The Chatham Islands war


In late October of 1835, the calm waters of Port Nicholson belied a palpable tension onshore. This was most keenly felt amongst the people of Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutanga.

The relentless bloodletting of the preceding years of civil war; fought in the rolling pastures and hill lands of the Haowhenua; brought about by the disintegration of Te Rauparaha?s grand alliance of northern tribes, had finally begun to diffuse into an atmosphere of uneasy and exhausted peace.

No longer were the Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutanga to be troubled by the once numerous and traditional holders of the land: Ngati Ira, who had been virtually wiped out as a result of the great Southern Heke migrations.

But they were still surrounded on all sides by the sea: by the Ngati Kahungunu to the north-east, and the once more victorious Ngati Toa to the north-west.

They had heard however of another place with plentiful food and open lands. A place told to them by travellers of whaling and sealing vessels, far to the east where the people were soft and unassuming. It was called by the Maori Whare-kauri.

To the Europeans, these islands were known as the Chathams.

It was in this atmosphere that the British brig, the Lord Rodney was to unknowingly sail into, ultimately providing the means for one of the worst genocides in New Zealand?s history to take place. Total war was to rudely announce itself upon a tiny island, resting in a seemingly endless ocean.

The Lord Rodney weighed anchor near Matiu Island and its captain, a man by the name of Harwood, went ashore in order to barter for some pigs and potatoes.

During this discourse, Harwood found himself suddenly ?compelled? to allow his ship to be boarded by a large company of Maori who began to load numerous supplies and other articles of war on his humble vessel.

After Harwood objected: arguing that the safe and proper workings of the ship could not be met with such a multitude of passengers, it was agreed to take on half the number of stores and people and return for the rest at a later date. The ships second mate was left ashore to act as a hostage in order to guarantee the captain?s word.

On the 14th of November, the Lord Rodney departed Port Nicholson and three days later arrived in the waters of the Chatham Islands.

The roughly 500 Ngati Tama passengers who disembarked, made no delay in making their presence felt ashore by attacking and cannibalizing a few of the unsuspecting Moriori who had come down to the beach to make these visitors welcome. One 12-year-old girl was dispatched on the beach and her flesh was hung up on posts as a warning to others.

It was then that the ?Takahi? or ?walking of the land? began. Quote:

Parties of warriors armed with muskets, clubs and tomahawks, led by their chiefs, walked through Moriori tribal territories and settlements without warning, permission or greeting. If the districts were wanted by the invaders, they curtly informed the inhabitants that their land had been taken and the Moriori living there were now vassals.? ? Michael King (2000). Moriori: a people rediscovered. End quote.

On the 23rd of November, the Lord Rodney returned for its second and final offload of roughly 400 predominantly Ngati Mutanga passengers and assets which also included seven large Waka.

It soon became apparent to this second wave of invaders that the choicest and most desirable areas had already been taken and settled by the Ngati Tama.? This imbalance of favourable lands was to cause an ongoing frustration and tension which would inevitably lead to renewed conflict in the years to come.

But for now, the two tribes settled into their newly acquired lands and began to build settlements.

In the meantime, the Moriori attempted to manage this disruption as best they could.

Their way of life had always placed great importance on living peacefully alongside each other, and armed conflict was an alien concept.

They had named their homeland Rekohu or ?Misty Sun? and had never experienced the level of competition for resources and desperate need for survival which their mainland long-lost distant cousins had grown accustomed to.

A great meeting was called by the elders at Te Awapatiki on the central east coast, and despite the vociferous urging of the younger men, a decision was made to hold fast to their traditional custom of passivity and not attempt to fight back against this occupation.

This meeting, however, was chanced upon by two members of Ngati Tama: Nga Pe and Meremere, who quickly ran to report this presumed act of defiance and aggression to their kinsmen.

The inevitable result of this misunderstanding led to the brutal and ruthless campaign of killing and enslavement which was to follow.

Out of a population of around 1,600 Moriori who made this island home, close to 300 were killed in the first few days, mostly centred about the settlement of Waitangi.

The decision was made to prefer enslavement as opposed to killing, however, this merely proved to only delay an inevitable long-suffering death after years of desperate and humiliating servitude.

Indeed, perhaps those killed outright were looked upon in hindsight as the more fortunate.

By 1863 only 101 Moriori are reported to have been still alive in their ways and customs.



In late 1838, a full three years after the occupation, Ngati Tama themselves were to suffer heavily, at the hands of the French this time, in retaliation to an incident which occurred when a French Whaling vessel named the Jean Bart paid a visit to the island.

The Jean Bart had arrived in the seemingly calm and innocuous waters of Petre Bay in May of 1838, with the intention of taking on fresh provisions and perhaps partaking of some trade with the locals.

As usual, there had been some competition between Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutanga for the attention of a European ship who they wished to trade with. As Ngati Tama occupied the prime locations on the island of Waitangi and Kaingaroa, they were at an advantage, as these were the calmest and easiest ports of entry.

As the Jean Bart lay at anchor she was approached by Waka from both Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutanga, who both began to board her whilst at the same time arguing vociferously about who amongst them had first rights of trade.

It is not known how the dispute on board the Jean Bart escalated to involve the crew, but the inevitable result was that most of the ship’s company were killed. A small number were able to get away in a lifeboat and make it all the way to Pitt Island in the south where they presumably perished from either exposure or starvation.

Word of this incident was relayed back to the Bay of Islands on the 28th of September of the same year by Captain Ray of the American Whaling ship Rebecca Sims.

Upon hearing this news the French naval corvette Heroine, under the command of Captain Cecille, made sail with two others: the aforementioned Rebecca Sims; and another French Whaler named Adele, which was under the command of one Captain Walsh.

Upon arrival, revenge was swiftly carried out against the Ngati Tama who now found their once treasured prime location to ironically be also the most easily accessible path towards measured destruction at the hands of the virulent Europeans.

The loss of property, life and mana which resulted from this event, opened up an opportunity for Ngati Mutanga to seek redress against their past allies, as a steady war of attrition began for ultimate control of the island.

Ngati Tama attempted to offset their losses and claw back ascendancy by the building of Kaimataotao Pa, further inland on the banks of the Waitangi River.



In response, Ngati Mutanga built an opposing Pa directly opposite and began erecting a five-story high firing platform, in order to enable musket fire to be directed down into Ngati Tama?s protective enclosure.

Ngati Tama attempted to counter this threat by building their own tower however they were limited by their poor lack of supplies for such an endeavour. An elaborate series of trenches and earthworks were also put into place by both sides in order to maintain access to the nearby source of fresh water.

This desperate siege was to drag on for many months throughout the summer of 1839-1840 and well into the winter months ahead. Not much is known of this except some reports telling of Ngati Tama’s ferocious defence which was bolstered by the death of a major Ngati Mutanga rangatira by the name of Te Ahipaura.

This was the scene which met the members of the New Zealand Company who arrived at the island on board the Cuba in 1840.

Since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi; the tightening up of land sale procedures had been codified into law, with the Crown now taking the first right of refusal.

This change of legal landscape had left the privately owned New Zealand Company struggling to make a profit.

As the Chathams lay outside of this newly appointed Governments remit, a ship had been sent in the hopes of acquiring the very last vestiges of land still open for private sale and settlement.

After liaising with both warring parties, the decision was made by the opposing Rangatira to cease all further hostilities, allowing the sale of portions of land, providing a tidy profit for the erstwhile neighbours and also creating buffer zones to discourage any future disagreements.

This ended the rather strange and seldom mentioned war for the Chatham Islands.

A war whose flames had sputtered into life infrequently over a period of five years: interspersed between times of relative calm; involving the complete annihilation of an entire race of uniquely unfortunate people, and only ceasing with the introduction of Europeans who were looking to make a fast profit in an ever diminishing market of opportunity.



Michael King (2000) Moriori: a people rediscovered.

Ron Crosby (1999) The Musket Wars: a history of inter-iwi conflict.