Kermadec Islands - history
By Dr J Floor Anthoni, 2002
The history of Sunday Island is written in the many attempts of settling on its fertile slopes, all in vain. Now the New Zealand Government maintains presence with a small crew of devoted officers of the Department of Conservation.
  • introduction: An overview of the history of Sunday Island. (on this page)
  • time line: Chronology of the known history of Sunday Island. (on this page)
  • early maps: Hand-drawn maps dating back to the settlement by the Bell family (on this page)

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Because of its remoteness, and many failed attempts of taming her, Raoul or Sunday Island as it was known, still holds fascination for many. A volcanic island with fertile soils, located in a mild climate with regular and abundant rainfall, is just too much of a dream for those who fancy the adventures of the fictitious Swiss settler Robinson Crusoe.

Centuries ago, these islands were already known to Polynesian seafarers and by the first Maori visiting New Zealand in canoes. The story goes that the Maori canoe Kura-haupo wrecked there, and that its survivors were picked up later by the Aotea canoe. Raoul and the Kermadecs have been a mixed blessing for seafarers, on the one hand to be avoided as navigation hazards, on the other hand to be sought for fresh water, meat, vegetables and fruits. The closest truly tropical islands lie further north: Samoa, Niue (Savage Island), Fiji and Tonga. Their traders also occasionally visited Raoul.

The waters in this area were once frequented by sperm whales, in their hundreds or thousands, reason for American whalers, schooners and wind-jammers to visit the island. At one time it was noted that several dozen ships lay at anchor in Denham Bay, where most activity occurred.

Invariably, many waves of Polynesians, including Maori must have settled on the islands. But Raoul was much more active in those days, and its earth quakes and rumblings easily drove off the superstitious natives.

The best recorded and most successful attempt at cultivating the island, was made by the Bell family, who kept diaries of their adventures. In the mid 1950s, the information as recounted by their children, and as recorded in their diaries, was put together in a novel by Elsie K Morton (Crusoes of Sunday Island). But even they had to concede to the difficulties caused by remoteness and natural disasters. The wars also played their role.

In the course of the settlers' attempts, many foreign species were introduced, both plant and animal. Of the animals, the goats, cats and rats had a most destructive influence on the islands. On Macauley the goats eradicated the native forest permanently, now a grassed turf. On Raoul the cats and rats extirpated three endemic (unique) bird species while driving very large numbers of seabirds off the islands. Some plants became invasive, and are now being eradicated by teams of volunteers. In June/July 2002 a major effort was undertaken to eradicate all mammals from the islands by carefully planned poison drops. It is hoped to make Raoul once again a safe haven for sea birds and song birds.

Now the islands are administered by the Department of Conservation, who maintains a permanent staff of four and some volunteers to assist in the work. They maintain radio communication over the area, and man a permanent weather station. In 1990 the seas around the islands, to the maximum extent afforded by NZ law (12 nautical miles), were declared a marine reserve, without much opposition at all. This act secured an enormous area of  7840 square kilometre for future generations.

DoC has two conflicting goals in preserving these islands: firstly to preserve the natural environment, and secondly also the historical heritage. Should the gigantic Norfolk pines, which are alien to these islands be torn down? The ancient but still fruiting orange trees?

Time line

Recorded history starts with the visits of war ships of British and French nationality, for their ships' logs have been preserved. The chronological timeline below sketches Raoul's history from the late 1800s.

inscription on the copper plaque at Denham Bay
to the memory of
Fleetwood James Denham
The dearly beloved son of Henry Mangles Denham, captain of Her Britannic Majesty's ship HERALD,
and Isabella Denham.
He died aboard the Herald at this Island on the 8th day of July, 1854, aged 16 years, leaving an afflicted parent to mourn his loss here, and many at home who dearly loved him.
This tablet is erected by his bereaved father and shipmates, as a last testimony of their esteem.
SUNDAY ISLAND, South Pacific, July 9, 1854

Early maps

Here are some hand-drawn maps as they appeared in Elsie K Morton's book Crusoes of Sunday Island. Their various features have been annotated below. Note that a modern topographic map and a detailed marine chart are now available.

map of Kermadec Islands

Above is the map of the entire island. Visitors usually arrive from New Zealand, passing Smith Bluff into Denham Bay, or around Hutchison Bluff to the northern side at Bell's Beach or North Beach. The island has four landing sites:
detail of map
View of Denham Bay and wreck (photo Gene Kruper)The map above shows more detail of the most important areas of the island. Unfortunately, Fishing Rock (top right) has just been cut off. The island has a crater, which scientists call a caldera on account of its many miniature craters. The Blue Lake is its main feature, and the green lake second. Tui lake is a hard-to-find little lake, which is no longer what it once was. The crater area is the main centre of volcanic activity, but Raoul's most explosive crater lies under Denham Bay, which was created by one of its earlier explosions.
In its early days, Denham Bay was the centre of all activities. The map shows Bell's first hut, the historical flagstaff, the lagoon, steaming cliffs and the location of Denham's grave. The Bell family left this area, after expending considerable effort on it, and moved to the northern flats. The map shows where Bell began his cultivation (Bell's hut) and where they ended up living (Bell's house). Bell's Ravine is a very narrow canyon, almost invisible from the sea, cutting through the western side of Fleetwood Bluff. On the Terraces, a primitive landing strip is maintained and mowed but very few air planes are equipped to land here.