Orchids in socks, Rae Varcoe

Quarantine! Protecting New Zealand at the Border 
Gavin McLean and Tim Shoebridge
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877372827


The word quarantine derives from the Italian for 40: the number of days deemed appropriate to seclude a vessel known to be carrying contagious diseases. Hence it referred initially to vessels containing human disease, particularly plague, yellow fever, cholera and scarlet fever as well as others. Later, the term was applied to what is now known as border protection, ie invasion and contamination by animal and plant invaders and diseases.

This book was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Biosecurity New Zealand from the History Group of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Twenty-four pages are devoted to human quarantine issues, and the remainder outlines the history of the prevention or containment of new threats to agriculture and particularly the administrative and practical response to the hazards introduced by the advent of efficient air transport. The first section features engaging stories of attempts to control human diseases during the 1800s and 1900s as a constant battle raged between the port authorities and the ships’ captains (and not necessarily sober or competent ships’ doctors) in determining whether a ship was disease-free. There is detail concerning human quarantine stations (such as Somes Island) and their limitations, which led to them all being shut before 1939. Nowadays ships’ masters give shore authorities advance notice of the health of passengers and crew. As the human quarantine section describes events only until 1939, there is no discussion of recent plagues such as SARS or bird flu.

The focus of the rest of the book is plant and animal diseases. Interspersed are enlivening vignettes of the personnel involved, as the department struggled to maintain vigilance against pests, while traders and shipowners sought to maintain profitability. The continuing conflict between the long-term goals of keeping agriculture free of imported pests and the short-term goals of politicians and business is the recurring theme. Most of us are familiar with the intransigence of Australian authorities over the importation of New Zealand apples because of concerns about fruit fly. A similar lack of clarity in the boundaries between science, politics and expediency has often made the job of the Quarantine Service very difficult.

Scientists warning of extant hazards, such as the presence of termites and other vigorous pests in imported wood and in ships’ dunnage, were ignored for decades. Eventually such concerns led to the advent of pre-importation inspections and to the practice of fumigating timber and fruit products. Hence the construction of fumigation sheds at the bigger ports. With the advent of air transport, fumigating humans became an issue. One of the responses was to spray the cabins of all arriving planes, until in 1986 there was the merciful advent of a residual spray which remained on cabin surfaces for weeks. Oddly, there was, at the time, controversy over whether foreign notables should be subjected to the indignity of the pyrethrum anointment, as if insects would respect the status of the dignitary. The presence of numerous cockroaches on the plane of a visiting politician argued an irrefutable point. Also mosquitoes are not notably respecters of persons. There always remained the tedious task of physically inspecting plant, animal and human arrivals with some recent relief provided by the use of x-ray technology and sniffer dogs.

The notion of border protection has evolved from the isolation of ships with human contagion to the current alertness to potential pests in planes, passengers, yachts, mail and containers. Similarly there have been major administrative changes within the department which is now a subsection of MAF and merged with Biosecurity New Zealand. It remains separate from the Customs Department with which it has sometimes had an apparently rivalrous relationship.

Overall, New Zealand has had remarkable success in keeping its people and agriculture free of introduced pestilence. However, we are all aware of the (at least temporary) triumphs of organisms such as Varroa Mite, Painted Apple Moth, and Rock Snot (Didymo), and of the massive expense and social disruption in trying to contain them. The range of organisms already detected is vast, new ones are evolving all the time, and the methods of detection remain relatively primitive. This applies to all infections, but particularly human ones. The authors, by closing their examination of human diseases before WWII, have chosen not to discuss any of the frightening human pestilences coming in over the last few years. This seems regrettable as such a history would have added energy and interest to the book. (Maybe that decision was taken because the department is now a subsection of MAF.)

However, this history is detailed and provides an understanding of the triggers that have caused the major technical, political and administrative changes within the service. The authors and the layout team have worked hard to make the book interesting and have provided many illustrations and inset vignettes of personal and social histories. It will appeal to students of history and those currently associated with border protection.

The book ends in a curious manner. The last two inset pages are devoted to the recollections of a former employee who worked for the department from 2004 to 2006. She is well-educated and recalls that, for her, continuing shift work was a problem as was the changing site rostering. It may be these features that have meant few employees stay longer than five years. However, she does recall two apparent highlights: “I once saw a container of someone’s possessions where ants had eaten away all the cardboard boxes and packaging. Another time I found an orchid wrapped up in sock.” Clearly, quarantine officers need to be long on patience and short on the need for an event-filled day.


Rae Varcoe is an Auckland physician and Victoria University creative writing graduate.


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