Kōrero: Chatham Islands

Whārangi 4. Chatham Islands from the 1860s to the 1980s

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

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.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Rhys Richards, 'Chatham Islands - Chatham Islands from the 1860s to the 1980s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/chatham-islands/page-4 (accessed 8 December 2019)

He kōrero nā Rhys Richards, i tāngia i te 12 Sep 2012, updated 4 May 2015