In November and December 1835, the brig Rodney carried two shiploads of Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama Maori from Port Nicholson to Chatham Island: around 900 men, women and children in all (with 78 tonnes of seed potatoes, 20 pigs and seven canoes).
They landed at Whangaroa, took time to recover from the voyage, being nursed and fed by local Moriori, and then began to formally takahiwalk the land—to claim it according to their tikanga or custom. They ritually killed around 300 Moriori to confirm this claim.
“We were terrified,” a survivor, Minarapa, told a government agent thirty years later. “We fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, and in any place to escape . . . It was of no avail; we were discovered and killed, men, women and children . . . .”
The 1300 survivors were enslaved and forbidden to marry, speak their language or practise their culture. “Men were separated from women, parents from children, older children from younger children, and the strings of their heart quivered,” Moriori petitioners told Governor George Grey in 1862.
Moriori tikanga forbade fighting, even in self-defence. Consequently, they became a subjugated and demoralised people for the next 27 years.
Ernst Dieffenbach, who visited the Chathams in 1840, noted that they were “the labourers and porters of their masters, who have no notion of anything like moderation in the labour they exact; so that ulcerated backs bent almost double, and emaciated paralytic limbs, with diseased lungs, are the ordinary lot of these ill-fated wretches, to whom death must be a blessing.”
Most Moriori took advantage of that “blessing.” By the time the slaves were released in 1862, Moriori numbers had plummeted to around 160—one-tenth of the 1835 population. The islands had been annexed to New Zealand in 1842, but it took a further twenty years before Moriori were given anything resembling the same rights and privileges that Maori and Pakeha enjoyed on the mainland.
In 1870, after eight years of agitation by Moriori survivors for redress for the wrongs done to them, the Native Land Court sat in Waitangi to hear competing claims for the islands lodged by Maori and Moriori. Moriori took it for granted that “British justice” would restore what had been taken from them by force. They contested the Maori assertion of ownership of the islands by conquest on the ground that Moriori, according to the dictates of their tikanga, had not fought; where there was no fighting there could be no conquest.
The Native Land Court Judge, John Rogan, was deaf to Moriori arguments. As he saw it, he was a New Zealand official sitting in a New Zealand court. And the Native Land Court on the mainland based its decisions on tikanga Maori; it applied the so-called 1840 rule, which required judges to give primary weight to circumstances as they were at the time of British annexation of New Zealand—not before.
Judge Rogan found in favour of the Maori claimants. He awarded them ownership of some 97 per cent of the islands’ territory, reserving a mere 2.7 per cent for the subsistence of the unsuccessful Moriori litigants.
This decision was a blow almost as crushing to the morale of Moriori as the 1835 invasion itself had been. They tried in 1885 to win ownership of the offshore birding islands, but these were deemed to have been awarded to Maori in the 1870 decision.
Without the redress they had expected, and without adequate economic resources to support a cultural and demographic recovery, Moriori numbers continued to decline: there were 27 left in 1889, 12 in 1900, six in 1904 and two by 1922. Tommy Solomon was the last.
These figures were, of course, misleading. They referred, as did Maori statistics of the time, to people of so-called “pure blood.” And while the number of “pure blood” Moriori was falling rapidly, Moriori of “mixed blood” were increasing slowly. The Riwais, the Solomons, the Tamihanas and others all had Moriori-Maori descendants and eventually Moriori-Maori-Pakeha descendants. The Davises had Moriori-Negro-Amerindian descendants. Many of these, particularly the Solomons and Preeces, continued to identify as Moriori. Many did not: some because it was more advantageous to be regarded as Maori; others because they were persuaded that Moriori had indeed been an inferior people, and that such ancestry was a source of shame.