Story: King, Michael

Tackling the Moriori myth

After withdrawing from Māori history, Michael King accepted the invitation of the Moriori of the Chatham Islands to write their history. King particularly set out to dislodge long-debunked myths about Moriori origins, history and physical characteristics which remained embedded in popular consciousness. He spoke to broadcaster Hēnare Te Ua about this in a 1989 radio interview.

Hēnare Te Ua

Kia ora Catherine, good morning. Good morning everyone. Tēnā rā koutou katoa. In Te puna wai kōrero this morning, Michael King, historian and author of the book, published last Wednesday, Moriori: a people rediscovered. Well, Michael, I’m one of those of a generation brought up on the whole myth-syndrome of the Moriori people. I mean, I can remember going into school, even within my own family, the word ‘Moriori’ was always used in a very denigrating sort of way, and now you’ve come up with your book, and perhaps a lot of those myths have been removed. In fact, when you first started writing the book, was that one of the bases of your own philosophy, ‘let’s sort of change this preconceived prejudices, and this well-established way of thinking’, as it were?

Michael King 

Yes, it was Hēnare. I had been aware for years that the Moriori had got a bad press from everybody, particularly in primary school down through the years, where the myths about them that had taken root before the First World War, in the 1920s and 1930s, had really become established, and time and again I’ve come across people who have forgotten almost everything they learned at school, except what they heard about the Moriori, and usually, it was these kinds of stories about them being a dark skinned race, being very un-enterprising, being sullen, and generally being thoroughly disreputable, as you said earlier, the bottom of the slag heap, the real underdogs. I have tried occasionally to do something about this through journalism, but it’s never made much impact. With that in mind, however, when Māui Solomon wrote to me in 1986, and said, ‘look, the Moriori descendants want a book on the history of the Moriori’, partly as part of the rise in their own mana Moriori, which is going on at the minute, but also to clear away the misconceptions - would I be interested? Well, I certainly was interested, and I visited the Chathams, and I didn’t agree to do it until I was satisfied that the Moriori descendants as a whole wanted this. But for me, yes, there’s some satisfaction in taking on some of these myths and saying, ‘All right, let’s look at them, let’s see where they came from, let’s see what they mean, and then let’s see what history, archaeology, and the other sources of scholarship tell us.’ And what those sources tell us are very different from the myths that came through the schools.


When I became involved with the idea of writing it, meeting the Moriori descendants at the time of the raising of the statue to Tommy Solomon, it became apparent to me then, that, just as there was a rise of mana Māori, on the mainland, there was very much a rise of mana Moriori, on the Chatham Islands, and this is what is going on. It began really, in 1980, with a good Television New Zealand documentary by Bill Saunders, which for the first time in television, showed in an easily understandable way, who the Moriori were, where they came from, and helped to clear away some of the myths, and after that, the Solomon family decided to hold a reunion, they all got together, they decided that they really ought to commemorate the Moriori in a visible way, so they decided to raise a statue to Tommy Solomon, but as a memorial to all Moriori, choosing Tommy, because he was the last full-blooded Moriori, and probably the best known. But as they did this, other Moriori families, like the Preeces and the Harveys and others, joined them in this project, and after the statue revival, they felt that the next step would be a Moriori history, both as a resource for themselves and for the young people to be able to say, ‘well, here’s something that records our traditions and our experience, and it’s all in one volume, you don’t have to run all over New Zealand looking in libraries and archives for it, and secondly, as something to present to mainland New Zealand and say, ‘Look, this is who we are, forget all those myths about degenerate dark-skinned people who are extinct, we are not extinct. We stand here and this is our story.’ So that really was the spirit in which the book was conceived.

Hēnare Te Ua 

And yet, I suppose Michael, there’ll still be the cynics, the ones whose attitudes will never ever be changed, because they were taught certain things when they were young. Do you really think that your book is going to have a great impact on shifting some of those preconceived attitudes?

Michael King 

Hēnare, I hope so. But I do tend to suspect that there may be an older generation of people who will hold on tightly to their prejudices, because they’ve had them for so long, and people reach an age where they don’t like to change their mind about fundamental issues. There’s also another reason why I think people are reluctant. People have said in the past, and I agree with it, that one of the reasons Pākehā people like to believe in a pre-Māori race called the Moriori, who was supposedly defeated and driven off and deprived of the lands, was because that seemed to give Pākehā a justification for doing the same thing. They could say to Māori ‘well, you did this to the Moriori, you know, why shouldn’t we do it to you. Take your medicine.’ I think that has been one of the factors that helped these myths to prevail. But what I do hope is that the book will be read by teachers, and that the true Moriori history will be taught in schools and in universities and other institutions of learning, because this was really how the other stories got there. When these other wrong stories were published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, they too were read by teachers, they too were even read by Māori readers, because there was a very strong membership, Māori membership of the Polynesian society in the 1890s and early 1900s. I’m hoping that the filter down process that did so much damage at that time will work to repair the damage this time.

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How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips. 'King, Michael', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 June 2023)