The Poor Knights Islands are a group of islands off the east coast of the Northland Region (on the North Island) of New Zealand. We recently explored Tutukaka and could see these islands from the shore.
The islands are the eroded remnants of a 4-million-year-old rhyolitic volcano and it amazed us to discover that this rather inhospitable looking spot was once inhabited by people! They’ve been uninhabited since the 1820’s and are now surrounded by The Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve, which is a popular underwater diving spot. As part of a nature reserve, the islands are protected and a permit is required to land or tie boats up (permits are usually granted only for scientific research).
The chain consists of two large islands (Tawhiti Rahi, the larger and Aorangi) with a group of smaller islets between the two, the largest of which is Motu Kapiti. Tawhiti Rahi is also the Māori name for the entire chain
The islands’ name is said to derive from their resemblance to Poor Knight’s Pudding, a bread-based dish popular at the time of discovery by Europeans. It’s basically “French Toast” topped with jam (slices of day-old bread are soaked or dipped in a mixture of beaten eggs, often with milk or cream. The slices of egg-coated bread are then fried on both sides until they are browned and cooked through. The cooked slices are then covered with sweet toppings such as jam, honey, fruit or maple syrup).Like all things traditional, there’s a tale attached to these islands…
The islands were once inhabited by Māori of the Ngāti Wai tribe, who grew crops and fished the surrounding sea. A chief of the tribe named Tatua led his warriors on a fighting expedition to the Hauraki Gulf with Ngā Puhi chief Hongi Hika in the early 1820s. While they were away, a slave escaped the islands and travelled to Hokianga where he told Waikato (a chief of the Hikutu tribe) that the islands had been left undefended. As Waikato had been offended by Tatua some years previous, he and his warriors set out on three large canoes to attack the islands.
They arrived at the islands one night in December 1823 and soon overpowered the islanders in the absence of their warriors. Many islanders jumped off the high cliffs to avoid being taken as slaves, meanwhile Tatua’s wife and daughter were captured and taken to the mainland where a distant relative recognised them and helped the two to escape.
Tatua returned to the islands to find a scene of utter destruction. Only nine or ten people were left on the islands, including his five-year-old son who had been hidden in a cave during the attack. The islands were declared tapu (denoting something holy or sacred, with “spiritual restriction” or “implied prohibition”) and Tatua left with the survivors and went to Rawhiti in the Bay of Islands where he apparently and unexpectedly found his wife and daughter.