A Long History
What’s most interesting about the Chatham Islands is perhaps not how old their population is–they were settled relatively recently in human history, and much of the island’s population self-identifies as being of European descent today–but how well that history has been preserved. When European settlers first arrived, the Maori people, who alone occupied the island, still lived much as they had when they first arrived a few hundred years earlier–which for them, meant an almost Stone Age existence. Though European settlement displaced native settlements in many other places where they showed up, the Chathams were too small for major industry, and too out of the way to provide much strategic advantage. As such, the island’s culture remains far more intact than that of other places, like New Zealand, where European settlement was more complete.
In the Beginning
Human beings are thought to have first arrived in the Chathams around the year 1500. These were Polynesian tribes, believed to have originated in New Zealand. There remains some confusion about just whence these peoples came–some theorize that they actually came from Polynesian Islands, but this theory has little support in the modern era.
There was little room for agriculture, and the climate differed greatly from most of the nearby landmasses, so these people–who came to be known as Moriori–lived as hunter-gatherers and fishermen, surviving off of local flora, and hunting the island’s native pigs and catching crayfish.
Because the island was so small, warfare was potentially deadly to their population. It is believed that years of bloodshed led to a significant reduction in the population. Chief Nunuku unified the island and banned all forms of violence. Disputes were resolved among the tribe as a whole. Dueling was also permitted, but it was a non-lethal form of dueling, that was brought to a stop the moment one of the fighters was injured.
The first Europeans to set foot on the island arrived in 1791 on the HMS Chatham–from which the modern-day islands take their name. Captain William R. Broughton was the head of the Vancouver Expedition, and he claimed the islands for England when he arrived. Diseases brought by the Europeans, to which the Moriori were largely susceptible, killed off approximately twenty percent of the population over the course of the next fifty years.
Hunters and whalers arrived shortly thereafter, and the Chathams officially began exporting fish to the outside world. These industries, however, soon decimated the local populations, and the seals hunted by the Europeans nearly went extinct. Absent any commercial motivation to continue fishing around the islands, the Europeans ceased their fishing activities after this, and so the islands’ whale and seal populations were restored. Today, the island boasts a healthy seal population, and whales again swim the waters around the islands.
In 1835, Maori invaders arrived on the island. They had taken a British ship hostage, and boarded it. They sailed to the Chathams, where they proceeded to massacre the population, killing off nearly a quarter of the island’s 2,000 inhabitants. They ate the dead Moriori, who tried to pursue a policy of non-violence. The island’s population were largely peaceful people; this left them ill-prepared for an invasion.
It was not until European commercial vessels arrived to buy land for settlement that the dispute was resolved. The Europeans brokered a truce, and today the descendants of Maori and Moriori live in relative peace and harmony on the island.
Today, the island has returned to its largely peaceful state. The locals, a mix of European and native descendants, live a primarily agricultural existence, hunting the local pigs, fishing the waters around the island–primarily for crayfish–and hosting the few tourists that come to the island to experience its old-time way of life.