Myths and Mistruths

Since the ‘discovery’ of Rēkohu by Europeans in 1791 myths and mis-truths have been spread about the origins of the indigenous inhabitants (Te Imi Moriori) of these islands on the edge of the world, about their lifestyles, their customs and traditons, about their status as a people and as recently as 2019, about their rights under Tiriti o Waitangi!

From that fateful day in 1791, scientists of various fields have descended on the far-flung islands to observe and study this unique people. After the slaughter in 1835, bodies, skulls, teeth and various body parts were removed to places as far afield as England or Germany, for study, cataloguing and classifying, with no regard for the tapu (sacredness) of the persons, nor for their burial customs and needs .

Logo - BrandMuch has been made about the origins of Moriori, with many claiming that they were in fact “Maruiwi or Māori-ori”, driven from mainland New Zealand by the arrival of the ancestors of modern Māori about 1300 A.D.

Another version of this twisted history claims that they were the infamous Moa Hunters of Southern New Zealand, exiled to Rēkohu by the much stronger and more aggressive Ngai Tahu invaders of the South Island. (You’d think that would be easy to prove as they would have taken ‘moa-tools’ with them?)

An addition to this theory (and remember, theses theories are all proposed by respectable ‘scientists’ of the day, not just rumour and innuendo) was that Moriori were the original inhabitants of New Zealand, chased out / displaced by the arrival of the aggressive Māori.

A real favourite of many: They (Moriori) never actually existed. They are a Pākehā invention to justify the European colonialism and oppression of Māori. This one also persists well into the 21st century.

Even the government-published school journals, back in 1916 (17 years before the death of Tame Horomona Rehe) maligned and mis-characterised the Moriori;

They were oceans waifs, occupying three canoes which had been carried away by a storm…. They had a habit of looking sideways out of the corners of their eyes, and  were an indolent and chilly folk, fond of hugging the fireside.

What needs to be considered when addressing any of these myths and falsehoods is the purpose behind each statement. Why would anyone want to perpetuate a myth that erroneously fabricates the origin of a people, many of which still persist in New Zealand society today? Who benefits from such outright lies and falsehoods?

Why would it matter to anyone whether Moriori arrived on Rēkohu via New Zealand (and when?) or direct from Polynesia?   A few facts though, just to balance out some of the myths.

Logo - BrandNumber 1: The ‘race’ that Moriori belong to is the human race.

Number 2: Moriori are ethnically Polynesian in origin.

Number 3: Moriori share similar ancestors with Māori

Number 4: Moriori share similar traditions and histories with Māori.

Number 5: Moriori are of Polynesian background, as are Māori, Tongans, Hawaiians and Samoans and Rapanuians.

Well known scholar, ethnographer (and historian), Elsdon Best had this to say in 1915 about the Maruiwi, from whom he believed the Moriori were descended;

. . . in appearance their folk are said to have been tall slim build, dark skin, having big or protuberant bones, flat faced, flat nosed, with upturned nostrils, their eyes are curiously restless and they had a habit of glancing sideways without turning the head, the hair in some cases stood upright, in others it was bushy.

Whilst Elsdon best and Percy Smith contributed to the misconceptions (by the public) of Moriori, another writer, born on Rēkohu also had an impact. William Baucke,  linguist, ethnologist, journalist and interpreter reinforced the stereotypes with a series of articles which were published in the NZ Herald in 1922:

 Just consider the creature . . . hirsute, smoke grimed, his summer dress either the skin he was born in with a loin mat for decency . . . and in the winter a seamless sealskin around his shoulders and encircling his waist.

He goes on to state:

. . . reeking of the putrid foods he loved so well . . . and a brute appetite for food, sex and sleep.

William Baucke was born on Rēkohu, and raised among Pākehā, Māori and Moriori children. He could speak fluently in English, German, te reo and re (Māori and moriori).

It should be noted that he was born 13 years after the invasion by Te Ati Awa in 1835 and at a time when there were very few Moriori left. Those that were left were living with the knowledge that everything that they had known was being destroyed and that once they passed away, that would probably be the end of their people.

It should also be noted that his early writings were not so acidic towards Moriori and some of it provided a unique glimpse into some customs and traditions. It was his later writings, composed once he was living in the mainland of New Zealand with his Māori wife, that seemed to be inconsistent with his earlier publications.

The Polynesian Society Journal has many articles about the history of the Moriori from the turn of the century onwards, but the writers rely heavily on uncorroborated informers. Many of the articles point to the probability of Moriori arriving at Rēkohu in their own waka at the time of the peopling of Aotearoa.

An interesting description of the Moriori is the observation by Captain William Broughton of H.M.S. The Chatham who “discovered” the islands in 1791. He provided us with the earliest description of the Moriori;

. . . the men were of middling size, some stoutly made, well limbed and fleshy. Their hair, both of the head and beard was black and by some, worn long. Young men had it tied up in a knot on the crown of their heads, intermixed with black and white feathers. Their skins, of a dark brown complexion were destitute of any marks (tattoo).

MYTH: When Māori discovered and invaded Rēkohu in 1835 the Moriori fought back, but lost and the conquerors took everything, which is what happened to Māori in New Zealand.

A couple of points worth noting here:

  1. Māori did not discover Rēkohu. They became aware of Rēkohu, the resources there and of the pacifist people when one of their people traveled there on a sealer’s ship in 1832-33 (possibly the ship was called the Bee.’). Ngāti Mutunga Chief, Matioro certainly caused chaos among the local Moriori with his first visit to Ocean Bay in 1832-33
  2. When Māori invaded Rēkohu in 1835, they did so using a chartered European Sailing ship, which took two voyages to transport the 900 men, women and children there from Port Nicholson (Wellington).
  3. Moriori had a pacifist belief and did not, nor would not fight back. Their covenant of peace had stood them in good stead for hundreds of years and although younger warriors wanted to resist the invasion, once it was obvious what was happening, the elders ruled against that course of action knowing that breaking their own beliefs would be worse than what was to come.
  4. Moriori could have defended themselves. Their young men did train in the use of weapons, so they knew how to wield them. They outnumbered the invaders, weakened by their sea voyage and they knew the land better.
  5. As they did not fight back, there was no ‘fight or battle’ so they were not ‘conquered’ and consequently there was no loss of mana by Moriori.
  6. Māori didn’t lose New Zealand to the Pākehā. Much of it was sold. Yes, there were confiscations of land, but the vast majority was sold. It is important to acknowledge that the concept of ownership is a point of contention, even today, but it is also worth noting that there is plenty of literature that supports the contention that many Māori benefited from commerce and trade with the early settlers and encouraged the arrival of potential customers.

MYTH: The Māori land court sittings in 1868 1870 and 1872 rewarded Moriori with what they were entitled to as there were very few of them left by then and the Māori landowners were numerous.

FACT:  by the time of the first native land court hearing on Rēkohu in 1862, the Moriori population of the islands was a mere 101 people of known Moriori ethnicity.*

FACT: The known number of Māori present on the islands at the time of the land court hearings was less than 100 and possibly as few as 20-30 odd people. The remainder had returned to Taranaki to argue their cases for land confiscations, dispossession and loss in their tribal homelands.

FACT: For whatever political reasons, the hearings found in favour of Māori, awarding them over 97% of all available lands under claim. Moriori were ignored and awarded a mere 2.7%

*What wasn’t recorded then though,  was the number of half-caste Moriori children born between the period 1835 – 1933.
MYTH: The death of Tame Horomoana Rehe in 1933 was the end of the Moriori.

Fact: Tame Horomoana Rehe (known as Tommy Solomon) was a successful farmer and prominent businessman. His physical size and jovial character attracted attention wherever he went.

Fact: Mainland people did consider him to be the last Moriori alive. The only survivor of 22 children who died in infancy. He spoke both fluent Māori and English.

Fact: When Tommy Solomon died on March the 19th, 1933, he was survived by his wife, Whakarewa Rehe and their five children.

Fact: His death received very little attention on the mainland. Brief obituary notices appearing in the press of the day are the only historical recording of a major event in New Zealand history.

MYTH: Moriori were a simple, uncivilized, lazy, idle and overweight people.  This popular myth comes from the later writings of William Baucke, from the public school texts and from repeated editorials and dissertations of passing experts, many of whom never met anyone of Moriori extraction, and fewer who would have done so, prior to the invasion by mainland Māori.

Fact: For hundreds of years prior to the arrival of Europeans on the scene, Moriori were spread out throughout the two main islands of Rēkohu (Rēkohu and Rangihaute)  in as many as 40 small settlements. They had a number of campsites that were seasonal and related to specific food sources in each locality, or located for specific weather directions. They depended heavily on the fur seal population for food and clothing and bone tools and they also caught birds and fish and gathered native plants and kopi berries to supplement their diet. This hunter-gather existence is not for the faint-hearted, nor for the “lazy and idle.”

Fact: They were industrious, calculating and technologically proficient. The quality of their tools and craft that they painstakingly manufactured were ideally suited to this unique and often harsh environment.

Fact: Their ability to adapt from their sub-tropical Polynesian homeland to a sub-antarctic setting underlines how adaptable and tenacious they were.

Fact: They shrewdly developed a number of tapu (sacred rules), most of which were related to the environment. This ensured that there would be no over-fishing and that harvesting resources would always ensure there the stocks would remain at a sustainable level.

Fact: Social conditions, rules and behaviours were also subject to tapu.

Fact: Leadership of groups  or tribes was decided by ability, rather than familial lines.

MYTH: NZ Māori killed and ate all of the Moriori.

The invasion by Te Ati Awa sub-tribes, Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama in 1835 was indeed the beginning of the ‘end’ for Moriori. But did they eat them all?

Fact: When the two sub tribes of Te Ati Awa invaded the islands in 1835 the Moriori population had already shrunk to 1663 people, down from an estimated 2000-2500 people only 44 years earlier.

It is estimated that the contact with European sealers and whalers over that preceding 40 odd years caused the deaths of many of those that passed away in that time period.

Fact: Moriori, by their isolation had no immunity to  common European diseases, viruses and infections. Influenza and measles and other common European complaints accounted for many lives. Moriori quickly succumbed as the diseases spread swiftly.

Fact: At the same time, huge numbers of seals were slaughtered by the predominantly English and American sealers, causing the remaining seals to abandon their traditional rookeries, driven to the off-shore islands and inaccessible reefs and outcrops beyond the reach of Moriori.

In 1835 when the Māori arrived, the Moriori population numbered just 1663. The population was already under pressure and the resources they depended on were being pillaged by an ignorant and greedy force.

Fact: When Māori decided to ‘takahi’ (walk the land), killing or enslaving all in their path, Moriori were devastated. Their tapu was broken. sacred sites were desecrated. Human lives were taken. Māori (as was their tradition back in Aotearoa) raped, killed and stamped their authority over the islands as brutally and as finally as possible.

It is estimated that some 300 Moriori were killed in that initial rampage. Many were eaten in ceremonial rites and feasts and many more were left where they were slaughtered.

Fact: Records indicate that there were some 1200 Moriori left alive after the initial carnage. ALL of these were hunted down, rounded up and enslaved. The decline of these people was rapid. By 1862 there was just 101 Moriori alive on Rēkohu.

Most believed their gods had deserted them and consequently many died of despair.

Fact: The answer then, is that Māori didn’t kill (and eat) all 1663 Moriori, but their actions and the in-actions of the Pākehā authorities certainly led to the demise of Moriori.

MYTH: The arrival of the great fleet of migrating Māori to Aotearoa and the conquering and displacement of Mauriwi by the dominant and more aggressive and industrious Māori justified the Pākehā taking of the Māori land, because of the alleged treatment of the Moriori.

Logo - Brand1. It is now considered safe to publicly decry the great fleet migration as an event that never happened. If that is the case, then the vanquishing of anyone from the mainland to Rēkohu cannot have occurred either.

2. The Moriori were not a defeated or inferior lot of refugees from the mainland, but people from (East?) Polynesia who found their way to Rēkohu and adapted themselves to their new environment.

3. Recent estimates (by more accurate methods of archeology) tend to suggest that  some Moriori did indeed ‘transit’ through Aotearoa, but well before the arrival of early Māori. Possibly 100 – 150 years earlier.


MYTH: With the passing of Tame Horomona Rehe (Tommy Solomon) it was reported as:

“Now he is gone, and the race, as a race, is extinct.”

Not true.

Fact: The Moriori are not and have never claimed to be a different race. They are a different people, of Polynesian extraction, sharing similar genealogies with Māori, but they are not a different race. The race to which they belong, is the human race.

They (Moriori) are also NOT extinct. The descendants of Rongomaiwhenua are alive and well and continue to survive and thrive on Rēkohu, across Aotearoa and around the globe. And that’s a fact!