Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Of Pitcairn's Island and American Constitutional Theory

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Of Pitcairn's Island and American Constitutional Theory

Article excerpt

Few tales from human experience are more compelling than that of the mutiny on the Bounty and its extraordinary aftermath. On April 28, 1789, crew members of the Bounty, led by Fletcher Christian, seized the ship and its commanding officer, William Bligh.(1) After being set adrift with eighteen sympathizers in the Bounty's launch, Bligh navigated to landfall across 3600 miles of ocean in "the greatest open-boat voyage in the history of the sea."(2) Christian, in the meantime, recognized that only the gallows awaited him in England and so laid plans to start a new and hidden life in the South Pacific.(3) After briefly returning to Tahiti, Christian set sail for the most untraceable of destinations: the uncharted and uninhabited Pitcairn's Island.(4) On this island, Christian's coterie of nine English sailors, six Tahitian men, and twelve Tahitian women established a society disconnected from the rest of the world.(5) According to the best-known account of these settlers' experiences--Charles Nordhoff's and James N. Hall's Pitcairn's Island--Christian also established a government for the colony based on the principle of pure democracy.(6)

It is a curiosity of history that the mutiny aboard the Bounty occurred in the same year--some might even say the same week--that the national government organized under the Constitution of the United States came into being.(7) The republican form of government established by that Constitution now has endured more than two centuries, while the polity established on Pitcairn's Island lasted, according to Nordhoff and Hall, no more than four brief years.(8) These contrasting histories invite the question whether the failed experiment in democracy on Pitcairn's Island offers insight into the durability of our own constitutional regime.

To hold out the account provided by Nordhoff and Hall as an accurate touchstone for true comparative legal analysis would be emphatically wrong. Their tale, after all, is more a novel than a history(9) and, even in its broad outlines, rests largely on inference and surmise.(10) Additionally, even if Nordhoff and Hall's account were accurate in every detail, greatly differing social conditions would render treacherous any fruitful comparison of the government of America and that of Pitcairn's Island. Nonetheless, the tale of Pitcairn's Island provides a useful allegory for reflecting on the American constitutional experiment.(11) In particular, the stark simplicity of the Pitcairners' tale pushes into bold relief our own Constitution's complex organizing principles: fear of majority faction, the preference for checked and divided powers, and the evolutionary inclusion in the political process of all persons affected by it.(12) The story of the settlers of Pitcairn's Island suggests the wisdom of these key elements of American constitutional theory, while a study of American constitutional theory raises the question whether those same settlers, in those same circumstances, would have met a different fate had they opted for a different set of governmental structures.


After "careful study of every existing account,"(13) Charles Nordhoff and James N. Hall published Pitcairn's Island in 1934.(14) According to the authors, "discrepancies and improbabilities" marked earlier chronicles of the island's settlement.(15) As a result, the authors "selected a sequence of events which seem[ed] to them to render more plausible the play of cause and effect."(16) Although little is known with certainty about what happened on Pitcairn's Island, the broad outlines of the Nordhoff and Hall chronology seem inherently plausible.(17) Their tale may be summarized as follows.

In late December 1789, Fletcher Christian and his Tahitian wife, Maimiti, first set foot on Pitcairn's Island.(18) With Christian were eight other Englishmen and their eight Tahitian wives, three Tahitian noblemen and their three wives, and three unmarried Tahitian men. …

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