By Richard Latty, Visitor Services Host – Wellington Museum.

Every day thousands of Wellingtonians travel down the motorway overlooking Te Whanganui-a-Tara. They glance upon the natural beauty of the harbour thinking ‘You can’t beat Wellington on a good day’. In the middle of this harbour sits three Islands, Matiu/Somes, Makaro/Ward and the smaller Mokopuna. The larger of the three islands, Matiu Somes, tells so many stories, but just how much do Wellington locals know about its varied history?

Matiu Somes 1
Matiu Somes from above with neighbouring Mokopuna. Image by Lloyd Homer of GNS Science.  Cite page ref: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, ‘First peoples in Māori tradition – Kupe’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. http://www.Te

Matiu/ Somes tells stories of both the Māori history of the region and its more recent colonial takeover. Before the arrival of the first European settlers in 1839-1840, the island was known solely as Matiu, named after the daughter of Kupe, the first Polynesian explorer to discover Aotearoa (believed to be between 720-920AD). Kupe is said to be responsible for the naming of up to 60 locations in the Wellington region.

Map showing the many places in the Wellington area named after Kupe. Cite page ref: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, ‘First peoples in Māori tradition – Kupe’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Once the first settlers had arrived in what they knew as Port Nicholson, they named it Somes island after Joseph Somes, who was then Deputy-Governor of the New Zealand Company. He was the largest ship owner in England at the time, with the Tory (the first New Zealand Company ship to arrive in Port Nicholson in September 1839) being purchased from him and a number of other settler ships coming from his fleet. Somes himself never visited New Zealand but it played a big part in the Wellington venture both financially and logistically.


It is believed the first Māori chief to settle in Wellington, Tara, and his kin first occupied Matiu and explored the harbour and its vicinity before establishing their permanent home on Te Motukairangi (the Miramar Peninsula). Later, in 1835, Ngati Mutunga (a Taranaki tribe who settled in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara following the Musket Wars) hijacked the ship Lord Rodney from Matiu and set sail to invade the Chatham Islands.

Matiu somes quarantine
Exercise yard at maximum security station, Somes Island. Dominion Post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1970/5206/18a-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Welington, New Zealand./records/22906689

Following colonisation, the island was used for recreational use until 1872 when an English ship sailed into Wellington Harbour flying the yellow flag which signified that smallpox was aboard. The passengers aboard were quarantined on Somes with the decision quickly made to build a quarantine station for animals and humans. A cemetery was built for those who did not survive diseases such as typhoid, smallpox, scarlet and influenza. The population of the island was estimated at 600 in 1919 following an influenza epidemic.

Perhaps the most iconic story of the island being used for quarantine was in 1903 when fruit and vegetable grower Kim Lee was sent to the island after other individuals in his industry claimed he had leprosy. He was sent to the small island off the coast of Somes known as Mokopuna, where he lived in isolation in a cave. The modern day belief was that Lee did not have leprosy. There was a general anti-Asiatic view at the time and this story showcases the result of these views. He died after approximately 6 months on the island. With no post mortem done, no confirmation could be made as to whether Lee indeed had leprosy or not.

Māori used this site as a strategic pā site (defence fortress). Local iwi would flee to Matiu when rival iwi were advancing from other parts of the region. The site offers a 360 degree view so any incoming waka (canoe) could be viewed giving the local iwi time to plan their defence. The high banks of Matiu made it difficult for attacking iwi to get in a good position to advance.

The island was again recognised for its strategic position in 1943 when anti-aircraft artillery was installed on the island. Japan had started bombing northern Australia and there was concern New Zealand would be next, with Wellington, the Capital, being particularly vulnerable. The guns were never fired (much like the Wrights Hill Fortress). The gun battlements remain but the guns were removed in 1944.

gun matiu somes
The anti-aircraft gun emplacements today. Reference: Department of Conservation,

During both WWI and WWII, the island served as a detention centre for people of alien nationality who were considered a security threat. Unfortunately, this included many people who had no affiliation to the regimes in their home country. Wellington had its own little Alcatraz. During WWI the internees were mainly German and Austrian, some of whom had been born in New Zealand and had families and businesses in Wellington. By WWII, there was an increased number of Italians and Japanese. German Jews were forced to share life on the island with proud supporters of the Nazi regime. There were allegations of ill-treatment from internees, including beatings, abuse and humiliation throughout both wars. Albert Zieger, an internee during WWI claimed he was taken to the beach, beaten and locked in the cow shed for up to 8 days after a soldier claimed he had laughed at the role call. This is one of the many claims showcasing rough treatment internees receieved during WWI and WWII.

matiu somes prison
German internees on Somes Island. Hart, Roger: Photographs of Somes Island and other subjects. Ref: 1/2-112228-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand./records/22401714

In its nearly 180 year history since colonisation, Matiu/Somes has been thrown around government departments to fit the times. After stints with the Marine, Health, Agriculture and Defence departments, the island was put under the control of the Department of Conservation (DoC) in 1995. Around the same time, the name was officially changed to Matiu/Somes as recognition to both the Maori and Pakeha history of the island and the rejuvenation of te reo Māori during the 1980s and 1990s.

Kiwi guardians on Matiu Somes Island. Department of Conservation,

Visitors can now take the ferry over daily and discover the natural beauty of the island while discovering the remains of the history. The visitors’ centre is housed in the old internee hospital. You can still see the quarantine stations and the gun embattlements put in place during WWII. Perhaps most importantly has been the return of native plants, birds, reptiles and invertebrates being released to thrive in the pest-free environment (DoC officials will check your bag for rodents upon entry to the island).

Matiu Somes Island owners, Taranaki Whānui, in co-management partnership with DoC and tirelessly supported by a community of volunteers, are dedicated and devoted to protecting, preserving and promoting its natural beauty and rich history.

East by West ferry departs from Queens Wharf and Days Bay Wharf daily.

The Wellington Museum offers a Ship and Chip tour, involving a 45 minute tour of the Museum, a fish and chip lunch and a return ferry trip from Queens Wharf. Call 04-472-8904 or email to book.