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History of Government and Laws, Part 10

“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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Neill, Maude and the 1940 Regulations

The overall picture of the Pitcairn islanders which emerges from the court records is that of a somewhat backward self-centered community of individualists, with most of the failings, other than that of addiction to liquor, to be found in any other isolated community in other parts of the world but certainly not degenerate or lawless as the observers during the early part of the century appear to consider them.

One cannot but feel, in relating to official records about the island community, that the islanders were often the victims of snap judgments based on a too short acquaintance with the people and a feeling of frustration on the part of the reporting officials of the islanders' failure to respond in practice to the well meaning advice offered to them especially as they always appeared ready to accept and act upon such advice at the time of offering. An example of this is that despite Simons' confident expectations in 1904 of the islanders developing on his advice an economy based on trade with Mangareva in pigs, arrowroot and coffee, and although a trade with Mangareva in arrowroot and “fungers“ continued for some years nothing was in fact done by the islanders to expand it along the lines suggested by Simons(54). In fact the trade between Pitcairn and Mangareva eventually lapsed and a completely different economy developed.

In the period of virtual isolation from officialdom between 1913, when visits by Royal Naval vessels to the island finally ceased, and 1937 when Neill visited the Island, they developed an economy of their own based, like the thriving economy of the 1840's, on trade with visiting ships. Despite the haphazard state of their own governmental and judicial affairs, the islanders set to without any assistance from officialdom or their church to improve their own economic lot with the result that by 1937 they had increased their annual income from the 180 pounds a year estimated by Simons in 1904 to the figure of between 1,800 and 2,000 pounds estimated by Neill in 1937. This income was derived largely from the export of oranges to New Zealand at the rate of some 2,000 cases a year, supplemented by the sale and barter of other fruits and vegetables, and of curios and basketware, to and with the crews and passengers of passing vessels(55). With a total population then of some 209 people comprising only 45 married couples this represented an average income of 40 pounds per annum per family if one takes the number of married couples as the basis for calculating the number of family units.

Undoubtedly the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and its increasing use by vessels from the early nineteen twenties onwards was largely responsible for the development of this trade and had a profound influence on the life of the community not only in providing regular sources of trade for them but also enabling a closer contact with New Zealand, to which increasing numbers of Pitcairn islanders have migrated either for short periods or, in a number of cases, permanently. In addition the regular calls by merchant vessels on the England-New Zealand run established firm bonds between the islanders and officers and men of the British Merchant Service employed on those vessels many of whose captains acquired a place in the minds of the islanders even stronger than that enjoyed by the captains of the Royal Navy vessels which had visited the island with some regularity prior to 1913(56).

Thus, by 1937, the island community had established for themselves a settled pattern of life and a deep attachment for their own system of government which they had developed within the framework of the 1904 Constitution. Whilst the system was by no means perfect, and, as the court records reveal, the laws were subject to some unusual applications the islanders were satisfied with it on the whole as suiting their needs.

So it was that J. S. Neill of the Western Pacific High Commission reported in respect to an administrative visit paid by him to the island in 1937——

“Surveying the situation briefly, I found the community work of the people well performed and the people happy. In short I found nothing which would necessitate a recommendation that the system of government should be superseded or that it had broken down. The community is a small one, and small troubles therefore, are magnified; but whatever system of government exists in Pitcairn this smallness of outlook is unlikely to change.”(57)

In this realistic light Neill’set to work to render the existing system more effective “without depriving it of its peculiar and historic character,“ he proceeded to remedy the obvious defects by drafting a legal code and rules of procedure for the Island Court which, from the evidence provided by the court records, was so lacking(58).

Neill’s draft code was a simple and practical effort to improve on the existing system whilst keeping within its bounds as understood by the islanders. Based on an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the islanders, and their existing system of laws as applied in practice, his efforts can only be commended as a major step forward for the island. For the first time the practical functions of the Island Council and the Court and their respective officials were spelled out with a simplicity and conciseness capable of being understood and applied by people unskilled in the niceties as had a former High Commissioner Sir Cecil Rodwell, in 1921, the introduction of a Pitcairn postal system with its own postage stamps. The implementation of this recommendation was to have a most important effect in the Island and its people in providing for the first time a local source of public revenue which was to enable the provision of government services on a scale never before thought possible(59).

Following Neill’s visit and report and his drafting of his proposed simple code of laws, the Island was visited in 1940 by Mr. H. E. Maude another experienced administrative officer of the Western Pacific High Commission who implemented the introduction with some modifications of Neill’s draft code of laws as well as the first Pitcairn stamp issue and its postal system.

Maude, whilst perhaps not at first sharing Neill’s broader approach to the local situation on the Island, had a wide understanding of the problems involved and set to work to discuss Neill’s draft code with the islanders. In the result, he produced a modified version acceptable in all respects to the Island Council and the people(60). He had undoubtedly a most difficult task in obtaining the acceptance by the islanders of Neill’s draft, even in modified form, in the light of their resistance to changes, and was particularly successful in his efforts. Not only did he succeed in establishing the new code of laws to the satisfaction of the islanders but he also effected a complete reorganization of the office of the Government Secretary and carried out a comprehensive programme of training for the local staff on the Island. Also with the aid of Mr. A. C. Fuller of the Fiji Posts and Telegraphs Department he established the new postal system and inaugurated the first Pitcairn Island stamp issue, and, consequent upon the revenue arising from the sale of postage stamps, established a carefully worked out system of payments of local officials for their services(61). Maude's work on the Island, and his continued dedicated interest in the island and its people can only be described as a most significant contribution to the establishment of modern Pitcairn.

The new code of laws introduced by Maude and known as the Pitcairn Island Regulations, 1940, comprised a complete codification of, and vas improvement on, the existing laws set out in more readily understandable terms with concise provisions relating to the election of local officials, the powers, functions and procedures of the Island Council and the institution and conduct of cases before the Court. In addition to the jurisdiction formerly held, provision was also made for the conduct of fire inquiries, the annual inspection of land marks, the registration of births, deaths and marriages and for the maintenance of illegitimate children as a distinct subject of its own unrelated to any other of the penal provisions of the regulations.

The offences set out in the regulations are expressed in a more readily understandable form. The old Law 2 was now abandoned, whilst Laws 4 and 5, which had caused so much difficulty in interpretation by the Island Court, were replaced by two simple regulations prohibiting respectively, adultery and unmarried couples living together, for the first time. The regulations were expressed in simple terms more capable of being understood by the islanders and were also based on similar concepts to those on which the laws applicable to other Pacific Island territories were based. For instance the old Law 10 which read, “Any person committing a breach of the peace, such as striking or abusing his wife, striking any person either which his fist or with any weapon, save in self-defence, and all other offences not provided for that may disturb the peace of the community, shall on conviction, be fined from 10/- to 5 pounds, according to the gravity (seriousness of the offence) was replaced by several simple regulations creating the offences of using abusive or threatening language, using profane or obscene language in a public place and indecent behaviour in a public place(62).

On his return to the Island in 1944, Maude was able to report a marked improvement in conditions on the Island since his previous visit and that the new constitution and code of laws appeared to have proved itself and to be a distinct success. Although comments and criticisms were invited at both a general assembly of the community and a meeting of the Island Council, no criticisms were offered and in fact the only comments received were favourable(63).

By 1950, however, the situation appears to have deteriorated again from the account of Mr. H. A. C. Dobbs a Deputy Commissioner of the Western Pacific High Commission, who visited the Island for a period of several weeks in the months of February and March of that year. He summed up the situation in the following terms:--

“As a result of these various contacts, official and unofficial, formal and informal, I formed the following general conclusions regarding the state of affairs on the island:--

  1. the tendency to form factions and feuds which has been commented upon by nearly all outside observers has certainly not diminished; if anything, it is on the increase;
  2. the Maude Constitution is not being properly observed, council meetings are haphazard and disorderly, public meetings are rare;
  3. the policemen do not investigate cases and court cases are infrequent;
  4. rules about women visiting ships are not enforced, and the behaviour of islanders on the ships is often deplorable. . . .”(64)

Dobbs’ principal recommendations were that the power of appointment of the police officers should be transferred from the Island Council to the High Commissioner; the appointment of an “Inspector of Police”; the re-building of the Island Goal; the appointment of an assistant to the Island Secretary; and an increase in the number of visits by administrative officers from the Western Pacific High Commission. In the result it would appear that there was in fact no real defect to be found in the 1940 Regulations established by Maude but that the deterioration referred to by Dobbs was really due to the lack of any real source of guidance for the islanders in the administration of their affairs.

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(54) Simons, p. 8 and Maude I, p. 95. “Fungers” is the Pitcairn name for an edible fungus which grows on trees on the islands of the Pacific and for which an export market exists in China.

(55) Neill, pp. 8-9. In addition to the orange exports shall quantities of fungers were exported to New Zealand until 1932.

(56) Neill, p. 26.

(57) Neill, p. 27.

(58) Neill, p. 13.

(59) Neill, p. 24. Also see Cowell, p. 47 for details of the revenue obtained from this source between 1957 and 1962. The average amount received each year being £9,065.

(60) See Maude II, para. 2. Maude’s view of the local situation was much less glowing than that of Neill as regards the state of affairs which he found existing on the island.

(61) See Maude II, para. 17. The range of salaries varied from £36 per annum for the Chief Magistrate to £6 per annum each for the 2 assessors and for the 2 members of the Internal Committee.

(62) Regulations 59, 60, 61, 62, 63 and 64.

(63) Maude II, 1944 report, p. 5.

(64) Dobbs, p. 7.

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