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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 Island’s 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 Hill’s 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 children’s, 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. Whatever the

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:--

“Pitcairn’s 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.

“Pitcairn’s Island, 5th August, 1833.

(Signed) J. HILL

“To John Buffett, Pitcairn’s 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 Quintal’s 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 before them.

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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