This group of small islands, lying 33 miles north-west of Cape Maria van Dieman, was discovered by Abel Tasman on 4 January 1643. He anchored off them on 5 January 1643, with a view to landing and obtaining vegetables and water. But when he saw “thirty-five Natives of very large size, taking prodigious long strides, and with clubs in their hands”, he abandoned the idea. As it was the eve of Epiphany, the day held in memory of the visit of the Magi or Wise Men of the East to the infant Jesus, he named the tiny group of rocky islands the Three Kings.
The islands are in latitude 35° 50' N and longitude 172° 10' E. The largest of them is Great Island (875 acres) in the centre of a string of rocky islets and has pinnacles rising so steeply out of the sea as to make landing difficult except in the calmest weather. In structure the islands resemble the north-western tip of the Auckland Peninsula, of which they may be regarded as a detached part. Great Island is made of a variety of basic volcanic rocks resting on a base of greywacke like that of the peninsula. At the time of Tasman's visit the islands had a Maori population but they have not been occupied since 1840. The total number of Maoris probably never exceeded 100.
To most people the best known incident in the history of the Three Kings is the wreck of the s.s. Elingamite there on 9 November 1902, with the loss of 45 lives. The ship was bound from Sydney to Auckland with 136 passengers.
Today, interest in the islands is focused on ecological studies of the plant and animal life of an isolated and uninhabited land area. Unfortunately four goats were liberated in 1889 to provide food for possible castaways, but they multiplied so greatly and did so much damage to the plant cover that the herds were shot out in 1946. Marion du Fresne described the islands in 1772 as “grassy” with “groves of bush”. T. F. Cheeseman made a survey of the vegetation in 1887 and 1889 and noted it as being mainly of low scrub, with some taller manuka and kanuka, and some residual patches of primitive cover. Cockayne in 1919 noted some endemic species of genera common in New Zealand as Hebe insularis, coprosma macrocarpa, Paratrophis smithii, Pittosporum fairchildii. He noted also that puka (Meryta sinclairii) and cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) were features of the vegetation of islands of this group. The regeneration of plants since the destruction of goats has been remarkable and is of special interest to the ecologist.
by George Jobberns, C.B.E., M.A., D.SC., Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Canterbury.