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Friday, November 9, 2018

Musicians interned on tiny island

In the middle of Wellington harbor, in plain sight of the city, there is a tiny but very important island.  For ages it has been known by its European name - Somes -- but now it has its proper Maori name, Matiu, which was endowed by its first human discoverer, the great Polynesian explorer, Kupe, who named the island after one of his daughters.

Nowadays, Matiu is a tranquil plant and animal sanctuary, where visitors can wander through rejuvenating native bush, watch cavorting, colorful kakariki parrots, and enjoy amazing views.  But during two world wars, it was an internment centre for "enemy aliens."  And today, in our local paper, there is a well-researched essay by Samantha Owens, describing an equally colorful set of prisoners -- no less than a Bavarian band.

This was Mersy's Bavarian Band, pictured above, circa 1905. Rudolf Mersy, the owner, composer, and conductor, is the small man seated in the centre of the front row.

Groups of itinerant German musicians had been coming to New Zealand regularly from the 1850s onwards, so it's not surprising one such group happened to be in the country when the First World War started.  And such was the fervor of popular opinion, it is not amazing, either, that Mersy and his 12-man band should be interned, even though they had been back and forth to this country for ages, and were known for playing patriotic British airs, such as "Rule Britannia."
Arrested in Auckland, they were shipped by train to Wellington, and from there by boat to the island.  Not only were the accommodations Spartan (Somes/Matiu had been a quarantine station for imported animals) but they must have contemplated the city scene wistfully.  Though so near, it was so far away, and yet they knew it well, having visited Wellington often in the past.  Popular entertainers at private functions (including, perhaps, even Katherine Mansfield's Garden Party), they made extra cash by busking in the street, and by adding martial music to school sports days.
But, being musicians, they didn't let time hang on their hands.  Instead, they entertained their fellow prisoners.  And so the slow years dragged by, until in May 1919, Mersy and his band were included in a batch of 410 prisoners of war who were repatriated to a Europe that they probably had a great deal of trouble recognizing.  Their conveyance was the steamship Willochra, and the man in charge was Major G.R. Blackett.  

Willochra was an interesting ship (as well as what seems to have been a major polluter).  Built in Dalmuir, Scotland, in 1913, she was chartered to Union SS Co. of New Zealand for their trans-Pacific run -- a career that did not last very long, for in November 1914 she was requisitioned by the New Zealand Government for the war effort.  Then, in 1918, she was requisitioned by the British Government, and a year or so after repatriating Mersy and his fellow ex-internees, she was sold to the British transport firm Furness Withy, renamed Fort Victoria, and put into the North American trade. 
Her end was somewhat dramatic -- on December 19, 1929, while she was laying at anchor in New York harbor, with 200 passengers for Hamilton, Bermuda, the incoming steamship Algonquin ran into and sunk her.  Luckily, the US coastguard had raced to the rescue, and no lives were lost. The wreck was later blown up to clear the channel.
And what makes her even more interesting is that she is one of the few ships in history to have a musical composition created for her -- the "Willochra Waltz," composed by Mersy, and presented to Major Blackett.

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