Ripa Island

No one needed to explain to ex-banker, now convict Jonathan Roberts, that Ripa Island had never been a place of great joy, even in the decades before he and his 39 other convict buddies found themselves there, breaking rocks that would build Fort Jervois.  As Jonathan bit into the bread that was his lunch that day, he decided that enough was enough.   He broke away from his lunching work party and slid down the Fort’s non-completed rock wall and slammed into the sea below.  He then was running as hard as he could into the hills of Bank Peninsula.  Even though a posse was soon on his trail, he was never seen by any of them again.

A son of a rich, powerful family – whom founded the B.N.Z bank and the New Zealand Insurance Company – Jonathan later shared his story after making it his escape to America.  He had hidden out at Purau for a couple of days before making his way over to Akaroa where he had plenty of friends to offer him aid.  He had been arrested for horse theft in Timaru but soon escaped custody.  After his recapture, he was sent north to Lyttelton Gaol, where he was assigned to Ripa Island as a convict labourer.

He had served Akaroa’s citizens as a banker and had been well liked.  It was these friends that sneaked him aboard a ship that carried him to America.  Here he lived on the straight and narrow, as an insurer until his death by Tuberculosis in 1911.  Jonathan wasn’t the first or the last prisoner of any description to hit rock bottom while on Ripa Island.

Ripa (Ripper) Island – as most of us call it today – was known to the Ngati Mamoe and the Ngai Tahu as Ri-papa.  ‘Ri’ means rope and ‘Papa’ means flat rock.  As ropes – made of flax – were used to bring the Maori canoes – some the length of 24 metres – up onto the island in this fashion, you can see how the name came about.  But just as it had been for the early Europeans, times weren’t much better for the Maori there either.  The island witnessed many battles, both on its shores as well as in the harbour.  As a result, the island played host to a few victory parties where the main dinner course was human flesh and potatoes.   During the Maori Wars of 1860 – 61, Ri-Papa is believed to have been the only musket strong Pa in New Zealand.

But as the 1870’s rolled round, the Maori history ended.  Whatever the Maori had built there was lost when the island was made into the new Quarantine camp for all arrivals in Canterbury.  Five buildings were erected – one being a hospital – and 300 people could be housed there.  When the 1880’s clocked over, the island had become a prison – 168 Maori from the Te Whiti land protests were sailed south to be held in custody there.

In 1883, the Governor of New Zealand, Sir William Jervois approved a project to turn Ri Papa into a battery.  Prison and soldier labour were used to build Fort Jervois.  A year after Jonathan Roberts denied the island of his fine company; two other convicts by the name of William Cody and John McMannus were serving their time.  An argument broke out between them over ‘flying chips’ from breaking rocks and as the others watched on in horror, John McMannus solved the disagreement by smashing William Cody’s head in with his hammer.  It was not a happy place!

I still remember visiting Fort Jervois as a young teenager and the guide led us into the main corridor which was dark with gloomy cells on either side.  He waited until we were in the darkest part before mentioning that 6 men were buried below our very feet.  They had been hung for murder and were doomed to spend eternity under Fort Jervois as the forgotten nameless.  The guide also enjoyed closing the door of the cells behind us too so by the time I saw daylight again, the boat taking us home was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen 😉

The most well known prisoner of Ri Papa was Count Felix von Luckner.  He had been the commander of the German ship ‘Seeadler’ and was regarded more as a jolly pirate than a navy captain.  He was captured when his ship was wrecked and imprisoned at Motuihi Island, near Auckland.  When he escaped and was recaptured, he was placed at Fort Jervois.   At the end of his 3 month stay during 1918, he scratched on the wall of his cell the following:

‘109 days prisoner of war in this dreary place.  We are fed up with the monotony and off we go to Motuihi. Thank God’.

During the afore mentioned tour, we were told stories about Felix, one being that he had managed to escape from his cell but instead of making a run for it, he let himself into the guard’s house and surprised them.  As the guards actually liked Felix, they let him stay for an evening of card playing before putting him back in his cell!  Felix always boasted that he had never killed anyone during the war.

Four large fortress guns on disappearing carriages were installed during WWII, 15 tonnes each with a firing range of 9140 metres.  Just like the guns at Godley Head, Ri Papa’s guns were only ever used in warning shots, especially if a ship entered the harbour without responding to the signals sent out from the defense station on Adderley Head.  There wasn’t one ship that failed to respond after having a Ri Papa shell fired over its bow.  Proudly though, Ri Papa island was regarded as the ‘…strongest harbour fortress in the Empire…”

From the 1920’s to the 1980’s the island was owned by shipping agents, the Defense Department, the Lyttelton Harbour Board in which the era of it being used for recreation began.  Under the care of DoC (Department of Conservation), it is now an Historic Reserve and protected as it is one of the last semi-intact harbour fortresses left in the Commonwealth.

There certainly is a different air surrounding Ri Papa you may notice while visiting.  You get the feeling that a lot has happened there and not much of it was good but what a great slice of Lyttelton Harbour and what a history!

*image of Ri Papa Island courtesy of*
*image of Ri Papa Island at sunset courtesy of*

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