The Moriori People of Rekohu: First Settlers of New Zealand’s Eastern Outpost

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The Moriori were the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands, which they called Rekohu. The last full-blooded Moriori died in 1933.

Dating the earliest human settlement of New Zealand remains a matter of debate. It is now generally accepted that the first arrivals from more northern South Pacific islands occurred around 800 years ago, with the Moriori settling their new land around 500 years ago.

The Moriori Migrate From Hawaiki

Like the Maori, the Moriori had deeply held beliefs about the Creation, their ancestry and their migrations. The first settlers of the land they called Rekohu after the misty skies that greeted them, are said to have arrived on three canoes – Rangi Houa, Rangi Mata and Oropuke. They were descendants of Rongomaitere (‘ocean god’), who travelled south and left sailing directions for journeys by later generations. This story merges with one that suggests there were people on Rekohu when the first Moriori arrived.

An early chief named Nunuku determined that all matters of conflict must to settled peacefully to ensure the fragile population was protected. Accordingly the Moriori gained a reputation as a peace-loving race. This policy would go tragically against the people when Maori they had welcomed turned on them.

The Morioiri barely made a subsistence living off the sea and the land in the harsh climate. No tropical Pacific paradise, the Chathams lie in the Roaring Forties. Winter storms frequently lashed the primitive communities of the Moriori with devastating effect. The challenges of hunting so they may eat and be clothed were such that Moriori developed a more egalitarian society than those of other Polynesians. Leadership was determined by hunting ability rather than by heriditary right.

Life was Hard on the Chathams

In order to survive the early Moriori had some unique and complex social practices. Seal hunting was restricted to older males, and all remnants were removed to ensure the seals were not deterred from returning. European sealers who would come later had no respect for such ancient customs, with inevitable results for the wildlife and local people.

Some Moriori male infants were castrated to maintain the population at levels manageable for the environment, and the population remained stable at 1,800 to 2,000 people for some time. Marriage between first, second and third cousins was forbidden in the small, isolated communities.

The first European to visit the Chatham Islands was British Lieutenant William Broughton, a member of Captain George Vancouver’s Pacific expedition. Broughton was in command of the brig Chatham, which was off course when it came upon the Moriori homeland in 1791. This first foreign contact resulted in the spilling of Moriori blood, but worse was to follow.

The influx of sealers and whalers to New Zealand waters at the end of the 18th century had an immediate effect on the Moriori. The delicate balance that the local people had maintained in the food source was quickly upset. Europeans also meant disease, and population numbers began to decline.

The End of the Moriori as a Race

In 1835 Taranaki Maori exiles came seeking a new home after being displaced from their own tribal lands. Conflict was inevitable as the new arrivals staked a claim on Moriori territory. The local people steadfastly stood by Nunuku’s Law of peaceful coexistence, and were no match for the battle-hardened Maori.

By 1863 when Maori oppression ended Moriori numbers were down to 101. Three generations later, their bloodlines only survived as a result of mixed-race alliances. Today many people of Moriori descent live on the New Zealand mainland. But while the Moriori battle for recognition was largely overcome when Maori usurped ownership of their land, the Chathams still remain home base for some. They make a living in fishing, farming, and a small but developing tourism industry.

In 1997 the first Moriori marae in over 160 years was constructed on Chatham Island. Its design resembles the wings of the great white hopo (albatross) and its name, Te Kopinga, refers to the kopi (karaka) groves where ancient Moriori met. Efforts are also being made to record Morirori words to prevent a complete loss of the language.

The Chatham Islands lie 734 km southeast of Napier, the nearest New Zealand city. The more easterly of the two inhabited islands is Pitt, the first populated place on earth to see the new day’s sun. The Chathams’ population at New Zealand’s 2006 census was 609, of whom 369 gave their ethnicity as Maori, which for official purposes includes Moriori.

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