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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 Pitcairn’s 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 plateau–having 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 Brown’s 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 Brown’s 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 Cartaret’s estimate of the Island’s 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 Folger’s 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 Folger’s 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 Folger’s previous report(6).

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 families there.

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 months–for the second offence, if the parties refuse to marry, the penalties are–forfeiture 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 preceding year.

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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 Barrow’s comments on pp. 330-333.

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