Three or four canoes of East Polynesians brought the first humans to the islands in the 1400s. Some came from New Zealand, but at least one canoe may have come directly from eastern Polynesia.
There was probably no further contact with these homelands. The settlers developed into the Moriori, who had distinct lifestyles, material culture and language.
Moriori lived as hunter-gatherers, obtaining most of their food by netting off rocky shores. They also trapped eels, snared birds, and hunted seals for food and to make clothing from the skins. Moriori did not continue to use waka (canoes), as there were no suitable trees. They developed wash-through craft rather like rafts which were well-suited to the rough waters around the island group. They carved images on rocks and trees, some of which survive.
Moriori had few vegetables, except preserved kernels of the kopi (karaka) tree, which they detoxified. The presence of that resource may explain why Moriori flourished in much greater numbers – reaching about 2,000 – than Māori in the vast expanse of the South Island south from Kaikōura, who had few crops and no karaka trees.
The nearest Monday to 30 November is observed as a public holiday in the Chatham Islands, the equivalent of provincial anniversary days on the New Zealand mainland.
A prohibition on killing in warfare may also explain why Moriori numbers grew. An early leader, Nunuku, organised a permanent truce and forbade man-killing. Laws and religious beliefs were observed strictly by all nine Moriori tribes, including the two on Pitt Island (Rangiāuria).
The crew of the brig Chatham, captained by Lieutenant William R. Broughton, sighted the island group on 29 November 1791 after being blown off course. They were the first outsiders to do so. They landed on Rēkohu and claimed it for Britain’s King George III. A misunderstanding over a fishing net resulted in the death of one Moriori (at least), a man named Tamakororo.
A Ngāti Tama elder recollects
Amongst those who had visited the Chatham Islands was Paki Whara, who later related his experiences: ‘There is an island out in the ocean, not far from here to the eastward, which we visited. It is a land of food – he whenua kai! It is full of birds – both land- and sea-birds – of all kinds; some living in the peaty soil; with albatross in plenty on the outlying islands. There is an abundance of sea and shellfish; the lakes swarm with eels; and it is a land of the karaka berry – he whenua karaka. The inhabitants are very numerous but they do not understand how to fight, and they have no weapons ... This was the story which induced us to go to the Chathams.’1
Nevertheless the Moriori elders decided to meet the next visitors peacefully. These were sealers, mostly from Sydney, soon after 1800. They introduced diseases to which the Moriori had no natural immunity, and the population fell to under 1,700 by 1835. By the mid-1840s the seals had been slaughtered nearly to extinction and the industry collapsed.
In the 1820s several northern Taranaki tribes, under pressure from the muskets of their Waikato neighbours, migrated southwards to Cook Strait to new homes. Tribal jealousies over the allocation of the spoils of war reached such a pitch that two groups, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga, sought sanctuary elsewhere. A few proposed that they all migrate to the Chathams, where they understood there was abundant food and people who would not fight them.
In November 1835 the two tribes seized the Rodney, a Sydney trading ship then in Wellington Harbour. A first trip was made to the Chatham Islands with about 470 Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama. There was overcrowding and not enough food or fresh water, and by the time it arrived most were sick. A second trip was made with about 430 on board.
Wind makes a difference
The first trip to the Chatham Islands by the Rodney left Wellington on 14 November 1835 and arrived on 17 November. The second left on 30 November and arrived on 5 December.
A Moriori council at Te Awapātiki had decided that there would be no killing by them. The chiefs of Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama set out to heke, or walk and claim all the land. Following their custom, they killed between a fifth and a sixth of the Moriori, and enslaved the rest. Moriori were later proud to say that not one Māori was killed by Moriori, as they all held to Nunuku’s law.
Over 200 Moriori were killed at that time, and disease and demoralisation had reduced the Moriori population to 101 by 1862. Māori also succumbed to disease, in particular influenza and measles epidemics in 1838 and 1840.
A bloody encounter
French whaling ship Jean Bart was at the Chathams in March or April 1839. Its captain, thinking that Māori were planning to attack the vessel, had a number of Māori who had come aboard killed. Surviving Māori armed themselves with the ship’s weapons and attacked; most of the crew escaped in the ship’s boats but were never seen again. Some months later the French warship Héroïne bombarded settlements on the island, landed a party at Waitangi and destroyed villages and canoes. Captain Jean-Baptiste Cécille said: ‘By 4 o’clock in the afternoon there remained of all their extensive establishments, of a quarter of a league in extent, and which was pallisaded throughout, nothing but a heap of ashes.’2
The newcomers traded. Whaling overtook sealing from the mid-1830s, with shore stations busy from 1840 until the mid-1850s, after which visits by whalers became less frequent.
Using Moriori slave labour, Māori grew large quantities of potatoes and other vegetables in sheltered gardens, and sold produce to whalers and to markets in New Zealand and on the Australian goldfields. Some whalers stayed and a number of island families trace descent from them. German Lutheran missionaries, who came to the island in 1842, also engaged in the provisioning trade.