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Source: Department of Conservation

Quarantine may be a hot topic right now, but it is nothing new. The heritage on Matiu/Somes island is an important reminder of pandemics past before it became a jewel in our pest free island network. Senior Heritage Advisor Richard Nester shares with us the MIQ experience from 149 years ago…

Harbour Islands around the world were once the preferred location for managed isolation and quarantine. Their natural remoteness and the ability to easily service them from a port town or city ticked a lot of the logistical needs. 

Last month marked one year from New Zealand’s Alert Level 4 lockdown to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Coincidentally it was in March, 149 years ago, the immigrant ship England sailed into Wellington Harbour. It was flying a yellow flag, the internationally recognised signal that the vessel’s crew or passengers were carrying disease, and sent a chill through local authorities. 

The passengers, having endured unhygienic and unpleasant conditions since departing Gravesend in the United Kingdom some 90 days earlier, were ordered to disembark on Matiu/Somes island, 7 kilometres short of their 25,000 kilometre journey. Tragically, some of them never got to leave.

Smallpox was the main cause for concern. Official records showed 16 deaths occurred during the trip. A number of people were showing signs of illness as medical and port authorities made their initial inspection and the decision was quickly made to have everyone quarantined.

The first passengers to be sent to Matiu/Somes Island must have despaired. Despite the island being designated for quarantine purposes in 1869, no major construction of facilities had begun. They found themselves sheltered in two hastily built dwellings, those showing no symptoms at the north end of the island and the sick in the south.

At the same time, a sergeant and two privates from the local Armed Constabulary were requested to the island to mount guard and prevent any form of communication between the island and the shore. The Harbour and Quarantine Regulations were strictly enforced, allowing for the arrest of any persons:

“…quitting the quarantine ground or visiting it from without.

“The strictest possible measures have been taken to cut off all communication with the unfortunate immigrants and the city, so as to allay all alarm and reduce the chance of the disease spreading to the shore to a minimum…” [i]

Once on the island those quarantined were fumigated, some losing clothing and belongings as these were burnt to prevent the disease from spreading. By late April, those that had survived and recovered from the quarantine process were eventually released to their new life in New Zealand. 

In an act of kindness, locals quickly came to the call to support those on the island by providing replacement clothes and other items to help them become established.

This was the first of numerous vessels to be quarantined at the island, particularly between 1872 and 1876. More permanent facilities were built including a fumigation shed for passengers and luggage at the wharf, a horse track to transport luggage to the purpose-built quarantine station, and an island cemetery.

The island was used for human quarantine for last time during the influenza pandemic of 1918/19. The grave of George Stanley – A Royal Navy Signalman died on the island in 1919 and poignantly symbolises this period. The island continued to be used for the quarantine of livestock up to 1995.

Today the island is owned again by Taranaki Whānui and managed by DOC, but visitors can explore its history. New storyboards tell iwi stories and visitors can still see structures from the time of quarantine: the fumigation shed lying in the tide by the wharf, a memorial with the names of those recorded buried on the island, and the barracks building constructed in 1919.

Matiu/Somes Island was one of a number used for human quarantine purposes in New Zealand. Others that can be visited include Quarantine Island/Kamau Taurua – Otago Harbour, Otamahua/Quail Island – Lyttleton Harbour and Motuihe Island/Te Motu-a-Ihenga, Auckland Harbour.