Today, Moriori are trying to restore their place in the public consciousness as the tchakat henu (tangata whenua) of the Chatham Islands, but they’re up against some competition. Recent vandalism of Moriori cultural artefacts recalls an ancient feud which dates back to Moriori being both persecuted and ignored by two peoples. In their heyday, the Moriori numbered 2000 people, but their idyll was to be violently shattered, all within a decade…
Life hadn’t changed in the hundreds of years the Moriori had lived on Rekohu, the main Chathams island, and their population and needs were exactly balanced to match what Rekohu provided them. Everything about the Moriori had evolved separately from Maori, from the physical shape of Moriori to their language and mythology. The biggest distinction was that the Moriori had no use for war, which couldn’t be more different from New Zealand, where the Musket Wars saw Hongi Hika ravaging the country (https://www.elocal.co.nz/Articles/elocal-Digital-Edition/2410). Moriori culture honoured Nunuku-whenua, an ancestor who had forbidden Moriori from harming others.
Europeans first landed on Rekohu in 1791. Soon, Maori were visiting on Europeans’ ships, and relations between the Maori and the Moriori were initially fraternal. Moriori were eager to see a new sealing ship, the Bee, arrive in late 1832, bearing former sealer James Coffee, and also Matioro, a Ngāti Mutunga chief. Everything changed with Matioro’s landing: Matioro is said to have strutted up and down the beach, questioning the Moriori about which places they considered tapu. He then violated the tapu of the volcanic peak Hokopoi. When the locals complained, Matioro led a party of sailors, with bulldogs, to attack the outspoken Moriori, shooting one and hanging twelve others upside down from a tree.
Matioro had decided that Moriori couldn't – or wouldn’t – fight back, and Ngāti Mutunga’s next colonial act was to rename the island Wharekauri. Historian Michael King says that fighting was “an antidote to Ngāti Mutunga’s sense of dislocation,” as Matioro’s people had been fighting other Maori for a decade and had been displaced from Taranaki and Wellington. By 1833, Ngāti Mutunga and their ally Ngāti Tama both wanted further conquest so that they wouldn’t have to depend on one another.
Matioro returned to New Zealand in 1834 with an irresistible tale of Pacific islands swarming with food, sunshine and warmth, ripe for the taking. “He kai whenua!” it was boasted of Rekohu, “It is a land of food! […] The inhabitants are very numerous, but they do not understand how to fight, and have no weapons.” Moriori didn’t need this: life had been hard on them since they had first encountered the outside world, with influenza, measles and syphilis already having wiped out a quarter of their population. Feral dogs had been attacking and killing Moriori, and the seal and bird supplies were dwindling.
As soon as word reached Wellington that Rekohu was ripe for conquest, the few Europeans on Rekohu helped to transport the invaders and, says Moriori advocate Maui Solomon, “The settlers stood by and watched but largely had little other option.
The Crown knew or should have known what was happening […] but chose not to intervene.” Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama shelved plans to invade Samoa and Norfolk Island, and chose Rekohu, just 500 miles away, instead. In 1835, 500 men and women hopped on the brig Rodney, paying Captain Harewood enough flax, pigs and muskets to override his conscience. Europeans helped Matioro and others to offload their cargo when they arrived a week later, and the Maori spent two days feasting in preparation for the main event.
The first murder was that of a 12 year old girl, whom Harewood was horrified to see being cut into pieces, her flesh hung on posts. Despite this, Harewood brought over another 400 invaders. Maori then began to ritually takahi the land – to take possession of it by touring it. Because the Moriori weren’t standing up for themselves, they were barely noticed.
While the unwitting Moriori were helping the 1000 invaders to find fresh water, Ngāti Mutunga handed over £500 worth of muskets, powder, clothing and pigs, either as a koha, or as compensation for what was about to happen. Armed with muskets, patu and mere, December 1835 was the beginning of what some have described as genocide.
“To see what happened in 1835-40 as genocide is to perhaps put the bar too high,” Maui Solomon argues. “The effects were tantamount to genocide in the sense that Moriori had no means of escaping their persecutors, but the intent of Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga was to capture, enslave and assume control of Moriori and their lands.”
Dreams of the Maori bringing friendly trade were violently dashed, and a grand hui of 160 chiefs and 1000 Moriori was hurriedly organised. The biggest issue for Moriori was the caveat put in place by Nunuku. The Moriori all knew that the invading Maori were flesh-eating conquerors, but the will of their ancestors was equally strong, and although Moriori initially outnumbered the invaders, chiefs Tapata and Torea stuck with Nunuku’s ancient edict of peace: “Never again let there be war. From today, forget the taste of human flesh… may your bowels rot the day you disobey this.”
Meanwhile, Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama had made a resolution of their own: “To slay sufficient Moriori to establish their claim and to remove the annoyance of overt opposition.” Historian Alexander Shand reported in the 1890s to the Journal of the Polynesian Society that as soon as the genocide was launched,
“Te Raki killed and roasted 50 Morioris in one oven. Tikaokao and others [attacked] the Waitangi Morioris within their radius, killing men, women and children; and laid them all out on the sandy beach, in length over a quarter of a mile. One Moriori survivor said ‘they were laid out touching one another, the parent and the child…’ Some of the women with stakes thrust into them were left to die in their misery.”
One sixth of the population was immediately killed and eaten, but that didn’t exhaust the invaders. After the first few hundred were slaughtered, so many bodies were dumped into the sea that a London denture salesman was observed roaming the beach near Waitangi, taking teeth from the hundreds of skulls dumped in the sand. The list of the dead was sent to the Governor of New Zealand, but intervention never arrived.
Over the next 20 years, many Europeans witnessed the cruel regime that Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama imposed, but none did anything beside observe the horror. One observer, Johann Gottfried Engst, recorded in 1843 that after each Moriori victim was struck in the head with a mere,
“The heads were removed and thrown to the dogs. [...] Then the penis, having been cut off, was thrown to the women sitting around, who ate this dainty morsel eagerly. Then the entrails were taken out and the useful portion consumed. The heart… was set aside for the chief guest. All the bones and ribs were separated out, the hands and feet cut off… .” A vast hangi was then held in which the choicest pieces of Moriori flesh were eaten.
In July 1862, 33 elders compiled the names of the 1600 Moriori who had died over the past 30 years from murder, cannibalism, konenge (despair) and what the Waitangi Tribunal Report acknowledges as slavery. The Chatham Islands weren’t under New Zealand law until 1842, but people such as James Coffee were complicit in the slaughter – for example, he abandoned his Moriori wife for a Maori wife. The captain of the brig which brought the invaders over – twice – was never charged with any offence. Ernst Dieffenbach of the New Zealand Company was another who failed to do anything more than write in his journal about the horrifying conditions of enslaved Moriori, which included starvation, beatings and sexual degradation. “They are porters,” he wrote, “to masters who have no notion of moderation in the labour they exact; so that ulcerated backs are bent almost double, and emaciated paralytic limbs, with diseased lungs, are the ordinary lot of these wretches, to whom death must be a blessing.”
But death was no blessing. Influenza helped kill off more Moriori, and the people dropped out of the care of the world for a long time, leaving a mountain of skulls at Hawaruwaru which by the 1920s could still be observed.
It is now the 21st century, and Moriori are slowly restoring their population and struggling for public acceptance as the indigenous people of Rekohu. The Kōpinga Marae’s central pou has the names of 1,561 people known to have been alive at the time of the Ngāti Mutunga/ Ngāti Tama invasion engraved into it. According to Maui, “There are some here who claim that Ngāti Mutunga arrived on Rekohu before Moriori – a claim rejected by both the Crown and Tribunal – but which still persists.” There aren’t feelings of vengeance towards Maori or Europeans, he says, “But there is anger at the ongoing denial and oppressive behaviour and attitudes being exhibited towards Moriori on Rekohu today by many people. What happened in the past cannot be changed, but the future can be shaped so as to ensure there is a place for everyone on our islands. That was the dream and reality of our Ka rapuna (ancestors) and that is the hope of our people today.
“The legacy of Nunuku, I believe, is that in the end there is no other way for humanity to live than in peace. Living under the constant threat of warfare, violence and conflict is no way to live at all. Moriori of old rejected that way of living and chose instead the path of peace. That is the challenge that the ancestors have laid down for this generation and indeed for all humanity.”
And whatever happened to the invaders? The 1841 introduction of the Bible ended the killing of Moriori slaves, but by then, the slavers were restless and bored, and Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga had already turned on one another in 1839-40. The New Zealand Company came to the aid of the besieged Ngāti Tama, the Treaty of Waitangi stopped the land race, and the invaders had to look for new challenges. While the Crown was assuming protection over New Zealand and Maori, the Moriori population had fallen to less than 300 by 1840. The Native Land Court in 1870 ruled that Ngāti Mutunga had conquered the Moriori and that Moriori would receive only 2.7% of their land, while Ngāti Tama returned to Taranaki, and Ngāti Mutunga floundered on the freezing Auckland Islands.
“Moriori are getting on with doing our own thing and not trying to deny any other ethnic group on Rekohu their right to their culture and identity,” Maui says. “There is a need for healing and reconciliation to occur to enable the past to be laid to rest and a new future forged for all peoples of the island.”