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The Māori Genocide of the Moriori
The Māori Musket Wars, the invasion of the Chatham Islands and its aftermath
An interesting dynamic often occurred when Europeans encountered other peoples and civilisations. The entrance of firearms into politically divided and complex regions would set off a powder keg of explosive violence, as different groups would scramble to acquire the weapons and use them to gain territorial advantages over their neighbours. This happened in North America during the famous ‘Mourning Wars’ and in South Africa during the mfecane, which I’ve looked at before. It also happened in New Zealand, where access to the musket unleashed the most incredible violence and aggression between different Māori peoples, culminating in one of the worst genocides in history, as the Māori sailed to the Chatham Islands and annihilated their pacifist cousins, the Moriori. The subsequent enslavement of the Moriori by the Māori, and their attempts to eradicate them as a people, have rarely been examined outside of New Zealand. The contrasts between the two peoples could not be greater and the story deserves to be widely known.
The Māori and the Moriori
The arrival of the Māori heralded one of the last great moments of human global expansion, although no-one knew it at the time. New Zealand, unlike its continent-sized neighbour Australia, had been devoid of people until the early 1300’s AD. The Māori have many legends of the small-folk who inhabited the island before them - the patupaiarehe - in a manner similar to all Polynesian peoples, but otherwise there is no evidence for any earlier settlements in New Zealand. Despite creative efforts to show how the Aryans or Celts or Phoenicians arrived first, we must stick with what can be proved empirically.
The Māori are a part of the wider Polynesian family, with roots going back to Austronesian Taiwan. Colonising New Zealand was like gravity in some sense, these pioneers of ocean exploration were always going to find such a large land mass. Mother Nature’s reward was an island paradise, complete with an ecosystem which had never encountered such an apex predator. 80 million years of isolation had bred creatures unknown to the rest of the world, and the Māori set about harvesting them, in particular the large flightless moa bird, which quickly went extinct. The colonist’s rats also did their work, and the island has never fully recovered.
It might be somewhat unfashionable to say today, but there can be no doubt that the Māori were a proud, warlike people, full of vigour, energy and a will to expand themselves. If not at sea, then on land. Conflict, fortified settlements called pa and cannibalism are well known in the record. One undeniable piece of proof for this was the development of a strictly pacifist culture on a small set of islands off the New Zealand mainland.
The Chatham Islands, along with the Auckland Islands, are the last stop for sailors before hitting Antarctica. Indeed Polynesian oral history is replete with stories of sailing into freezing water, with islands made of ice sticking out of the sea. Several studies and articles have been written in the past few years, and maybe one day some archaeological evidence will be found to confirm the legends. The Chathams were likely colonised between 1300 and 1500 AD, but our knowledge of that period is extremely limited. We do know that the people who settled there and flourished in that harsh environment named themselves the Moriori.
Much of Moriori history is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. Moriori traditional knowledge describes a dual colonization, first by the ancestor Rongomaiwhenua from East Polynesia and subsequent migrations from mainland New Zealand. The standard scholarly view is that Moriori are an East Polynesian people descended from or closely related to the same East Polynesians who settled in New Zealand and became Māori. The date of their arrival is unclear. Michael King, whose history of Moriori is currently the authoritative treatment, estimates that ‘on the balance of probabilities’, Moriori arrived on the Chathams ‘around the thirteenth or fourteenth century’. It is possible the settlement of the Chathams was as late as the mid sixteenth century.
-‘The miserable remnant of this ill-used people’: colonial genocide and the Moriori of New Zealand's Chatham Islands. André Brett. 2015.
One point of agreement is that around the year 1500 AD, a particularly prominent chief called Nunuku-whenua arrived or emerged in the Chathams and established a new moral code for the people. He was disgusted by the violence and warfare on the mainland, and established ‘Nunuku’s Law’ - this forbade murder, warfare and cannibalism - which should give us a clue about conditions elsewhere. Some versions of the story say that warfare had broken out between the two main Chatham Islands: Rēkohu (Chatham Island) and Rangiaotea (Pitt Island), and that Nunuku stopped the fighting. Either way, the code held, and the Moriori became a strictly pacifist culture.
The Morioris do not appear to have had the same amount of energy or vivacity as the Maoris, nor were they an agressive or war like people, although somewhat quarrelsome among themselves, caused chiefly by curses (kanga) of one section or tribe against another, which generally originated in the infidelity of the wives. To obtain revenge for this, they organised expeditions against their adversaries, in which they went through and recited incantations for the success of their party, just as if in actual warfare. All fighting, however, had been forbidden,-and had ceased since the days of their ancestor Nunuku shortly after their arrival in the island about 27 generations ago, since which time they have been restricted to the use of the tupurari (quarter-staff) only. It was ordered by Nunuku that man-slaying and man-eating should cease for ever? "Koro patu, ko ro kei tangatāme tapu todke” and that in all quarrels the first abrasion of the skin, or blow on the head or other part causing any blood to flow, was to be considered sufficient, and the fight — so-called — was to cease. The person sustaining injury in such cases called out, "Ka pakarū tanganei ūpokō?" “My head is broken;" but, although the quarrel ceased for the time, it did not prevent the injured party endeavouring at a later period to get satisfaction for his "broken head." Nevertheless, apart from such disturbing incidents, their general life was a very peaceable one.
-The Moriori People of the Chatham Islands: Their Traditions and History. Alexander Shand. 1894
With this new social framework in place, the Moriori were able to settle into a life of foraging and gathering, freed from the violence and destruction of constant war. The horticultural system which had spread with the Polynesians across the Pacific finally failed this far south, and the Moriori switched to becoming marine hunters, living primarily off their seals, fish and seabirds. At most there were 2,000 individuals on the small archipelago, and for several centuries life was fairly good. Many tree carvings exist from this time which testify to their animistic religion. Tattoos seem to have disappeared, along with excessive bodily ornamentation and markers of rank. Staying alive at the ends of the earth demanded a social conversion to something more egalitarian and peaceful. But it was not to last…
The Musket Wars on Aotearoa
European contact with the Māori came late. Cook’s first voyage between 1768-1771 discovered Tahiti, where a priest called Tupaia joined Cook’s crew for the sake of adventure and discovery. His life and skills were remarkable, and when Cook ended up on the shores of New Zealand staring at the Māori his presence was to be more than decorative. Having brought him from Tahiti, a journey of around 2,700 miles, Cook bore witness to Tupaia speaking with the Māori, despite never having visited the islands. The realisation that the Pacific was inhabited by people, separated by thousands of miles, but connected by a common tongue was a revelation. The process of working out the relationships between these people has taken a long time, beautifully narrated in two books by the writer Christina Thompson - Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, and Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All (the apocryphal phrase said by the Māori to Cook upon first contact).
Muskets were extremely valuable from the get-go for the Māori. Their traditional weapons made of greenstone, bone, ivory, wood and so on (the Wahaika, Tewhatewha, Patu etc ) were largely for close quarters combat, where a warrior was renowned for his bravery and could increase his personal and collective power (his mana) through dominating his enemies. The musket changed everything, and from the instant Cook’s men opened fire, the Māori knew they needed to acquire as many as possible. Slowly through sealers and whalers, through corrupt missionaries and flax traders, different groups (iwi) stockpiled muskets, powder and lead. The flashpoint came in 1807. A year earlier a small trading vessel, the Venus, had been seized by a group of onboard convicts and sailed from Tasmania to the north of New Zealand. Here the crew went on a remarkable kidnapping spree, making landfall to drag away many highborn Māori women to be used as sex slaves. Two of the women were related to Hongi-Hika and Te Morenga, names which are now synonymous with the Musket Wars. The crew of the Venus dropped off the women with different iwi down the coast, groups which were already hostile to one another, and reports came back to both sides that their women had been killed and eaten. The two main iwi, the Ngāti Whātua and Ngāpuhi, then came to blows at the Battle of Moremonui, which marked the opening of the Musket Wars. Although the muskets were not very useful during that battle due to their long reloading time, the Māori could see that he who had the most muskets could win the war.
A full account of the Wars needs a book length treatment, such as Ron Crosby’s The Forgotten Wars: Why The Musket Wars Matter Today. In his own words:
During the Musket Wars era, there were more than a thousand conflicts, ranging from major taua, sieges and battles to more minor ambushes, skirmishes and other engagements.
The casualty figures resulting from the Musket Wars greatly exceeded those of the later New Zealand Wars.
The Musket Wars affected every iwi throughout the length of the country, either directly or indirectly.
The numbers of people affected by the Musket Wars, whether through death, injuries, permanent migrations or temporary displacements, were massive — the lives of 50,000 people were affected over the 30-year span of the wars, against a background population of between 100,000 and 150,000.
Major permanent migrations occurred, displacing or subjugating the original occupying iwi, and in one case effectively eliminating Ngāti Ira in the Whanganui a Tara area.
As a result of migrations and displacements, large areas that were particularly vulnerable to raiding taua were depopulated and left vacant, sparsely populated or only intermittently occupied for the gathering of food or other resources.
New Zealand would never look the same. Whole communities were destroyed, their men killed and women taken as slaves. Massive parts of the country were left empty, and European settlers moved in. The balance of power shifted and many heroes performed great deeds for their iwi. The musket had unleashed the energy of the Māori, whose style of warfare was unprepared for the devastation of firearms. The equilibrium had been broken.
Sailing to the Chathams
While the Musket Wars raged on New Zealand, the Moriori were blissfully unaware of any danger. But their lives had changed with the coming of European ships and sealers. In 1791 lieutenant William Broughton, commander of the Chatham, sighted the islands and made contact with the Moriori. Twenty years later whalers and sealers began arriving in numbers and spread diseases the Moriori had never encountered - measles and influenza - their numbers dropped from an estimated 2,000 to around 1,650 people. Still, the ravages of war had not touched them, yet.
As the wars picked up their bloody pace many Māori left to find peace and security on the European merchant and fishing vessels. It was from these journeys that the Māori learnt of the existence of the Moriori and the Chatham Islands. Some chose to stay when they arrived, relaxing in the calm of their pacifism. Interestingly the Māori did not see the Moriori as cousins or kin, in fact they looked upon the Moriori with quite a different eye. In 1805 the Māori chief Te Pahi visited Australia where the millennia old barrier between Polynesians and Aboriginal Australians was finally broken. He viewed them with disgust, scorning their more egalitarian and primitive culture. The European term ‘blackfella’ for Aboriginals came to enter the Māori language as ‘paraiwhara’, which came with valences of savagery, inferiority and natural slavery. It was through this lens that the Māori saw the Moriori - a weaker, lesser people, more akin to the Aboriginal than the Māori.
By the 1830’s the Musket Wars were in full swing. Two iwi around the central North Island - the Ngāti Mutunga and the Ngāti Tama - were suffering the effects of constant insecurity and raiding, particularly at the hands of the Ngāti Raukawa. They decided to flee. In November 1835, Pomare of the Ngāti Mutunga negotiated with one Captain Harwood of the Lord Rodney to take them all to the Chatham Islands, away from danger. Around 900 people crowded onto the vessel and disembarked not long afterwards. They fell on the Moriori who sheltered them and provided food, hoping they would go away. The Māori had been careful not to aggravate their British hosts while sailing, but once ashore, they quickly revealed their true intentions.
The custom of takahi, or ‘walking the islands’ began at once. This was a defiant, violent claim of territory. The aggression came swiftly and brutally:
The killing of Moriori was not random; it was quite clearly targeted at their elimination. The few Pākehā on the Chathams were not targeted. Moriori leaders testified before the Native Land Court that Māori hunted down those who fled; they ‘killed us like sheep … wherever we were found’. Moriori who lived on claimed land became vassals of their conqueror, and some were killed to verify the claim; any Moriori bold enough to resist also died. Koche, a Moriori survivor of the invasion, recounted that Ngāti Mutunga swept Pitt Island, killing or enslaving its entire population. Killing varied based upon the temperament of individual Māori chiefs and the confidence they had in their own mana. However, this was not random, isolated violence and Moriori endured horrendous, targeted atrocities. One chief roasted fifty Moriori in an oven; another attacked all Moriori within his land and laid their bodies on the beach, some still alive and left to die of their injuries.
-‘The miserable remnant of this ill-used people’: colonial genocide and the Moriori of New Zealand's Chatham Islands (2015), André Brett
The Moriori, traumatised and terrified, gathered at Te Awapātiki for a council. The young men urged the elders to lay aside their pacifist convictions, that they had the numbers on their side and could defend themselves if allowed to fight. The elders refused and even in this, their darkest hour, clung to Nunuku’s Law as the right course of action. The consequences were predictable. The Māori proceeded to rampage through the islands, shooting, clubbing, eating and enslaving their hapless victims. Some were staked out on the beach to die slowly, others were marched to their sacred sites and forced to urinate and defecate on their shrines. The remainder were enslaved. They were forbidden to marry one another, to produce a new generation of Moriori. They were forbidden to speak their language, which is now extinct. Some Māori left the Chathams with their slaves and colonised the Auckland Islands, where the miserable Moriori toiled growing flax for their masters. By 1862 there were 101 Moriori left. The Māori disdained to marry Moriori women, although many they sired them many ‘mixed-race’ children, who were loathed by the Māori and disenfranchised. The last ‘pure’ Moriori, Tommy Solomon, died in 1933 - although many mixed descendants still live on the islands today. The intention of the Māori was to wipe them out, to brutalise and humiliate them, ripping away any succor that even their religion might have provided:
At least Moriori who were killed fell into merciful oblivion. Those who survived the first killings were separated, moved around, and forced into slavery of the most onerous kind… They faced a life in which those they had loved were not only absent, but whose remains could still be seen intermittently, defiled by Maori and dogs alike. Perhaps worst of all, they faced a world in which everything in which they had believed spiritually and culturally was shown to be leached of fertility and value: their gods did not protect them from these horrors; their gods were dead.
Moriori: A People Rediscovered (2000) Michael King
In 1863 the resident British magistrate on the Chathams ordered the remaining Moriori to be set free. In 1870 a Native Land Court was set up to investigate claims of ownership and territory on the islands. The ruling went in favour of the Māori, who were awarded over 97% of the land, despite most having returned to their homeland. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, had laid down a framework of British suzerainty over the main islands of New Zealand, but the Chathams and other remote islands proved difficult to control. The first magistrate on the islands, Archibald Shand, was sympathetic to the plight of the Moriori. Shand’s son, Alexander, would go on to be their greatest ethnographer and helped preserve what details and records we still have of pre-contact Moriori culture. The Moriori themselves were not totally passive, and they petitioned to the Governor in New Zealand to be allowed their lands back:
We were a people who dwelt in peace, who did not believe in killing and eating their own kind. Our word for that kind of person is kaupeke: a flesh-eating demon. The manner of this people was like that of a flock of lost sheep … when the shepherd went away, the wild dog came to eat them … The sheep were many, but what was that to the wild dog … It simply went on eating until its teeth were blunted and the sheep’s numbers dwindled … Friend, we must have the rights to our own lands, because we are the rightful owners of our ancestors’ home — of that land planted here by God at the time our forefathers arrived at this place
By 1852 the Auckland islands experiment had collapsed, both the Māori and their Moriori slaves returned utterly sick of the barren freezing cliffs and rocks. The eventual judgement about Moriori ownership may seem surprising, giving only 2% of the land back to the original inhabitants. But legal decisions about ownership and settlement in the aftermath of the Musket Wars were extraordinarily complex, and a general rule was adopted to honour possession since 1840, which gave the conquering Māori the greatest rights. To the victor the spoils indeed.
The debates, politics and legality of the Māori invasion of the Chathams has been ongoing ever since. The Moriori have been used as weapons in many arguments, some Māori have denied they ever existed, angrily insisting they are a fiction used to deny them their territories. Some politicians have pointed to the Moriori as an example of Māori brutality, arguing it far exceeded anything perpetrated by Europeans. The Moriori themselves have downplayed this, refusing to let their experience be used to attack the Māori, which is a fairly astonishing move given what happened. Instead the Moriori have claimed against the Crown and New Zealand government through the Waitangi Tribunal (a permanent commission tasked with redressing grievances relating to the Treaty of Waitangi). In 2020 this was concluded with a settlement of redress, including transfer of land and $18 million in compensation from the government. Remarkably this claim was centred on the failure to protect the Moriori and teaching subsequent generations that they were extinct. Nothing was demanded of the Māori. Scholars of genocide have held their nose and tentatively chipped in from the side-lines, quietly admitting that the Māori destruction of the Moriori counts as one of the worst genocides ever committed in history
Unsurprisingly perhaps, contemporary study of the invasion has attempted to partially shift the blame onto Europeans, for allowing a flow of arms into New Zealand, and for providing the Māori with the ‘ideological tools’ of racism in order to eradicate the Moriori:
The key point demonstrated by the Moriori experience is that perpetrators of genocides in the colonial sphere do not by necessity have to be colonial authorities or settlers. Colonialism can and did influence genocide between indigenous peoples as well as against them. On the Chatham Islands, colonialism shaped the broader context of warfare and population movement, introduced ideas and language of racial hierarchy to justify extermination and facilitated the encounter between Māori and Moriori. Colonial encounters motivated behaviour that diverged radically from Māori custom.
-‘The miserable remnant of this ill-used people’: colonial genocide and the Moriori of New Zealand's Chatham Islands. André Brett. 2015.
In the end, the Māori invasion should be seen for what it was, the expansion of a warrior people who held warfare and the ability to conquer in high esteem. Their response to the introduction of the musket was not inevitable, but perhaps predictable by anyone familiar with their pre-contact culture. The pacifism and survival of the Moriori speaks to a people which framed themselves as radically different from their neighbours, and they paid the ultimate price. If we can manage to examine and understand these types of events dispassionately, then we can gain a fuller picture of both the Māori and the Moriori and their temperaments and societies. It is a tale of both war and peace, militarism and pacifism, slavery and the freedom to take a boat and explore the world. It is human, all too human.