Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa Go to Te Ao Hou homepage
No. 2 (Spring 1952)
– 34 –
– 35 –


The Chatham Islands were the home of the Moriori, who are still the mystery people of New Zealand. Their artistic relics still excite the greatest admiration, and the little that is known about them whets the curiosity, for they were a singular people. Recent evidence seems to show that they came to New Zealand no earlier than the main migrations in the thirteenth century, and also—quite definitely —that they were of Polynesian descent. They probably travelled right through New Zealand before the majority of them settled in the Chatham Islands. Why did they die out? That is also a mystery. It is known that the invasion of the Taranaki tribes caused great slaughter amongst them, but whether this was due to any basic inferiority of the Moriori is hard to say. Tradition has it that a famous chief of the Moriori laid it down that arguments should cease as soon as blood was drawn, and it is said the Moriori followed his command.

Few people in New Zealand realise that five hundred miles east of Christchurch, across wild and empty seas, lies a fully constituted county of the Dominion. Its council administers a thriving farming community of five hundred people that is very much like many a New Zealand back country district. Much has been written about the group of islands, chiefly about their early history and the terrifying list of shipwrecks, but little is known by the ‘man in the street’ of life and conditions existing today.

The group of islands, ranging from one of 355 square miles in area to mere rocks, the home of the giant albatross, was named by a Lieutenant Broughton, of H.M.S. Chatham, and claimed on behalf of His Majesty King George III, in 1791. The islands were then occupied by numerous Moriori. Maori invaders from New Zealand, on fishing expeditions, found the Moriori a poor defender of their land, and in 1835 a large party from the Taranaki tribes, in a commandeered ship, the Lord Rodney, occupied the main island, killing or enslaving the inhabitants. Disease and degradation took their toll, and in 1933, the Moriori became extinct with the death of Te Rangitapua (Tommy Solomon).

Shipwrecks have been frequent, because of the position of the islands on the early shipping routes from Australia to Cape Horn, dur-

Picture icon

Moriori tree carving on ‘kopi’ tree (Chatham word for karaka) on northern coast of Chathams. Carvings, made on live trees, did not affect their growth, and this one is of considerable age.

– 36 –

Picture icon

Hangi at Waitangi. Ovens are being opened.

ing the days of sail. Treacherous on-shore winds and strong currents have brought many a fine ship to her doom, and, even today, with modern steamers, the waters around the group are regarded with respect. The convergence of two great ocean currents—one, warm from the tropics, and the other, cold from the Southern Pole—is responsible for a rigorous climate. The prevailing wind is the south-west, bringing cold, showery weather and, during the winter months, hail and sleet. Fogs are frequent. There is, however, a reasonable balance of sunshine. It will be news to many that the annual rainfall is less than that of Wellington. Rainfall is evenly distributed over the year, and averages between 30 and 40 inches. Frosts are a rarity, but the southerly gales place many an icy finger across the land.

The lack of natural shelter allows the gale to sweep across the flat island without hindrance. Destruction of the native bush has been so extensive that only a few isolated acres remain, causing a shortage in firewood, and timber for fencing posts. The need for a conservation programme is apparent, and plantations of imported trees would do much to stop the retarding effect of the cold, salt-laden winds. Behind such shelter native growth could revive, and evidence of this can already be seen on Weisner's station at Kaingaroa. Mr Weisner is a conservation-conscious farmer, and has shown what can be done with the right treatment. Behind a thick belt of macrocarpa, native plant life is regenerating, and a banana-passion-fruit vine, covering a wide area and reaching to a height of twenty feet, has in season a good crop of well-formed fruit. Lemon trees flourish in the large garden. On the Henga Station, too, conservation has returned valuable results. Managed by the Lanouze family, the Henga farm is an example of what can be done with careful fencing to safeguard the coastal bush from damage by stock. Also on this farm one can see a young pinus nursery thriving.

The Chatham Islanders are a race of their own. Some can claim descent from the Moriori, some from the Maori, some from the original German missionaries, and even from Spanish whalers, but, today, they have become a new race with a pleasing accent to their speech, not altogether Maori, but typically local. They are a friendly and hospitable folk, but at the same time, they are reserved towards strangers, particularly towards those from the ‘mainland’. Visitors in the past have not helped to break down this reserve, being only too willing to criticise and ridicule. After an initial coolness, however, they soon become friendly and co-operative, willing to listen to any helpful suggestions that might improve their environment. In a small community such as this, it is inevitable that intermarriage should be common. Family names are, as a result, few, and almost without exception date back to the earliest arrivals. The Tuuta and Tuanui families have ties with the early Maori landings, while the Seymours and the Wischarts claim the German missionaries as their ancestors.

Social life is much the same as that which exists in any back country district in New Zealand. Five years ago, before the roads were formed, transport was difficult and visits to the only centre of activity. Waitangi, were necessarily few and far between, but with the coming of the roads, life for the Chatham Islander became at once more varied and interesting. High prices for their wool coincided with the improvements, and the islanders welcomed civilisation with open arms. Frequent organised gatherings are held, and local enterprise

– 37 –

1 Arthur Lockett, direct descendant of the Morioris, is a lay reader at St. Augustine's, and a Justice of the Peace.
2 The Chatham Islands County Council at its monthly meeting at Waitangi.
3 Waitangi racecourse: main grandstand and finishing post.
4 Children of Te Karakau School planting trees.
5 George Tuuta, public figure of the Chatham Islands, is the owner of the Te Pohue farm, shown at the top of this article.
6 ‘Bring and Buy’ on the Chatham Islands. The County Clerk, Mr Pat Prendeville, is the auctioneer.

– 38 –

has made it possible to have picture screenings each Saturday night in the fine Memorial Hall.

The family is strictly self-contained. There are no butcher shops, dairies or bakeries. The people live, literally, off the land, killing their own meat, baking their own bread and making their own butter. Stores are ordered from Lyttelton, and, with high shipping charges, the cost of living is high. The staple diet once was mutton and potatoes, but improved conditions have altered all that. New additions to the family's diet are fruit, sweets, saveloys and bacon.

With the improved conditions came big advances in housing. New homes are being built, and existing ones are being brought up-to-date. Diesel lighting plants have been installed in a number of houses, and in others, battery sets are in use, assisted by wind-chargers.

The dilapidated shack, so typical a few years ago, has now almost disappeared, giving way to modern homes of standard design. The Maori Affairs Department is assisting the islanders with loans and designs.

The chief occupation of the residents is, of course, sheep-farming, with fishing a good second. Who has not heard of the famous Chatham Island blue cod? Mainland interests have two modern freezers in operation, and the industry is growing. Shipping is always a worry, both of fish and sheep. Normally the island ships about 2200 sheep, 2000 bales of wool, and about 500 tons of fish.

No rates are paid by the islanders, but a levy is imposed on all tonnage imported or exported, and produces about £5000 a year, which is largely used on the roads.

The islanders have been fortunate in the officials who have been appointed to the island's services. These people have almost without exception done much to improve the conditions.

There is one constable, but offences are largely against by-laws, and a new lock-up has not yet been occupied, except by occasional stores.

Medical attention is provided by a resident doctor appointed by the Canterbury Hospital Board, while the Sisters of Mary (a Catholic Order) staff a seven-bed hospital.

Shipping services have not improved much in recent years, mostly because of the unreliable conditions on the coast necessitating long delays, and long delays can become costly, but a flying-boat service, operating once a month during the summer months, has brought a luxury means of transport to the island.

Picture icon

Children of Te One School.