Daily Archives: 6 October 2004

Pitcairn Marriage Practices, 1838-39

After a period of too many unruly visits by Pacific whalers, the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island became a British Crown Colony on 29 November 1838. Captain Elliott of the HMS Fly drew up a few “hasty regulations” and oversaw the election of a magistrate. (All inhabitants 18 or older could vote, women as well as men!)

The regulatory titles are interesting.

  1. Laws and Regulations of Pitcairn Island
  2. Laws for Dogs
  3. Law for Cats
  4. Law Regarding the School
  5. Miscellaneous
  6. Laws for Wood
  7. Laws Respecting Landmarks
  8. Laws for Trading with Ships
  9. Law for the Public Anvil &c.

But perhaps more interesting in light of Pitcairn’s current trials for sex abuse of young girls is an account of Pitcairn marriage practices when it first became a Crown Colony.

Captain Elliott had proposed that a British ship-of-war should visit the colony at least each twelve months. HMS Sparrowhawk, under the command of Captain H. Shepherd, arrived at Pitcairn Island on 9th November 1839….

At the time of the Sparrowhawk’s visit, Lieutenant James Lowry recorded that the population was then 51 males and 51 females, and that “Some of the girls and young women were very pretty, and would be considered beauties in Old England, and all were good-looking”.

Of Fletcher Christian’s only daughter, Mary Ann, he wrote: “There has been only one old maid on the island, and she is now nearly fifty, and is as cross and crabbed as any old maid need be; she rails against the early marriages most heartily.”

The last five marriages before the arrival of the Sparrowhawk show that the Pitcairners of the second generation were indeed marrying young. On 30th October 1836 there had been two marriages. Charles Christian III, aged 18, married Charlotte Quintal, aged 14, and Matthew McCoy, aged 17, married Margaret Christian, also aged 14.

In 1837 Arthur Quintal II, at the age of 21, married his fifteen-year-old cousin, Martha Quintal, on 22nd October. And on 5th November John Quintal, at 17, married Dinah Young eleven days before her thirteenth birthday. Dinah was still attending school when the warship called at Pitcairn, though by then she had a son, John Quintal III, who was born on 23rd December 1838.

There were no marriages in 1838, and the only marriage in 1839 was on 24th March, between Thursday October Christian II, aged 19, and Mary (Polly) Young, who was then only 14.

The average age of the first generation at marriage was 22 for the males and 21 for the females. However, up to this period, the average age of marriage partners of the second generation was 18 for the males and only 14 for the females.

The community was divided into thirteen family groups at the end of 1839.

After Captain Shepherd had decided several cases submitted to him for decision by the Chief Magistrate, Edward Quintal, the Sparrowhawk sailed for Tahiti on 12th November.

SOURCE: The Pitcairners, by Robert Nicolson (Pasifika Press, 1997), pp. 161-169.

The Head Heeb has been most assiduous in tracking this story. His latest post ends thus:

In the meantime, Kathy Marks looks into the roots of the scandal and argues that Pitcairn shares the oppressiveness of many small isolated communities. For better or worse, the society that Marks describes is now being shaken to the core.

The Head Heeb also notes the Pitcairn News blog by Chris Double, a Pitcairner descendent.

UPDATE: In the comments, the Swanker

Poses the question: where does one draw the line between what is culturally acceptable and what is abhorrent, no matter what the culture?”

A second draft of my reply follows:

There are both costs and benefits to being a remote British Crown Colony on the edges of a huge anglospheric Kulturkreis, but those who pay and those who benefit have been shifting as new moral standards filter out to the peripheries, along with arbitrary and erratic attempts at enforcement.

The primary early benefit of being a Crown Colony was to protect the island, and especially the women, from unruly outsiders on visiting ships. But the Crown has until now done little to protect insiders from other insiders. Pitcairn’s current travails illustrate–in nanocosm!–the dilemma of national sovereignty (or local autonomy) in the postmodern world. Is joining the UN today’s equivalent of becoming a Crown Colony?

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