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Chatham Islands

by Rhys Richards

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.


The Chatham Islands are not subantarctic. They lie 862 kilometres east of Christchurch but 772 kilometres south-east of Napier. They are at about the same latitude (44° south) as Christchurch. The islands lie between 176 and 177° west longitude, whereas the main islands of New Zealand are situated either side of 175° east longitude. This would ordinarily put the two land areas on opposite sides of the International Date Line, but the line has been 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) or Wharekauri (by Māori) and Pitt Island (7.7 sq km), also called Rangihaute (by Moriori) or 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.

Island comparisons

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, neither bleak nor subantarctic, but like Wellington. 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. However, 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 AD. 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 annexed by New Zealand in 1842. A county council was first established in 1926.

The last known ‘full-blooded’ Moriori died in 1933, but descendants in the early 2000s numbered around 1,000. 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). Of that 2006 total, 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 to the benefit of New Zealand as a whole.

Land and habitat

Geological history

The oldest rock on the Chatham Islands is the schist exposed on the north-west and north-east of the main island, and also on the Forty Fours (Motuhara) in the ocean to the east. It also forms the basement to the younger rocks of the island group.

The schist is continental rock, and 100- to 90-million-year-old fossils on Pitt Island (Rangiāuria) confirm that the Chathams formed part of the Gondwana supercontinent. Around 83 million years ago the Zealandia continent broke away from the rest of Gondwana. At about this time a large volcano formed in the area of the Chatham Islands, and rocks from it constitute the bulk of the southern part of the main island.

Submerged, emerged

The volcano and much land to the west submerged between 70 and 65 million years ago but the Chatham Rise, though underwater, is a reminder of the former land connection to the New Zealand mainland, as are dinosaur fossils from about that time.

Volcanic activity continued under water. Sedimentary rocks also formed on the ocean floor. Less than four million years ago tectonic movement led the Chatham Islands to become the one part of the Chatham Rise above water. Formerly underwater volcanic and sedimentary rock was now exposed. However, there is very little seismic activity in the vicinity of the islands.

Soil and vegetation

For the last 350,000 years peat has built up on the main island, a product of both climatic conditions and poor soil drainage, and peat or peat-derived soils cover 60% of the land area. In some places the peat is 6 metres deep and is still accumulating. Within the peat is found volcanic ash from eruptions of the Taupō volcano on the New Zealand mainland, in particular from the Ōruanui eruption 26,500 years ago.

Before human settlement about 80% of the main island was covered with sedges, rushes, ferns and swamp grasses, a thick canopy of long thin-leaved tarahīnau (a Dracophyllum species) and pouteretere (Leptecophylla robusta) shrub. Tall trees such as podocarps were absent.

The coasts, where sand has mixed with peat, carry Corynocarpus laevigatus (karaka), known in the Chatham Islands as kopi, and other broadleaf forests dominated by the tree daisy Olearia traversiorum, known as akeake (pronounced locally as ‘ak-ee-ak’). It is not related to the New Zealand akeake Dodonaea viscosa, despite the identical Māori name.

Forests in more sheltered or wetter settings were home to Chatham Islands variants of karamū and matipo.

Most plants were either variants of mainland species or closely related to them. The most notable endemic plant is the blue-flowered Chatham Island forget-me-not Myosotidium hortensia.

Small island, tall shrubs

The Chatham Island akeake is the world’s tallest daisy. Barker’s koromiko (Hebe barkeri) is the world’s tallest hebe and the Chatham Islands matipo, karamū and tarahīnau are also the largest of their respective genera. This phenomenon can be explained by the absence of canopy trees such as podocarps.

Human impact on vegetation

Moriori likely brought Corynocarpus laevigatus to the islands. During the six centuries since human arrival fires burnt huge holes across the peat bogs, which were further compacted after 1840 by grazing animals. The coastal stands of trees were also grazed, reducing them over time to stark standing trunks, or treeless pasture.

Tarahinau remained common in the southern part of the main island. Elsewhere coarse bracken fern and, since 1970, gorse were prevalent.

Sea life

The seas around the Chatham Islands are invigorated by warm subtropical ocean currents meeting and mixing with colder, less saline, waters from the subantarctic. The sea life is so abundant that the Chatham Islands are one of the world’s richest fishing grounds. The islands are also home to huge flocks of seabirds.

Weka not kiwi

Some Chatham Islanders call themselves ‘weka’ after a bird which is both hunted and eaten on the islands. Weka were only introduced to the islands in 1905, but in the 2000s there is a population of around 60,000.

Land birds

Land-bird life on the islands dates from the emergence of the current landmass 2.5 million years ago and is similar to that found on the New Zealand mainland.

At the onset of human settlement about half the 64 species present were distinct from mainland relatives at the species or subspecies level. Many were larger than their New Zealand counterparts. Three birds – two rails and a flightless duck, all now extinct – were distinct at the genus level. Other extinctions since Pākehā settlement include another rail, the local raven and fernbirds. There were no kiwi, nor were there ever any moa.

Close call

In November 2003 scientist Colin Miskelly was operating a spotlight used to bring down tāiko (an endangered species) to fit them with transmitters. His team achieved a record of four caught in a night, but he had to return to camp for the duct tape used to attach transmitters. While he was returning on his quad bike a tāiko emerged from the dark and flew up the headlight beam. ‘I had to duck to avoid being hit in the head, and still shudder at the thought of what might have happened if it had hit the quad.’1

Native birds are now relatively rare on the main island, which is dominated by introduced species from both New Zealand and further away.

The best known surviving natives are the tāiko (magenta petrel) and the black robin. Other endemic species are the local oystercatcher, tūī, warbler, parea (Chatham Island pigeon), Forbes parakeet, and Chatham Island shore plovers and snipe.

  1. ‘Departing scientist's fondest DOC memories involve birds and islands.’ Department of Conservation, (last accessed 2 May 2012) Back

From first settlement to 1860

Moriori settlers

Three or four canoes of East Polynesians brought the first humans to the islands in the 1400s. Some came via New Zealand, and at least one canoe may have come a little later directly from eastern Polynesia.

There was most likely no further contact with these homelands. The settlers developed into the Moriori with distinct lifestyles, material culture and language.

Moriori lived as hunter-gatherers. Overall, most food came from netting off rocky shores. They also trapped eels, snared birds and hunted seals, which they used for food and made clothing from their skins. Moriori did not continue to use waka (canoes) as there were no suitable trees for building them, but developed wash-through craft rather like rafts, which were well-suited to navigating 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.

Anniversary Day

The nearest Monday to November 30th 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).

New arrivals

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 alien 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, had 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 when it landed 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 reduced the Moriori population to just 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, reckoning 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 heard of again. Some months later French war ship Héroïne bombarded settlements on the island, landed a party at Waitangi and destroyed their 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 time whaler visits became more intermittent.

Using Moriori slave labour, Māori grew large quantities of potatoes and other vegetables in sheltered bush gardens, and sold produce to whalers and to markets in New Zealand and 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.

  1. A. Shand, ‘Occupation of the Chatham Islands by Maoris in 1835: part II, – the migration of Ngatiawa to Port Nicholson.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 1, no. 3 (1892), p. 154. Back
  2. Quoted in A. Shand, ‘Occupation of the Chatham Islands by the Maoris in 1835: part III – the Jean Bart incident.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 1, no. 4 (1892), p. 210. Back

Chatham Islands from the 1860s to the 1980s

An 1862 letter to New Zealand Governor George Grey, signed by 30 Moriori elders, sought the return of lands and freedom for the remaining 101 Moriori. Slavery had ended officially in 1858 but continued in practice into the 1860s. Lands were not returned.

The islands stagnated, with almost all Māori returning to Taranaki in the 1860s, some after a tsunami in 1868 (which caused the only tsunami-related death in recorded New Zealand history). Many Māori leased land for grazing sheep to a few Pākehā men of means who had missed out obtaining sheep stations in Canterbury.

An ill-fated venture

In the 1860s the government made the Chatham Islands a convict settlement for Māori implicated in the wars on the East Coast of the North Island. The first 70 prisoners arrived in January 1866, and later arrivals brought the total to over 200. Some 30 months later, in July 1868, the prisoners, led by Māori prophet Te Kooti, staged an almost bloodless coup. They overthrew their fifteen guards, captured a trading vessel and escaped to the East Coast.

Land hearings

The government held sittings of the Native Land Court on Chatham Island in 1868, 1870 and 1872 ostensibly to legitimise land leases, but also to try to encourage Māori to remain on the Chathams rather than return to war-torn Taranaki.

Through the lengthy court hearings, Moriori land claims were ignored or put aside. Moriori survivors gained land only for subsistence farming or forested land where sheep could not be mustered easily. In all, the eight Moriori ‘reserves’ amounted to less than 3% of the islands’ land area.

Economy and development

In the economic depression of the 1880s the sheep stations faltered, and trade with New Zealand almost ceased. Meanwhile the various groups on the islands intermingled and intermarried to become ‘Chatham Islanders’, fiercely loyal to one another in the face of threat, death or disaster.

An economic transformation began in 1910 after fish-freezing operations were set up at Ōwenga and Kaingaroa.

Committed islander

David Holmes lived on Chatham Island from the time his family moved there in 1922, when he was 16. He farmed in different parts of the island, served almost 50 years on the Chatham Island County Council (14 as its chair), and contributed research to every book written during his lifetime about the history of the Chathams – a subject on which his knowledge was unsurpassed.

The county council built a wharf at Waitangi between 1931 and 1934; it was rebuilt in 1942 during the Second World War. German raiders sank the Chatham Island supply vessel Holmwood in December 1940, prompting a flying-boat facility to be built at Te Whanga Lagoon. The flying-boat service lasted until 1966, when conventional aircraft took over.

The county council had been established (in 1926) primarily to build roads, but it was not until after the Second World War that sufficient funds were available for roading. Thirty miles, including a road between Waitangi and Ōwenga, were built by 1948 before money ran out again. Other amenities were slow to come. In the 1960s many houses still lacked electricity, flush toilets and other amenities long common in New Zealand.

A radio-telephone link was established with New Zealand in 1953 and an island-wide phone system in 1962.

After the Second World War the cost of providing shipping services increased. On occasions island farmers received less for their stock than it had cost to ship them. Government subsidies became necessary to maintain the service. The advent of air services, at first by Air Force flying boats, and then by subsidised commercial flights, to provide emergency and urgent communication facilities, added to that increasing cost.

Through these decades the islands’ main exports were wool and some sheep, blue cod, and its hardy young people, who often left to seek opportunities on the mainland. In 1961 a government committee contemplated offering Chatham Islanders a state house and £5,000 per family to move to New Zealand.

A subsequent crayfish boom put paid to that proposal. It involved dozens and dozens of small craft delivering crays to nine shore freezers, to bigger mother ships offshore and to floating freezers on hulks moored in sheltered bays. Five helicopters and sophisticated sounding and navigation equipment were also used.

However, the harvest was unsustainable and catches declined from a peak of 5,945 tonnes in 1968 to 510 tonnes in 1974. Much of the massive profit had in, any case, passed to offshore operators.

Since the 1980s

New economic policies in the 1980s had a big impact on the Chathams. The New Zealand government became more sceptical about subsidising economic activity. It also engaged in dialogue with the indigenous population – Māori and Moriori – about grievances dating from the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840).

Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust

The Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust was established in December 1991. The New Zealand government contributed $8 million, together with public assets: wharf facilities, an airfield, the defunct freezing-works buildings and the electricity generating plant. The trust took responsibility for electricity generation, ports and airfield.

The leasing of the annual catch entitlement and investment in forestry became two additional areas of activity for the trust. The trust’s total assets exceeded $46 million in 2014, but it faced challenges in earning enough income to maintain its assets, particularly the wharf and the airport.


A quota system for fisheries was introduced in 1986. Chatham Islanders were unprepared and much of the quota that related to Chatham Island waters was bought up by others. A settlement of fishing quota, which in 2012 was worth some $12 million annually, was made to the Enterprise Trust by the government in the 1990s after an investigation by the ombudsman.

Live crayfish air freight exports, mostly to Asian markets, have thrived in the 2000s. Regulation continued towards achieving a sustainable crayfish yield.


After 2000 returns from sheep farming fell and remained vulnerable to fluctuations in wool prices, and to high farming and transport costs. An attempt to beat high transport costs by establishing a meat works failed.

In the early 2000s the shipping of young cattle to New Zealand shifted many farmers away from a reliance on sheep. Many farmers gained extra income by fishing or in some other way. Farm and animal management lagged behind standard practices elsewhere in New Zealand.

People and government

The Waitangi Tribunal investigated Moriori and Māori grievances in respect to the Chathams and released its report – WAI 264 – in 2004. The Crown recognised Moriori as well as Māori and stated that it would not settle any claims until both could be settled.

A Moriori marae complex, Kōpinga, was opened in January 2005 at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Helen Clark, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu (the Māori queen) and other dignitaries.

The Chatham Island Council is the local authority for the Chatham Islands. The islands were formerly part of the Lyttelton general electorate, but in the 1980s they became part of Wellington’s Rongotai electorate. The islands are also part of Te Tai Tonga Māori electorate.

The Chatham Islands health centre at Waitangi, managed by the Hawke’s Bay district health board, provides medical services.

There are primary schools at Te One, Kāingaroa and Pitt Island. The latter two both had fewer than 10 pupils in 2015, while Te One was much bigger.

Frequent fryers?

Up to 44 passengers can be carried in the Convair 580, but usually there is a major cargo component of live crayfish and processed fish that may limit available seating.

Transport and communication

In the 2010s shipping services operated between the islands and the ports of Napier and Timaru. Air Chathams, established in 1984, operated flights between the islands and Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. It used Convair 580s for these services. There were also special charters and additional unscheduled flights.

Tourism and conservation

In the early 2000s Waitangi had a hotel and several motels that were a good base for tourists, though to gain the most from a visit the use of local guides and transport was essential. Eco-tourism, focusing on the island’s unique landscape, birds and plants, was popular.

Past, present, future

Chatham Islander Alfred ‘Bunty’ Preece said of living on the island: ‘For the past 200 years, though, the story has been one of plunder. First there was wholesale exploitation of whales and seals ... the landscape of our islands is beautiful but now barren. More recently we have had the plunder of crayfish and blue cod, pāua and other shellfish ... we took fish, we never planted trees. Now we are anxious about what we will leave our grandchildren.1

The New Zealand Department of Conservation maintained a well-resourced office at Te One.

In 1996, 440 hectares of private land were protected by conservation covenants; in 2008 that had grown to more than 3,000 hectares.

The black robin and the tāiko (magenta petrel) were both brought back from the brink of extinction through the major efforts of volunteers and officials alike. A sole tāiko breeding site is behind a predator-free fence on a ‘land-island’ known as the Sweetwater reserve.

Other critically endangered species, including the black robin, survive in tightly managed reserves on South East Island (Rangatira) and Māngere Island. Albatrosses that breed on other off-shore islands are also accorded special protected status.

    • Quoted in Colin Miskelly, ed, Chatham Islands: heritage and conservation. Rev. ed. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press in association with the Department of Conservation, 2008, p. 12. Back

Chatham Islands places

Waitangi, Te One and Port Hutt

Waitangi has the main wharf, a hospital and resident doctor, post office, bank, council office, police, several stores, a hotel and other accommodation. Nearby Lake Hurō once provided waterfowl and eels to locals. Whangamarino farm lies between Waitangi and Te One. Te One has the main primary school on the islands and an Anglican church.

A war memorial

Whakamaharatanga marae at Te One was built in 1946 as a memorial to the Chatham Islanders who had served overseas in the New Zealand armed services in the world wars, and in memory of 11 men who drowned in 1931 on a voyage from Kāingaroa to Ōwenga – one of the worst of the islands’ many maritime disasters.

The world’s largest recorded whale stranding, of around 1,000 pilot whales, took place on Long Beach in 1918. Shallow reefs at Port Hutt are home to a variety of marine life.

The north-west peninsula

In the north central and north-west of the main island schist outcrops contrast with an east-west line of seven volcanic cones, surrounded by sedimentary rock. Dinosaur fossils have been found along the Tīoriori coast between Ngātikitiki Stream and Tutuiri Creek, one of only three such sites in New Zealand.

Edward Chudleigh ran sheep on the 13,000-hectare Wharekauri station from the 1860s to 1909 – Mt Chudleigh (188 m) was named after him. In 1973 the station was bought by the Crown.

Between 1866 and 1868 German Lutheran missionaries Johann Engst and Johann Baucke built a house, still standing in 2012, under the Maunganui bluff (178 m), on land they were farming to the west of Chudleigh’s station.

The north-east peninsula

Kāingaroa is the most north-eastern settlement on the main island. The Chatham anchored offshore from there in 1791. From 1839 the district was home to Ngāti Tama, many of whom returned to Taranaki in 1868.

Te Whakarau, at the extreme northeast of the island, was the home of the island’s first resident magistrate, Archibald Shand, who held the position from 1855 to 1863.

Thomas Ritchie ran sheep at Ōkawa Point from 1864 and later leased land at Kāingaroa, where his successors, the Barkers, were still farming in 2000. A fish-freezing business operated throughout the 20th century. The settlement thrived during the crayfish boom.

Te Whanga Lagoon

The 16,000-hectare Te Whanga Lagoon accounts for 20% of the area of Chatham Island. It is more than twice the size of Wellington Harbour. Formerly a deep bay, it has been enclosed by sand dunes to its east, but occasionally opens to the sea. The island’s airfield is located on the north-west side of the lagoon, at Kārewa Point.

Te Awapātiki, at the main opening between the lagoon and the ocean, is a sacred place to Moriori. The name also refers to the block of land running south from the lagoon entrance.

The southern plateau

The southern third of Chatham Island is a huge block of basaltic volcanic rock, tilted so that there are high cliffs in the south.

Soils are peat or peat-derived, with tarahinau (Dracophyllum arboreum) still widespread.

Ōwenga, Manukau Point

Ōwenga was possibly the first place settled on the main island. The Ritchie brothers ran sheep on a 3,700-hectare station in the area from 1866 to the early 1890s. A fish-freezing business operated from 1910 to 1937. Ōwenga also benefited from the late 1960s and early 1970s crayfish boom.

In the 2000s it was the departure point for boat travel to Flower Pot (Onoua) on Pitt Island.

Manukau Point is the south-easternmost point of the main island. The sole Moriori reserve on the island remaining in 2012 was established here in 1870. It has remained an important centre for Moriori since then.

The 51st state?

By 1860 Pitt Island had captured the bulk of the American whaling trade in the Chathams. ‘In the season’, wrote an 1881 visitor, ‘there are frequently several American whalers at anchor off the island ... the Massachusetts whalers make Pitt Island their chief depot in their cruises in these seas, so much so that the islanders are really more familiar with the “Stars and Stripes” than with the “Union Jack”’.1

Pitt Island

Pitt Island is hillier than the main island and lacks many lakes or sandbars. Pitt was historically home to two of the nine Moriori tribes. It was the principal ‘port of call’ in the Chatham Islands during the revival in whaling in the early 1860s.

The northern part of Pitt Island has large areas of broadleaf forest and rich soils; the southern part has tarahinau-covered bogs and hills. In 2012 day trips could be made by air to Pitt Island from Chatham Island, and a launch plies the route from Ōwenga to Flower Pot on Pitt Island.

Small islands near Pitt Island

Several small islands, all volcanic outcrops, near Pitt Island – the most significant of which are South East Island (Rangatira) and Māngere – are nature reserves.

Chatham albatrosses breed on just one rocky island, Pyramid Rock, south of Pitt Island. In the early 2000s there were an estimated 4,575 pairs.

South East Island (Rangatira) is noted for its abundance of large ground-dwelling insects, notably weta and stag beetles, a reminder of what was once the norm on the rest of the Chatham Islands and on the New Zealand mainland.

    • Quoted in Rhys Richards, Whaling and sealing at the Chatham Islands. Canberra: Roebuck, 1982, p. 51. Back

Facts and figures

Land area

  • Chatham Islands: 996 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km


(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)

  • Mean temperature, January: 14.9°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 8.2°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 911 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 1,437 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • Chatham Islands: 612 (2006); 600 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013

(Multiple responses allowed)


  • Chatham Islands: 73.5%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%

Māori 1

  • Chatham Islands: 59.3%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • Chatham Islands: 1.1%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian, including Indian

  • Chatham Islands: 0.5%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • Chatham Islands: 0.0%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes/sub-tribes

Moriori, Ngāti Mutunga

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • Chatham Islands: 20.0%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • Chatham Islands: 68.0%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • Chatham Islands: 12.0%
  • New Zealand: 14.3%

Employment by industry, 2013

(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)

Agriculture, forestry and fishing

  • Chatham Islands: 19.1%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%


  • Chatham Islands: 16.2%
  • New Zealand: 10.9%

Arts and recreation services

  • Chatham Islands: 2.5%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Unemployment, 2013

  • Chatham Islands: 2.5%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012


  • Chatham Islands: 59,374
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715
    • Statistics New Zealand includes Moriori in this category for census purposes. Back

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How to cite this page: Rhys Richards, 'Chatham Islands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 August 2019)

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