Policing on Pitcairn
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Nothing could have prepared Constable Kay-Anna Lawson for her first sight of Pitcairn Island.
Although the International Service Group at PNHQ had done its best to brief her and provide training for her secondment to the remote Pacific location, she was still astounded when she first glimpsed her new home.
“The artist’s palette that is the island, the sea, the sky – the lush greens and hues of blue are breathtaking,” she says.
That sense of wonder has persisted, and grown, during her 19 months as the Pitcairn Island community police officer.
Policing a 47-square-kilometre rock in the middle of nowhere with a population of 50 people, under the auspices of Britain, is not a job that would suit everyone, but Kay-Anna has an advantage when it comes to out-of-the-way places.
She was raised in the Outer Hebridean Islands in Scotland and, in fact, it was the remoteness of Pitcairn – 5500 kilometres east of New Zealand – that appealed to her. “The Chathams were too close!”
The 48-year-old officer has worked rurally throughout her career, first in Scotland and then in Northland, on the frontline and within the family harm team.
“I’ve never felt isolated in Pitcairn,” she says. “For me, the vastness of the ocean surrounding the island provides me with a feeling of freedom, not isolation.”
It takes four days to get there from New Zealand, including 10 hours’ flying time, a stopover in Tahiti and two days on a ferry.
There is no airport on the island. The only access is via boat, disembarking onto a longboat to reach the only berth, a tricky jetty landing in Bounty Bay. From there, it is a trek up the hill to Adamstown, the only settlement.
Kay-Anna was grateful to have her husband, Ian, a doctor, with her for one year, working as the island’s GP. Although, as with her policing role, it ended up being a broad job description. “He was also the dentist, vet, radiographer, lab technician, pharmacist and nurse and provided medical clearances for visiting yachts and cruise ships.”
The couple have four adult children – twin sons of 24, a daughter of 22 and a son of 19. None have visited Pitcairn as three are at university in New Zealand and the other, having completed uni, is working in a goldmine in Australia.
Kay-Anna works a 40-hour week, but is oncall all hours. The working week runs from Sunday to Thursday to cater for Saturday being the holy day among the Seventh-day Adventist community (the legacy of a visiting layman preacher in 1886).
Kay-Anna says most of the police cases she deals with do not, thankfully, relate to drugs or alcohol and the associated violence – a refreshing change from New Zealand policing.
But there is an eclectic mix of roles expected of the local bobby, from overseeing the Sea Scout troop to helping with the harvest of island staples such as pineapple, sugar cane and arrowroot.
She has also stocked shelves at the local store, kept an eye on explosives, scrubbed houses, cleared pathways and boarded high-end cruise ships to stamp passports.
“I have also had the privilege of cataloguing the contents of the island’s museum.”
There are many artefacts and relics from Pitcairn’s unusual history, including items from HMS Bounty, burnt and scuttled at the bottom of Bounty Bay, which brought the settlers to the island 230 years ago.
Until recently, it could still be seen on the ocean floor, but over the years much of it has been removed, both legally and illegally.
For Kay-Anna, a more exciting wreck is the Cornwallis, a 1200-tonne steel clipper that ran aground 175 years ago.
“A snorkel around that wreck is spectacular, as it is largely intact with masts, manual windlass and anchors all clearly visible and festooned with marine life.”
The clarity of the waters around Pitcairn is matched by a pristine night sky. Untainted by light pollution, as the island’s power generators switch off at 10pm each night, Pitcairn was recently granted official status as a dark sky sanctuary.
Another natural wonder is the annual visit of humpback whales who arrive to give birth in the waters around the island. “From the deck of the police station, you can often see whale mothers and their calves in the water.”
No matter where she is policing, or how good the view is, Kay-Anna says her reasons for “getting up in the morning and donning the uniform” have not changed over the years: “To make a difference and give victims a voice, in particular in terms of family violence and child abuse. It’s an old cliche, but one I strongly believe in.”
In Pitcairn, the shadow of historic sexual assault trials from the early 2000s still hangs over the island and, Kay-Anna says, they have undoubtedly had an influence on policing there, particularly in terms of safeguarding children.
“There are policies and protocols now in place concerning child safety. As a consequence, the seven children currently on Pitcairn are among the most safeguarded children in the world.
“A significant number of the community have undertaken child protection training, which will continue as best practice.”
In February, a Reconciliation Monument was erected on the island as an “apology” for the intergenerational, historic sexual offending that occurred.
The monument was a huge step forward for the island and one they are proud of, Kay-Anna says.
“As with any offending of this nature, there are victims, which is the tragedy, and some still live here.”
In general, she says, the residents are extremely proud of their mutineer heritage, with personal genealogy ingrained in the minds of each of the islanders, 65 per cent of whom are descended from the Bounty crew.
They have their own language, Pitkern – a mix of old English and Tahitian – which is widely used.
Survival and self-sufficiency are at the core of island life and, as a newcomer, you have to learn the ropes, says Kay-Anna.
Top of the list is collecting water, of which rain is the only source, although there is plenty of it and a desalination machine is available if needed.
All homes have multiple water-storage methods, for personal use and to maintain the food gardens that are a feature of every home.
No one will ever starve on Pitcairn, says Kay-Anna. “All households have vege gardens and fruit orchards, and bananas, coconuts, beans and pumpkin grow wild and profusely.
“There is also a store where all manner of goods can be bought, shipped from Countdown NZ every three months. As long as I have my chocolate fix, I am happy.”
Personal self-sufficiency is also vital for survival on the island, she says. “You have to be happy with your own company.”
“Nightlife” for her is a good book. Netflix arrived about two months ago when the internet was overhauled, but it still has limited household bandwidth allocation.
Essentially, she says, “Pitcairn is not the place to live and work if high-end shopping, takeaway dining and clean nails are the norm.”
However, there is a pizza joint, open some Fridays. “It must be the most remote pizzeria in the world.”
Kay-Anna has immense respect for the islanders. “They are a staunch, stoic, resilient, self-sufficient and extremely hard-working group of people who knit together strongly in the face of adversity. They are survivors.”
After more than two centuries of island life there’s no doubt about that, but the future for Pitcairn is uncertain.
“With the average age on the island at present being 49, sustainability and capacity in terms of the able workforce is limited. The unpredictability of Brexit is also causing food for thought,” she says.
However, there is still hope that tourism will increase and that the “repopulation scheme” now in place will encourage immigration.
For her, the best part of the job has been the chance to live on a Pacific island – “Who wouldn’t think that?” – and meeting an array of “amazing and interesting people”, from the islanders themselves to other professionals, yachties and cruise ship visitors.
Plus, “ditching the old Magnum boots for sandals”.
If you’re interested in finding out about overseas deployments in Police, email ISG training coordinator David Stone, email@example.com.
The story of the mutiny on the Bounty has been the stuff of Hollywood for decades, but the legacy of that famous uprising is, in many ways, an even stranger tale, played out in one of the remotest places on the planet.
Through unplanned circumstances – mainly due to the mutineers’ desire to evade British authorities – the HMS Bounty arrived at tiny Pitcairn Island in January 1790. On board were nine British sailors and a group of Tahitians, not all of whom were there willingly.
Fifteen men, 12 women and a baby girl came ashore on the deserted volcanic rock to begin a new life on what would eventually be declared, in 1838, a British colony. They were led by Fletcher Christian, the 22-year-old master’s mate who had kicked Captain Bligh off the Bounty.
Although the exact origins of the mutiny are uncertain, it seems to have been a combination of irritation over Bligh’s harsh regime and the allure of a more permissive Polynesian way of life, such as the sailors had encountered in Tahiti.
As fugitives and accidental settlers, the mutineers didn’t exactly have a plan when they arrived at Pitcairn – and it was probably less than encouraging to discover the remains of an earlier Polynesian population that had died out. However, the land was fertile, there was an abundance of nutritious breadfruit trees and they had brought seeds for sweet potatoes and yams and some livestock.
The Bounty, stripped of everything useful, was scuttled for fear it might be discovered by passing ships.
They set about creating a subsistence lifestyle, but any notions there might have been of building a utopia were not to be. Land was divided among the mutineers only – as were the women, but, as there were fewer women, the Tahitian men, who were treated as slaves, had to share wives.
In less than a year, two of the Tahitian men were killed for conspiring to murder the mutineers after the white men demanded that one of the Tahitians give up his wife following the death of a mutineer’s spouse.
Fighting over the women continued, and by 1794, in a cycle of revenge and murder, all the Tahitian men and five of the mutineers, including Fletcher Christian, had been killed. Only Edward Young, John Adams, Matthew Quintal and William McCoy survived, along with 10 women and their children.
A few years passed in relative peace, until 1799 when McCoy figured out how to distil a spirit from the roots of the tropical ti plant. It was so potent, it affected his mind and he threw himself into the sea from a clifftop, now named McCoy’s Drop.
Quintal also went berserk on the brew and, as seemed the preferred solution to all problems at the time, was put to death by Young and Adams. The following year, Young succumbed to an asthma attack.
Ten years after arriving in this potential paradise, Adams was the sole survivor of the original male settlers. He turned to religion, fathered many children and the settlement survived almost unknown to the outside world, apart from a couple of passing whaling ships, until 1814 when two British ships rediscovered the island and its Anglo-Tahitian community.
According to Pitcairn history, the captains of both ships, “charmed by the physique and simplicity of the islanders and favourably impressed by John Adams and the example he set”, agreed it would be “an act of cruelty and inhumanity” to arrest him.
Twenty-five years of isolation had ended and a new era that would continue to shape the island’s future was about to start.
For more information on Pitcairn’s history, visit immigration.gov.pn.