Story: Chatham Islands

For around 400 years Moriori lived on the Chatham Islands without contact with other peoples. They developed their own way of life, including the outlawing of war, but that was disrupted by the arrival of European sealers and whalers, and by invading Māori in 1835. In the 2010s many Chatham Islanders are descendants of these ethnic groups. The islands’ rugged landscape and unique plants and animals draw tourists to visit.

Story by Rhys Richards
Main image: Moriori tree carvings

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

The Chatham Islands are not subantarctic. They are to the east of New Zealand – 862 kilometres from Christchurch but only 772 kilometres from Napier. They are 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand time.

The island group includes many small islands, but only the two main ones are inhabited: Chatham Island, also called Rēkohu or Wharekauri, and Pitt Island, also known as Rangihaute or Rangiāuria.

Geology

The Chatham Islands are connected to mainland New Zealand by the underwater Chatham Rise. The islands’ rock is both volcanic and sedimentary, and the soil of the main island is mostly peat.

Plants

The Chatham Islands have no big trees. The vegetation has changed extensively since the arrival of European settlers.

Birds and animals

The sea around the Chatham Islands is rich in fish. There are huge flocks of seabirds on the islands. Native birds on the islands include some rare and endangered species – the tāiko (magenta petrel), the black robin and the huge parea (Chatham Island pigeon).

Settlers

The people who became the Moriori arrived on the islands from Eastern Polynesia and New Zealand around 1400 AD. They had no contact with other people for about 400 years, and developed their own distinct culture. They were hunter-gatherers with strong religious beliefs, and outlawed war and killing.

In 1791 an English ship, the Chatham, was blown off course and landed on the main island. Later European sealers, settlers and whalers arrived.

In 1835 two Māori groups, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga, invaded the Chatham Islands. They had left northern Taranaki due to warfare, and were seeking somewhere else to live. Moriori decided to greet them peacefully, but the Māori killed more than 200 Moriori and enslaved the rest.

Māori grew vegetables and traded with the Europeans. By 1870 most of the Māori had returned to Taranaki. Some of the whalers stayed on the islands and there was intermarriage between the different ethnic groups.

Development

Sheep farming has been carried out on the island since 1842, but it was not profitable in the 21st century. A wharf was built at Waitangi in the 1930s, and roads were built in the 1940s. A flying-boat service operated between 1940 and 1966, when it was replaced by conventional aircraft.

In the early 1960s the government considered encouraging people to move from the islands to the New Zealand mainland. In the 1960s there was a crayfish boom which lasted until the 1970s.

The Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust was set up in 1991, and it manages the islands’ wharf, airfield and other assets.

In the 2010s fishing continues to be a major economic activity, along with tourism.

Chatham Islands places

Waitangi is the main settlement of the Chatham Islands, and has a wharf, hospital, post office, shops, police and accommodation. Nearby Te One has the main primary school, an Anglican church and the DOC headquarters.

Fossils have been found along the north-west peninsula. Kāingaroa is the most north-eastern settlement on Chatham Island, and was where Ngāti Tama were based between 1835 and 1868.

Te Whanga Lagoon is more than twice the size of Wellington Harbour. It was a bay, but the entrance has been enclosed by sand dunes.

Manukau Point, in the south-east, is an important centre for Moriori. Ōwenga was probably the first place settled on the main island. Launches go from there to Pitt Island (Rangihaute or Rangiāuria).

There are several other small islands, all of which are uninhabited nature reserves.

How to cite this page:

Rhys Richards, 'Chatham Islands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/chatham-islands (accessed 27 September 2018)

Story by Rhys Richards, published 12 Sep 2012, updated 4 May 2015