Islands near New Zealand’s main ports were useful for keeping certain people in isolation. Ships often carried people with contagious diseases, and crew and passengers would be interned at nearby islands until they were cleared. Livestock were also kept on islands until they could be declared disease-free. In wartime, the islands became jails for prisoners of war and ‘enemy aliens’.
Dunedin – Quarantine Island/St Martin Island
In 1863 the ship Victory, carrying people ill with smallpox, arrived at Port Chalmers. Forbidden to dock, the passengers and crew were put ashore on an island in Otago Harbour – Quarantine Island. Over the years until the 1890s, it held people from more than 40 ships. Later, a few First World War soldiers who came home with venereal diseases were interned there. The island is now a recreation reserve and religious retreat, renamed St Martin Island.
Christchurch – Ōtamahua (Quail Island)
As the Canterbury settlement grew, quarantine facilities for immigrant ships were built in Lyttelton Harbour, first on tiny Rīpapa Island in 1873, then on Ōtamahua (Quail Island).
Children with diphtheria, from a Lyttelton orphanage, were isolated there in 1879–80. The quarantine station was used at the end of the First World War for people recovering from the Spanish influenza epidemic.
In 1906 a Christchurch man with leprosy was sent to the island. He was eventually joined by eight other leprosy sufferers, all restricted to cottages at a ‘leper village’. Only one died of the disease – his grave lies near the former colony – and in 1925 the remaining residents were transferred to Samoa.
While the lepers were confined to one small area, the island was also being used to quarantine livestock. Several Antarctic expeditions used the island. Robert Falcon Scott quarantined huskies for his 1901–4 Discovery expedition, and trained Siberian ponies and huskies there for the 1910–13 Terra Nova expedition. Ernest Shackleton had 15 Manchurian ponies broken in for his 1907–8 expedition, and Yukon huskies were interned there for Richard Byrd’s 1928–30 expedition.
For several months in 1903–4 a Chinese man, Kim Lee, lived alone on the tiny island of Mokopuna, in Wellington Harbour. A fruit shop owner, he was diagnosed with leprosy and sent to nearby Matiu (Somes Island), but after complaints from other residents he was exiled to Mokopuna. There he lived in a cave. On fine days the lighthouse keeper would row out with supplies, and in rough weather the rice and fruit came via a flying fox. Kim Lee died alone there in March 1904.
Ōtamahua finally became a recreation reserve in 1975. In summer harbour ferries call in several times a day, and thousands of people visit each year.
Wellington – Matiu (Somes Island)
Matiu (Somes Island), in Wellington Harbour, was named by the Polynesian explorer Kupe, and the remains of two fortified villages built by the Ngāti Ira tribe are found there.
As Wellington grew, Matiu was designated for human quarantine, and after the arrival of a ship carrying smallpox in 1872, a station was built. Forty people are buried on the island. Most were prospective settlers who died within sight of their new home between 1872 and 1876, with six influenza victims from 1919.
From 1893 Matiu also became one of the country’s main animal quarantine areas, with human and animal facilities side by side. The accommodation blocks were used in both world wars to house interned ‘enemy aliens’ – luckless German, Italian and Japanese nationals regarded as a risk to the country’s security. The island is now run by the Department of Conservation as a scientific and historic reserve.
During the First World War, Motuihe Island near Auckland was a prisoner-of-war camp. One inmate was a German, Count Felix von Luckner. He and others escaped in a launch, then seized a scow and sailed north. Hunted down, they were recaptured in the Kermadec Islands. Luckner was transferred to Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour, then back to Motuihe until the war ended. He returned to New Zealand in the 1930s, charming audiences with talks of his wartime exploits.
Auckland – Motuihe Island
Motuihe, 15 kilometres from Auckland, has a long history of Māori settlement and conquest. Europeans purchased the island in 1837 and it was farmed until 1872, when the Crown set it aside as a quarantine station for humans. Facilities for animals were added later.
In 1914, at the start of the First World War, the station was turned into a prisoner-of-war camp, while in the Second World War the island became a naval training base. Today Motuihe is a recreational reserve and popular picnic spot.