Tuia - Encounters 250: Cook's place names around New Zealand - Poor Knights Islands

Photo of Poor Knights Islands
Photo Credit: 84990 - Lloyd Homer – GNS Science | Te Pū Ao – All rights reserved

About 20 km east from the Northland coast lie two islands, Tawhiti Rahi Island and Aorangi Island, surrounded by numerous rocky islets. The English name for this collection of islands is the rather unusual, almost unexplainable, ‘Poor Knights Islands’.

Cook’s diary entry of 25 November 1769 labels them as ‘Poor Knights’, although this is written between the lines of his text and may have been written on a later day. But who (or what) were the Poor Knights?

Cook’s biographer JC Beaglehole presents two possible explanations in his book The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery. One, that the name comes from the ‘Poor Knights of Windsor’ the colloquial name for ‘Alms Knights of St. George's Chapel’, a charity that supported military pensioners. While Cook may not have known about them, Beaglehole argues, the well-to-do naturalist onboard, Joseph Banks, probably did.

The other possible explanation (and one that Beaglehole is hesitant to bring forward) is that the islands were named for their resemblance to the ‘Poor Knights’ dessert (similar to French toast). Beaglehole explains:

  • The islets under consideration are not much more than chunks of brown rock and clay, which would stand on a flat sea (and this day there was no more than a gentle breeze) as on a plate. Cook, revising his pages at this period…was in a facetious and punning mood - cf. his joke in the next entry and his play on Piercy in the following one.

While few (if any) modern sources use the Alm Knights explanation, the French toast explanation is commonly repeated. 

References 

Last Updated: 15 February 2019