The island was named after Joseph Raoul, quartermaster of the Recherche, when it was sighted on 16 March 1793. It was later seen on 6 March 1796 by Captain W. Raven of the whaler Britannia. He called it Sunday Island, a name which was subsequently in common usage. The island was charted by Captain H. M. Denham of HMS Herald in 1854.
When the New Zealand government established a weather and radio station on the island in 1939 it made Raoul the official name, probably to avoid confusion with a number of Sunday islands in Australia.
Although Raoul is the only island in the Kermadec group large enough to support settlement, it lacks a safe harbour, and landings from small boats can only be made in calm weather. The island consists of two mountainous areas, one with summits of 516m and 498m, and the other with a summit of 465m, the two separated by a depression which is the caldera of the Raoul volcano.
An active volcano
Raoul Island is the emergent part of a large submarine volcano, and its irregular, anvil-like shape is due to a combination of volcanic activity and erosion. Layers of pumice and ash mantling the island indicate that there have been sporadic explosive eruptions for at least the last 4,000 years, and similar large eruptions are likely in the future.
Two collapse calderas, Raoul and Denham, have been the site of volcanic eruptions since the early 1800s. Recent bathymetric investigations have revealed the presence of additional submarine calderas a few kilometres north-west and south-west of the island.
Explosive eruptions occurred in the Raoul caldera in 1815, 1870, 1964 and 2006. The first two eruptions were accompanied by the appearance in Denham Bay of volcanic islands which were later eroded away by the sea.
A sad end
In 1860 a ‘blackbirding’ captain offloaded at Raoul Island a number of Tokelauans destined for forced labour in Peru, because they were sick with an infectious illness. Not only did they die, so did some of the island’s inhabitants who cared for them.
A small number of families settled on the island from the 1830s onwards, eking out an existence by selling provisions to visiting ships, but all left after the 1870 eruption.
Thomas Bell and his family moved to Raoul Island from Samoa in 1878, and their difficult life on the island for the next 35 years is recorded in Elsie K. Morton’s Crusoes of Sunday Island. Initially living at Denham Bay, they later moved to North Beach. There, with the assistance of a group of visiting Niuean workers (Niue was the closest Pacific island after Tonga), they were able to clear an area of bush and establish large gardens. The Niueans were paid in kind as the Bells did not have any cash. Helped by former New Zealand governor George Grey, the Bells introduced a variety of fruit trees and other plants, some of which spread and became regarded as pests.
After annexing the islands, the New Zealand government allocated Thomas Bell just 275 acres (111 hectares) of land. Bell claimed ownership of the whole island and lobbied unsuccessfully to that end until his death.
Groves of oranges and other fruit trees were planted in the 1930s, but the venture failed because of the lack of a safe landing place from which to export the produce. The meteorological station is on a flat terrace on the northern side of the island, and has been continuously occupied since 1939.
A prickly problem
Mysore thorn was introduced from India as a hedging plant to keep goats out of the vegetable gardens. It subsequently spread over a large area in Denham Bay, and has proved one of the most difficult and unpleasant plants to eradicate.
A small group of tiny islands immediately north-east of Raoul (Meyer, Herald, Napier and Nugent islands) have never been modified by introduced mammals, so have retained their original bird populations. With the removal of rats, cats and goats from Raoul Island, some of the species that had become extinct there are gradually being re-established from populations preserved on the north-eastern islands.