Poor Knights marine reserve
recent history
by Dr J Floor Anthoni (2007)

New Zealand is only a young country, first discovered by Europeans in the late 18th century. Maori discovered it nearly a millennium earlier, but left no written records. So the recent history of the Poor Knights begins from anecdotes, that early European settlers recorded.
  • Timeline: a quick overview of the (human) history of the Poor Knights.
  • Maori habitation: as there was no written word, the history of Maori habitation has been pieced together from anecdotes.
  • European period: the Poor Knights were very soon recognised as a special place deserving protection and study.

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This timeline provides a quick overview of the history of the Poor Knights Islands during human inhabitation.
POOR KNIGHTS (French toast)
4 about 1½ - 2 cm thick slices of dryish (at least 1 day old) French bread or brioche bread
1 egg
100 ml milk
powdered cinnamon
powdered cardamom
(dash of vanilla sugar)
In a deep plate, lightly whisk the egg and mix in the milk. Add a dash of cinnamon and cardamom (and vanilla sugar). If you are going to fry more than four slices of bread, slightly increase the amount of milk. Dip the bread slices briefly in the milk-egg mixture on both sides, but do not let them soak and become too soggy.

Using medium heat, fry the slices slowly on both sides in butter until golden brown. When you flip the slices over, add some more butter to the pan. The slices should have a crispy crust and a spongy and firm, not doughy, centre.

Maori habitation
The Poor Knights are small, and the number of people it could maintain, was likewise, a small number. Yet, for many generations it sustained a population of 300-400 Maori who occupied the southern island, Aorangi. The northern island, Tawhiti Rahi, although larger, belonged to a subtribe of Ngatiwai and its chief Tuaho. It was used mainly for hunting sea birds, a few months each year.

The southern island has a fertile valley on its eastern side towards Tatua Peak, and is surrounded by three pa sites. The Maori (the NgaiToki) who lived here, belong to the Ngati Toki subtribe of Ngatiwai and their chief Tabu. Chief Tatau of Ngatiwai was ruler over both islands.

Landing on the island was not always possible but two landings were used, one near Urupa (graveyard) on the northern tip, and one in South Harbour, known as Fraser's Landing. In both places, it was possible to haul canoes out of the water. In some other places canoes could be lifted out of the water on ropes. In those days the Maori were skilled seafarers and were able to travel large distances in any one day. For instance, the northern harbour of Whangaroa was only a day's paddling away. Trade with the mainland occurred on a regular basis, because the Poor Knights could not supply enough timber (totara) for canoes, as well as other items of necessity like obsidian (volcanic glass) for cutting. Pigs were kept on the islands and bartered for goods. Also fishing was bountiful and preserved muttonbird (a shearwater) and smoked fish were also traded.

In the sheltered and fertile volcanic valley, the local inhabitants were able to grow kumara (sweet potato) and other crops.

In about 1808 an incident occurred with a party of natives from the Hikutu tribe of Hokianga Harbour (on the west coast), who were not allowed to land and who were refused pigs for food. This was not easily forgotten, and when the Ngatiwai tribe with chief Tatau and his warriors (and those from Aorangi) joined the notorious and cruel Hongi Hika on a fighting expedition to the Hauraki Gulf (150km south), the island remained poorly defended.

A slave named Paha managed to escape from the island in a canoe and several days later reached the west coast settlement of the Hikutu tribe. He informed chief Waikato that Aorangi was poorly defended and ripe for an invasion to secure pigs and slaves. Without delay, chief Waikato set out in three large canoes, rounding North Cape and then on to the Poor Knights, a distance of almost 200 nautical miles (320km). With the escaped slave as guide, they were able to spring a complete surprise at night, and slaughter the defenceless inhabitants, many of whom jumped to their deaths from the high cliffs. It took the first night and all of the next day to kill them all. Then they left with as captives, Tatau's wife Oneho and her daughter.

On their way back, in Whangaroa Harbour, they rested for a day and celebrated their success with the locals. But a local elder (rangatira) Tango recognised Oneho as a distant relative and helped her escape to Kerikeri where they were taken by canoe to Rawhiti in the bay of Islands.

When Tatau returned from his Hauraki expedition, he was met with about ten survivors, including his five year old son Wehiwehi, who related the horrid massacre to him. Wehiwehi was saved by old man Omanoa who hid him in a small cave. Utterly demoralised, the men performed last rites over the slain and then declared the islands to be strictly tapu, never to be visited again. They all left for Rawhiti in the Bay of Islands where chief Tatau was reunited with his wife and daughter.

The Poor Knights have remained uninhabited since that time.

European period
During his voyages of discovery (1768-1771), Captain Cook recorded some islands that were cultivated and inhabited with fortified villages. These he named the Poor Knights, and nearby pinnacles the Poor Squires.

In 1845 the Poor Knights were first purchased by the European Mr J S Pollock. It is not known why he acquired them but in 1882 the islands were sold to the Crown who one year later designated them a lighthouse reserve, without a light house.

Forty years later, in 1975, the year that the Marine Reserves Act was enacted, the islands became a fully protected flora and fauna reserve.

Although divers respected the islands as a special place already in the 1960s, while refraining voluntarily from damaging exploitation, it took till 1981 before they were officially protected as New Zealand's second marine reserve (the first is around Goat Island). However, full protection was afforded only to the area from Maroro Bay to Serpent Rock and South Harbour. In the remainder of the marine reserve, fishing was allowed with non-weighted lines to target 'migratory species' and 'bait fish'.

In 1998 full protection was established over the entire protected area, extending 800m out from its steep shores. Today the islands provide some of the best diving in New Zealand, because of their clear waters, high biodiversity and ease of access. Jacques Cousteau rated it as the third best dive spot in the world.