Story: Moriori

Page 4. The impact of new arrivals

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The British

In late November 1791 a British ship, the Chatham, was blown off course to Rēkohu. Lieutenant William Broughton planted the British flag and, claiming Rēkohu in the name of King George III, named it Chatham Island. In a misunderstanding with the ship’s crew, a Moriori man named Tamakaroro was shot while defending his fishing nets. He was the first Moriori to be killed by gunfire. The elders believed Moriori were partly responsible and devised an appropriate ritual for greeting visitors in future.

Sealers and whalers

Sealers and whalers were a familiar sight on the Chatham Islands from the early 1800s. They brought with them diseases to which Moriori had no immunity. Some of their boats had Māori crew members, and news of the islands reached Māori on mainland New Zealand.

Māori misnomer

Before 1835 some Māori came to Rēkohu (Chatham Island) with sealers, and several became residents. One man of Ngāti Toa settled at Wharekauri. Lacking knowledge of the Moriori language, he failed to distinguish between the name for the settlement and the name for the island. On his return to the mainland of New Zealand he spoke of Rēkohu as Wharekauri. It has been called that by Māori ever since.

Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama

In 1835, 24 generations after the Moriori chief Nunuku had forbidden war, Moriori welcomed about 900 people from two Māori tribes, Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama. Originally from Taranaki on New Zealand’s North Island, they had voyaged from Wellington on an overcrowded European vessel, the Rodney. They arrived severely weakened, but were nursed back to health by their Moriori hosts. However, they soon revealed hostile intentions and embarked on a reign of terror.

Stunned, Moriori called a council of 1,000 men at Te Awapātiki to debate their response. The younger men were keen to repel the invaders and argued that even though they had not fought for many centuries, they outnumbered the newcomers two to one and were a strong people. But the elders argued that Nunuku’s Law was a sacred covenant with their gods and could not be broken. The consequences for Moriori were devastating.

The annihilation of Moriori

Although the total number of Moriori first slaughtered was said to be around 300, hundreds more were enslaved and later died. Some were killed by their captors. Others, horrified by the desecration of their beliefs, died of ‘kongenge’ or despair. According to records made by elders, 1,561 Moriori died between 1835 and 1863, when they were released from slavery. Many succumbed to diseases introduced by Europeans, but large numbers died at the hands of Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama. In 1862 only 101 remained. When Tommy Solomon died in 1933, many thought this marked the extinction of the Moriori people.

Dealings with the government

From the 1850s Moriori elders petitioned New Zealand’s governor for recognition of their status as original inhabitants of the islands, and for restoration of the lands taken from them. However, it was not until 1863, 23 years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, that Moriori were officially released from slavery by mainland Māori, in a proclamation by the resident magistrate of the Chatham Islands.

In 1870 a Native Land Court was set up on Rēkohu to investigate competing claims by Moriori and Māori. By this time almost all Māori had returned to Taranaki. But the court ruled largely in favour of the absentee Māori, awarding 97.3% of the lands to Ngāti Mutunga by applying the legal rule that those in occupation in 1840 had greatest rights. No account was given to the long ancestral and peaceful occupation by Moriori. This judgement was the final blow for Moriori as a people and as a culture for the next 110 years.

How to cite this page:

Denise Davis and Māui Solomon, 'Moriori - The impact of new arrivals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 January 2020)

Story by Denise Davis and Māui Solomon, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2017