History of the Poor Knights Islands

According to the descendants a population of some 3 to 4 hundred people inhabited the islands for many generations.

The islands were occupied by a sub tribe or hapu of the Ngatiwai people. The first account of a European to sight the islands was Captain Cook on the 25th November 1769. As a child I, like many other locals was led to believe that Captain Cook had dropped pigs there, Cooks journals make little reference to the islands as he sailed North two miles off the coast of the mainland. It is only in his completed charts that the islands are named the Poor Knights Islands without explanation. The group certainly resembles the shape of a person lying down. Effigies of crusaders heads to south feet thrust towards the warm north sun and since Abel Tasman named N Zs most northern Islands the Three Kings, it seems Cook followed. The rocks now known as the pinnacles and Sugar Loaf he named the Poor Squires.

Around 1808 the Hikutu from Hokigana harbor on the west coast set out in canoes paddling around the top of the north island (320kms) intending to purchase pigs from the people on the Poor Knights. But they left empty handed having been denied even the right to land.

Utu or revenge played a big part in Maori society. Their chance for redress came twelve years later when, having been informed that all the islands fighting men were away supporting Hongi Hika in the south. The Hikitu set off again this time on a massive raid and as missionary King records”feed like vultures on the dead and returned home laden with slaves and the flesh of men”. Among the slaves were Chief Tatua’s wife Oneho and his daughter. Only ten of the islands inhabitants survived the massacre.

When Tatua returned he was met by the few survivors who had hidden in caves. They related the horrid massacre to him. Utterly devastated they buried the dead performing the last rites over the slain and declared the islands to be wahi tapu (sacred place) and abandoned them moving to live on the coast of the main land where descendants of these people still live today.

There remains clear evidence of the earlier habitation on both main islands, numerous terraces, stone work, pa sites and platforms for house sites.

On the Northern Island, Tawhiti Rahi where there were no pigs pa sites are in perfect condition giving quite an airy spiritual feeling when one is walking around them. Many artifacts are seen around the pa and house sites, adzes, carved stockade posts, coffin boards, obsidian flakes, bird traps, middens, areas of cultivation, and numerous burial caves with the remains of people resting on woven mats.

It is not known why or from whom a European Mr. J. S Pollock purchased the Islands in 1845. The crown bought them in 1882 designating them a lighthouse reserve though a lighthouse was not erected until the late 1950’s. In 1922 they were declared a scenic reserve and in 1929 a sanctuary for native and imported games the only animals in the latter category being the pigs the last of which were shot in 1936. In 1967 the islands became part of the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park and in 1977 they became a nature reserve with the highest level of legal protection.

Guy & Sandra Bowden are owners of Tawapou Coastal Natives Plant Nursery on the Tutukaka Coast. Guy grew up on the Tutukaka Coast and has been passionate about NZ native plants all his life. His interest was kindled by his conservationist parents who began protecting sections of native bush and pohutukaka on the cliffs of the property over forty years ago. Below Guy talks about The Poor Knights Islands in relation to location & geology; history; plants and birds on the islands; reptiles, insects and snails on the islands; marine life and the 1996 weed eradication programme.