New Zealand’s nearshore islands have always attracted people. As experienced seafarers from the Pacific Islands, Māori were at home on islands. Seafood was plentiful, and the ocean and cliffs formed natural defences.
Some islands were noted points of arrival for Māori waka (canoes). It is said that the chief Manaia landed the canoe Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi at Motu Kōkako, the famous hole in the rock at the entrance to the Bay of Islands in the north. His people then settled on the Poor Knights and Hen and Chickens islands. In the same area, the Ngātiwai tribe established themselves on Little Barrier and Great Barrier islands.
When the renowned chief Te Rauparaha led the Ngāti Toa people and their allies south to a new home in the Wellington region in the 1820s, he chose Kāpiti Island as his base. Much further south, his opponent, the Ngāi Tahu leader Tūhawaiki, had a home on Ruapuke Island, off present-day Bluff.
The islands around Stewart Island were an important harvesting ground for tītī (muttonbirds), and Māori still have harvesting rights there. Other islands also held valuable resources. Tūhua (Mayor Island) was an important source of obsidian, a volcanic glass used for cutting and scraping, while D’Urville Island provided adzite or baked argillite for making adzes.
The first European arrivals were also seafarers who found refuge on islands.
Two Marlborough Sounds islands featured prominently in Cook’s explorations. On 31 January 1770 he raised the British flag at the top of Motuara, claiming the South Island in the name of King George III. A plaque now marks the spot. Later, from a hill on Arapawa Island, Cook first saw the strait between the North and South islands that now bears his name.
Sealers explored the islands in search of their prey. The first Europeans to live in New Zealand were a sealing gang dropped by the Britannia on Anchor Island in Dusky Sound in 1792, with a year’s provisions. Over 10 months, they collected 4,500 sealskins, built the first European house in the country, and nearly completed New Zealand’s first European boat.
Later sealers were often left on islands to hunt. One unfortunate group was abandoned on bleak Solander Island for four and a half years before being rescued.
Te Awaiti, a shore whaling station, was set up on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds in the 1820s. From hilltop lookouts, whalers could spot whales migrating through Cook Strait. Boats were then sent out to harpoon them and tow the carcasses to the station for rendering.
In 1911 the Perano family founded a whaling industry at Arapawa that lasted until the end of New Zealand-based whaling in 1964. Kāpiti was also an active station.