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History of Government and Laws, Part 4

“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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Promulgation of the 1838 Constitution and Code of Laws

The community had learned another lesson, the hard way, and the most lasting effect of Hill’s activities on the Island followed later in the same year with the establishment of Pitcairn’s first Constitution by Captain Elliot of H.M.S. “Fly.” Arriving at the Island on the 29th of October, 1838, Elliot was promptly requested by the Islanders to make provisions for the regulation of their affairs and the appointment of a head or chief. This request stemmed not only from a desire to prevent the possibility of another self-appointed dictator usurping control of their community but also from a desire by the Islanders for protection from the depredations of American whaling crews who were visiting the Island in rapidly increasing numbers. Captain Elliott draw up a simple Constitution and Code of laws which he promulgated on the following day, namely, the 30th of November 1838(21).

The Constitution provided for the annual election of a magistrate, who was required by its terms to be a native born islander, as the chief authority for the Island assisted by a Council of two “other natives,” one of whom was to be elected and the other appointed by the magistrate. The elections were required to be held in the school house on the 1st of January, in each year, the successful candidates being determined by a simple majority vote of all native born Islanders, both male or female, who had attained the age of eighteen years and of all other persons who had resided on the Island for five years or more. The duties of the magistrate are spelled out briefly in the Constitution as being–

(a) “to settle all differences, with the advice of his Council . . .; but his decision to be final,”

from which I can only assume, it was intended that the magistrate should have power to overrule the decision of the Council if he saw fit to do so:

(b) to keep a register of all complaints made to him and of his decisions on all such complaints;

(c) in case of any serious crime being committed “to secure the custody of the offender until he has the opportunity of delivering him over to justice,” by which term was clearly meant the captain of the next visiting British warship; and

(d) to “submit his account of what has occurred with the captain of any British ship of war arriving; and hold him responsible for the faithful and just fulfillment of the duties of his office.”

The Constitution also required all of the magistrate’s countrymen and “the residents on the Island to respect his situation, and obey his authority, under pain of serious consequences, until he is superseded by the authority of Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain.” In conclusion, it sets out the form of oath to be taken by the magistrate on assuming that office.

By that brief document the people of Pitcairn Island, with the ready assistance of Captain Elliott, formally acknowledged their status as a British possession and, as a natural consequence, placed themselves under the protection of the British Crown. Although brief, and more picturesque than legalistic in terminology, that Constitution and the ten laws which accompanied it were extremely comprehensive in effect. They required little amendment in the succeeding years although effectually regulating the Pitcairn community for a considerable period of time. The ten laws enacted with the Constitution, although bearing such simple titles as “Laws for Dogs,” “Laws for Cats” and “Laws for Hogs,” covered a multitude of subjects. The first of these laws entitled “Laws and Regulations of Pitcairn Island” made provision—

(a) for the procedure to be followed in the hearing of complaints, requiring such hearings to be in public, for both sides to be heard and for the submission of the questions raised to a jury;

(b) requiring the magistrate to ensure that all fines were levied and all public works executed;

(c) requiring all persons to treat the magistrate with respect;

(c) prohibiting the magistrate from assuming “any power or authority on his own responsibility, or without consent of the authority of the people.”, by which, and from the terms of the next following provision, appears to have been intended that no amendment to the laws should be made except on a majority vote of all the people;

(d) requiring the magistrate to keep a public journal and for that journal to be from time to time read “so that no one will plead ignorance of the law for any crime he may commit.”; and

(e) to submit that journal for the inspection of the captains of British warships calling at the Islands.

In fact the requirement that all amendments to the law be consented to by the majority of the people was not at first observed. The old practice of convening only the “Heads of families” for that purpose was retained for some years, but within a decade that practice was abandoned in favour of that envisaged by the 1838 Constitution, namely the convening of a General Assembly and of acting on the majority vote of the persons attending such assembly(22). Although referred to in the Constitution and in majority of the laws as simply “the magistrate” the title given to the holder of this office was always that referred to in law 5, namely “Chief Magistrate,” a title which except for a brief period from 1893-1904, was to continue on the Island until 1964, when it was changed to that of “Island Magistrate”(23)

The remaining nine laws dealt with a variety of subjects including the control of dogs and prohibiting the killing of cats, the penalty for the latter offence being a fine of fifty dollars in the case of an adult offender, twenty-five dollars in the case of a juvenile offender between the ages of ten and fifteen years and corporal punishment in the case of an offender under the age of ten years. The laws also covered such matters as providing a simple method of compensation for damage done by straying pigs, regulating the cultivation of lands and the cutting of timber, prohibiting the killing of a small indigenous bird known as the “white bird,” the appointment of four church wardens, the annual maintenance and inspection of land marks, prohibiting the importation, sale or consumption, except for medicinal purposes, of alcoholic liquor; prohibiting women from boarding any foreign vessel without the permission of the magistrate and regulating the use of the public anvil and sledge hammer.

Law 5 entitled “Laws regarding the School” is of particular interest. This made provision for the compulsory school attendance of all children between the ages of six and sixteen years; appointed Nobbs as the Headmaster of the school; and made provision for the appointment by the magistrate of an assistant master. School hours were fixed as from 7 in the morning until noon all days except Saturdays and Sundays. This law also required payment by all parents of 1 shilling, or its equivalent in produce or labour, per month for each child, whether attending the school or not(24).

With the promulgation of that Constitution and of those laws the Pitcairn Island community not only established two firsts in British legislative history, namely the introduction of female suffrage for the first time in any British Constitution and the introduction of compulsory education of children for the first time in any British territory, but also opened a new era for the Island(25). During the ensuing seventeen years the Island community enjoyed a period of tranquility and prosperity unequalled in its history. The formal acquisition of the status of a British possession, and the consequent protection afforded thereby was well as the establishment of a regular, if simple, system of government and laws, enabled the community to regain its former stability and reputation both of which had suffered so badly in the yeas following their return from Tahiti.

They also regained not only their own self-respect but also the respect of the masters and crews of visiting vessels. Coinciding with a rapid increase in the activities of American whaling vessels in the Pacific resulting in increased numbers of such vessels calling at the Island in search of fresh fruits, vegetables and water, the settlement of their internal problems enabled the Islanders, with the guidance of Nobbs and under the parental eye of the Royal Navy, to take advantage of that situation with a resultant substantial improvement in their material prosperity.

In a short time the Island converted from a subsistence to a market economy. In addition to their rapidly developing and thriving trade in fresh fruits and vegetables, in which they gained a high reputation for fair dealing and reliability, the Islanders also established a curio trade which today is the mainstay of the economy. Under the tutorship of John Buffett who had some training as a cabinet maker the men established a name for themselves as wood workers, and their products, together with hats and baskets made by the women by traditional methods from the leaves of the Pandanus Palm, found a ready sale amongst the passengers and crews of visiting vessels.

The influence of the three expatriates, Nobbs, Buffett and Evans during this period was considerable and contributed substantially to the prosperity and tranquillity enjoyed by the Pitcairn Island community. Precluded by the terms of the Constitution from taking any active part in the government of the Island, these three directed their activities towards their natural vocations. Nobbs, who, in addition to receiving formal recognition as headmaster of the school was, in 1852, ordained as a priest of the Church of England and formally appointed to the office of Chaplain of Pitcairn Island, and became the effectual although not the nominal leader of the community upon whom not only the Islanders but also the captains of visiting warships relied for advice and guidance in relation to the affairs of the Island. Evans devoted himself to agricultural pursuits becoming the guiding hand for others in the establishment of the Island’s considerable fruit and vegetable production, and, as previously stated, Buffett was responsible for the inception and development of the thriving curio trade.

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(21) See Brodie, pp. 84-91 for details of the Constitution and laws and Maude I, pp. 72-3 for a short commentary on them.

(22) Maude I, p. 73.

(23) The Local Government Ordinance, Chapt. 5 of the Revised Edition.

(24) The equivalents in produce or labour for the amounts to be paid for school fees are spelled out in that law, the relevant portion of which reads as follows:

“Equivalent for Mondy–





s. d. 

One Barrel of Yams valued at





8 0 

One Barrel of Potatoes valued at





8 0 

One Barrel of Irish Potatoes valued at




12 0 

Three Good Bunches of Plantains valued at



4 0 

One Day’s Labour valued at





2 0"

(25) See Brodie and Young for contemporary accounts of life on the Island during this period, also Maude I, at pp. 73-77; and Murray, for an overall account of the Pitcairn scene during this period.

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