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The Maori history of the Poor Knights is dramatic, turbulent and astonishing, especially considering the inhospitable nature of the craggy Islands.

An hard place to land, with no fresh water source, the Islands were once home to 400 people and populated with bustling terraced gardens and fortified pa sites.

Occupied by Maori for many generations until the early 19th century, both main islands were inhabited, but each by a different hapu (family tribal group).


Ngatiwai are an ancient people who were known as Ngatiwai ki te Moana (those who lived along the east coast and offshore islands) and Ngatiwai ki te tua Whenua (those who lived inland e.g. Ngatihine).

Ngatiwai descend from Manaia, Tamatea and Tahuhunuioterangi. The mana of Ngatiwai is water and this is remembered by Manaia saying to his descendants, "Although you stand on land, you stand also in the sea."

Ngatiwai occupies the shoreline from Motukokako (Cape Brett) to Tawharanui (Cape Rodney) to Aotea (Great Barrier Island). They also occupied many islands including Tawhitirahi and Aorangi (Poor Knights).

They are the kaitiaki (guardians) of a sacred covenant placed on the islands by the ringa kaha Te Tatua (chief) in 1822. This tapu was placed following the massacre of his people while he and his warriors were absent.

Island hapu

Tawhiti Rahi was occupied by members of the Ngatiwai tribe who lived on the island seasonally, using it as a base to collect seafood and birds at abundant times of the year. They also had extensive gardens that were tended on a regular basis. To make the best use of the available soil and water the gardens were terraced by building stone walls, many of which are still intact today.

Aorangi Island was home to the Ngatitoki people who lived there on a more permanent basis. They were mostly self-sufficient, growing their own vegetables and harvesting the plentiful kaimoana (seafood) from the rich surrounding waters. They also traded with Maori on the adjacent coast for estuarine and harbour shellfish, obsidian, rounded stones for soil conditioning and totara logs for building.

The last chief of the islands was a warrior named Tatua, who lived on Aorangi but also ruled Tawhiti Rahi.


Oral history suggests that sometime around 1820 Tatua left the islands with his warriors to join the notorious Hongi Hika on a fighting expedition to the Hauraki Gulf. During his absence an Aorangi slave named Paha escaped and made his way to Hokianga where he reported to Chief Waikato of the Hikutu tribe that the islands lay undefended.

Chief Waikato, having been insulted by Tatua several years previously when he was refused pigs he had come to trade for, immediately gathered his warriors and set out in three large waka (canoes) on the 320 km journey to the Poor Knights.

The invaders reached the Islands after nightfall and, with no warriors to defend them, the locals were soon overwhelmed. Few survived the invasion, many jumping to their deaths from the high cliffs rather than being taken prisoner.

However, several islanders were captured, including Tatua’s wife Oneho and her daughter. Making his way back to Hokianga, Chief Waikato and his men stopped off at Whangaroa
to rest. While there, a local chief recognised Oneho as a distant relative and helped her escape with her daughter.


Tatua must have been horrified at the scene that greeted him on his return to the islands. Only a few people had survived the invasion, including his son Wehiwehi, who had hidden in a cave during the fighting.

Gathering the survivors Tatua left the islands never to return. He made his way to Rawhiti in the Bay of Islands, where he was unexpectedly reunited with his wife and daughter.

The Poor Knights were declared strictly tapu (sacred) and have remained uninhabited ever since.

Whatungarongaro te tangata toitu te whenua

A proverb which means “People pass on, but land remains.” It speaks to sustainability and protecting Mother Earth. Hear it spoken here.