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History of Pitcairn Island
Pitcairn Island’s First Inhabitants
Upon arrival at Pitcairn Island in January 1790, the crew of Bounty discovered the island had previously been inhabited. Many relics of a Polynesian civilisation were found scattered around the island.
Roughly hewn stone gods, which guarded sacred sites, representations of animals and men carved into cliff faces, burial sites yielding human skeletons, and earth ovens, stone adzes, gouges and other artefacts of Polynesian workmanship were discovered. The stone gods were deliberately destroyed when pushed off cliffs into the sea, and although many stone adzes have been given away or removed, some are still being found today. The carved pictures in the cliff faces can still be seen at such sites as Down the Gods and Down Rope.
The origin and subsequent destination of the Polynesian seafarers remains uncertain, although it is generally believed that they arrived from Mangareva, some 490 km away in French Polynesia.
Discovery by Europeans 1767
we discovered land to the northward of us. Upon approaching it the next day (Friday, 3 July), it appeared like a great rock rising from the sea... and it having been discovered by a young gentleman, son to Major Pitcairn of the Marines, we called it Pitcairn’s Island
These words, recorded in Captain Philip Carteret’s log, describe the first sighting and naming of Pitcairn. Due to ‘the surf, which at this season broke upon it with great violence’ the Captain, of HMS Swallow, was unable to land. Not having a chronometer aboard, Carteret miscalculated the island’s position by 3° 24’ and thus marked Pitcairn’s Island 188.4 nautical miles west of its true location.
No one except the determined Captain Cook was interested in Carteret’s report and his search for the island was deflected by an outbreak of scurvy. Eventually, once found again, Pitcairn might have become just a casual stopover for whalers looking for land and fresh food. But its destiny was to be quite different.
Mutiny on the Bounty 1789
The tale of the mutiny of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty is well known. A coastal trader named Bethia was refitted and rechristened as Bounty for a voyage to collect breadfruit tree seedlings to take to the West Indies for cultivation as food for slaves. On 23 December 1787 Bounty, under the command of William Bligh, left Spithead for the English Channel.
On 26 October 1788, after a difficult voyage, Bounty finally arrived off Tahiti. It was to be another five months before Bounty would set sail. During this time, the crew had spent some time ashore and when the time came to return to England, some were already contemplating staying on the island. On 28 April 1789, three weeks after leaving Tahiti, Fletcher Christian and some of the ship’s crew mutinied, setting Bligh and 18 of his loyal crew adrift in an open boat.
Glynn Christian’s Fragile Paradise (Doubleday, Australia, 1999) asks the question: Was Christian mad, or just mad to do it? New research shows Fletcher Christian was almost certainly a victim of hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating) and was also a sufferer of a common mental condition that can lead to limited bouts of irrational behaviour. It seems likely Fletcher Christian was ‘mad’ -on the day of the mutiny, at least -and that begs the question asked by his brother, Charles. ‘Who or what drove him to it?’
Most of the remaining crew on Bounty wanted to return to Tahiti, but Fletcher Christian knew that in time, a British naval ship would come in search for them and Tahiti would be the most likely place to start looking. Intent on finding a new home, the crew arrived off Tubuai in late May. Even though the natives were unfriendly and there was a lack of livestock, Bounty sailed to Tahiti, returning to Tubuai with livestock and some Polynesians to help them establish a community there. Almost three months later, continuing conflict caused Christian to abandon this settlement and again return to Tahiti. Today there are still remains of the earth fortress they built over two centuries ago.
In September 1789, 16 of the crew voted to remain in Tahiti. Eight of the mutineers decided to stay with
Christian and continue the search for an uninhabited island, hidden from the outside world. During the night,
Fletcher Christian learned of a plot to take Bounty from him and ordered the anchor cable to be cut without the guests on board knowing. Although a few jumped off, when they realised what was happening, and six ‘rather ancient’ women were sent ashore at Moorea, six Polynesian men (three of which were stowaways), twelve Polynesian women and a baby girl (Sully) were to continue the journey to their unknown home.
Settlement by the Mutineers 1790
After fleeing Tahiti, Bounty sailed westward combing the Cooks, Tonga and the eastern islands of Fiji in search of a home. This was to be a journey that would take almost four months.
During 1956, Professor H. E. Maude of the Australian National University, upon finding newspaper articles from the 1820’s containing interviews with Teehuteatuaonoa (consort of the mutineer Isaac Martin), came to the conclusion that Bounty was the first European vessel to sight Rarotonga. Not only this, Bounty also introduced the orange to Rarotonga, and for some time fruit juice was the island’s main export. Professor Maude’s findings were supported by comments made by John Adams and stories, current amongst the Cook
Islanders, of a visit by a floating garden with two waterfalls (Bounty would have looked like a garden and the waterfalls may well have been referring to the pumps aboard) at Rarotonga, around the same time of Bounty’s voyage.
Having stumbled upon or recalled Carteret’s account, Christian sailed eastward in search of Pitcairn Island. Reaching the spot where the island supposedly was, there was nothing but water. Guessing that Carteret had marked the longitude incorrectly, Christian zigzagged along the line of latitude and Pitcairn was sighted on the evening of 15 January 1790.
The violent swell made it impossible to make a safe landing at the island. After waiting two to three days for the weather conditions to subside, Christian, Brown, Williams, McCoy and three Tahitians rowed ashore at Tedside. The island was lonely, inaccessible, uninhabited, fertile and warm; it exceeded Christian’s highest hopes.
While Bounty was anchored in what is now known as Bounty Bay, livestock and goods were shipped ashore. Then, fearing that if any European vessel sighted the ship, retribution would inevitably follow, the mutineers ran Bounty ashore and, on 23 January 1790, the ship burned and sank. It is possible that Quintal, being over anxious about discovery, was responsible for the fire.
In an article published in 1819, Teehuteatuaonoa (known as Jenny, consort of Isaac Martin) says that Fletcher Christian wanted to preserve the ship, but Matt said ‘No, we shall be discovered’, so they burnt‑her.
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Saturday 17 July 1819
On arrival, the mutineers constructed rough leaf shelters, in what is known as Adamstown, where the community of Pitcairn lives today. These shelters were later replaced by more durable houses. They found the breadfruit there and planted sweet potatoes and yams with seeds they had brought with them. The land was divided among the mutineers only, and the Polynesian men were allocated none. Furthermore, the six Polynesian men were treated as slaves and because there were three more men than women, it was they who had to share wives.
During the first year on the island, the consorts of John William and John Adams died and Titahiti, Tararo and Oha’s women, Toofaiti (Nancy) and Tinafanaea, were taken and given to the two mutineers. Titahiti, Tararo and Oha reacted by conspiring to kill the mutineers, but the women betrayed them by informing the mutineers of their plan. This led to the deaths of Tararo (Toofaiti’s consort) and Oha during December 1790.
Meanwhile, on January 8 1791, HMS Pandora set sail for Tahiti on a mission to capture the mutineers. Before reaching Tahiti, Pandora discovered Ducie Island and, although Pitcairn was not sighted, the ship passed close to the island. At Tahiti, the fourteen captured Bounty men were imprisoned in a dark cage, known as Pandora’s Box. When Pandora struck Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, all except one prisoner were released from the shackles. Four of the Bounty men drowned, along with 31 of Pandora’s crew. Unsuccessful searches for the wreck of Pandora were made during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then finally in 1977, the wreck was discovered and is currently being excavated for display in Townsville, Queensland.
By September 1793, several children had been born on the island. The four remaining Polynesian men now shared one woman (Mareva). Having suffered enough from their ill treatment, the Polynesian men set out to kill the mutineers. John Williams was the first victim, followed by Fletcher Christian, John Mills, Isaac Martin and William Brown. John Adams was shot, but survived.
The Polynesian men then began fighting over the women. Teimua was shot dead by Manarii, then Manarii himself was shot by William McCoy and Matthew Quintal. One of the women, possibly Teraura, killed Titahiti and Edward Young shot Niau. None of the six Polynesian men left behind any children. Four European men remained; Edward Young, Matthew Quintal, John Adams and William McCoy, along with ten women
and their children.
The following four to five years were peaceful except for occasional outbreaks by the women, protesting against their treatment by the men, including an attempt to leave the island. Gradually, the men and women became reconciled to their lives and to each other, and all might have remained harmonious had not McCoy, who had once worked in a distillery, discovered how to brew a potent spirit from the roots of the ti plant (Cordyline terminalis). McCoy, losing control mentally, tied his own hands and feet and threw himself into the sea, where he drowned. In 1799, a drunken and threatening Matthew Quintal was put to death by Edward Young
and John Adams. Before the educated Edward Young died of asthma in December 1800, he used Bounty’s Bible and Prayer Book to improve Adams’ reading and writing abilities. Ten years after arriving at Pitcairn,
Adams was the sole male survivor of the original settlers.
John Adams and the Community 1800
After Young’s death, John Adams filled his days drinking the potent spirit distilled from the ti plant. Then one night, after having a dramatic hallucination, Adams underwent a transformation and became fervently religious. As leader of the community, Adams began to take his responsibility seriously. He led Sunday services and, to ensure the community’s well-being, Adams saw to it that the young people cultivated the land and cared for the stock.
The women played an important role in ensuring the survival of the island and even more so after the massacre. Only they could have known how best to tend gardens, catch fish and make traditional tools and canoes. They would also have had almost sole influence on the up bringing of the children. The women had brought their own utensils from Tahiti and these were handed down from mother to daughter. The men had landed tools and other implements from Bounty and fashioned more as necessary. Food cooked in Polynesian stone-lined ovens, consisting mainly of yams, taro and bananas with coconut cream and an occasional pig, bird or goat was, in Polynesian style, served twice a day, at noon and nightfall. Clothes, first made from sail cloth from Bounty, were replaced by loin cloths and skirts of tapa, the traditional Polynesian fibre-cloth, beaten from the bark of the paper mulberry tree.
Discovery of the Community 1808 and 1814
According to Teehuteatuaonoa (Jenny), wife of mutineer Isaac Martin, a ship was sighted off Pitcairn after Fletcher Christian’s death (1793) and before Matthew Quintal’s death (1799). Some time later, a second ship appeared and some sailors came ashore to collect coconuts. Although she says they tried beckoning to the ship to send another boat ashore, the ship sailed off without knowing the island was inhabited.
Topaz, an American whaling ship, came across Pitcairn Island on 6 February 1808 and discovered the community. Captain Mayhew Folger sent news of his findings back to England, but the country was preoccupied with the Napoleonic Wars and there was little interest. Again, the island’s existence appeared to have been ignored.
Two ships, Briton and Tagus, which were hunting for an American man-of-war Essex, rediscovered the island and its community on 17 September 1814. Both Captain Sir Thomas Staines (Briton) and Captain Pipon (Tagus), had no knowledge of Folger’s previous report. Charmed by the physique and simplicity of the islanders, and favourably impressed by John Adams and the example he set, they agreed it would be ‘an act of cruelty and inhumanity’ to arrest him.
Twenty-five years of isolation had ended. News of the island community attracted great attention around the world and increasing visits were made by ships sailing from India and Australia to South America or to England via the Horn. The reports sailors brought back stimulated an interest. English Missionary Societies, sent gifts of Bibles, prayer books and spelling books to the island, as well as such practical necessities as crockery, razors, tools and guns.
In addition, nearly every visiting ship made generous gifts and bartered surplus stores for provisions, and it was at this time that the orange was introduced, that houses were improved with the aid of saws and planes, and clothes and living became more European in character.
Successors to John Adams
As he grew old, John Adams was finding it difficult to care for his wife Teio (Mary), who was now blind, and to cope with educating the increasing number of children. He worried about the future and his appeals to the British Government and missionary societies for a successor to educate the children were unsuccessful.
In December 1823, the British whaler Cyrus, arrived at Pitcairn. John Buffett, a shipwright from Bristol, took pity on Adams and requested permission from Captain John Hall to remain on the island. Buffett was given permission to stay, however his friend, John Evans, was not. Evans jumped ship and hid until Cyrus departed. Both men were accepted into the community and extended the island’s genetic pool through being the first non-Bounty, non-Polynesian settlers. Buffett married Dolly Young soon after arriving, and John Evans married John Adams’ daughter, Rachel. As well as teaching the children and conducting church services, Buffett taught the islanders woodworking skills, which later became the basis for Pitcairn’s main industry.
The population had now risen to 66 from the 35 of 17 years earlier. Adams, believing the land was yielding less, seeing the supply of timber decreasing and concerned that the erratic water supply would be insufficient for the growing population, sought the community’s removal to Australia. In November 1828, the well-educated George Hunn Nobbs arrived at the island. Nobbs, allegedly the illegitimate son of a Marquees, had served in both the British and Chilean Navies. He was a strong character and soon ousted Buffett from the role of schoolteacher and pastor. On 5 March 1829, John Adams passed away at the age of 65, to be followed by his wife (Teio) nine days later. He left behind a community which, though it originated in mutiny and had suffered misery and murder, was to form the basis of countless Victorian sermons. The dramatic regeneration was largely Adams’ work, and he was mourned as ‘Father’, the name by which he had been known to every member of the community.
Unsuccessful Emigration to Tahiti 1831
In London, John Adams’ request for emigration was being sympathetically supported and, although a visit by Captain Waldegrave in 1830 discovered that the community was not in necessitous circumstances or anxious to leave the island, it was too late to stop the decision of emigration. On 28 February 1831, HMS Comet and the Colonial Barque Lucy Anne arrived from Sydney with instructions to remove the community to Tahiti. After much persuasive discussion with inhabitants, who were reluctant to leave the island, the entire community departed Pitcairn on 6 March 1831 on Lucy Anne, arriving at Tahiti on 21 March.
Queen Pomare IV and her people treated the Pitcairn Islanders with great generosity and kindness. Land was made available for the islanders to build their own homes and a large house was made available for their temporary accommodation in Papeete. The Pitcairners however, did not feel at home and could not adjust to this different way of life. They had become on the one hand too European in their ways and, on the other, stricter in morals and sexual behaviour than their hosts. They longed to return to their own habits in their own island, all the more so when infectious diseases, to which they had little immunity, began to kill them.
On 21 April, within a month of arrival in Tahiti, Thursday October Christian I, the son of Fletcher Christian, the first child born on Pitcairn, died. His death was followed by the youngest, Lucy Anne Quintal; and during the next two months there were 10 more deaths and only a single birth. Attempts to arrange for their return to Pitcairn failed, until Captain William Driver of the Salem whaler Charles Doggett arrived at Papeete and offered to take the remaining 65 back to their island home for $500. A subscription was immediately organised by the local community; the Pitcairn Islanders, anxious to return, contributed to this by selling blankets and other necessities. Captain Driver sailed with them from Papeete
A Dictator steps in 1832
Inevitably, the little community had lost some of its innocence. It was leaderless too, for Nobbs had not yet been accepted as Adams’ successor, and they could not agree on a local head. There was a period of anarchy and drunkenness but the vacuum was soon filled. In October 1832, a puritanical busybody, by the name of Joshua Hill, landed on the island, claiming to have been sent by the British Government. He was welcomed and, supplanting Nobbs as pastor and teacher, at once appointed himself as President of the ‘Commonwealth’ of Pitcairn.
Hill abolished the distilling of liquor and introduced arbitrary imprisonment and other severe punishments for the smallest misdeeds. He secured the expulsion of Nobbs and the other ‘lousy foreigners’, Buffett and Evans, who formed an intimidated opposition.
Following is part of the authorisation statement imposed on Buffett which Hill wrote out and delivered:
Moreover, John Buffett, the sentence of the court, is, that whether with or without your family, you are to leave this island by the first vessel that may present herself thus; for if you do not, punishment and imprisonment will be the consequence
However, their departure caused a reaction and Hill’s power gradually declined until, in 1838, his fraudulent claim to represent the British Government was exposed. Hill was forcibly removed from the island and taken to Valparaiso by Captain Bruce of HMS Imogene.
Upon receiving a message requesting he return home, Nobbs returned from ‘exile’ and, by a general vote, was reinstated as pastor and teacher. One has only to read Hill’s literary effusions to surmise that he was probably mentally unstable throughout his six years on Pitcairn.
Pitcairn’s First Constitution 1838
Their experience with Joshua Hill and increasing visits by American whalers brought the islanders to recognise their need for protection, and they prevailed upon Captain Eliott of HMS Fly to draw up a brief constitution and a code of laws selected from those already in force. A Magistrate (who must be native-born) was to be elected annually ‘by the free votes of every native born on the island, male or female, who shall have attained the age of eighteen years; or of persons who shall have resided five years on the island’. He was to be assisted by a Council of two members, one elected and one chosen by himself.
Not only was this the first time female suffrage was written into a British constitution but it also incorporated compulsory schooling for the first time in any British legislation.
Whatever the precise legal significance of Captain Eliott’s action, the Pitcairn Islanders date their formal incorporation into the Empire from 30 November 1838, when the new constitution was signed onboard Fly. That they also became a British Settlement later under the British Settlements Act of 1887 is of no consequence to them!
A Time of Tranquillity 1838 - 1848
The next decade was peaceful and uneventful, although in 1845 the worst storm in the island’s history destroyed many coconut palms, bananas, yams and boats. Periodic epidemics of influenza; accidents recorded in place names such as ‘Where-Tom-Off’; and births, marriages and deaths alone disturbed the placid life.
The population topped the 100 mark, Nobbs was firmly in control, Buffett taught the young men navigation, carpentry, and how to fashion curios of the kind still made from miro and other local woods. Their curios, 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.
Adapting themselves to the needs of their seafaring visitors, the islanders became skilled market gardeners, producing potatoes, yams, coconuts, bananas, oranges, limes, and chickens, for which they accepted in return clothing, tools and money. And largely because they sold their produce for fixed prices, they acquired a reputation for strict honesty. Inevitably, the islanders’ language, clothes and ways grew more European with these contacts, but Polynesian customs were not entirely swamped, and the traditional pastimes of kite flying, stilt walking and surf riding still occupied many of their leisure hours.
Emigration Again: To Norfolk Island in 1856
By 1850 the population was 156 and increasing rapidly. Their friends in England and the Pacific were again discussing the question of emigration, for it was feared that land would soon become insufficient, and fish had deserted the coastal waters since the landslides caused by the great storm of 1845.
After their experiences in Tahiti, the islanders insisted that if they were compelled to emigrate it should be to an uninhabited island. After examining several possibilities, the majority of the community decided to move, with British Government aid, to Norfolk Island. It had much to recommend it. It was larger than Pitcairn and now uninhabited, but 60 years of convict labour had left hundreds of acres under cultivation. The island was well stocked with domestic animals and there were roads and houses. In 1856, when the naval transport Morayshire arrived, all 193 islanders boarded her. A son, Reuben Denison Christian, was born to Isaac and Miriam Christian during the journey, bringing the population to 194.
Return to Pitcairn 1859 - 1864
This might have been the end of the Pitcairn story, but in spite of the advantages of Norfolk, many of the islanders wanted nothing more than to return home. By this time, no matter who was elected Chief Magistrate, the real leader of the community was George Nobbs, who had been ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1852 and who lived on, at Norfolk, until 1884. Through twenty years of selfless service as spiritual mentor and secular teacher, he had won affection and trust in his adopted home. Had he opposed migration to Norfolk, few of the others would have gone; but not even his arguments against the return to Pitcairn could conquer nostalgia.
Late in 1858, an opportunity to return home arose when Mary Ann, en route to Tahiti, offered passages, and 16 of the islanders led by Moses and Mayhew Young boarded her. Those who chose to stay behind, voted to pay the costs of the journey from communal funds.
The islanders returned to find some of their homes vandalised, and there was evidence of shipwrecked sailors having been on the island. It was later discovered that these sailors were from Wildwave, that had been wrecked on the reef at Oeno Island. Gardens were overgrown, cattle and other domestic animals were running wild and John Adams’ grave-marker was missing. They arrived home in time to stop the French, who thought the island was abandoned, from annexing their home. The original John Adams’ grave-marker is now in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
In 1864, a second group from Norfolk Island returned home to Pitcairn on the ship St Kilda. Along with the returning Pitcairners was Samuel Warren, of Rhode Island. Samuel Warren had married Agnes Christian, daughter of Thursday October II and Mary (Polly) Christian, just prior to their departure from Norfolk. During the journey, one of Thursday October II and Mary’s children died. It was a different Pitcairn now of 43 people and only five families -the Youngs, Christians, McCoys, Buffetts and the American Warrens. Of these, the male lines of the McCoys and Buffetts were to die out.
A Subsistent Existence
These settlers knew from past experience how to make the best use of their resources, but materially they were probably worse off than the mutineers. They had no sail cloth to turn into clothing, no means of lighting their make-shift homes other than by candlenut, and far fewer visiting ships from which to obtain goods. The peak period of whaling in those latitudes had passed, and compared with the 40 ships a year that called 20 years previously there were now only about a dozen.
The occasional vessel that did stop, was most likely to be a steamer carrying passengers. The islanders therefore turned Buffett’s wood carving lessons to advantage by selling them curios in place of the food they had sold to the whaling crews. Their limited resources were fortunately supplemented by a succession of shipwrecks, which brought them a new ‘bounty’ from the outside world. The community fed and clothed the shipwrecked sailors who, after they returned home to relate their adventure, rewarded their rescuers with gifts of crockery, clothes, flour, books and even an organ.
Renewed visits by men-of-war in the Pacific also revived the traditional English interest in the children of the Bounty mutineers. Queen Victoria sent another organ as a personal gift in appreciation of the islanders’ ‘domestic virtues’; and a Liverpool firm tried to arouse interest in the commercial production of cotton, arrowroot and candlenut oil.
The Islanders Settle Down
As Nobbs had planned, Simon Young took over the work of pastor and schoolteacher, and the former system of government by a Magistrate and two councillors was re-introduced. Almost the first communal task was the construction of a combined school and church but, with this, repairs to houses, and the replanting of gardens, there was no energy left, and much of the island reverted to natural bush.
In 1868, some of the Norfolk Island settlers, including old John Buffett, who was to live to the ripe old age of 93, visited Pitcairn and urged their relatives to rejoin their now wealthier community. But nothing happened except that occasional visits between the two settlements have continued, desultorily, until today.
Fresh settlers create a bar to any more 1882
New blood brought new ways and ideas to the tight little society, but one of the new-comers fell in love with a girl who was, unfortunately, already engaged to a Christian. Strong passions were aroused and the Commander of the visiting HMS Sappho was induced to approve a law forbidding strangers to settle on Pitcairn. The law was later amended but only to permit settlement by those whose presence was considered of benefit to the island.
A Change of Religion 1886
With the passing years and no strong leader, reports of social deterioration grew. Simon Young, loved and respected, and his gentle and talented daughter Rosalind, were too humble and tolerant of frailty to impose their will, and family factions inhibited cohesion.
From the days of John Adams, the islanders had been staunch adherents of the Church of England. They read and studied the Bible, which was for many of them their only reading matter, and its texts were truth. Not unnaturally therefore, they read with increasing interest the contents of a box of Seventh-day Adventist literature sent to them from the United States in 1876. A decade later, on the 18th October 1886, Mr John Tay, a missionary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, arrived on the island and, by unanimous vote, was allowed to stay and argue his cause.
The result was recorded in Mary McCoy’s diary in March 1887: ‘The forms and prayers of the Church of England laid aside. During the past week meetings were held to organise our church service on Sabbath’. So Saturday again became the day of rest, as it had been until 1814 when Fletcher Christian’s omission to correct the time across the date line was rectified.
Conversion was greeted with great pleasure by the Seventh-day Adventists in America and they raised funds for a missionary ship, which sailed for Pitcairn in 1890. The islanders were baptised in one of the rock-bound coastal pools, and the pigs were killed to remove the temptation of eating pork. But few other changes were needed: all were already total abstainers, most were vegetarian, except for occasional meals of goat, which is not forbidden by Adventist discipline, and few smoked.
Parliamentary Government 1893
The Missionaries relieved the ageing Simon Young in the school and, energetically, introduced history, grammar, cooking and nursing. They began a newspaper and a kindergarten and opened a public park. Thus stirred by example, the islanders began to question their social inertia and, putting it down to weakness in their leaders, asked Captain Rooke of HMS Champion, who arrived on 3 October 1892, to reorganise their system of government. An elected Parliament of seven was introduced and executive and judicial functions were separated. The legal code was also revised to create penalties for, amongst other things, adultery, wife beating, cruelty and ‘Peeping Toms’; and the system of public work of pre-migration days was restored. Society was a long way, indeed, from the simple order of Adams!
The Influence of James McCoy 1870 - 1907
But the reports of the naval officers who visited Pitcairn towards the end of the nineteenth century still continued to reveal how society had deteriorated since the return from Norfolk Island. There was lawlessness and a lack of unity and purpose; and, in 1897, murder. That the community did not degenerate still further was due largely to the influence of James Russell McCoy, a great-grandson of the mutineer.
In 1870, at the early age of 25, McCoy had been elected Magistrate and during the next 37 years he was chief executive no less than 22 times. Although island-born, McCoy had spent some time both in London and Liverpool and, autocrat though he was, he was also, in a real sense, a link between the old Pitcairn and the new. By the turn of the century he had restored purpose to the community by enforcing the recently revived laws of public work: and his personal courage and example, which won him respect if not popularity, secured improvement until he began to spend much of his time overseas on missionary work.
Further Constitutional Revision
In 1904, Mr R. T. Simons, the British Consul at Tahiti, paid his first visit to Pitcairn and found the parliamentary system too cumbersome for the small community. He reintroduced the time-honoured post of Chief Magistrate and two committees to take charge of internal and external (that is marine) affairs. All the posts were made subject to election and an additional office of Secretary-Treasurer was created. What was more, the days of representation without taxation were ended: an annual licence fee for the possession of firearms was introduced which, until 1968, when motor vehicle licences were introduced, was Pitcairn’s only tax. With some amendment Simon’s constitution and code stood the test of time, until in 1940 Mr H. E. Maude, representing the British High Commissioner in Fiji, consolidated and expanded them.
The End of Isolation
The twentieth century brought an end to European rivalry in the Pacific and naval visits gradually diminished. Fortunately the Mission ship Pitcairn and her successors maintained contact with Tahiti and merchantmen again began to call with increasing frequency until, in 1914, the opening of the Panama Canal placed Pitcairn on the direct run to New Zealand. Many of the new visitors were liners carrying hundreds of passengers anxious to have mementoes of the island: This halfway rock on the longest regular service in the world. A ship a week, and Pitcairn’s isolation was over!
The pattern of life changed, inevitably. More and more men developed an urge to see the world, which money and the visiting ships made possible, and communities grew up in Wellington and Auckland from where some moved on to Australia. But even so, the public economy of Pitcairn languished and it was not until postage stamps were issued in 1940 that the island was able to afford some of the public amenities taken for granted in other parts of the world.