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by  Denise Davis and Māui Solomon

Hundreds of years ago, the Moriori of the Chatham Islands took a solemn vow of peace known as Nunuku’s Law. Their decision to uphold this sacred law in the face of Māori aggression in 1835 had tragic consequences. Moriori were slaughtered, enslaved, and dispossessed of their lands. Nevertheless, the Moriori people survived.

Origins of the Moriori people

The Moriori are the indigenous people of Rēkohu (Chatham Island) and Rangihaute (Pitt Island), the two largest islands in the Chatham group, 767 km south-east of mainland New Zealand. It was once believed that Moriori were a Melanesian people, but it is now thought that they share the same Polynesian ancestry as Māori people.

Current research indicates that Moriori came to the Chatham Islands from New Zealand about 1500. Moriori traditions, however, hold that there were already people on Rēkohu when the canoe voyagers arrived.

The dawn of existence (Ko matangi-ao)

Moriori creation stories tell of how in the beginning, Rangi (the heavens) and Papa (the earth) dwelt in darkness. As Rangi clung to Papa, the spirit Rangitokona arose and asked them to separate. They refused, so Rangitokona pushed them apart and propped Rangi up with 10 pillars, one above the other. This was his incantation:

Rangitokona prop up the heaven, Rangitokona prop up the morning. The pillar stands in the baldness of heaven, in the bare part of heaven. The pillar stands, the pillar – the pillar stands, the pillar of heaven.

Then for the first time there was light, and the world came into being. Rangitokona heaped up earth to make the first man, called Tū. This is part of the incantation:

… heap it in the waving of the tree, heap it in the pattern of the tree, heap it in the finishing of the tree, heap it, it grows; heap it, it lives; the heaven lives, e! Stem heaped up, stem heaped up, let the heaven stand which lives.

The descendants of Tū were numerous. The first group, called ‘heaven born’, spanned 30 generations. A group of ancestors spanning 26 generations came next. Then the ancestor Te Ao-mārama (the world of light) was born. His son was Rongomaiwhenua.

The ancestor Rongomaiwhenua

The name Rongomaiwhenua means ‘land god’ (and also ‘peace to the land’, and ‘song of the land’). Rongomaiwhenua had a brother, Rongomaitere (‘ocean god’), who according to tradition travelled to New Zealand, providing sailing directions for the return journey by later generations.

According to Moriori, the descendants of Rongomaiwhenua belonged to a race called Hamata. They were described as ‘no ro hunu ake’ (sprung from the earth). They were said to be very tall, and were living on Rēkohu when the first visitor, Kahu, arrived. In other theories they were descendants of Kahu’s crew or a previous migration.

Kahu, the first visitor

Kahu, captain of the Tāne canoe, was the first recorded arrival from Hawaiki – the homeland in Polynesia, which was also the origin of the Māori of mainland New Zealand. He found Rēkohu and its adjacent islands in an unsettled state, and is said to have joined up their disparate parts and anchored them in their permanent positions. He arrived at the south-west corner of Rēkohu, and left the canoe to travel on foot.

In some accounts Kahu met two people, Kahuti and Te Akaroroa, at Kāingaroa in the north. He planted fern root, and also kūmara (sweet potato), but found this would not grow. Disliking Rēkohu, Kahu returned to Hawaiki.

The migrations from Hawaiki

The first migration

In Hawaiki, the ancient Polynesian homeland, warfare escalated between the Wheteina and Rauru tribes. It was sparked off in part by a lovers’ spat, which ended in the death of one partner. This necessitated the hurried escape of the Wheteina people and their allies. The Rangimata and Rangihoua canoes were built during the fighting, but the Rangihoua was not completed before launching. Both canoes reached Rēkohu (Chatham Island), but the captain of the Rangihoua, along with most of the crew and their priest, had died on the voyage, and the canoe was wrecked on landing.

The Rangimata landed safely on the north-east coast of Rēkohu, and the crew planted kopi (karaka) berries at Wairarapa. They stopped at several points around the island and talked to the inhabitants, the Hamata people. The Hamata explained that their sealskin garments were much warmer than the migrants’ clothes. After the Rangimata was finally wrecked at Te Awapātiki, the crew went to other parts of the islands and lived peacefully.

The second migration

Moe, leader of the Rauru tribe, had been a youngster when the Rangimata and Rangihoua canoes set out. On reaching maturity (he was said to have ‘a bald patch on his head’) he captained the canoe Oropuke on a second migration from Hawaiki to Rēkohu. Before Moe left Hawaiki with his family and crew, his grandfather Horopapa told him to stop killing and live in peace.

On Rēkohu the tribes did live together for a time, but fighting broke out again and spread to Rangiaotea (Pitt Island). It is said that the conflict ended when Moe and his people were burnt in their huts at night. In other accounts Moe returned to Hawaiki, while yet another story says the Oropuke was wrecked on the cliffs of Rēkohu.

Nunuku’s Law

At this time, Nunuku-whenua, a high-ranking chief (said by Moriori to be one of the Hamata tribe and also related to Moe) forbade murder and the eating of human flesh. He proclaimed to the combatants, ‘From now and forever, never again let there be war as this day has seen!’ This covenant, known as Nunuku’s Law, was accompanied by Nunuku’s Curse: ‘May your bowels rot the day you disobey’.

Moriori life

After the conflict among the tribes in the Chatham Islands was resolved, Moriori lived peacefully there for 600 years, developing a unique culture.

Social and spiritual values

A delicate balance

Ancient Moriori on Rēkohu (Chatham Island) killed only the old male seals and left no carcasses on the rocks, as this would deter the seals from returning. But English sealers in the early 1800s destroyed the island’s seal colony, depriving Moriori of their main source of food and clothing.

At its peak the population reached about 2,000. The people belonged to nine tribes: Hamata, Wheteina, Eitara, Etiao, Harua, Makao, Matanga, Poutama and Rauru. Birth control consisted of castration of some male infants. To prevent inbreeding, marriage between first, second and third cousins was strictly forbidden.

Moriori society was egalitarian compared to that of other Polynesian peoples. Ieriki (chiefs) were chosen for their ability in a vital role, such as fishing or bird catching, rather than on the basis of heredity.

Carving a link

Rakau hokoairo – dendroglyphs or tree carvings – made by Moriori over the centuries can still be seen on trunks of kopi (karaka) trees in parts of Rēkohu. Theories about these carvings abound: they have been said to be memorials to the dead, tributes to the gods, or comparable to the carved ancestral figures in Māori meeting houses. Whatever their original meaning, today they are a powerful spiritual link with the Moriori past.

Strong spiritual beliefs underlay the people’s sense of harmony with the natural world. Resources were conserved by an intricate system of rules and rituals that were strictly adhered to. Moriori were later described by their Māori tormentors as a ‘very tapu [reverential] people’.

An innovative raft

Moriori adapted to their new environment, developing such innovations as the wash-through raft. This craft, which had a base of inflated kelp and sides of bound reeds, became partially waterlogged and was therefore stable in rough seas and high winds. It could navigate the seas around the islands without capsizing as a conventional canoe would. The largest of these vessels, the waka pahi, was over 12 metres long, and was used for voyages to gather albatross chicks from offshore islands.

The impact of new arrivals

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. 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

Around 300 Moriori were initially slaughtered, and hundreds more were enslaved and later died. Some were killed by their captors. Others, horrified by the desecration of their beliefs, died of ‘kongenge’ (despair). According to records made by elders, 1,561 Moriori died between 1835 and 1863, when they were released from slavery. As well as the large numbers who died at the hands of Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama, many succumbed to diseases introduced by Europeans. 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. 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 land to Ngāti Mutunga after applying the legal rule that those in occupation in 1840 had the greatest rights. No account was taken of the prior long 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.

The second dawn

The enduring Moriori

Despite the events of the previous century, Moriori held positions of prominence on Rēkohu (Chatham Island) in the 20th century. Tame Horomona Rehe (Tommy Solomon) was a successful businessman and farmer in the 1920s and early 1930s. Other descendants of Moriori, notably the Davis and Preece families, were influential in local government and community affairs from the 1940s. More recently descendants have been involved in claims to the Waitangi Tribunal and in Moriori organisations.

New beginnings

Moriori are engaged in a vigorous cultural revival which began with a New Zealand television documentary in 1980. In dispelling some long-held myths, it raised the consciousness of many Moriori descendants. Among the fallacies laid to rest were that the Moriori were a separate race, distinct from Polynesians, and that they had died out. It triggered a wave of activity that began in 1986 with the raising of a statue on Rēkohu of Tommy Solomon, once said to have been the last Moriori.

Telling the story

Moriori: a people rediscovered (1989), an account by historian Michael King, was prompted by a request from Moriori for their story to be told. It won New Zealand’s premier book award in 1990 and was widely acclaimed. In 1990 a collection of fragile papers written by kā rapuna (the ancestors) came to light when their tchieki (guardian), Wilford Davis, contacted King after reading his book. Further insights into Moriori culture were given in Barry Barclay’s dramatised documentary film The feathers of peace, which screened in 2000.

Political revival

Albatross feathers, once worn proudly in the hair and beard by Moriori as a symbol of peace, re-emerged as a political statement during the 1991 bicentennial celebrations of the Chatham’s arrival. They were worn by Moriori and their supporters, and presented to visiting dignitaries.

In 1994 hearings began for the Moriori claim to the Waitangi Tribunal. Moriori sought recognition of their continued identity as the rangata hunu (people of the land) of the Chatham Islands, along with compensation for cultural and material losses. The report, released in 2001, vindicated their stance.

After intense legal and political battles from 1988, Moriori finally won a proportion of the rich fishing grounds around Rēkohu and Rangihaute (Pitt Island), enabling them to re-establish a viable economic base. 

Cultural renaissance

In 1997 construction began on the first Moriori marae to be built on Rēkohu in over 160 years. Kopinga marae was officially opened in January 2005 with a celebration attended by Prime Minister Helen Clark, the Māori queen, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, electorate MP Annette King and local elders. Seen from the air, its design resembles the wings of the hopo (albatross), which has great symbolic resonance for Moriori. The name of the marae, Te Kopinga, refers to the sheltered groves of kopi (karaka trees) where Moriori held their meetings.

The Moriori language is Polynesian, closely related to early southern Māori dialect. In 2001 the tribe took the first steps towards reviving their language by compiling a database of ancient Moriori words. A newly coined Moriori greeting is used in all written communications – me rongo, ‘with peace’.

After applications by Moriori in 2002, Taia, a property on the east coast of Rēkohu with extensive wetlands and cultural significance for the people, was purchased by the Crown as a reserve. It is now being jointly managed by Moriori and the Crown. Moriori are also working with the government to protect the remaining Moriori rākau hokoairo (tree carvings).

Moriori unity

By the end of 1991, Moriori political organisation had split into two groups. After years of difficulties, but also many legal and political accomplishments, the two groups achieved unity in 2001, forming the Hokotehi Moriori Trust. The trust aims to seek redress for past injustices, and to revive the language, customs, and traditions of the Moriori ancestors. It also aims to build a sustainable economic future for the Chathams, and to broadcast a message of tolerance and peace to the world.

In 2020 Hokotehi Moriori Trust settled its treaty claims with the Crown. The terms included a Crown apology, an agreed historical account, the transfer of culturally significant land on Rēkohu, and a cash payment of $18 million.

Facts and figures

Iwi (tribal) identification

In New Zealand censuses since 1991, residents of Māori or Moriori descent have been asked to indicate the tribe or tribes to which they are affiliated. The figures below show the number who named Moriori, and the regions where they were found in the greatest numbers in 2013.

The only previous census asking Māori or Moriori to indicate (a single) tribal affiliation was that of 1901.

  • 1901 census: 35
  • 1991 census: 105
  • 2001 census: 585
  • 2006 census: 945
  • 2013 census: 738

Major regional locations

  • Canterbury: 216
  • Auckland: 81
  • Wellington: 78

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Denise Davis and Māui Solomon, 'Moriori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Denise Davis and Māui Solomon, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, updated 1 o Māehe 2017