Moriori people

Moriori people

Moriori are the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands (Rēkohu in Moriori, Wharekauri in Māori), east of the New Zealand archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. These people lived by a code of non-violence and passive resistance (see Nunuku-whenua), which made it easier for Taranaki Māori invaders to nearly exterminate them in the 1830s.


The Chatham Islands from space. Chatham Island is the largest, Pitt Island is the second largest, and South East Island is the small island to the right of Pitt

During the early 20th century it was commonly, but erroneously, believed that the Moriori were pre-Māori settlers of New Zealand, linguistically and genetically different from the Māori, and possibly Melanesian. This story, incorporated into Stephenson Percy Smith’s “Great Fleet” hypothesis, was widely believed during the early 20th century. However the hypothesis was not always accepted.[1]

By the late 20th century the hypothesis that the Moriori were different from the Māori had fallen out of favour amongst archeologists, who believed that the Moriori were Māori who settled on the Chatham Islands in the 16th century. The earlier hypothesis was discredited in the 1960s and 1970s.

Traditions tell us that the founding ancestor of Moriori, Rongomaiwhenua, came from eastern Polynesia and his younger brother Rongomaitere sailed on to Aotea (thought to be Aotearoa). Hence there was a period of voyaging between Aotearoa and Rekohu which explains the hokopapa/whakapapa links between Moriori and mainland Maori tribes but our tuakana (elder line) stems directly from Rongomaiwhenua.

All Moriori today trace our ancestry back to Rongomaiwhenua. What distinguished Moriori was their adherence to a covenant of peace which they observed for over 500 years and remains a beacon of hope for our people today.


The Moriori are culturally Polynesian. They developed a distinct Moriori culture in the Chatham Islands as they adapted to local conditions. Although speculation once suggested that they settled the Chatham Islands directly from the tropical Polynesian islands, or even that they were Melanesian in origin, current research indicates that ancestral Moriori were Māori Polynesians who emigrated to the Chatham Islands from New Zealand before 1500.[4] [5] [6] [7]


Moriori group C1873 Photograph courtesy of Canterbury Museum

Evidence supporting this theory comes from the characteristics that the Moriori language has in common with the dialect of Māori spoken by the Ngāi Tahu tribe of the South Island, and comparisons of the genealogies of Moriori (“hokopapa”) and Māori (“whakapapa”). Prevailing wind patterns in the southern Pacific add to the speculation that the Chatham Islands were the last part of the Pacific to be settled during the period of Polynesian discovery and colonisation.[4][7] The word Morioriderives from Proto-Polynesian *ma(a)qoli, which has the reconstructed meaning “true, real, genuine”. It is cognate with the Māori language word Māori[8] and likely also had the meaning “(ordinary) people”.

The earliest indication of human occupation of the Chathams, inferred from middens exposed due to erosion of sand dunes, has been established as 450 yearsBP.[9]

Adapting to local conditions

Moriori tree carving or dendroglyph

Moriori tree carving or dendroglyph

The Chathams are colder and less hospitable than the land the original settlers had left behind, and although abundant in resources, these were different from those available where they had come from. The Chathams proved unsuitable for the cultivation of most crops known to Polynesians, and the Moriori adopted a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Food was almost entirely marine-sourced – protein and fat from fish, fur seals and the fatty young of sea birds. The islands supported about 2000 people.

Lacking resources of cultural significance such as greenstone and plentiful timber, they found outlets for their ritual needs in the carving of dendroglyphs (incisions into tree trunks, called rakau momori). Some of these carvings are protected by the J M Barker (Hapupu) National Historic Reserve.

As a small and precarious population, Moriori embraced a pacifist culture that rigidly avoided warfare, substituting it with dispute resolution in the form of ritual fighting and conciliation. The ban on warfare and cannibalism is attributed to their ancestor Nunuku-whenua.

…because men get angry and during such anger feel the will to strike, that so they may, but only with a rod the thickness of a thumb, and one stretch of the arms length, and thrash away, but that on an abrasion of the hide, or first sign of blood, all should consider honour satisfied.

— Oral tradition, from King 2000

This enabled the Moriori to preserve what limited resources they had in their harsh climate, avoiding waste through warfare, such as may have led to catastrophic habitat destruction and population decline on Easter Island. However, when considered as a moral imperative rather than a pragmatic response to circumstances, it also led to their later near-destruction at the hands of invading North Island Māori.

Moriori castrated some male infants in order to control the population growth.[10]


European contact

William R. Broughton landed on 29 November 1791, and claimed possession of the islands for Great Britain, naming them after his ship, HMS ChathamSealers andwhalers soon made the islands a centre of their activities, competing for resources with the native population. The population was estimated at about 1,600 in the mid-1830s with about 10% and 20% of the population having died from infectious diseases such as influenza since the arrival of sealers, ex convicts and Māori from about 1810. The effects of influenza were made more serious by the habit, also common to the Māori, of immersion in cold water. The men intermarried with Moriori. Māori arrivals created their own village at Wharekauri which became the Māori name for the Chatham Islands.[11] Some sealing ships came to the Chathams but captains kept this secret so other ship owners would not find out about the large fur seal population.

Invasion by Taranaki Māori

Taranaki Māori living at Port Nicolson (modern Wellington) had been meeting for some time to decide on a place to invade. A mass invasion of Samoa or Norfolk Island was considered at a meeting in early 1835 but an invasion of the Chathams was decided on as it was so close and the invaders had details of the Moriori pacifist attitudes from Māori who had visited and returned to New Zealand. In 1835 some Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama people, Māori from the Taranakiregion of the North Island of New Zealand, but living in Wellington, invaded the Chathams. On 19 November 1835, the brig Lord Rodney, a hijacked[12] European ship, arrived carrying 500 Māori armed with guns, clubs and axes, and loaded with 78 tonnes of seed potatoes, followed by another ship with 400 more Māori on 5 December 1835. While the second shipment of invaders were waiting, the invaders killed a 12-year-old girl and hung her flesh on posts.[13] They proceeded to enslave some Moriori and kill and cannibalise others. “Parties of warriors armed with muskets, clubs and tomahawks, led by their chiefs, walked through Moriori tribal territories and settlements without warning, permission or greeting. If the districts were wanted by the invaders, they curtly informed the inhabitants that their land had been taken and the Moriori living there were now vassals.”[14]

hui or council of Moriori elders was convened at the settlement called Te Awapatiki. Despite knowing of the Māori predilection for killing and eating the conquered, and despite the admonition by some of the elder chiefs that the principle of Nunuku was not appropriate now, two chiefs — Tapata and Torea — declared that “the law of Nunuku was not a strategy for survival, to be varied as conditions changed; it was a moral imperative.”[15] A Moriori survivor recalled : “[The Maori] commenced to kill us like sheep…. [We] were terrified, fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, and in any place to escape our enemies. It was of no avail; we were discovered and killed – men, women and children indiscriminately.” A Māori conqueror explained, “We took possession… in accordance with our customs and we caught all the people. Not one escaped…..” [16] The invaders ritually killed some 10% of the population, a ritual that included staking out women and children on the beach and leaving them to die in great pain over several days. The Māori invaders forbade the speaking of the Moriori language. They forced Moriori to desecrate their sacred sites by urinating and defecating on them.[17]

After the invasion, Moriori were forbidden to marry Moriori, or to have children with each other. All became slaves of the Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga invaders. Many Moriori women had children by their Māori masters. A small number of Moriori women eventually married either Māori or European men. Some were taken from the Chathams and never returned. In 1842 a small party of Māori and their Moriori slaves migrated to the subantarctic Auckland Islands, surviving for some 20 years on sealing and flax growing.[18] Only 101 Moriori out of a population of about 2,000 were left alive by 1862.[19] Although the last Moriori of unmixed ancestry, Tommy Solomon,[20] died in 1933 there are several thousand mixed ancestry Moriori alive today.

An all-male group of German Moravian missionaries arrived in 1843.[21] When a group of women were sent out to join them three years later, several marriages ensued; a few members of the present-day population can trace their ancestry back to those missionary families.

The Moriori and their invasion by the Māori are described in depth by David Mitchell in his popular novel Cloud Atlas later made into a major motion picture by the Wachowski Siblings.

Revival of culture

Today, in spite of the difficulties and genocide that Moriori faced, Moriori culture is enjoying a renaissance, both on Rekohu and in the mainland of New Zealand. Moriori culture and identity is being revived, symbolised in January 2005 with the renewal of the Covenant of Peace at the new Kopinga marae[22] on the Chathams.

Some Moriori descendants have made claims against the New Zealand government through the Waitangi Tribunal, a commission of inquiry charged with making recommendations on claims brought by Māori relating to actions or omissions of the Crown in the period since 1840, which breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Moriori in New Zealand

Based on writing of Percy Smith and Elsdon Best, there grew theories that the Māori had displaced a more primitive pre-Māori population of Moriori (sometimes described as a small-statured, dark-skinned race of possible Melanesian origin), in mainland New Zealand – and that the Chatham Island Moriori were the last remnant of this earlier race. These theories also had the advantage – from a European settler view – of undermining the notion of the Māori as the indigenous people of New Zealand, making them just one in a neat progression of waves of migration and conquest by increasingly more civilised and technically able peoples. This in turn was used to justify racist stereotyping, colonisation and conquest by cultural “superiors”.[23][24]

These theories were widely published in the early twentieth century,[25] and crucially, this story was promoted in a series of three articles in the School Journal of 1916,[26] and the 1934 A. W. Reed’s schoolbook The Coming of the Maori to Ao-tea-roa [26] —and therefore became familiar to generations of schoolchildren.

A number of historians, anthropologists and ethnologists, however, examined and rejected the hypothesis of a racially distinct pre-Māori Moriori people. Among them, anthropologist H.D. Skinner in 1923,[27] ethnologist Roger Duff in the 1940s,[28] and historian and ethnographer Arthur Thomson in 1959,[29] as did Michael King’sMoriori: A People Rediscovered in 2000 and James Belich[30] and K.R. Howe in Te Ara.[28]

See also

  • Waitaha—A Māori iwi who settled early in the South Island, and were subsequently absorbed by Kāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu.


  • see 1904 paper by A. Shand on The Early History of the Morioris
  • Campbell, Matthew (2008). “The historical archaeology of New Zealand’s prehistory”. In O’Connor, Sue; Clark, Geoffrey; Leach, Foss. Islands of Inquiry: Colonisation, seafaring and the archaeology of maritime landscapes. Terra Australis 29. Canberra: ANU E Press, Australian National University. ISBN 978-1-921313-90-5
  • As Kerry Howe put it, ‘Scholarship over the past 40 years has radically revised the model offered a century earlier by Smith: the Moriori as a pre-Polynesian people have gone (the term Moriori is now a technical term referring to those ancestral Māori who settled the Chatham Islands)’ (Howe 2003:182).
  • ^ Jump up to: a b Clark, Ross (1994). “Moriori and Maori: The Linguistic Evidence”. In Sutton, Douglas G. The Origins of the First New Zealanders. Auckland: Auckland University Press. pp. 123–135.
  • Solomon, Māui; Denise Davis (updated 2-Sep-11). “Moriori”. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 2012-05-04.
  • Howe, Kerry R. (updated 24-Sep-11). “Ideas of Māori origins”. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 2012-05-04.
  • King, Michael (2000 (Original edition 1989)). Moriori: A People Rediscovered. Viking. ISBN 0-14-010391-0.
  • Polynesian Lexicon Project Online, entry *maqoli
  • McFadgen, B. G. (March 1994). “Archaeology and Holocene sand dune stratigraphy on Chatham Island”. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 24 (1): 17–44. doi:10.1080/03014223.1994.9517454.
  • “The Encyclopedia of New Zealand”.
  • King, M. Moriori. Penguin, 2000
  • King, M. The Silence Beyond. Penguin, 2011; p. 190.
  • Michael King (2000). Moriori: a People Rediscovered; revised ed. Published by Viking. ISBN 0-14-010391-0. Original edition 1989; pp. 57-58.
  • King (2000), pp. 59-60
  • King (2000).
  • Diamond, Jared (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 53.
  • King, M. The Silence Beyond. Penguin, 2011 ISBN 9780143565567; p. 190.
  • Murihiku timeline (Abandoned website) Backup copy at the Wayback Machine.
  • Kopel et al., 2003.
  • Tommy Solomon
  • “German Missions” (PDF). Reference Guides – Missionary Sources. Hocken Collections. 2008. p. 10. Retrieved 2008-12-09.
  • Berry, Ruth (22 January 2005). “Chathams embrace peace ethic”. The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 26 October 2011.
  • See Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand: Ideas of Māori origins
  • “According to the myth, the Maori, as a superior and more warlike people, expropriated the land from the Moriori. Therefore Pakeha expropriation of the same land on the basis of their superior civilisation was in accordance with the principle of the survival of the fittest. For this reason the false myth of the Moriori has been one of New Zealand’s most enduring myths.”, “Ka Whatwhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End”, Ranginui Walker, Penguin, Auckland, 1990
  • For example The Cyclopedia of New Zealand of 1902
  • “Imagining Moriori: A history of ideas of a people in the twentieth century”, Jacinta Blank, MA Thesis
  • Skinner, H.D., The Morioris of the Chatham Islands, Honolulu, 1923
  • K. R. Howe. ‘Ideas of Māori origins, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 28 October 2008
  • Thomson, Arthur, The Story of New Zealand, Past and Present, Savage and Civilized, 2 vols, London, 1859, i, 61
  • Belich, James, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders, from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century, University of Hawaii Press, 2002, pp.26, 65-6

Credit: Wikipedia

February 7, 2014/ by / in

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