also steadily increasing. Rising to 156 in 1850, it reached a total of 187 by 1855. In view of the smallness of the Island and the shortage of arable land on it, fears began to be expressed as to the Islanders’ capability of maintaining their new found standard of living indefinitely and consideration was again given to the possibility of their removal to a larger island capable of providing sufficient land for all and of enabling the maintenance of their then living standards. Nobbs becaming anxious on this score had written in 1847 to General Williams, British Consul-General for the Pacific Islands in Hawaii seeking his assistance in finding a new home for the Pitcairn community(26). As a result of inquiries made by General Williams, offers of land were received from both the King of Hawaii and the Queen of Huahine. Both of these offers were, however, rejected by the Pitcairn Islanders who with the memory of the Tahitian interlude still strong amongst them insisted that if they were to be moved it must be to an uninhabited island.

At this time considerable feeling was aroused in England and Australia concerning the continuation of the convict settlement on Norfolk Island off the coast of Australia. With the possibility of that settlement being abandoned leaving that island uninhabited, consideration began to be given to it as a possible new home for the Pitcairn Island Community. Having as a result of inquiries made by Sir William Denison, Governor of New South Wales, satisfied themselves as to the suitability of Norfolk Island for that purpose and a decision being made to close the convict settlement there, the English authorities proceeded to make inquiries of the Pitcairn Island community as to whether Norfolk Island was acceptable to them, as their future home. An opportunity for this occurred in May 1853, when Admiral Moresby, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Station of the Royal Navy, visited Pitcairn Island.

Although of the opinion that Pitcairn Island could, if properly cultivated, support a much larger population, Moresby came to the conclusion that their removal would have to be made at some time in the future if their then standard of living was to be maintained. As a result of Moresby’s discussions with them, and on his advice, the Islanders, through the Chief Magistrate, requested that he solicit the aid of the British Government in transferring them to Norfolk Island, or to some other appropriate place. Being assured both as to the desire of the Pitcairn Island community to removed to Norfolk Island and the suitability of that Island for their occupation, the consent of the British authorities was given to their removal from Pitcairn to Norfolk Island and in 1855 Captain Freemantle was sent by Governor Denison on H.M.S. “Juno” to inform the Pitcairn Islanders of that decision. Upon receipt of this news the Pitcairn Island community was again divided over the question of removal. The majority were in favour of the move but a minority group elected to remain on Pitcairn. However, on the arrival of the transport “Morayshire” at Pitcairn Island in April 1856, for the purpose of transporting the community to Norfolk Island, as in the case of the decision to remove to Tahiti, the community spirit prevailed and when that vessel sailed for Norfolk Island on the 3rd day of May, 1856, the entire community , comprising 194 persons in all, sailed on her(27).

Arriving at Norfolk Island on the 8th of June, 1856, the majority of the Pitcairn Islanders soon settled down, appreciating the material advantages which they had gained from the move, namely the availability of considerably more land, hundreds of acres of which were already under cultivation and well stocked with domestic animals, good stone houses ready for their own occupation, good roads, a climate at least equable as that of Pitcairn Island and ready access to, and communication with, the outside world. A minority, however, were not content with their lot and longed to return to Pitcairn. The principal reasons for this unrest appear to have been nostalgia, coupled with uncertainty as to their future on Norfolk Island, especially as regards the distribution of land there(28). The Pitcairn Islanders appear to have been under the belief that on their arrival the whole of Norfolk Island was to be granted to them and that they would be able to cultivate it on the same community basis as they had Pitcairn Island. In 1857, however, Governor Denison directed that the head of each family should be permitted to select an allotment of not more than 50 acres. The balance of the land on the Island was (presumably) to be retained by the Crown, and held with a view to future distribution as and when required. Although not happy with this direction the Pitcairn Islanders complied with it and the majority appear to have accepted it. Two families, however, did not, and determined to return to Pitcairn Island. They were the families of Moses and Mayhew Young. On the 2nd of December, 1858, together with their wives and families they sailed for Pitcairn Island on the schooner “Mary Anne” reaching there on the 17th of January, 1859. Of this party of sixteen persons, twelve were children and only four were males, and, the wife of Mayhew Young being the former widow of Matthew McCoy, six of the children were in fact McCoys. Despite the smallness of the party and the predominance of children in it, they soon settled down on the Island and set to work repairing the ravages which had resulted from nearly three years of abandonment and neglect.

The Beginnings of Modern Pitcairn

The new life on Pitcairn was considerably different from that which the Islanders had enjoyed prior to their departure for Norfolk, but as there was plenty of land for all they soon settled down to a not uncomfortable existence. As a result of publicity given to a visit to the Island by H.M.S. “Charybdis” in October, 1862, a further four of the families on Norfolk Island decided to return to Pitcairn Island also. This group of twenty-seven persons contained Simon Young, his wife and eight children and his mother Hannah; Thursday October Christian, his wife and nine children together with his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Young, who was also the mother of Mayhew Young of the first party: Robert Buffett and his wife and a young American sailor named Samuel Warren and his wife who was a daughter of Thursday October Christian(29). This party sailed from Norfolk Island by the schooner “St. Kilda” on the 15th of December, 1863, and arrived at Pitcairn Island on the 2nd of February, 1864. With their arrival the population of Pitcairn was increased to a total of forty-three persons, just under a quarter of the number that had sailed for Norfolk Island in 1856. They were the founders of modern Pitcairn and, apart from a handful of further strangers who have since settled on the Island constituted the forebears of the existing Pitcairn population. Of these the lineages of Buffet and McCoy were to die out leaving only those of Young, Christian and Warren on the Island today.

The fact that the Island was abandoned for almost three years coupled with the decline of the American whaling industry had the result that very few ships then called at the Island and the old thriving fruit and vegetable trade which, whilst revived, never really recovered. In place of the former market economy the new Pitcairn Island community was reduced to the subsistence economy which had prevailed in the pre 1840's. As regards the system of government and laws this was allowed to lapse until after the return of the second party in 1864, when the 1838 Constitution and laws were revived and Thursday October Christian was elected as the first Chief Magistrate with Moses and Mayhew Young as the two councillors(30). The only substantial change from the system in force in 1856 was a revision to the former practice of convening meetings of heads of families only instead of general assemblies. In the absence of any strong leader and with the reversion to a subsistence economy the Island community settled down to a period of virtual stagnation from which it was to take them many years to emerge. The vessels now calling at the Island were mostly occasional steamers carrying passengers between California and Panama with the result that there was little demand for fresh provisions but there was some demand for Pitcairn Island curios, from the sale of which the Islanders gained a small but intermittent income(31).

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Footnotes:

(26) Maude I, p. 77-8.

(27) See Maude I, pp. 77-9 and Young, 118-136 for more detailed accounts.

(28) Young, pp. 137-8 and Maude I, p. 80 and Maude, Aleric, pp. 106-7. See also Murray, pp. 352-3 on this aspect and Governor Denison’s reasons for his actions.

(29) See Young, pp. 156-172 for a detailed account of the return by the second party; also Maude I, pp. 80-81.

(30) Maude 2, p. 84.

(31) Maude I, p. 82.

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