The Dominion Post, 2004

George Dibbern: His Life and Quest

Adventurer ~ Sailor-Philosoper ~ Free Thinker ~ Self-declared Citizen of the World

The Dominion Post [New Zealand], Wednesday, 23 June 2004

PORT WATCH Paul Mulrooney


GERMAN George Dibbern called Somes/Matiu Island home for five years. He had no choice in the matter, being one of only two people interned there during both world wars.

His biographer, Canadian writer Erika Grundmann, returns to the island on July 3 for readings and slide shows surrounding her book about the eccentric sailor who turned his back on his homeland to make a new life in the South Pacific.

Dark Sun: Te Rapunga and the Quest of George Dibbern tells the story of a 32-foot ketch and its master who jumped ship from Nazi Germany, ending up in New Zealand, which he had first visited before World War I.

He was not only familiar with New Zealand but also with Wellington Harbour’s Somes/Matiu Island, where he was again interned as an enemy alien.

“His role on the island was to be the camp clown, to make people laugh,” Grundmann says.

Dibbern was variously known as a vagabond, lovable rogue and a larrikin, He earned the larrikin reputation while working in the Blue Mountains after landing in Australia as a young man in 1910.

But other parts of the Pacific soon enchanted him and he washed up in New Zealand in time for World War I and his first internment on Somes/Matiu Island.

Repatriated to Germany, he married, fathered three daughters but, after an unsuccessful attempt to settle down, spent the 1920s trying to finance the fit-out of the Te Rapunga and sail back to the Pacific.

He named his boat in appreciation of his love for Maori mythology. Grundmann describes Te Rapunga as the pre-dawn moment of anticipation and longing, or dark sun, before the break of dawn.

Another interpretation of the books title could also be taken, she admitted: “the dark and the light of his life, because he had some fabulous moments and some very dark moments”.

At his wife’s urging, Dibbern left Germany in 1930 before the full menace of Nazism was realised. “He was a socialist, he was pretty outspoken—it was just a matter of time before he would tangle with the authorities as well.” His journey back to New Zealand took another four years, with stops in the Mediterranean and the United States along the way.

Dibbern’s return certainly made waves. He arrived under his own flag with a self-made passport and renewed sense of purpose. But straitlaced and depression-scarred New Zealand was scandalised when he took aboard a young Napier woman who, over the next 20 years, became a crew-member and then mother of another Dibbern daughter.

“They may not have agreed with his lifestyle and there were people who did harbour a grudge against him because he was German…but on the other hand people said he gave much more than the took. He gave in the way of inspiration, entertainment, he was a great storyteller and people enjoyed hearing of his adventures.”

It was while on further sailing adventures that the pair landed in Canada, giving Grundmann, a North American writing about a European who traversed the South Pacific, a local context with which to work. “He actually came to Canada in 1937-39. He wanted to start a writers’ retreat but couldn’t get residency.” Instead he sailed back to New Zealand. Upon the outbreak of the war his boat was seized and he found himself back on the familiar ground of Somes/Matiu Island.

After his release Dibbern’s musings were published under the name Quest. Grundmann’s research took her to Germany, Hawaii, Tasmania, the Cook Islands and New Zealand. Her travels provided greater insight into how Dibbern, who died in Auckland in 1962 as he prepared to return to Germany, had approached his life. “He declared himself a friend of all peoples and a citizen of the world.”