The Kermadecs contain one of the few shallow marine areas between mainland New Zealand and the coral reefs of the tropics. Together with the communities on Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands, which are at similar latitudes, the marine ecosystems are possible unique.
Although occupation had ceased when the first Europeans visited the islands in the late 18th Century, archaeological records show that Raoul Island was settled by Polynesian seafarers, probably during the phase of expansion into the south-west Pacific about one thousand years ago. The islands may have also acted as a stopping off point on journeys between the islands to the north and New Zealand. The traditional Maori name of Rangitahua has been ascribed to Raoul Island. This may represent a European interpretation made specifically to account for an early collection of Polynesian adzes found on the island.
The absence of ethnographic records means that our understanding of the prehistory of the Kermadecs is now dependent entirely on the remaining archaeological evidence. Research and artefacts found on Raoul to date indicate that the island was occupied about the mid-14th Century, probably from the Society Islands, although Anderson (1980) has suggested two periods of occupation dating from around the 10th and the 14th Centuries. There is preliminary evidence on Raoul of material sourced from New Zealand.
There is some evidence that Polynesian occupation of Raoul may have ended as a result of volcanic eruption. Elsewhere in the Kermadecs, the presence of kiore (Rattus exulans) and charcoal (dating from the 15th Century: Johnson, pers comm.) point to Polynesian contact with Macauley Island. However, the lack of water on the island would probably have precluded long term settlement.
Polynesian settlement areas on Raoul are known to have included Low Flat and the eastern end of the Terraces, and probably Denham Bay. The inhabitants subsisted on marine mammals, muttonbirds, fishing and gardening. Crops possibly introduced by these early settlers include taro (Colocasia esculenta) and kumara (Ipomea batatas). Other Polynesian introductions included kiore, and probably candle nut tree (Aleurites molucanna) and ti (Cordyline terminalis).
The Kermadecs have had a varied history of European contact since their “rediscovery” by a British convict ship in 1788. During the first half of the 19th Century Raoul was used as a base and provisioning point for ships working the rich whaling grounds of the area. Goats were introduced to Raoul and Macauley Island prior to 1836 to provide food for these activities. Pigs were also introduced to both islands but did not thrive.
Macauley Island appears to have been burnt off during the early 19th Century, possibly in conjunction with these introductions.
From 1837 onwards there were a number of attempts to settle Raoul Island and to establish farms and crops. Although these enterprises met with little success, sheep and cattle and a number of exotic crops and adventive plants were introduced, and areas were cleared for pasture and gardens. Volcanic activity resulted in at least one evacuation from the island, in 1870.
Cats arrived on Raoul Island during the 19th Century and Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) appear to have been introduced to Raoul from the wreck of the “Columbia River” in 1921, but may have been introduced. In 1908 the first assessment of the natural history of the Kermadecs was made by W.R.B. Oliver. His recommendations included reserve protection for the island he “foretold the damage rats and goats would have on indigenous fauna and flora”.
The Kermadecs were annexed by New Zealand in 1887, and the last settlers left Raoul in 1937 when a Government party arrived to establish the radio and meteorological station on the island.