The New Zealand Maritime Record - sponsored by the NZ National Maritime Museum


Maintained by the NZ National Maritime Museum
as a service to Shipping Enthusiasts and Maritime Historians

Go To the NZNMM Website

This website is developed from the site originally conceived developed & maintained by Marcus Castell and associates. Opinions are those of the various authors of the articles, and are not those of the NZ National Maritime Museum unless specifically noted. Information in this site has been updated to 2002 and will be progressively updated as resources allow. More information on historic ships (etc) is contained in the MARITIME INDEX website
The Twin Screw Motor Vessel   MATUA     1935 - 1970


In the 1930's the first cruise ships started to appear off the coasts of various South Pacific islands, lured there by the exotic destinations, the weather, the golden beaches and the friendly islanders.  From New Zealand the Banana Boats quickly found some cabin space for tourists and so a number of vessels started to call at various islands.  One of these was the reefer Matua, which was built for the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand's Auckland, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa service, with single and two berth cabin accommodation for 39 one class passengers.

In addition to these "berthed" passengers, the vessel catered for a large number of deck passengers to enable Pacific Islanders to move between the islands.  Awnings were erected over the after deck to provide shelter.  "Deck passage" involved the provision of transport only with the individual being responsible for providing his own sleeping mat, mattress and food for the duration of the voyage.  The most popular sector was between Nuku'alofa and Vavau where up to 120 deck passengers were carried.  Throughout her service Matua was a popular vessel and was reputed to be a favourite of Her Majesty Queen Salote Tupou of Tonga (below) who preferred this vessel to the later and more modern Tofua.

The word "Matua" is common to most Polynesian languages and usually means "kinship."  In New Zealand and around the Islands she was popularly referred to as "the banana boat."  Matua was rarely diverted from her monthly islands run but she did make occasional trips to Melbourne to load oranges for New Zealand and on that side of the Tasman Sea she was invariably referred to as "the pocket liner."


Length:     355.2 feet 108.26 metres
Beam:     50.5 feet 15.39 metres
Craft:     21.75 feet 6.63 metres
Displacement:     4,166 tons.
Propulsion:     Two sets of Armstrong-Sultzer six cylinder diesel engines
Speed:     Achieved 17.027 knots on her speed trials, maximum service speed 16.6 knots, average service speed 15.1 knots
Cargo capacity:     2,500 tons, partially refrigerated.


The cabin berths were increased to 93 in 1941, but subsequently reduced to 69 in 1951.


Smoking Room

Dining Saloon

Ship's Log

1935     March     Launched by R. & W. Hawthorn Leslie & Co. Ltd. at Hebburn-on-Tyne, England.

1937     Refitted to 4,192.53 tons.

1937     March 22     Anchored in the roadstead off Niuafo'ou Island, Tonga from where this letter was floated out to the vessel in a tin can.

1938     June 12     Departed from Suva at 5.30 pm for Auckland.

1939     During the war, Matua maintained her normal timetable from Auckland to the South Pacific Islands with remarkable regularity.  With her first Captain A. H. Prosser and later Captain A. R. Russell in command, Matua transported to and among the islands large numbers of Allied services personnel and many special cargoes of war supplies and equipment.  But her main role was to keep the populations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga supplied with their essential needs during the years they were without any other regular transport communications with the outside world.

She was seldom accorded the protection of a naval escort but fortunately she never met any hostile ships or submarines.  It amused her crew that on the rare occasions she was sighted by Allied ships they reported her to be an enemy raider and it must be admitted that at a distance she did have the appearance of such.

1941     Accommodation increased to 112 passengers (93 in cabins). White hull repainted grey whilst in war service.

1941     15 December   Embarked troops at Auckland for Fiji.

1942     January 2     A Section of the B Force Expansion of the 2nd New Zealand Army Expeditionary Force (85 Officers and 1668 Ordinary Ranks) embarked on Rangatira and Matua for Lautoka and on Monowai for Suva. The group arrived at their destinations on the 6th of January 1943.

1943     9 February   The advanced party for T Force of 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, comprising 13 officers and 12 ordinary ranks embarked at Auckland for Tonga via Suva.

1943     The service provided by Matua to the Island communities during the war was commemorated by a plaque presented to the ship by the Governor-General of Fiji, Sir Philip E Mitchell, KCMG in 1943.  It read; "M.V. Matua.  Presented by the people of Fiji to record their appreciation of the splendid service maintained by this vessel in the dangerous days following the outbreak of war in the South Pacific."  This was engraved on a plaque in the shape of the Island of Viti Levu and a substantial sum of money was also collected and presented to the crew as a Christmas gift.

1944     Commanded by Captain F. W. Collins

1946   June 7   Arrived at Nuku'alofa, Tonga after a three day voyage from Suva.

1946   December 21   Between 7.20 am and 6 pm she evacuated the 1,258 residents of Niuafo'ou Island, Tonga as a consequence of severe volcanic activity.

1948   Refitted to 4,249.98 tons, with accommodation increased to 48 passengers.

1949     The Cook Islands issue a high value stamp depicting Matua.

1949     Hull painted Bronze Green with a Yellow band

Detail from the painting by Jack Ephraim Hobbs, 1911-1979.
(Museum of Wellington City and Sea, New Zealand).

1951     Passenger accommodation reduced to 69.

1952     Transferred to the Wellington - Lyttelton inter-island ferry service during the winter, while Rangatira and Hinemoa underwent overhauls.

1952     June 21     Departed from Wellington, where sixteen year old Barry Ryan from New Plymouth joined the vessel as a deck boy.

Arriving at Lyttelton

1953     Seventeen voyages to Lyttelton, where she loaded 36,142 tons of cargo.

1957     January     The destroyer USS Higbee rescued Matua from Duff Reef, Fiji where she had run aground.

1963     March 12     Matua's worst experience with hurricane conditions occurred when a hurricane warning was received as she was en route from Suva to Nuku'alofa.  The Master, Captain Peter Bennett, decided not to enter Nuku'alofa so she was hove to west of Tofua Island.  Matua was not able to avoid the centre of the storm and as she pitched and rolled in winds of more than 90 knots, the saloon passengers were confined to their cabins and the 25 deck passengers transferred to the safety of the lounge.

The winds were so strong that deck fittings on the starboard side progressively disintegrated.  First the bridge dodger, then bridge awnings and finally the bridge cab were blown overboard.  Both the main and emergency aerials were demolished putting the radio out of action until a temporary aerial could be erected when the weather abated. Captain Bennett said it was the worst storm he had experienced.  Apart from the damage to the bridge, the permanent awning was blown off the poop deck, starboard bulwarks blown in and the steel ladders twisted and buckled.  Fortunately none of the passengers or crew were injured.  When the weather moderated the vessel was diverted to Apia for immediate repairs beacuse Nuku'alofa was closed because of the heavy seas.

1968     Replaced by the Taveuni. Laid up then sold to E. K. Litojua of Manila and renamed Sultan K.L. (Philippines)

1968     May 12     Above: her last visit to Suva.

1:1250 scale waterline model of the liner in her original livery, made in Germany by Albatros. The length is 3 inches.

1969     Driven ashore at Manila Bay during a typhoon.

1970     Salvaged and broken up at Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

1984     Samoan commemorative stamp issued.

1985     Niuafo'ou, Tonga commemorative stamp set issued.  Rockets were first used to deliver mail from ships to the coast of Niuafo'ou Island in 1902.


Thanks to Steven McLachlan (specialist in Maritime Covers) for many of the images and Marcus Castell for the research.

This page is part of the Historic New Zealand Vessels section of the
New Zealand Maritime Record
web site



Copyright (c)2003-2007
NZ National Maritime Museum

Return to the Ship Index

Enquiries & Research