First published in Metro Magazine, New Zealand, 2012 by Leilani Tamu in collaboration with artist Janet Lilo
Somewhere in the bowels of Archives New Zealand is a box labelled “Alien Enemies”. In it sits my great uncle’s file. It was only by chance that I became aware of its existence, and because of the Privacy Act, I can’t access it for another thirty years.
My great uncle was a German Samoan who happened to be in New Zealand during the war period. He used to travel frequently between the islands and New Zealand for business. I doubt he realised that he was on the Department of Internal Affairs Alien Enemy watch list. Or perhaps my 21st century naivety is clouding my judgement? Perhaps he was a German agent, a South Pacific spy, undertaking covert surveillance using the guise of ‘doing business’ as a convenient ruse. Until I see the file I can’t be sure.
My uncle was not the first German Samoan to come under the scrutiny of the New Zealand government during the war period. In fact, Auckland has an intimate connection with Samoa’s first lot of Alien Enemies. After New Zealand’s lacklustre capture of German Samoa in 1914, thirteen Alien Enemies were taken to Motuihe Island to be interned in the Hauraki Gulf. Motuihe, with its calm sheltered waters, was nominated as a “first class” internment camp for high-ranking German military officials, resident consuls and wealthy German businessmen. Conversely, windswept Somes Island, in Wellington’s harbour was reserved for low-ranking officials and military personnel along with impoverished and mentally unfit internees. It was considered “second class”.
It would be fair to say that the conditions on Motuihe were fairly lax during the first three years of the war. The prisoners were allowed to hunt rabbits, catch snapper and gather oysters on the island. They were even allowed to visit downtown Auckland to go shopping once a month. Particularly favourable treatment was given to the Governor of German Samoa, Dr Erich Schultz, who lived in a six-bedroom cottage with his own Samoan personal valet.
Much of this sympathetic treatment came to a grinding halt after the camp came under intense public scrutiny in 1917. This was as a result of the fall out from the audacious escape from the island by Count Felix von Luckner who made a bid for freedom onboard the private launch of the island Commandant. Von Luckner was apprehended in the Kermadecs, while the Commandant was court-marshalled. It was an embarrassing affair for the Department of Defence, let alone the New Zealand Government.
Like in other parts of the country, Anti-German fever was rife in Auckland during the First World War. Auckland residents petitioned the council to request that ‘Jermyn’ Street be changed to ‘Symonds’ Street and organisations such as the
Women’s Anti-German League had a significant membership base. Spy fever was also a favourite pastime with individuals taking it upon themselves to follow people of German descent and watch their houses at night. In one police report Mr and Mrs A.P. Friend of St Stephen’s Avenue were noted to “interest themselves considerably about aliens”. The Auckland Domain was also a popular site for undertaking covert surveillance on Alien Enemies with several complaints lodged with the Department of Defence regarding the activities of German Consul, Carl Seegner, who enjoyed regular walks in the park.
The answer as to whether my great uncle was caught up in all of this lies in that file. History is an amorphous thing and textual records only provide a glimpse of the facts. Being a Kiwi of German Samoan descent I am intrigued by the way in which much of this history is taken for granted. None of this was included in my secondary school education but its relevance feels much more apparent than the lessons about Victorian England. We’ve come along way from interning people on islands but recent events show we do still spy on them. As a community it’s worth remembering what’s behind us, so we can keep track of where we are headed. The revelation that the GCSB were given a mandate to actively spy on a New Zealander in this ‘modern’ day and age gives one pause for thought. Perhaps the Prime Minister might have benefited from a history lesson or two before signing the submission that condoned the investigation he is now apologising for?