Chatham Islands

The small group of islands some 860 kms south east of Wellington, today has a population of about 650 people, of mixed ethnicity.

Chatham Islands as it is known, has just two inhabited islands, Chathams (Rēkohu) and Pitt (Rangihaute or Rangiauria), and a number of other smaller islands, such as South East (Rangatira), Mangere, Little Mangere (Tapuenuku), Star Keys (Motuhope) Rabbit Island, The Sisters (Rangitatahi) and the Forty Fours (Motchuhar).

Rangihaute (Pitt Island) today has just forty people living on it.

The islands were named after the British brig ‘Chatham’ commanded  by Lieutenant Broughton, who discovered the islands in 1791 after being blown off course. The HMS Chatham was itself named after the 1st Earl of Chatham (the late William Pitt who had been the 1st Earl of Chatham and also served as Prime Minister of England)

They landed at Kaingaroa and briefly interacted with the “natives” living there. At one point, the natives became quite threatening and Broughton’s men had to fire their weapons to scare them away.

Unfortunately, one man, Tamakaroro, was hit by the gunfire and died. Broughton charted only the northern coast of the Chathams before departing for Tahiti.

You can read a copy of the ships log here where this interaction is covered in more detail.

The islands also enjoyed the luxury of yet another name; The Cornwallis Islands

In 1807 the Royal Navy vessel ‘Cornwallis’ passed 12 miles south of Pitt Island and claimed discovery of all of the southern islands The islands were then briefly known as the Cornwallis Islands.

By this stage word had reached around the globe of the island’s existence and of the numerous seals to be had there. By the end of 1810 visits by European sealing vessels were a common sight and estimates were made that between 1804 and 1844, the “renewable seal population went from 20,000, to very few”.

By 1830 there were over 40 European settlers living on the Islands. Some made their living from sealing, others from selling supplies to the visiting boats. Some had Moriori wives. Some were escaped convicts. One was a shipwrecked sailor who decided to stay. Some Māori men and women from Taranaki also lived among these Europeans.

The European settlers spread out and eventually there were small settlements at many places on Chatham Island. Life was not always easy for the settlers and provisions such as flour, sugar and salt could only be acquired from visiting ships.

Some settlers raised pigs, flour and potatoes for trade and for a while the islands were known as the gardens of the Pacific, as they supplied Sydney, Wellington, Auckland and San Francisco.

Mail was erratic and it could take many months to reach its destination. Several ships were wrecked around the Chathams and many lives were lost.

Between 1840 and 1868, there were 34 recorded shipwrecks.

Clothing and utensils were not easily replaced, or bought and many settlers made their own tools and clothing. By the mid 1840s there were settlers on Pitt Island as well as at Kaingaroa, Owenga and Waitangi.

There was a resident magistrate, and several large farms on the islands. Many farmers employed Māori workers. Some farms were bought from Māori landowners and some were leased. One farmer, Chudleigh, leased over 30,00 acres of farmland.

The Europeans bought firearms with them and these had a devastating effect on the birdlife, as did the dogs, cats and rats that accompanied them, either as pets or stowaways.

Whilst this would have had destroyed traditional food sources for the Moriori, the Europeans simply relied more on their own farm produce for food.

Getting supplies on and off the islands could often be extremely dangerous and hard work.  There were no wharves or jetties, so farmers often had to row their bales of wool out to waiting ships, through the surf and against the tides.

Land eventually became more available for purchase and many thousands or acres were sold to European farmers between 1850 and 1870.

In 1881 the first official school opened on Chatham Island and in 1896 on Pitt Island.

There was a thriving township at Waitangi, with a post office, hotel and shop.

Missionaries had moved to the islands in 1842 and some settled there in 1843.

Rangihaute (Pitt Island) was also known as Pitt’s Island and called Rangiauria by the invading Māori .

Have a look at this page for a quick wordsearch on well-known Chatham Islands names and places.

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