Volume 77 1968 > Volume 77, No. 2 > A model for the analysis of island emigration, by John Harre, p 177 - 186
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In the Josiah Mason lectures delivered at Birmingham in 1947 Raymond Firth first brought forward in explicit form his concept of “social organisation”, which involves a consideration of “the exercise of choice, the making of decisions” 1 in the context of social behaviour. Stanner has drawn attention 2 to the fact that, although this new concept has not been adopted specifically to any great extent by his colleagues, as a theorist Firth has had a considerable influence on many younger anthropologists. It might also be added that in his own writings Firth has confined himself to utilising the concept either in an ethnographically specific manner, 3 or in making generalisations in broad terms. 4 The most explicit and fruitful use of the concept has been made by Fredrik Barth in his development of generative models. 5 “The most simple and general model available to us”, says Barth, “is one of an aggregate of people exercising choice while influenced by certain constraints and incentives.” 6 In using such models he is concerned with the actual elements involved and the generation of social forms from them. Thus, while Firth has utilised his concept in either ethnographically specific, or in general terms and Barth has examined the detailed implications of choice and decision, little attempt has been made to formulate what might be called “middle range” generalisations about social decisions.

In this paper 7 an attempt is made to construct models capable of explaining - 178 the way in which decisions to emigrate are made by Pitcairn Islanders. It is my contention that the models so developed give rise to hypotheses about decision making which have some general validity—or at least may be worth testing in other ethnographic contexts. These, I suggest, lie in an intermediate position between the formulations of Firth and Barth and thus belong to a “middle range”.

Pitcairn Island is situated in the South Pacific approximately midway between New Zealand and Panama. Just outside the tropics, it has a mean temperature range from 66° F in August to 75° F in February and an absolute range from 51° F to 93° F. About 80 inches of rain fall each year. A wide range of fruit and vegetables, both temperate and tropical, can be grown, many of them all year round.

The island is approximately two miles long by one mile across and is surrounded on nearly all sides by high cliffs. It has no reef and few accessible beaches. The only satisfactory point of access is at Bounty Bay where rudimentary facilities are provided for loading and unloading the island boats which are similar in design to lifeboats and a little less than forty feet long. Two of the five boats have inboard engines, while the other three are either towed or rowed. These boats provide the only physical means of communication with passing ships, the majority of which are cargo vessels of 10,000 to 20,000 tons plying between New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Radio communication is set up with all passing ships and a regular telegram service is maintained through Rarotonga. Internal communications were solely by foot and wheel-barrow until two tractors were introduced in 1965.

Pitcairn is administered by the British Colonial Service through its South Pacific Office in Suva, but most decisions are taken in conjunction with the Pitcairn Island Council. Most members of this body are elected. It is advised by the schoolteacher and the pastor. The schoolteacher is seconded from the New Zealand teaching service and normally stays for two years. Schooling follows a modified New Zealand pattern. The pastor is appointed by the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Australia and is either an Australian or a New Zealander. His wife is normally a trained nurse and acts as Medical Officer. All islanders are nominally Seventh Day Adventists and nearly all attend church regularly.

Everyone lives in the settlement of Adamstown which is spread out for half a mile and starts immediately above Bounty Bay, but gardens are situated in various parts of the island where soil is suitable. Ideally, land is individually owned and inherited bilaterally but there is no pressure on it for gardening, and gardens may be planted anywhere by permission of the owner. Most islanders, however, are loathe to plant trees on lands they do not own. A large part of the island has come into the hands of a few older islanders who either own it or are holding it in trust from an earlier generation and are reluctant to divide it amongst those with inherited rights.

Households normally consist of a nuclear family and each works four or five garden plots 20 to 30 yards square. Both husband and wife, and occasionally the children, tend the gardens which supply the household with its basic requirements of fruit and vegetables. A hundred or so goats roam the island but they - 179 are not milked and their flesh is used only on festive occasions. The flesh of chickens is eaten but their eggs are seldom used. Fishing is done both from the rocks and off shore from canoes, but provides a relatively small amount of protein for consumption.

Pitcairners depend on imports for meat, butter, eggs, milk powder, tea, flour, cooking oil, fat, rice and sugar as well as a large variety of processed foods. Although a certain amount of direct barter in food takes place on passing ships, most is ordered from New Zealand or the United Kingdom and paid for in cash. Individuals rely for their cash income on the very small salaries paid to most men and some women as government officers, and on the sale of their carvings and basket work. Household incomes range from £100 to £400 per annum. The government income comes mostly from the sale of stamps.

The Pitcairn Island community was founded in 1790 by nine of the English sailors who had mutinied on H.M.S. Bounty and eighteen Pacific Islanders. During the first few years of settlement all but two of the 15 men died violent deaths, but not before most had fathered several children. When the island was next contacted in 1808 John Adams was the only surviving adult male, and it was he who was responsible for the direction taken by community life.

During the nineteenth century 8 Pitcairn was affected by three principal factors: fluctuations in the number of passing ships; a rapidly increasing population (see Table 1); and attempts by several stranger settlers to dominate island affairs. In 1831 and 1856 attempts were made to move the Pitcairners because of population pressure, first to Tahiti and then to Norfolk Island. All those who survived returned from Tahiti as soon as transport could be provided, but of the 194 who went to Norfolk only 43 returned (in two parties, one in 1859 and the other five years later). The present inhabitants are the descendants of these 43 and the few strangers who have since settled on the island.

Year Population  
1790 0-27 Arrival of original Bounty settlers.
1800 34  
1825 66  
1831 86-0 Departure to Tahiti.
1832 0-70 Return from Tahiti.
1839 106  
1844 119  
1850 146  
1856 194-0 Departure to Norfolk Island.
1859 0-16 First returning party arrived.
1864 16-43 Second returning party arrived.
1893 136  
1897 142  
1933 190  
1937 233  
1946 126  
1958 136  
1964 76  
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The most significant development of the twentieth centurn for Pitcairn was the opening of the Panama canal in 1914. This brought about a rapid increase in the number of passing ships and created close and regular contacts between Pitcairn and New Zealand. Recently the passenger ships (which are of most significance to the Pitcairners) have become fewer (see Table 2) and it is likely that by the end of 1968 there will be none calling regularly.

Year 1933 1934 1935 1936 1937 1938 1939 1940 1941 1942 1943
Number of ships 42 49 51 51 56 48 39 23 22 13 11
Year 1944 1945 1946 1947 1948 1949 1950 1951 1952 1953 1954
Number of ships 14 24 36 41 48 48 43 56 66 67 69
Year 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959 1960 1961 1962 1963 1964  
Number of ships 67 65 55 58 53 46 50 39 48 41  

The population of Pitcairn reached a peak of 233 in 1937 and since that time has gone through two major periods of decline (see Table 3). The first (from 1937 to 1946) left the population at 126, and the second which began about 1956 appears to be still in progress. By the end of 1964 the population had dropped to 76. This rapid decline has been brought about almost entirely by emigration and it is the object of this paper to examine that process. Apart from the period from 1950 to 1956 emigration has been fairly consistent, although every three or four years it has been rather more pronounced (see Table 4). It is probable that this is related to the availability of passages on passing ships and the resolution of structural tensions as outlined below.

Year 1933 1934 1935 1936 1937 1938 1939 1940 1941 1942 1943
Population 190 210 201 208 233 214 214 196 184 178 170
Year 1944 1945 1946 1947 1948 1949 1950 1951 1952 1953 1954
Population 175 151 126 133 138 148 138 132 140 142 136
Year 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959 1960 1961 1962 1963 1964  
Population 143 161 152 136 146 137 115 119 83 76  

NOTE: Because a five-year absence is taken to define emigration, the post 1960 figures are not strictly comparable with those for previous years.

Year 1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 1946 1947 1948 1949 1950 1951 1952
Number of emigrants 3 8 2 5 4 9 10 3 5 2 11 3 1
Year 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959 1960 1961 1962 1963 1964  
Number of emigrants 5 0 0 1 5 9 1 4 9 2 33 11  
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All those who leave the island do not necessarily emigrate and a distinction must therefore be made between these two processes. A number of individuals move freely between Pitcairn and New Zealand (see Table 5). One man has been to New Zealand on eight occasions since 1940, and in 1965 there were fewer than ten who had never left Pitcairn. I term emigrants those people who have been away from the island for five years or more. An examination of the subsequent movements of those who had at one stage been away for more than five years but had returned showed that most (7 out of 13) had returned for what was clearly a visit, one developed a habit of moving frequently between New Zealand and Pitcairn, one couple returned in their old age and died on the island, one man was accidentally killed while on what was intended to be a visit to look after his mother, one man is still living on the island after returning to visit his elderly mother, and only one has definitely re-established residence on the island. Even he is anxious to leave again but cannot persuade his wife.

Year Number of Arrivals Number of Departures Nett gain 1
1940 9 7 + 2
1941 0 10 - 10
1942 0 5 - 5
1943 3 8 - 5
1944 7 7 0
1945 4 14 - 10
1946 4 28 - 24
1947 11 8 + 3
1948 9 8 + 1
1949 16 7 + 9
1950 17 26 - 9
1951 3 9 - 6
1952 20 16 + 4
1953 14 21 - 7
1954 7 10 - 3
1955 9 9 0
1956 14 4 + 10
1957 1 9 - 8
1958 6 23 - 17
1959 19 10 + 9
1960 10 10 0
1961 11 31 - 20
1962 12 7 + 5
1963 10 51 - 41
1964 14 22 - 8
1   A negative value is given to population losses.

The selective operation of emigration has produced a “top heavy” population structure (see Table 6) and there is an extreme imbalance of the sexes in many age groups, brought about by the operation of chance factors within a very small population.

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Age Number of Males Number of Females Total
0- 5 2 4 6
6-10 9 1 10
11-15 3 6 9
16-20 0 2 2
21-25 1 2 3
26-30 1 2 3
31-35 2 1 3
36-40 3 5 8
41-45 2 0 2
46-50 4 1 5
51-55 2 2 4
56-60 2 2 4
61-65 2 2 4
66-70 4 3 7
71-75 1 1 2
76-80 2 0 2
81-85 2 1 3
86-90 0 2 2

The actual mechanism of emigration is closely related to sickness, for although in 1965 at least half of the adult islanders seemed anxious to leave and most agreed that all could find the necessary £50 fare to New Zealand, it is usually only those who are recommended to go to New Zealand for medical treatment who actually leave. This in part relates to the availability of berths, for most of the passing ships are fully booked on their voyages to New Zealand, and priority is given to those in need of medical attention; in part to the fact that the government subsidises the cost of such trips and advances the balance of expenses; and in part to the fact that this is one of the few motives which is recognised as outweighing the various obligations each individual has. In this last sense we may speak of sickness as a “legitimate” reason for leaving. Other reasons for leaving which are thought of as “legitimate” are holiday visits to kinsfolk and the taking advantage of a cheap passage which is occasionally offered to some of the islanders by a passing ship. Emigrants may be those who leave for “legitimate” reasons and do not in fact return or those who wish to leave permanently but must wait for some “legitimate” reason. No restrictions are placed upon the entry of Pitcairners to New Zealand.

Pitcairners, thus, do not generally make a simple decision to emigrate; rather they make a series of decisions related to varying situations which eventually put them in a position tantamount to having emigrated. A typical sequence of events might be as follows (see Figure 1):

FIGURE 1: Emigration Pattern.
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  • 1. A father takes his son to New Zealand for medical treatment.
  • 2. He decides to remain for long enough to earn sufficient money to repay the government loan.
  • 3. As this means he will be away for some months he spends his first earnings to bring out his wife and daughter.
  • 4. Subsequently, when he has found a suitable house, his two other sons travel out with an uncle.

The arrival of the family in New Zealand has several effects:

  • 1. They are forced to find housing, thus resolving one of the problems which often discourages people who wish to, from emigrating.
  • 2. If they find satisfactory housing and the whole family has come they become a potentially more stable unit in New Zealand society.
  • 3. They come to depend on the facilities, such as Social Security, specialised schooling and more easily available consumer goods, offered by New Zealand.
  • 4. The money needed to return is greater because the whole family is now involved and initial savings have been used to bring out the other members. Sometimes a family returns—more often it remains in New Zealand.

To understand the movement from Pitcairn Island it is necessary to look at the way in which decisions are made. Firth has suggested in a more general context 9 that decisions are based “on personal evaluations, which are the translation of general ends or values of group range into terms which are significant to the individual.” He suggests that this is done in part by utilising “existing structural principles”. The examination of the structural principles which operates in any society involves the discovery or creation of a number of explanatory models, for an individual plays a number of roles in a variety of groups and not only do these roles often come into conflict, but they may be guided by varying sets of values. Some of these models are conscious and some unconscious. 10 It is also important to recognise that decisions are progressive and cumulative—subsequent choices are determined by previous decisions. This is similar to the point made by Barth when he says of his concept of “transaction” that “it shows the compounded effects which multiple independent actors, each seeking to pursue the transactionally optimal course of behaviour, have on each other, and thereby the gross frequentative patterns of behaviour which will tend to emerge in such situations.” 11

The individual Pitcairner can usefully be seen as the centre of a number of forces, some tending to pull him from the island, others to hold him there (or if he has left to pull him back). If he is to be considered in equilibrium when he does not move it is certainly an unstable equilibrium. At any time a decision may be made by him or by another which will rearrange the forces and move him one way or another. The society is like a loaded spring held at tension by chains of individuals and chains of circumstances. In such a situation the smallest of influences may bring about significant changes.

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FIGURE 2: Kinship Network as at 1 January 1965.

The model here suggested is most easily described in its application to kinship (see Figure 2). The man (4) has obligations to his wife (3), his daughter (12), and his siblings (5) and (7). Some of these obligations tend to draw him from the island, others to hold him there. He sees his primary obligation to be that to his wife, and she in turn has an obligation to support her older sister (2) and her sister's husband (1). (1) and (2) have little land and neither is in good health. They therefore rely primarily on (3) and (4). (4)'s next most important (or perhaps equally important) obligation is to his daughter (12). He feels that until she is married (she is engaged to (13)) he should stay with her on the island. He sees no strict obligations towards his siblings (5) and (7), who live in New Zealand, but he would like to be near them, particularly (7). A number of possible actions could rearrange the forces acting on (4). (1) and (2) have a daughter (9) in New Zealand whom they would like to visit and with whom they would be welcome to stay permanently. Their departure would remove an obligation to stay from (3) who has a son (11) in New Zealand whom she would like to be near. When (12) marries (13), (4) will feel no obligation to stay on her behalf. If (7) were to return to Pitcairn one of the incentives for (4)'s departure would be removed.

But kinship is not the only system to which decisions are related. Not only does (4) have responsibilities to his kin, but to his government position. He is also one of the most experienced coxswains and knows that his expert knowledge of the boats would be missed by the community. He is affected by the fact that he sees no economic future in the island and yearns for the regular working hours and predictable pay packets in a New Zealand job. He feels isolated on Pitcairn and unsure of the future of the curio trade, but he enjoys the fishing. He does not regularly attend church and is indifferent to its theology, but is frustrated by petty church regulations; nevertheless on Pitcairn he feels a freedom which it would be hard to achieve in state-dominated New Zealand. He likes Pitcairn's warm climate and knows that when last in New Zealand his wife was frequently sick with colds and 'flu, but he knows that medical facilities in New Zealand are superior to those on Pitcairn.

Although the net result of these various factors (see Appendix 1) for most people is the production of a desire to leave the island it must be stressed that most factors have a number of aspects (often opposed) and each may affect differently various contrasting pairs of categories of individuals. The most significant of these are based on sex, age, leadership achievement and land control. The most likely individual actually to emigrate would be a young adult man with little land and no position of leadership. The old, particularly the women and the men with extensive land holdings, are the most reluctant to leave.

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Population projections are not significant for a population as small as Pitcairn's, but even were this not so a prediction as to the critical minimum number of people who could maintain a viable community in these conditions is extremely difficult. The islanders reckon this in terms of a boat crew, which is 12 to 14 able-bodied men. Although it is certain that communications could be maintained with fewer men than this it is possible that a mass exodus may take place as this number is approached.


From this preliminary study it is possible to suggest certain hypotheses relating to the decision to emigrate from Pitcairn Island.

  • 1. A final decision may be achieved progressively by a series of choices each unrelated (at least overtly) to it.
  • 2. Choices are contingent. A following choice may not be possible nor perhaps conceivable until a preceding one has been made. Decisions made by one individual may produce a chain reaction affecting many others.
  • 3. A general predisposition to take certain action may not be reckoned adequate reason for doing so, but the predisposition may constitute an unconscious model which underlies a series of choices related to apparently quite different ends.
  • 4. An individual is affected simultaneously by his position in a number of sub-systems of the society and each produces its own pull on him in terms of either obligations or preferences.
  • 5. Even within one system of action differential forces may act on the individual.
  • 6. It follows from 3, 4 and 5 above that major change affecting many individuals may be triggered by a relatively minor act on the part of one, related perhaps to some completely fortuitous circumstance.

Although these hypotheses have grown from the study of an island society which could not be considered “typical” of Oceania, it is to be hoped that they are sufficient broadly based to provide a starting point for similar studies of other small and isolated communities, and to constitute “middle range” generalisations within the theoretical field of social organisation.

  • BARTH, Fredrik, 1966. Models of Social Organisation. London, Royal Anthropological Institute, Occasional Paper No. 23.
  • FIRTH, Raymond, 1951. Elements of Social Organisation. London, Watts.
  • —— 1954. “Social Organisation and Social Change.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 84:1-20.
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  • —— 1955. “Some Principles of Social Organisation.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 85:1-18.
  • —— 1959. Social Change in Tikopia. London, George Allen and Unwin.
  • LÉVI-STRAUSS, C., 1953. “Social Structure”, in Kroeber, A. L. (Ed.), Anthropology Today. London, University of Chicago Press.
  • MAUDE, H. E., 1954. “The History of Pitcairn Island”, in Ross, A. S. C., The Pitcairnese Language. London, Andre Deutsch.
  • NICOLSON, R. B., 1965. The Pitcairners. Sydney, Angus and Robertson.
  • STANNER, W. E. H., 1966. “Firth's Conception of Social Organisation.” The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 2:66-78.
1   Firth 1951:36.
2   Stanner 1966.
3   Firth 1959.
4   Firth 1954, 1955.
5   Barth 1966.
6   Ibid.:1.
7   A revised version of a paper given at the Eleventh Pacific Science Congress, 1966 The analysis is based on a stay of three months on the island from December 1964 to February 1965 and information obtained from the Central Archives at Suva in October 1965. Subsequent research is to be carried out among Pitcairners resident in New Zealand, and a second field trip to the island is being planned. The research has been sponsored by the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the University of Otago, the New Zealand University Grants Committee, the Pitcairn Administration and various New Zealand industries. I am grateful for help given in the field by my wife and by Mr. Robert Wade.
8   For accounts of the history of Pitcairn see Nicholson 1965 and Maude 1964.
9   Firth 1951:36.
10   In the sense of Lévi-Strauss 1953.
11   Barth 1966:11.