The first people to visit the Kermadec Islands, from the 1300s onwards, were of Polynesian origin. A number of cultural layers, including ovens and stone tools, have been found during archaeological investigations on Raoul Island. The tools were mainly made from local materials, but distinctive obsidian flakes from Tūhua (Mayor Island) in the Bay of Plenty have also been found, suggesting that the islands may have been a stopping point for two-way travel between New Zealand and the Polynesian homeland. It is likely that the kiore (Polynesian rat) was introduced to the Kermadecs in this period.
According to Māori tradition, the Aotea and Kurahaupō canoes visited the Kermadecs on their way to New Zealand. The Kurahaupō was badly damaged on a reef, so many of the crew transferred to the Aotea for the final stage of the journey. Eventually the Kurahaupō was repaired, and sailed southwards to land in Northland. The Māori name for the Kermadecs is Rangitāhua.
The Kermadec group was first charted in 1793 by the French explorer Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, in command of the Recherche and Espérance. He named the island chain after the captain of the Espérance, Huon de Kermadec.
A better Brittany?
Kermadec is a common place name in the French province of Brittany, meaning the place or village of Madec. There are no other Kermadecs in the Pacific, but Huon (de Kermadec’s first name) is a place name in both Tasmania and Papua New Guinea.
The first Europeans to land on the Kermadecs were almost certainly whalers, in the 1790s. Ship-based whalers, predominantly French or American, called at Raoul Island to get water and firewood for rendering whales at sea. Goats were liberated on Raoul and Macauley islands to establish populations as a source of fresh meat for visiting ships. In 1878 Thomas Bell and his family settled on Raoul Island; it was to be their home for 35 years.
For most of the 19th century the Kermadec Islands were not claimed by any country. After Germany attempted to annex Samoa in 1885, the New Zealand colonial government, concerned that the islands might fall into foreign hands, urged the British authorities to act. On 31 July 1886 Captain F. S. Clayton of HMS Diamond hoisted the British flag on Raoul Island; the islands were annexed by New Zealand a year later. A government expedition aboard HMS Stella then spent a week in the Kermadecs, raising the New Zealand flag on 17 August 1887. Expedition members – naturalist Thomas Cheeseman and government surveyor S. Percy Smith – reported back to the government and the public. Sections of land on Raoul Island were offered for sale. Settlers came in 1889, but all left within a year, with the Bells again the only inhabitants. The first major scientific expedition, led by W. R. B. Oliver, visited the island group in 1908.
A workers’ paradise?
Not everyone was persuaded of the merits of annexing the Kermadecs. ‘It is always fine,’ commented a spoof report on the island group in 1886, ‘except when it rains, and when there is no wind a delicious calm prevails … the Government have consented to give a Crown grant of the Islands on the sole condition that the Company takes all the unemployed from New Zealand, and pay them a pound a day (paper currency). The working day in the Kermadecs consists of two hours, out of which sixty minutes are allowed for smoke and an equal portion for repose.’1
During the First World War the now-deserted Kermadec Islands were used as a haven by the German raider Wolf in 1917. Later that year the castaway depot on Curtis Island was looted by the escaped prisoner of war Count Felix von Luckner before he was captured and returned to captivity in New Zealand.
A radio and meteorological station was established on Raoul Island by the New Zealand government in 1939. Coastwatchers maintained close observation of the surrounding waters during the Second World War. Since 1988 the islands have been managed by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.