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History of Government and Laws, Part 15

“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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The Other Islands

The other islands comprising the Colony of Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands are in fact isolated sea mounts having no physical connection with Pitcairn Island, each rising almost sheer from the abyssal sea plain. None of them is inhabited nor would it appear to Ducie or Oeno ever been inhabited. In addition to some shipwrecked mariners whose bones were first discovered in a cave on Henderson Island in 1819 and have since been rediscovered several times, artifacts have been discovered on the island, indicating that it, like Pitcairn Island had been previously inhabited.

Oeno is the nearest to Pitcairn being situated some 75 miles to the North-west and has been visited regularly by the Pitcairners for some years now for the purpose of gathering coconuts, mutton birds and fish, in a form of annual vacation outing. Although first discovered in 1819, by Captain Henderson of the Hercules and the scene of the wrecks of the “Khandeish” in 1875, the “Oregon” in 1883, and the “Wild Wave” in 1858, the island was not claimed as a British possession until the 10th of July, 1902, when James Russell McCoy, the then President of Pitcairn, in company with Captain G. F. Jones, the master of the cutter “Pitcairn” and other Pitcairn islanders, acting on the instructions of Mr. R. T. Simons, the British Consul at Tahiti, formerly took possession of it by hoisting the Union Jack and affixing to a tree an announcement that the island was a dependency of Pitcairn and the property of the British Government. Similar action was taken by the same party in relation to Henderson Island and Ducie Island of which possession was formerly taken on the 6th of July, 1902, and the 19th of December, 1902, respectively.

Whilst Simons stated in his despatch to the Foreign Office of the 19th of May, 1902, that McCoy had assured him that the islands of Henderson, Oeno and Duies “have always been considered as dependencies of Pitcairn and, as such, have been frequently visited by himself and some of his people who have planted coconut trees thereon . . .”, it would appear doubtful if they had ever in fact visited Ducie Island before and, due to its distance from Pitcairn and the lack of appropriate vessel, it is more than likely that visits to Henderson Island were then very few and far between. Certainly thay have not visited Ducie since 1902. There is no further record of any visits to any of the islands for some time after 1902 and in 1934 one Edwin Havelock Willson a master mariner of Wellington was granted, by the then High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, Sir Murchison Fletcher, an exclusive licence to occupy Oeno Island for a period of ten years from the 1st of August, 1934, “for the purpose of gathering beche de mer from the shoals, reefs and waters surrounding the island.” The licence also authorized Willson to construct all such buildings, jetties and other works on the island as may be requisite for his operations. That licence was granted on the basis of representations made on behalf of Willson, and apparently, accepted by Sir Murchison Fletcher, that the island was “uninhabited and that no person or persons had any right claim or interest to in or over the island or to anything thereon.” That licence was certainly acted upon by Willson for some years and he made several applications for its conversion into a formal lease on the grounds that he had planted coconuts on the island. The licence eventually lapsed, however, on the outbreak of the World War in 1939.

The islands were again visited in 1937 by H.M.S. “Leander” under the command of Captain J. W. Rivers-Carnac, who reaffirmed British sovereignty over them by the erection of flagstaffs upon which he hoisted the Union Jack and nearby to each flagstaff a notice board proclaiming them to be the property of His Brittanic Majesty King George VI. These visits were made at Ducie on the 4th of August 1937; at Henderson on the 5th of August; and at Oeno on the 6th of August, and were made for the express purpose of re-affirming British sovereignty over them and to ascertain their suitability for use as land or sea plane bases in view of the then awakening interest in the development of Trans-Pacific aviation. In 1938 the islands were formally incorporated into one administrative district known as the “Pitcairn Group of Islands.”

On the visit to the islands by the “Leander” aerial reconnaissances were carried out by Flight Lieutenant R. A. R. Rae from a Walrus aircraft and aerial photographs were taken of each island. The shore landing parties also carried out brief ground reconnaissances of them. Oeno was found to be a small island of some 1,400 yards in length and varying from 350 to 1,050 yards in width situated in the South-west corner of a large shallow lagoon within encircling coral reef. A narrow boat passage was found in the Northern part of the reef at a bearing of 177degrees from the Northern tip of the island. To the East of that passage was a large sand bank measuring some 700 yards long and 350 yards wide. The island is covered in ligh scrub and trees, including coconut palms, with the latter mainly on the western side. It is surrounded by a white sandy beach having a width of approximately 45 feet and rising to a height of 10 feet above sea level. A hut measuring 14 feet by 14 feet and 12 feet high was found on the North East poing, with a clearly defined track leading to a well in the centre of the island. It is not at all clear as to whether this hut was the property of Captain Willson or of the Pitcairn islanders but it was certainly evidence of recent occupation of the island. It would appear that the fact of Willson’s having been granted a licence over Oeno island may have stirred the Pitcairners into taking a more positive interest in that island and in Henderson island upon the latter of which they have been for many years now dependent for supplies of miro wood from which they carve their well known curios. Both islands are regarded as being the common property of the Pitcairners and, to ensure against any future unauthorized occupation of them, provision is made in section 50 of the Lands and Administration of Estates Ordinance declaring null and void any attempt to possess, occupy or otherwise deal with land upon any of those islands without the prior specific approval of the Governor.

Henderson is the largest island in the group measuring some 5 1/4 miles long and 2 7/8 miles wide. It comprises a large flat coral plateau covered with trees and dense undergrowth at a height of approximately 100 feet above sea level. The whole of the East, South and Western coasts of the island comprises steep cliffs rising for about 50 feet from the water with the cliffs deeply undermined by wave action rendering them virtually impossible of access. From the cliff tops the ground rises less steeply to the edge of the plateau. It is at a point about midway along the North coast where most landings have been made on the island through a narrow passage between the reefs which is suitable for navigation by small boats only. The only other known passage which affords a landing onto the island is a narrow deep passage giving access to a sandy beach at the foot of steep cliffs about half a mile North of the Northwest point named Awahou Point by Captain Webster of H.M.C.S. “Awahou” in August 1948.

In general the island is densely vegetated with trees averaging from 20 to 25 feet in height with individual trees risng as high as 50 feet above the plateau. The cliff faces are covered with low bush interlaced with prickly vines and with sharp coral rocks hidden under them rendering detailed exploration of the island well nigh impossible. Rats abound on the island and comprise the only form of animal life yet discovered there. The island is, however, a natural bird sanctuary. Thirteen species of land birds, of two which are believed to be unique to the island. These are a flightless rail and a green fruit pigeon. The other two species of land birds are a brilliant green, yellow and red parakeet and a warbler. The other nine species observed are all seabirds, including such comparative rarities as the bosun bird, the ghost bird and the fairy tern. All species abound on the island and evince no fear or shyness for humans.

Although believed to have been first discovered by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros in January, 1606, there remains some doubt as to whether it is the island which he named La Encarnacion or that which he named San Juan Bautista(90). There is also evidence of its former occupation in the form of artifacts comprising shell implements, coking ovens and heating stones of apparent Polynesian origin. These are situated in and around caves to be found adjacent to the beach near the Northen landing site. After being sighted by de Quiros there were no further reports of the island until the 1820's when the island was sighted several times, occupied for a brief period by shipwrecked seamen and visited by a vessel searching for the latter. The first of these was its sighting by Captain Henderson of the “Hercules” in 1819. Shortly afterwards the island was sighted by the American ship “Elizabeth” and named Elizabeth Island after her by which name it was known for many years until it was realised that it was in fact the same island as that sighted by Captain Henderson. The island was then renamed Henderson Island in recognition of his discovery of it. On the 20th of December in the same year survivors of the American whaler “Essex” of Nantucket landed on the island having drifted in open boats for twenty-four days after their ship was rammed by a large sperm whale. After a stay on the island of one week Captain Pollard set off in the two remaining ship’s boats with the majority of the surviving crew of the “Essex” for Easter Island leaving the mate Thomas Chappel and two seamen William Wright and Seth Weaks behind on Henderson Island. Captain Pollard and the seven surviving members of his crew eventually reached Valparaiso, Chile after three months of incredible hardship, including the cannibalism of five of the crew members. There he met with Captain Thomas Raine of the English merchant ship “Surrey” and told the latter of the three crew members who had elected to remain on what Captain Pollard believed to be Ducie Island. Captain Raine duly sailed for Ducie Island and made a thorough search for the men but could find no trace of any occupation of that island. He then sailed straight for the island which he knew from de Quiros’ description as Incarnation Island where he found the remaining three survivors of the “Essex” and, after a call at Pitcairn Island, took them on to safety in Australia. So this indefatigable navigator located three of the four islands comprising the Pitcairn group without any apparent difficulty and with a matter of factness that can only be described as remarkable having regard to the then lack of knowledge of the islands or their location(91).

Although the survivors of the “Essex” told of the discovery of some skeletons in a cave on Henderson Island, this fact appears to have been overlooked as on their first visit to the island on the whaling ship “Joseph Meigs” in August, 1851, a party of twelve Pitcairners reported the discovery of a human skeleton in a cave adjacent to the beach near the landing point. Later in the same year a party of thirty-eight Pitcairners again visited Henderson in the whaling ship “Sharon” and on further search found eight more skeletons in the same cave. As pieces of wreckage were found on the beach it was assumed that the skeletons were the remains of seamen from an unidentified wreck. The skeletons, the origin of which still remains an unsolved mystery were again “discovered “ by Messrs. George Ellis and J. D. Arundel of the Pacific Phosphate Company who visited the island briefly in 1907 for the purpose of investigating the island’s phosphate mining potential. Although the Pitcairn Islanders visited the island on a number of occasions no further mention was made of the skeletons until they were again “discovered” by a party of Pitcairners who visited the island to collect miro wood in March, 1958. The latter discovery sparked off an inquiry into the origin of the skeletons until a search of the official records revealed the previous discovery of them and a medical examination of some of the bones revealed that they were of Caucasian origin confirming the belief that they were the remains of shipwrecked seamen from an unidentified wreck. Although buried in shallow graves by the Pitcairners on their visit to the island in 1958 the remains were again investigated by a United States survey party in 1966 and after examination of the bones the skeletons were given final burial in five coffins which were placed in the far left hand corner of the cave in which they had been found with a six foot cross jammed hard between the rock floor and roof of the cave entrance. From this examination it was revealed that the skeletons were of five or six people, of whom one was a child aged between three and five years; that they were most probably survivors of a shipwreck; and that the primary cause of death was lack of water.

Other visits to the island have been made in 1937 by a landing party from H.M.S. “Leander” who reported finding the remains of huts and names carved on trees together with an arrow and flagon carved on one tree, which was interpreted as meaning that water was to be found in that direction. Although no running streams have been observed on the island puddles of fresh water were observed by the “Leander” party in a small hollow between the crest of the beach and the base of the cliffs and fresh water was seen spouting from the roof of the cave containing the skeletons only fifty yards from those puddles. A damp depression was also observed in the hollow in front of that cave. Like the survivors of the “Essex” the Pitcairners obtain their water supplies when visiting the island from a spring that seeps out on the each at the half-tide level.

The only other significant visit which is known to have been made to the island was that of Captain Webster in H.M.C.S. “Awahou” over the period from 31st July to 10th August, 1948, when an automatic light house was erected after considerable difficulty on the Northwest point. The lighthouse equipment was hauled up the cliff face by means of a breeches buoy and the light tower erected only a few hundred yards North of the Northwest landing place. Although thoroughly tested and left operating the gas operated light actuated by a sun valve soon became extinct and has not since been re-activated. The difficulty of exploration of the island was demonstrated on this visit by the fact that the lighthouse party in an attempt to reach the Northeast point from the Northern landing place succeeded in making only a little over half a mile in five hours during which they received so many cuts and bruises from falls on the sharp coral hidden in the dense undergrowth that they were forced to give up.

The island was briefly in the news again in 1957 when an American named Robert Tomarchin and his chimpanzee Moko were landed there from a yacht and dramatically rescued by a passing vessel some three weeks later and taken to Pitcairn Island.

Ducie is the least known of the islands comprising the Pitcairn group. The island was first reported by Captain Edwards of H.M.S. “Pandora” in 1791 while searching for the Bounty mutineers but has very rarely been visited. The first known landing on it was made by Captain Raine of the “Surrey” in 1820 in the course of his search for the survivors of the “Essex” when he thoroughly searched the small island without finding any trace of human occupation. In 1891 the “Acadia” was wrecked on the island and the survivors made their way by ships boats to Pitcairn. Since then the only known visit to it have been the occasion of its being formally taken possession of in 1902 and the visit there of H.M.S. “Leander” in 1937. The island is a small coral atoll with its fringing reef completely enclosing the lagoon with no known navigable passage through the reef. The main island measures only some one and a quarter miles long and three hundred yards wide and is shaped like a large fish hook following the inner edge of the fringing reef along the Northwest, North and Northeast sides of the lagoon rising to a maximum height of twenty feet above the sea level. A small island about one quarter of a mile long and a little over one hundred yards wide lies to the South of the lagoon and two sand cays on the Southeast of the lagoon. Both islands are covered with trees but have no undergrowth and no signs of fresh water. The only life observed on the island were five different species of seabirds which nest there and a number of rats, crabs and lizards. The lagoon appears to be deep around the edges but contains parallel ridges of coral rising in places above the surface of the water running in lines bearing approximately 020 degrees towards the centre. The waters around the island are claimed to abound with dangerous sharks and on the visit there by the “Leander” two such creatures were caught off the island in the space of only two hours.

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(90) Although believed by Maude and Cowell to be the island named San Juan Bautista by de Quiros, Captain Raine, in searching for the survivors of the "Essex", sailed from Ducie Island for the island identified by him as Incarnation and at 24 degrees, 26 minutes South. 128 degrees, 20 minutes West found the island and picked up the survivors, indicating that Henderson may in fact be de Quiros’s La Encarnacion and Pitcairn his San Juan Bautista. Certainly Captain Raine had no difficulty in finding the island from de Quiros’s description of La Encarnacion.

(91) See De Salis for a detailed description of Captain Raine’s voyage.

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