Royal commission into matters relating to norfolk island

Chapter 9 GUIDELINE (b) ‘The historical rights of the descendants Of the Pitcairn settlers arising from their Settlement in 1856’

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Chapter 9

‘The historical rights of the descendants
Of the Pitcairn settlers arising from their Settlement in 1856


1.Identification of the Pitcairn descendants

For the purpose of this Report, Pitcairn descendants are regarded as the people descended by blood ties from the Pitcairners transferred to Norfolk Island in 1856.

Evidence from these people revealed a widespread firmly and honestly held belief that Queen Victoria gave Norfolk Island to their ancestors in 1856 for the purpose of enabling them to continue the way of life they had thitherto enjoyed in Pitcairn Island.

It is virtually on that basic belief that the claim to the so—called historical rights rests for they are inextricably linked to the Pitcairn way of life itself.

Putting aside for a moment the question of the validity of the claim advanced by the Pitcairn descendants, and turning to the rights themselves, although opinion regarding their composition varied, it became evident that they certainly included the following:

    1. A right to live in Norfolk Island which ‘belonged to’ the Pitcairners and their descendants.

    2. A right to govern themselves as their ancestors did in Pitcairn’s, subject to and in accordance with British law. (No Pitcairn descendants at any stage contended that they are not British subjects, On the contrary they proudly claimed that they are).

    3. A right to maintain their ancestors’ way of life which included:

      1. communal grave digging and free burials;

      2. enough land to be held by families to permit them to sustain themselves in basic necessities;
      3. grazing on commons land to be available to all;

      4. maintenance and development of the Pitcairn dialect;

      5. non—interference with a life style involving such things as self—help, family picnics, special festive days17 and observance of the Christian religion;

      6. obligation to provide labour for public works.

    4. A right to freedom from taxes — and certainly freedom from taxes imposed upon Norfolk Island by other countries, colonies or territories for the partial benefit, at least, of those other areas.

1.The claims relating to ownership and self—government

Turning now to the question of the validity of the first two claims, it needs to be said at the outset that there is no legal foundation for them whatever. Neither from evidence given mainland Australia and in Norfolk Island, nor from examination archival records in Australia, New Zealand and England, has any proof been revealed that Queen Victoria in Council or the Imperial Parliament, the only authorities with power to do so, did, infact, formally grant these or any other rights to the Pitcairners. No letter, no declaration, no order in Council and no Imperial Act was produced in evidence or discovered by the Commission, in Australia, Norfolk Island, New Zealand or England, which could in any way support these claims. Further, not only are the claims unsupported by any legal authority but they are inconsistent with the orders of the Queen in Council and the instructions issued by servants of the Crown.

It is clearly demonstrable in respect of the claims that the entire Island ‘belonged to’ the Pitcairners that the opposite is the truth and that Norfolk Island was never ceded to them.

Five documents (all of which have been quoted in Chapter 5, Historical Outline and Chronological Summary) clearly attest this truth. They are:

    1. The B. Toup Nicolas letter dated 5 July 1854;

    2. The 1856 Order in Council;

    3. The instructions to Governor Denison from the British Government in 1856;

    4. Governor Denison’s instructions to Lieutenant Gregorie in 1856;

    5. The Fremantle letter dated 25 June 1856.

In support of the above documentary evidence, it is historical fact that:

    1. Governor Denison’s instructions regarding land apportion­ment were finally executed after initial rejection;

    2. Land sales were made before 1859 to non—Pitcairners by the Pitcairners themselves;

    3. Land was officially granted to a non—Pitcairn group, to wit the Melanesian Mission, in 1866.

Both the documentary material and the historical facts evidence beyond all doubt that the Island was never given or ceded to the Pitcairners, but that at all times the Crown retained full control over all the Island’s land and all original disposals of it.

Again, in respect of the present claim that the Pitcairners were given in 1856 the right to self—government, it should be pointed out that they did accept in 1857 the simple set of thirty—nine laws drawn up by Governor Denison and the two added at their request in 1858, and that they lived under those laws for many years. Acceptance in this manner of laws devised by a non—Pitcairn authority does imply a departure from the assertion by the Pitcairners of their 1856 understanding that they would govern themselves. At the same time, however, it should be conceded that, in so far as the internal operations in the Island of those laws was concerned, the Pitcairners did in fact conduct this aspect of government entirely by themselves under a Chief Magistrate and a House of Elders, elected by them. It was not until 1896 that a Chief Magistrate from New South Wales was sent to administer the Island.

It may well be that the belief that the Island was given to them for them to govern arose from the statement by B. Toup Nicolas that at that time it was not intended to allow others in the Island, a policy which Governor Denison attempted to maintain. Be that as it may, the belief has persisted in spite of the fact that whenever such a claim has been advanced between 1856 and the present, it has been refuted. An example of the manner in which the question has raised itself again and again is provided by the following comment by Atlee Hunt in his Report18:

Much controversy has been raised concerning the understanding as to the terms on which the Pitcairners were to occupy their new land. They seem to have acquired the idea that the whole of Norfolk was to be given to them as their exclusive property, but it is beyond doubt that the arrange­ment was not that Norfolk was to be ceded to them, but only that grants of land would be made to the different families, though the decision was expressed that it was ‘not at present intended to allow any other class of settlers to reside or occupy land on the Island’.

The role, if any, to be allotted to Pitcairn descendants in any new form of government to be established for the Island is difficult to decide. It is obvious that to preserve their way of life and the present character of the Island, the influence of the Pitcairn descendants must have opportunity for expression. yet to divide any small community into two basic and distinct classes at government level, with one class possessed of greater Powers than the other, is to invite dissension and internecine strife. Where one group dominates, other groups tend to wither or be totally ineffectual, knowing effort on their part is useless. The inter-group feelings in the Island have already been referred to in Chapter 7 (Observations and Impressions) of this Report. Any step in the near future which did not strive to coalesce the different Elements into a community with a sense of purpose, self—reliance and pride in the Island would be a most retrograde and unfortunate move.

The importance to the community and its tourist industry (upon which its economy rests) of the beauty and tranquillity of the Island, its unhurried rustic charm and its historical interest must be evident to all. The part played and to be played by the Pitcairn descendants in achieving and maintaining that status must be equally evident.

However, to guard against too dramatic a cleavage between Pitcairn descendants and others, it is felt that emphasis should be placed on length of residence and acceptance of the Pitcairn life style as the basis of political power in the Island rather than on Pitcairn descent. The fundamental schisms in the present society are clearly between some of the short—term and some of the long—term residents and their respective approaches to life. An almost anthropological zenophobia can be detected in this. It lessens as the ‘foreigners’ stay increases. Adaptation on both sides occurs, greater understandings develop, and a mellowness softens attitudes towards once stark differences. Hence, time should be invoked as an ally in devising any new form of local government, with power being given not to Pitcairn descendants as such but to Norfolk Islanders as such; and Norfolk Islanders proven by such factors as a genuine appreciation of the Island’s natural attractions and a bona fide wish to perpetuate a way of life that has so much to commend it and not merely by the accident of birth or marriage into a Pitcairn family, nor by a predominant desire to take advantage of the peculiar tax status of the Island or the business opportunities it affords or both.

While the Pitcairn heritage should remain a clear feature of Norfolk’s history and way of life, the Island should consciously strive towards a Norfolk Island identity and image in the future. It should place the Pitcairn component in a secure, but nonetheless non-dominant, niche in that future. The Pitcairn heritage is, After all, now the proud possession of under one-half of the adult community and its value may lessen over time as Pitcairn descendants continue to marry outsiders. It seems wise, too, that newcomers to the Island be made to realise that it is a community in which they should serve, as it were, a probationary period before becoming entitled to a voice in the Island’s destiny. Persons knowing this, and not caring for it, may, of course, not bother to enter the community and become a potential disruptive force.

Of influence also in arriving at a sensible approach to this question of local government and the role to be played in it by different sections of the Island community is the need to ensure that new blood and new abilities are given a chance to contribute to the Island’s advancement. Seldom does one sector in any society possess all the talents and to allow, for instance, the Pitcairn descendants to dominate for the foreseeable future to the exclusion of the skills of others who may move in good faith to the Island would be to hinder its progress. Such new blood should have its opportunity to play a role in government and it will be to the community’s advantage for this to be encouraged.

While recognising, therefore, the importance of the Pitcairn descendants in the community, it is felt that the basic requirement in both entitlement to a vote and to eligibility to stand as a candidate for local government should be a certain minimum length of stay in the Island rather than a particular ancestry. Such a criterion and assimilation to the Island’s life style will be much less divisive to the community and much more conducive to the development of a pure ‘Norfolk Islander’ outlook on community affairs.

The above views are fortified by the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 which is expressed to extend to Norfolk Island. Among Other things it forbids discrimination on the basis of descent.

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