Today Aotearoa continues to take tentative steps back into level 2 of the Covid-19 response, so you might think it strange that I would be voluntarily stepping back into quarantine. But we’re the stepping back into the history – all figurative-like – of Ōtamahua/Quail Island in Lyttelton Harbour, which acted as a quarantine station throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. For an archaeology nerd, Ōtamahua has such an interesting range of history and archaeology. It’s been a mahinga kai and/or nohoanga, quarry site, a quarantine station for immigrants and animals, a leper’s colony, farmland, ship’s graveyard, and is now managed by the Department of Conservation. There’s a lot of history to Ōtamahua, so strap in, this is going to be a big(ish) one.
Ōtamahua has a long history, its name meaning “the place where children collected seabird eggs”. Another name, Te Kawakawa, refers to the pepper tree which grew there (Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, 2020). There are several recorded archaeological sites on the island that attest to Ngāi Tahu, and earlier Māori groups’ long history in the area. A beautiful pou named Te Hamo o Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, made by the Whakaraupō Carving Centre was recently erected on the island by Ngāti Wheke.
Ōtamahua, and the smaller Aua/King Billy Island off to the southwest have both been quarried for basalt by Māori and Pākehā, the latter for stone building blocks, and the former for the manufacture of adzes and other tools. The island also boasts one of my favourite kinds of Māori archaeological features: a fish trap! Though it may look like a boring old circle of stones in the tide, these sites are pretty rare. The engineering principles are simple and effective: fish come in at high tide and get stuck inside the circle when it recedes. In the words of our endemic poets: “tide rolls in, tide rolls out, let the [numbers of fish] inside begin to grow”.
The use of Quail Island for quarantine of either animals or people starts as early as 1855, when it was set apart as a quarantine ground for diseased sheep (Lyttelton Times, 19/9/2855: 6). The idea of quarantine is pretty familiar to New Zealanders (especially in this day and ), not just for folks coming from overseas who might be sick, but also for animals. During the late 19th century, European colonisers were doing a whole-scale transformation of Aotearoa to European-style agriculture, and then as now, New Zealanders took steps to protect lives, industry and livelihoods from harm from viruses and infectious disease. The use of Quail Island as a place for quarantine would sit alongside its farming history for the next century, including its use as a place to quarantine animals for several Antarctic expeditions between 1901 and 1929 (Mclean, 2013).
Initially, shipboard isolation was the only method of preventing transmission of disease on the long journey to New Zealand, but due to increasing numbers of immigrants, and insufficient facilities, this came to be considered ineffective, and the need for large quarantine stations was recognised (Kelly, 2018). Although there were also several mainland quarantine stations, islands were considered perfect spots for quarantine; water on all sides helps maintain the level of isolation one requires to prevent transmission of illnesses, and only truly unhinged individuals would dare swim or even paddle board across the harbour, in defiance of a perfectly natural and not at all phobic distrust of large bodies of water.
In 1874, the Canterbury Provincial Council bought the land on Quail Island, and a quarantine station was set up, to replace the existing station at Ripapa Island and Camp Bay, which was considered overcrowded (Star, 8/8/1874: 2; Lyttelton Times, 9/10/1874: 2; Globe, 9/10/1874: 3). All the major cities had a wee island they could put freshly-minted residents on for a bit to counteract the transmission-friendly tight and unhygienic quarters of a long ship journey. Wellington had Matiu/Somes Island, Auckland had Motuihe Island, Dunedin had the creatively named “Quarantine Island” (Kamaautaurua), and Christchurch had Quail Island, all of which were in use by the 1870s (Kelly, 2018). Lots of remains from the quarantine station remain on the island: piles and other foundations from many of the former quarantine buildings, stone retaining walls (built by prisoners from Lyttelton jail) and terrace relating to the initial reshaping of the hillsides for construction, and the Skiers Beach barracks building, built in 1875, and one of only two 19th century quarantine buildings remaining in New Zealand.
In November 2019, three of our team (Angel, Jo, and I) visited Quail Island to undertake some excavation on the terrace bearing the quarantine station’s cookhouse. It was a real privilege to be part of the project, and we stayed in the newly done up DOC hut, which is a nice, early-20th century cottage that housed the caretaker for the Department of Agriculture’s animal quarantine station.
On the cookhouse terrace, we found archaeological remains of the cookhouse terrace building itself, including stone piles, fragments of metal sheeting, the remains of some metal containers that might have been associated with the kitchen. There was also evidence for a shell paving layer that went right around the building.
Among the finds were the bones of the introduced domestic pigeon, which are very rare finds in New Zealand archaeology. We couldn’t find any specific historical evidence for pigeons being kept or quarantined on the island, so it’s not quite clear what this particular bird’s story was, or if it was just a rogue pigeon that ended up in the pot.
In 1906, the quarantine station was repurposed for a different form of isolation. Will Vallance was diagnosed with leprosy at Christchurch Hospital, and was put in quarantine on the island. The station had seen less use for quarantining immigrants over the recent years, as most infectious cases were being treated in mainland hospitals, and now saw its second life of quarantine as a leper colony. Author and historian Benjamin Kingsbury says that although leprosy was only mildly contagious, it was probably more stigmatised than any other disease. If you are interested in the lives of the inhabitants, and their treatment, I strongly recommend these two stories on the Spinoff by Benjamin Kingsbury, who has written a book on the subject. After a year on the island, a small hut was built to house Vallance, who had previously been living alone in the much larger barracks. Having spent a few university summers nigh-alone in a large, typically-thriving hall of residence, I could see how that could be a lonely (and spooky) experience. A few more huts would be built between 1907 and 1924 to house further leprosy patients, totalling nine (Kingsbury, 2019, 2020). In 1924, the Mt Herbert County Council proposed the removal of the leper station, the given reason primarily the ongoing shared use of the island to quarantine stock, and that “importers of valuable stock do so with “a feeling that should not exist” (Press, 15/4/1924: 9). The eight remaining leprosy patients were transferred the next year to Fiji, far from the homes and contacts they knew (Trotter and McCulloch, 2004). It seems callous that a feeling of discomfort (largely unwarranted and self-inflicted) held by those looking over their economic investments should be put above the lives of human beings, those suffering from a chronic disease, but that was the world of the 1920s.
In 2002, archaeologist Michael Trotter, together with DOC and the Catholic Cathedral College of Christchurch undertook an excavation of one of the hut sites associated with the leper station, in order to construct the replica present on the hillside today. The excavation revealed the bricks of a fallen chimney (classic Christchurch), but little evidence of burning, suggesting that at least this hut was largely taken off site rather than burnt, as mentioned in the local newspapers at the time. The underfloor deposit hinted at the creature comforts enjoyed by the isolated patients: glass marbles from aerated drink bottles, thin glass likely originating from pictures, and a tin for holding and mixing watercolour paints (Trotter and McCulloch, 2004). It’s not a bad view out over the harbour from the huts that housed the leprosy patients, after all.
The east side of the island is also home to a nationally significant ship graveyard, where the hulks of 13 ships were intentionally scuttled between 1902 and 1951. If you’ve not been, it’s definitely worth a visit. Low tide reveals the skeletons of steamships, barques, and so on, as they seem to slowly rise from the still waters of Whakaraupō/Lyttelton Harbour. In the words of our endemic poets “tide rolls in, tide rolls out, let the [shipwrecks] inside begin to [emerge from the harbour]”.
One of the great things about Ōtamahua/Quail Island is that so much of its heritage is visible from just the short walk around the island. I’m looking forward to getting back, next chance I get. Stay safe out there peeps, and take care of each other.
Globe [online]. Available: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers
Jackson, P.J., 2006. Ōtamahua/Quail Island – A Link With The Past. 2nd ed. (r ed. Christchurch: Ōtamahua Quail Island Restoration Trust.
Kelly, A., 2018. Third Time’s the Charm: An Investigation into the Quarantine Landscape of Lyttelton Harbour. Archaeology in New Zealand, 61(2), pp.41–50.
Kingsbury, B., 2019. He is unclean; he shall dwell alone: A sad and startling story of leprosy in NZ. [online] The Spinoff. Available at: <https://thespinoff.co.nz/books/07-10-2019/he-is-unclean-he-shall-dwell-alone-a-sad-and-startling-story-of-leprosy-in-nz/> [Accessed 15 May 2020].
Kingsbury, B., 2020. The cruelty – and small kindnesses – of quarantine 100 years ago. [online] The Spinoff. Available at: <https://thespinoff.co.nz/books/05-05-2020/the-cruelty-and-small-kindnesses-of-quarantine-100-years-ago/> [Accessed 12 May 2020].
LINZ, 1907. SO 4813, Canterbury. Landonline.
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Mclean, G., 2013. Quail Island, Lyttelton Harbour (1875). [online] NZHistory.govt.nz. Available at: <https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/quail-island> [Accessed 12 May 2020].
National Libraries [online]. Group including Robert Falcon Scott, with Mongolian ponies, on Quail Island. Ref: 1/2-031141-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. https://natlib.govt.nz/records/23184103 [Accessed 12 May 2020].
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Trotter, M. and McCulloch, B., 2000. Archaeological and historical sites of Quail Island and King Billy Island, Lyttelton Harbour, Canterbury. Report for the Canterbury Conservancy, Department of Conservation.
Trotter, M. and McCulloch, B., 2004. Archaeological Excavation of a Quarantine Station Hut Site on Quail Island, Lyttelton Harbour. Unpublished report for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.