Chatham Islands

About 500 miles east of Christchurch, New Zealand are the Chatham Islands, an island chain consisting of about ten islands and part of New Zealand since 1842.


Called Rekohu (“misty sun”) by the Moriori, the indigenous people, the largest two islands are Chatham Island and Pitt Island.

Chatham Island (224,000 acres) was named by William R. Broughton in 1791 after John Pitt, First Lord of the Admiralty, 2nd Earl of Chatham. The indigenous people were known as the Moriori and at the time of Broughton’s discovery there were about 1000 Moriori on the island.

For years it was taught that the Moriori were a separate group from the Maori on New Zealand, and that the Moriori had migrated on their own from Polynesia. More recently, in part based on mitochondrial DNA in Polynesian rats discussed in an earlier blog, it has been proven that the Moriori were Maori from New Zealand who had settled on the islands in the early 14th and 15th century and been isolated on the islands for a period of time.

Initially the Moriori had apparently warred amongst themselves. After one particular battle, a famous Moriori chief, Nunuku, outlawed bloodshed.

From now and forever, never again let there be war as this day has seen!

This was part of Nunuku’s law and for years the Moriori followed it. Arguments were solved by consensus or by duels, sticks used for these duels could be no thicker than one’s thumb, and at the first sight of blood, the fight was over.

Fading Moriori carving on tree

Fading Moriori carving on tree

Those who study these type things feel that this was a sound strategy due to the limited resources on the island and the need for cooperation.

Warfare and fighting would only squander the valuable limited resources. Hence, the Moriori were a peaceful people for many years. They were also a ‘level’ society with no hierarchical distinctions.

After the discovery of the islands, sealers and whalers followed decimating much of the island’s limited marine resources, as well as spreading disease. Some 10% to 20% of the island’s population succumbed to infectious disease during this period.

Despite this up until 1835 the Moriori welcomed visitors to the island.

All this changed in 1835 when nine hundred Maori in a hijacked European ship invaded the islands. The Moriori followed their policy of non-aggression, non-violence and passive resistance. The Maori essentially stated that the land was now theirs and proceeded to ritually massacre the Moriori, killing at least 300 of them (out of a Moriori population of 2000 at that time) cannibalizing the dead, and enslaving the survivors. Men, women and children, all were killed or enslaved indiscriminately.

Shortly after this time in the 1840’s, early settlers arrived trying to eek out an existence on these relatively barren, wind-blasted islands. German missionaries followed. During this time, Christian missionaries were converting the Maori in New Zealand itself with a fair amount of success. One notable exception, noted in the Penguin History of New Zealand, was the German missionary, Johann Gottfried Engst, in the Chatham Islands who labored in the field for 68 years without making a single conversion.

Here is a picture of Engst in 1874 thinking, “Maybe today, maybe today will be the day I finally convert someone.”

Missionary Johannes Gottfried Engst, Chatham Islands (1)

Missionary Johannes Gottfried Engst,
Chatham Islands (1)

So what are the Chatham Islands like now?

Today 650 people, European and Maori, live on the two larger islands. There is a doctor and a single constable who often also serves as the government official for customs and immigration. There is primary school but for secondary school, children have to go to mainland New Zealand or study via correspondence courses.

The economy is based on fishing, and to a lesser degree, tourism. Here in New Zealand, travel agencies regularly advertise trips to the Chatham Islands.

Chatham Island coastline

Chatham Island coastline

The environment on the Chathams is cold, wet and windy even in summer. The Chatham Islands website says that the weather forecast is most often a variation of rain sometime during the day: occasional rain, clear periods, rain at times.

A number of rare plants and birds are found in the Chatham Islands and parts of the islands are now ecological reserves. Among the rare birds is the Chatham albatross, which only breeds on Chatham Island, and only on one particular stack of rocks there called the Pyramid.

Chatham albatross

Chatham albatross

What happened to the Moriori?

After the takeover by the Maori, Moriori were forbidden to marry Moriori or to have children with each other further decimating their number.  By the time slavery was ended in 1862, only 160 of the original Moriori were left. To make things worse for years in New Zealand schoolbooks, the Moriori were disparaged and portrayed as stupid, indolent people. Thankfully this has changed in the past decades. Currently about 900 people in New Zealand claim to be of Moriori descent.

The last full-blood Moriori, Tame Horomona Rehe, also known as Tommy Solomon died in 1932.

The last full-blood Moriori, Tame Horomona Rehe (Tommy Solomon)2

The last full-blood Moriori, Tame Horomona Rehe (Tommy Solomon)(2)


1) Missionary Johannes Gottfried Engst, Chatham Islands. Peter Webb Galleries :Photographs of the United States astronomical expedition to the Chatham Islands in 1874 to observe the transit of Venus. Ref: PAColl-0058-10. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.



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