A suite of deep-sea cores were collected along transects up to 100 km across the fore-arc and back-arc regions of the predominantly submarine Kermadec arc near Raoul and Macauley islands, southwest Pacific. The cores reveal a macroscopic tephra record extending back >50 ka. This is a significant addition to the dated record of volcanism, previously restricted to fragmented late Holocene records exposed on the two islands. The 27 macroscopic tephra layers display a wide compositional diversity in glass (∼50–78 wt% SiO2). Many tephra layers comprise silicic shards with a subordinate mafic shard population. This could arise from magma mingling and may reflect mafic triggering of the silicic eruptions. Broadly, the glass compositions can be distinguished on diverging high-K and low-K trends, most likely arising from different source volcanoes. This distinction is also reflected in the tephra records exposed on Raoul (low-K) and Macauley (high-K) islands, the likely source areas. Heterogeneous tephra comprising shards of both high- and low-K affinity, silicic and mafic compositions, and more homogeneous tephra with subordinate outlier shard compositions, are best explained by post-depositional mixing of separate eruption deposits or contemporaneous eruptions. Evidently, the slow sedimentation rates of the calcareous oozes (∼101–102 mm ka−1) were insufficient to adequately separate and preserve closely spaced eruption deposits. This exemplifies the difficulty in assessing eruption frequencies and magmatic trends, and erecting a tephrostratigraphy, using geochemical fingerprinting in such environments. Despite these difficulties, the ca. 5.7 ka Sandy Bay Tephra erupted from Macauley Island can be correlated over a distance of >100 km, extending east and west of the island, showing that the mostly submerged volcanoes are capable of wide tephra dispersal. Hence there is potential for developing chronostratigraphies for the southwest Pacific beyond the region covered by the extensive rhyolite marker beds from the Taupo Volcanic Zone. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.