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History of Government and Laws, Part 7

“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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Onto this scene there arrived in 1886 another outsider who although he stayed for a little over six weeks was to have a considerable impact on the Island’s subsequent history. This was John I. Tay, a missionary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who arrived on the Island on the 18th of October, 1886, on H.M.S. “Pelican” for the purpose of obtaining converts to his Church. The ground had been prepared for him by the arrival some ten years earlier of a box of Seventh-day Adventist Literature which had been read by the Islanders, at first with suspicion, and then, as they had always been keen Bible students, with increased interest. By unanimous vote Tay was allowed to stay on the Island and present the arguments in favour of his Church and by the time of his departure in the last week of November of that year he had succeeded in converting the entire community to his Church to which the Pitcairn Islanders are still staunch adherents today(35).

Consequent to Tay’s return to America the schooner “Pitcairn” was built as a missionary ship and in 1890 Tay, together with his wife and Elders Gates and Read and their wives, sailed on her to Pitcairn Island where the entire community were baptized by immersion in a rock bound pool and formally inducted into their new faith. That visit was followed two years later by another much longer visit by Elder Gates and his wife who this time remained on the Island for eighteen months and proceeded to organize the Islanders educational and social activities. Although the majority of the new ventures started by them were, in traditional Pitcairn fashion, allowed to expire on the departure of their innovators, their reorganization of the school was carried on by a Seventh-day Adventist teacher named Hattie Andre who had followed them to the island in 1893 and remained there for many years as its teacher(36). Otherwise, the change of religion did not involve much difference in the way of life of the Islanders. Apart from giving up the eating of crayfish and port, with the consequent killing off of the Island’s entire pig population, and the change of the Sabbath from Sunday to Saturday they continued much as before. None of them drank liquor any way, very few smoked and all lived largely on a vegetarian diet, supplemented by an occasional meal of chicken, goat meat or pork. The former two of these were permitted under the Adventist doctrine so that only the latter, namely, pork, had to be given up.

Parliamentary Government and a New Code of Laws

One outstanding effect of the visits to the Island by the missionaries was, however, to make the Islanders conscious of the general unsatisfactory state of their own affairs and particularly of their system of government and laws which they attributed to a “lack of strength and firmness, on the part of the government officers.“ So the stage was set for a change and with the arrival of Captain Rooke in H.M.S. “Champion“ on the 3rd of October, 1892, a decision was made to reorganize the entire system of government and laws. That reorganization took effect from the 1st of January, 1893, that being the date for the normal annual elections under the old Constitution(37). On that date at a general assembly of the population it was agreed to abolish the existing system and to establish in its place a system of parliamentary government. They thereupon agreed to an entire new Constitution and laws. The new Constitution made provision for the election of a Parliament of 7 members for the Island, and for those 7 to elect from their own number a president, a vice-president, two judges and a secretary. This decision was expressed in the Constitution to be based on the belief that “a larger number of officers would tend to make a stronger government, and that plans for the public welfare would be executed with better success.” The Constitution, which was really a series of resolutions, went on to provide for the duties and functions of each of those officials. The duties of the president were to preside over all sessions of the Parliament and over all assemblies of the voters and to ensure that all Acts of Parliament and all other laws were properly executed. Those of the vice-president were stated simply as being to perform the duties of the president in the latter's absence, and the secretary was charged with the custody of all papers and documents of the Parliament; to keep a true record of all its proceedings; to act as treasurer; and, subject to the orders of the Parliament; to hold all public funds.

Although provision was made for the election of two judges the new Constitution in describing their functions made reference only to one judge, providing that he would preside at all sittings of the Court and decide cases before it as well as to appoint all sessions of the Court and its adjournment. From this it would appear that in fact only one judge was to sit at a time but it is not at all clear as to how the two judges were to allocate their functions between themselves. Presumably as the Islanders were all closely related, and there were only 136 of them at this time, one of the judges would be bound to have an interest in any case before the Court, and thus two were needed to ensure the maximum of impartiality. The Constitution also made provision for a right of appeal from the Court to the Parliament.

In addition to agreeing to the establishment of this new system and electing the Parliament, a total of 31 new laws were agreed upon covering a wide range of subjects including the revival of the old system of public work which had been abandoned since the return from Norfolk Island. The first of these laws was to cause some considerable misunderstanding in later years it being used in practice against any person having the misfortune to bring a case before the and lose it. That law provided as follows:--

“No one shall be allowed to assemble the Court without a good evidence or satisfactory proof against an opposing party or parties, without making himself open to punishment. Anyone so offending shall be fined 6d. An hour for that time.”

The new laws 4 and 5 recognized the distinction between fornication and adultery both now being constituted offences. The old law 6 to which I have previously referred was also revised into two laws, namely laws 6 and 7 the former making it an offence for “two persons of the opposite sex, one, or both of whom, at the time shall be legally married,“ to “associate together in secluded places or otherwise, on terms of intimacy not consistent with his, or her, marriage vows, or in a manner to cause separation from his, or her, husband or wife.“ Since adultery had already, by law 5, been made an offence, law 6 was presumably intended to cover cases falling short of actual adultery. Law 7 prohibited the association together of two persons of opposite sex “at such times and at such places as shall tend to create scandal or to endanger the morals of the rising generation by their evil example.“ These four laws together with law 8 which made it an offence “for any one of the opposite sex to intentionally remain near the place where the women and girls do their washing“ are of interest as being indicative of degeneration in the morals of the community since the return from Norfolk. Other of the new laws made provision for making false reports, theft, bringing charges for the sake of malice or revenge, threatening life, assault, wife beating and cruel or unmerciful treatment of others as well as carrying concealed weapons and the use of weapons by children. The old law relating to the killing of cats was extended to include malicious wounding of any such animal, although the fine was not reduced to ten shillings in all cases. The former law providing for the imprisonment of dogs for chasing cats was also altered by substituting the penalty of death for that of imprisonment, for the offending dog. The same penalty was also extended to a dog found killing fowls or eating their eggs. In addition the new laws made provision for the control of fowls and goats, regulating the taking of coconuts from the western side or “Totherside“ of the Island, the taking of sugarcane and the importation and use of drugs. One law which I find completely incomprehensible is law 28 which reads “no one is allowed to pay gratis without first consulting with the Court in regard to the matter.

In addition to that code of laws a simple set of marriage laws comprising 3 articles were enacted. These made provision for the solemnizing of marriages by the president, or in his absence the vice-president, and, with the authority of the Parliament, an ordained minister or an ordained church Elder.

The Western Pacific High Commission

So the Pitcairn Island community set forth on another attempt to regulate its own affairs, but almost immediately after the introduction of that new Constitution and code of laws events elsewhere were to take place which were to have far reaching effects on the community and its system of government. This was the enactment in London on the 15th of March, 1893, of the Pacific Order in Council, 1893. Under that Order, Pitcairn Island was in 1898 brought under the administrative control of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific in Suva and within the direct province of Mr. R. T. Simons, the British Consul at Tahiti and a Deputy Commissioner for the Western Pacific(38). The missionary schooner “Pitcairn“ enabled regular communication between Pitcairn Island and Tahiti as well as with Norfolk Island, thereby increasing the Islanders' communications with the outside world and enabling Simons to keep in contact with them. In addition, the number of vessels calling at the Island had again increased with up to 35 ships a year calling and in both 1894 and 1895 there were nearly 60(39). The curio trade increased proportionately to the stage where the community while not enjoying the prosperity of the 40's and early 50's was again self supporting.

Unfortunately the general state of lawlessness on the Island did not also improve, and in 1897 the Island had its first and only case of serious crime. This was the murder by an Islander, Harry Albert Christian, of his wife and child. Under the provisions of the Pacific Order in Council, Hamilton Hunter, a Judicial Commissioner for the Western Pacific was despatched from Suva, on H.M.S. “Royalist,“ to try the case and after a short trial Christian was found guilty of that crime and sentenced to death. Brought to Suva in custody he was subsequently hanged in Korovou Gaol, in 1898.

This incident and the prompt manner in which the offender was dealt with was to have a salutary effect on the Pitcairn community. Due to the influence of James Russell McCoy there was by 1901 a marked improvement noticed in their general behaviour(40). The interest of the authorities in Suva was also aroused with a resultant stepping up of contact with the Island by Mr. Simons in Tahiti. So with the turn of the century the Pitcairn Island community began to move forward again to another new era in its affairs under the supervision and guidance of the Western Pacific High Commission in place of the Royal Navy upon whose captains the Island had relied for so many years for advice and guidance in the conduct of their affairs.

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(35) See Young, pp. 229-34 for an account of the conversion of the community.

(36) Young, pp. 240-2..

(37) The 1893 Constitution and laws are set out in detail in Shapiro Appendix “A.”

(38) Fiji Royal Gazette, 1898 (p. 215).

(39) Maude I, p. 92.

(40) Maude I, p. 92.

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