The Chatham Islands are not subantarctic. They lie 862 kilometres east of Christchurch and 772 kilometres south-east of Napier. They are at about the same latitude (44° south) as Ashburton. The islands lie between 176 and 177° west longitude, whereas the main islands of New Zealand straddle 175° east longitude. This would ordinarily put the two land areas on opposite sides of the International Date Line, but this was shifted to allow the islands to observe the same day as New Zealand, but 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand time.
The Chatham Islands group includes many small islands, but only the two main islands are inhabited: Chatham Island (920 sq km), also called Rēkohu (by Moriori) and Wharekauri (by Māori), and Pitt Island (7.7 sq km), also called Rangihaute (by Moriori) and Rangiāuria (by Māori).
Lakes and lagoons cover about a quarter of Chatham Island. The highest point on the main island, Maungatere Hill, in the south, is 294 metres. The highest point on Pitt Island is 231 metres.
Chatham Island is just over half the size of Stewart Island and twice the size of Great Barrier Island. It is a bit smaller than the territory of Hong Kong and the same size as Malta.
The Chatham Islands have a mild oceanic climate, similar to Wellington’s. However, the islands are drier than Wellington; they are not high enough to trigger rainfall, so get only 855 millimetres annually. Nor are they as windy, with an average of 16 gale days annually compared with Wellington’s 22. Due to frequent cloud, the islands receive only 1,450 hours of sunshine a year – two-thirds of Wellington’s total.
There are very few frosts – four a year on average, one of the lowest rates in New Zealand.
The Moriori and Māori names of the islands reflect the climate: Rēkohu has been translated as ‘mist before the sun,’ and Rangiāuria as ‘glowing clouds at sunset.’
The Moriori people are descended from the first arrivals who came to the island from Eastern Polynesia and New Zealand between 1400 and 1500 CE. Māori from the New Zealand mainland invaded the islands and conquered the Moriori inhabitants in 1835. They named the main island Wharekauri, after a locality on the north coast of the island.
The first Europeans to see the islands were the crew of the brig Chatham, in 1791, after which the main island, and the island group, was named. Pākehā sealers arrived after 1800 and settlers before 1835. The islands were declared part of the colony of New Zealand in 1842. A county council was established in 1926.
The last known ‘full-blooded’ Moriori died in 1933, but Moriori descendants numbered around 1,000 in the early 2000s. Many live in New Zealand but retain close ties with the islands.
Far across the Pacific
Port Clements, in British Columbia, Canada, is a ‘sister city’ of the Chatham Islands. It is situated on Haida Gwaii (formerly Graham) Island, part of the Queen Charlotte group.
Chatham Islands in the 2000s
The main settlement of the islands is Waitangi. Other settlements are Te One, Port Hutt, Kāingaroa and Ōwenga. The total population in 2006 was 612 (a marked decline from the 2001 figure of 717). Around 35 lived on Pitt Island, the rest on the main island. The population in 2006 was 56% male.
The islanders have long made a living from both sea and land. Fishing and crayfishing play an important part in the economy and the export trade. The land is well-suited to sheep and cattle farming, which are hampered only by limited shipping and the long distance to the mainland.
In 2012 two shipping companies provided regular services from Napier and Timaru. The main island port is Waitangi, with another at Ōwenga, from which boats go to Flower Pot (Onoua) on Pitt Island. Scheduled plane services link the islands with Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
‘Of but not in’
Chatham Islanders talk about going to and from ‘New Zealand’, which is regarded as a second, but not a first, home.
Despite the small population, in economic terms the Chatham Islands are not an expensive outpost, but a rich part of New Zealand’s economic zone which produces exports that benefit the country as a whole.