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History of Government and Laws, Part 6

“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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Shipwrecks and Their Aftermath

Commencing in 1875 there followed a series of shipwrecks, namely the wreck of the “Cornwallis” on Pitcairn Island and the “Khandeish” on Oeno Island, both in 1875, followed by the wreck of the “Acadia” on Ducie Island in 1881, and of the “Oregon” on Oeno Island in 1883. Although these shipwrecks brought no immediate gain to the Islanders their generosity in affording hospitality to and feeding and clothing the shipwrecked crews from those vessels, brought the Pitcairn community a considerable amount of publicity with the result that the interest of the outside world was once more aroused in the Island and gifts from outside began to pour in. In addition to the many gifts sent by private persons, as a result of a visit to the Island by the Rear-Admiral de Horsey on H.M.S. “Shah” in 1878, the interest of the Royal Navy in the Island community was revived and thereafter British warships began annual calls at the Island bringing substantial gifts on the occasion of each such call(32). These included an organ purchased with a donation of 20 pounds by Queen Victoria and was brought to the Island by H.M.S. “Opal” in July, 1859 as well as two much needed whale boats brought by H.M.S. “Osprey” in March, 1880. The latter was of considerable and lasting importance to the Island constituting the prototypes for the celebrated Pitcairn Island long boats still in use on the Island today.

In addition to the substantial gifts resulting to the Island from the four shipwrecks the community also received from them a small influx of new blood as four of the shipwrecked seamen settled on the Island. The first of these was an American named Butler from the “Khandeish” who married Alice McCoy but subsequently deserted her leaving his wife and twin daughters on the Island. The other three were all from the “Acadia.” These were John Volk, a Welshman, Philip Coffin, and American and Albert Knight, an Englishman.

Of these only Coffin was to remain and establish a family on the Island. Volk who married Mary Young remained for only three years before returning to Wales taking his wife with him. Knight, a skilled boat builder and carpenter whose services were of considerable value to the Island community had the misfortune to become enamoured of one Maria Young who was already engaged to a Christian. The latter was extremely incensed at Knight’s attentions to his betrothed and aroused the entire Christian clan against Knight. In the result the then Chief Magistrate, who was also the head of young Christian’s family, ordered Knight from the Island and that unfortunate gentleman was duly removed by Commander Clark of H.M.S. “Sapho” which called at the Island on the 2nd of July, 1882. In addition, to ensure against the repetition of such an incident a new law was passed with the reluctant approval of Commander Clark prohibiting the settlement of any further strangers on the Island.

Degeneration and Disorder

Typical of the Pitcairn laws enacted in this period, that law was introduced to deal with that particular situation and after the departure of Knight the Islanders, coming to appreciate the effect of that loss of his skilled services, and, with a view to enabling his return, promptly amended that law by adding a proviso permitting any person to settle on the Island if his presence there was considered to be of benefit to the community(33). Other laws enacted in the period between 1864 and 1884, similarly designed to deal with specific problems as they arose, made provision for dealing with such matters as illegitimacy, assault, profane and obscene language, slander, making false reports, insulting the magistrate and attempting to call in question the decisions of the Court. Having regard to the circumstances in which they were enacted these laws constituted a fair reflection of social trends on the Island and, as confirmed by reports of naval captains and other visitors to the Island, were indicative of a general deterioration in the character and morals of the community and the ineffectiveness of its machinery of government.

Two of these laws are deserving of special mention not only as being indicative of the low ebb in the state of Pitcairn Island’s government but also that, in view of their terminology and subject matter it would appear extremely doubtful that the former practice of referring all proposed laws to the captain of a visiting warship for his approval was always followed. These two legal gems were the new laws Nos. 8 and 16, the former of which provided that “no two persons of different sex are permitted to lie in bed or have any such unlawful connection,” and the latter provided for the imprisonment of dogs for chasing cats(34). I find it difficult to accept that any naval officer could seriously have approved either of those laws.

The general state of retrogression on the part of the Island community was most likely attributable to the lack of any strong personality such as an Adams or a Nobbs having the respect of the entire community. Warren although accepted into the community appears to have taken little or no part in its affairs. The strongest personality on the Island was James Russell McCoy, who although he exerted a considerable amount of influence on the Island and prevented a greater amount of degeneration than in fact occurred, being a native born Islander, could not command the same respect or influence as an outsider.

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(32) See Young, pp. 201-214 for a detailed account of the visit by Rear-Admiral de Horsey and of the subsequent gifts. The annual visits by warships were to be maintained regularly until 1898. Thereafter such visits continued less frequently until the outbreak of the First World War.

(33) Young, pp. 222-3.

(34) Maude I, p. 86.

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