East to the Chathams

February 6, 2020
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IF you’ve heard of New Zealand, then you probably know that the country has a North Island and a South Island. But did you know there’s an east island as well?

More precisely, an archipelago called the Chathams, which are to New Zealand what the Falklands, or Malvinas, are to Argentina. They’re mostly rather low, flat, covered in sheep and continentally attached to the rest of New Zealand even though they’re hundreds of kilometres out to sea. As you can see!

Background map data ©2020 Google

The big island is called Chatham Island, the second-largest is Pitt Island. There are lots of smaller islands as well. The economy revolves around sheep-farming and fishing. There are several fish-factories on the islands, which have a permanent population of about 600. They also get a few tourists, but not many.

Geologically, the Chathams are part of a great, mostly-submerged continental mass called Te Riu-a-Māui / Zealandia. The North and South Islands of New Zealand are really the main dividing range of Te Riu-a-Māui / Zealandia; which continues for vast distances in all directions under the sea at a depth of a few hundred metres.

Map by GNS Science / Te Pū Ao, 2019

Te Riu-a-Māui / Zealandia pops up further east to form the Chathams; an archipelago which is also covered, like Auckland, with many small volcanic cones one or two or three hundred metres high. Some of the offshore islands, like Mangere Island, are also isolated volcanic cones.

Conservation areas and roadways are based on the NZ Dept of Conservation brochure, Chatham Islands walks, November 2018

I’d always wanted to go to the Chathams. Why? Because it was there! But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. There are goods ships that sail periodically from ports on the North and South Islands, and also an airline called Air Chathams, that flies once a week from each of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

I flew to the Chathams in a Convair 580, a rugged and powerful aircraft of a type that was first designed in the 1940s.

In spite of its age, the Convair can still eat up the distance a lot faster than most of today’s twin-prop commuters.

Coming in to land over Petre Bay

Te Whaanga Lagoon and a couple of smaller lakes
Landed at Chatham Islands / Tuuta Airport

Though they’re hot ships, as the first generation of pilots to fly them would have said, it is, sadly, a fact that the Convairs are getting on a bit. They won’t be on the route much longer.

The plan for life after the Convairs is to upgrade the islands’ airport, named after indigenous community leader Inia William Tuuta, to take modern twin-jets like the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. That might give a big boost to local tourism and render the islands somewhat less exotic. And that’s another reason to take the Convair while you still can.

As to why the Chathams are above the waves and the rest of Te Riu-a-Māui / Zealandia isn’t, apart from the main islands of New Zealand which are its dividing range plus New Caledonia (another mountain range) plus a few other island groups, the answer lies in a local uplift.

The Chathams used to be on the sea bed like nearly all of the rest of Te Riu-a-Māui / Zealandia. But they are rising by one metre every thousand years. There are lots of marine features in the landscape if you know what to look for. These include pillow-shaped lava which forms underwater, and mountains with flat tops, scraped flat by the waves of long-gone days. Basically, you’re looking at a sea-bottom where the water has been replaced by air.

PBS Video about Pillow Lava formation

The Chathams are possibly most famous, in New Zealand, for the fact that they have two sets of indigenous people. The first population, called the Moriori, were a Polynesian people related to the Māori but not quite the same.

The Moriori were a peaceful people who had outlawed warfare among themselves at the urging of a lawgiver named Nunuku. They settled intractable disputes by means of ritual combat which ceased, however, at the first sign of blood.

The Moriori referred to the largest of the Chatham Islands as Rēkohu, meaning the misty island.

The peaceful ways of the Moriori were symbolised by white albatross feathers; a form of decoration which also had great prestige with the Māori.

After about four hundred years of peace, the Chathams were invaded in the 1830s by Māori from the region of Taranaki, in the North Island.

In those days, the world of the Māori — Te Ao Māori — had fallen into a state of violent anarchy triggered by the coming of the European and those European inventions called firearms, money, prostitution and rum. A painting of the rather sudden end of a British trading vessel called the Boyd, its powder magazine accidentally set off while it was being robbed, captures someting of the piratical flavour of those times.

Louis John Steele (1889) The Blowing up of the Boyd (Te Papa, Wellington). Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons.

Though there were to be later conflicts between Māori and land-hungry settlers, life in New Zealand nonetheless became more organised and stable after the 1835–39 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in February 1840. A landscape riven with tribal feuds was now becoming a political nation for which the Māori name Aotearoa, meaning long twilight or long white cloud, would also soon come into use.

The Feathers of Peace

It was in the lawless years before the Treaty that some Taranaki Māori, uprooted and brutalised by decades of war, commandeered a European ship and set sail for the Chathams, intent on conquering a distant land far out into the ocean that they’d heard to be rich and fertile.

If this sounds like a chapter from the life of Erik the Red, founder of the Norse colony on Greenland, or Leif Ericsson who made it all the way to Vinland (America), well, you wouldn’t be the first to think so. In the twentieth century, a Māori anthropologist named Te Rangi Hiroa, also known as Sir Peter Buck, would describe his people, and the Polynesians generally, as the ‘Vikings of the Sunrise’.

Image of the cover of ‘Vikings of the Sunrise‘ (1938) from Researchgate, CC-BY-4.0

Perhaps that’s the best way to look at the Māori conquest of the Chathams, which they in turn called Wharekauri. It’s basically the sort of thing that went on in the Viking era.

Unfortunately, just as might have happened once a boatload of Vikings made landfall on an island inhabited by peaceful monks, two or three hundred of the unfortunate Moriori were soon massacred and the survivors enslaved.

After a while, and as Europeans also began to colonise the Chathams, life on the islands assumed a more moderate character. In particular, the Māori settlers ultimately came to be impressed by the peaceful ways of the Moriori.

A historian named E. C. Richards once wrote that by the mid-1880s, some fifty years after the conquest, there was only one Māori on the Chathams not as yet converted to the doctrines of pacifism and the white feather. Just like the original Vikings, who in due course became Scandinavians, these Vikings of the Sunrise had also turned into a more amiable sort of folk.

By the 1870s, some of the increasingly peaceable Māori on the Chathams — the original conquerors having mostly died off by this stage, of course — began to make a return migration to Taranaki. It seems this return migration helped to spread the pacifist idea and the idea of the white feather as a symbol of peace in Taranaki.

There’s some debate as to exactly how philosophies of peaceful resistance arose among the Māori of the 1870s and 1880s. These philosophies were practiced not only in Taranaki among the relatives of the Chatham Islands Māori, but also among the distant Waitaha people of the South Island, who were driven out of Ōmārama in 1879 and down the Waitaki River, the aptly named ‘water of tears’, in an episode I didn’t get to hear about when I was there.

To what extent was Māori pacifism homegrown in its own locality, as opposed to being inspired by the Moriori? This is still unsettled.

Though things were starting to look up for the Moriori by the 1870s, the ‘full-blooded’ population continued to dwindle through intermarriage with the other populations on the islands, which now included a growing number of Europeans. This went on until until the last Moriori of unmixed parentage, a popular community leader called Tame Horomana Rehe, or Tommy Solomon, died in 1930.

‘The last full-blooded Moriori’ (‘Thomas Solomon’). Image dated 1 January 1925, New Zealand Free Lance, Ref: PAColl-5469–048. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22848655. Public domain image, original link, via Wikimedia Commons.

People say that Tame Horomana Rehe, to give him his original name, was the last Moriori and that thereafter they were extinct. In reality his people live on, admittedly now as folk of mixed parentage. There is a Moriori Marae or meeting-house at Te Kopinga; those who identify with the Māori community have their marae at Te One, the Whakamaharatanga Marae.

A very good documentary about the Moriori, called The Feathers of Peace, was made in the year 2000. Unfortunately it’s not online. But it should be.

Cover imagery for The Feathers of Peace on the website of The New Zealand Film Commission. Crown copyright reserved.

Meanwhile, in mainland New Zealand, the new political nation got off to a rocky start. Renewed warfare broke out between Māori and settlers anxious to take Maori land: a civil war, in effect.

In the 1880s, at a Taranaki locality called Parihaka, under the huge and beautiful Mount Taranaki which gives its name to the whole region, sixteen hundred New Zealand Government troops led by a fire-eater called John Bryce turned up to evict a community leader named Te Whiti o Rongomai, and his followers.

Bryce’s Encampment at Parihaka. Photograph from the Alexander Turnbull Library, via Kennedy Warne, ‘Why wasn’t I told?’, New Zealand Geographic, issue 142, Nov-Dec 2016.

Te Whiti was a close relative of the Māori conquerors of the Chathams and knew of the Moriori philosophy of peaceful resistance.

When Te Whiti’s Māori followers refused to engage Bryce’s force in battle (while continuing to engage in forms of sabotage and obstruction that didn’t result in anyone actually getting hurt), Bryce and his troops began to be mocked by the Pākehā (British and European) settlers themselves, for what now seemed like an absurd and expensive over-reaction. The saying, ‘what if they gave a war and nobody came?’ really does capture the final moments of Bryce’s career as an ‘Indian fighter’.

The Lyttelton Star’s take on the story, from From Vincent O’Malley, ‘The Invasion of Parihaka, 5 November 1881: An Eyewitness Account’, 5 November 2012, on The Meeting Place — A New Zealand History Blog. The Star’s correspondent styled Bryce as “the generalissimo.”

There’s a great 1989 song about Te Whiti by Tim Finn and the Māori reggae band, Herbs. Here’s a recording, with lyrics, the exact meaning of which is explained here.

Examples like that of the Moriori, the conversion of the Māori on the Chathams to pacifism, Parihaka, and the pacifism of the Waitaha people in the South as well, show that the culture of indigenous New Zealanders is by no means fixed in a ‘warrior’ ’groove. In fact I’d go further and say that holding such a belief is the litmus-test of racism NZ-style.

As a form of unconscious racism it’s endemic, in ways that endless performances of the haka and media tropes of warrior culture probably contribute to.

And it’s an article of faith among those more consciously anti-Māori as well. The latter tar Māori with the brush of the 1830s massacre on the Chathams to this day, as in Bruce Moon’s 2013 newspaper column ‘Parihaka posturing glosses over history of savagery’ for instance; as if nothing of consequence had happened since or as if the perpetrators were not creatures of a rather distant time.

But here’s the most amazing thing.

Just as the Moriori inspired Te Whiti, it seems that, in turn, Te Whiti’s methods were passed on to a youthful Mohandas K. Gandhi, the future campaigner for Indian independence so famous for his nonviolent ways, by two Irish people who had spent time with Te Whiti at Parihaka.

There’s a statue of Gandhi outside the Wellington railway station. Some say that, in view of many New Zealanders’ ignorance with regard to their own history, it should really be a statue of Te Whiti! Or Nunuku, perhaps?

The statue of Gandhi outside the Wellington Railway Station, photo by ‘Schwede66' (2014), CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In any case, what this tells us is that the martyrdom of the Moriori wasn’t completely in vain. Ultimately, the downtrodden first nation of these remote islands, slaves of Māori who were themselves dispossessed, shook up the whole British Empire. As the saying goes, a spark can light a forest fire.

My first day

And so these were the remarkable islands that I had come to! No mere specks in the ocean, but places where history had been made.

My original plan had been to camp on the islands for three weeks and travel about, but it turned out that there weren’t any official campsites on the islands. I took that as meaning that I wouldn’t be allowed to camp anywhere and changed my plans accordingly.

After I got to the islands, I was told by a Department of Conservation ranger that I would have been allowed to camp on the Department of Conservation sites shown in green on the map above, many of which come with toilet facilities as well.

A DOC brochure called Chatham Islands walks gives details about facilities; though it doesn’t make clear that you can camp on the Department’s land. In fact, nowhere does it say anything about camping. Or huts, for that matter.

This is an aspect of travel to the Chathams that I was to run into again and again. Although the islands have many small mountains and overland hiking trails, they aren’t set up for solo travellers, campers or backpackers.

Everything is based on the assumption that you’ll be part of a package tour group, paying $3,000 or so to fly out there and stay in formal accommodation like the Chathams Hotel for a few nights. That I was just going to wander around and do my own thing seemed to be regarded as vaguely scandalous and unheard-of.

Not knowing I could camp, I tried to book formal accommodation only to find it was all closed over Christmas! The family values of the Chathams extend to that, as well.

So, my long holiday was out of the question, so I thought. I rebooked for the post-New Year period, from the 6th to the 13th of January this year.

I spent my first night at the Chathams Hotel in Waitangi, the capital of the islands. The Chathams Hotel is owned by the Croon family, who own quite a lot of the accomodationn on the islands, and managed by Toni Croon. I was picked up at the airport by a lovely Italian woman named Francesca who worked in the hotel’s office. Francesca had fallen in love with the hotel’s chef, Kai, and had been living and working on the Chathams for six years.

There was a group from Whanganui at the hotel, on their last day before they took the flight back. There are a lot of group tours passing through the Chathams Hotel. People pay $3,000 to come for five days and four nights, and it’s well worth it. Airfares, food, accommodation, guided local tours and everything, basically, apart from a trip to Pitt Island which you have to organise yourself if you want to go there.

Toni took the group, plus myself, north to the Henga Scenic Reserve, where I walked around in some amazingly freaky forest and along a stormy beach. Here are some photos, and two videos, that I took at Henga.

This is what the landscape looked like along the roads.

Finally we arrived at the settlement of Wharekauri on the north coast, where there is a remarkable formation of pillow lava called the ‘Splatter Rocks’.

‘Splatter Rock’ (actually pillow lava) at Wharekauri

I video I made of the pillow lava at Wharekauri

To be continued . . .


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