Like Māori, Europeans found precious rocks and minerals on islands. In the 19th century both Kawau and Waiheke islands were mined for manganese and copper.
In 1885 mining began on Whakaari (White Island) for sulfur, and the volcanic rock there was mined for fertiliser. But the project was dropped in 1933 because of the economic depression, and the difficulty of working on an active volcano.
Many attempts have been made to farm larger islands such as Waiheke and Great Barrier in the Hauraki Gulf, and Arapawa and D’Urville in the Marlborough Sounds. Farming has often been marginal economically, due to the high cost of bringing in materials and ferrying stock to the mainland markets.
In 1897 Great Barrier Island was the site of the world’s first regular airmail service – by pigeon. Flying the 90-odd kilometres to Auckland, the birds carried up to five messages, which were often shopping lists. A pigeon named Velocity once covered the distance in 50 minutes, a record average speed of 125 kilometres per hour. The service ended in 1908.
In the 20th century, as yachting and boating became more popular, a number of islands became attractive holiday centres. In the 1920s the largest island in the Bay of Islands, Urupukapuka, was a favourite haunt of the American writer and deep-sea angler Zane Grey. Other islands in the bay attract yachties and are visited by tourists on the popular ‘cream trip’. A single launch once collected cream from island farms and delivered mail, but several tourist boats now sail its route.
Both Great Barrier Island and Waiheke are popular with holidaymakers, while Kawau draws many pleasure boats. Other islands in the Hauraki Gulf and the Marlborough Sounds attract boaties who enjoy isolated beaches.
Many people took up the challenge of island living, which calls for self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Children living on small islands had no access to schools, and even today are taught by their mothers, helped by the Correspondence School.
Landings on Stephens Island, in Cook Strait, were tricky: ‘There is no wharf, and during the lighthouse era people and stores had to be winched ashore in a metal box by derrick. Many are the tales of people being left swinging when the winch failed, taking sudden plunges toward the waves, or being dropped hard on to the boat when the winch operator misjudged the rise and fall of the vessel.’ 1
One of the loneliest jobs was that of lighthouse keeper, especially before radios became common. Steep cliffs made landing dangerous, and many islands received supplies only a few times a year. Eventually the lighthouses were automated. Some islands were turned into wildlife sanctuaries and a few lighthouse keepers, intrigued by island wildlife, opted to become conservation officers.
Even in the 2000s, many people are willing to pass up some comforts of modern living for the rewards of island life. On Great Barrier, there is no mains electricity or reticulated water – people use generators and bottled-gas stoves and refrigerators, and often heat their water with solar panels.