Rēkohu and histories of violence

Rēkohu—known in English as the Chatham Islands and in te reo Māori as Wharekauri—is a small archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, some 870 kilometres east of New Zealand. The indigenous inhabitants are the Moriori people, who are descended from or closely related to the same East Polynesians who became Māori in New Zealand. They arrived on Rēkohu by the fifteenth century and probably earlier.

It is essential to be clear from the outset: Moriori are not a pre-Māori race driven from mainland New Zealand by Māori invaders. This myth continues to circulate in New Zealand despite there being no credible evidence. Scholars have debunked it since the 1920s.

Two Moriori women and a child, c.1906
Photographer unknown, National Library of New Zealand, 1/2-002508-F

William Broughton and his crew on the Chatham became the first Europeans to sight Rēkohu on 29 November 1791. The discovery surprised them, as they had not expected to see land, but the encounter was even more startling for Moriori, who had had no contact with other humans for generations. This initial encounter was largely peaceful, but ended in tragedy when a misunderstanding between a member of Broughton’s crew and a Moriori man called Tamakaroro culminated in the crewman shooting Tamakaroro dead. This proved an unfortunate harbinger.

Multiple tragedies befell Moriori in subsequent decades—environmental destruction, genocide, enslavement, and loss of land. My research is concerned both with these events and how Moriori have been represented in popular and scholarly discourses since then. Claims that Moriori are “extinct” are grossly premature, rooted in a fetishisation of “full blood”. Moriori not only still exist; they have, since the 1980s, experienced a cultural revival on Rēkohu. It is important to be very careful writing about these historic events to avoid generalisations or denigrating people or groups today.

My scholarly interest in Moriori history emerged as a result of tutoring in the University of Melbourne subject “The Holocaust and Genocide”. I was teaching colonial genocide and felt that the violence against Moriori was relevant to our discussions in class. The problem was, I could not find any readings for my students that took an approach from either genocide studies or histories of violence. So, with the impetuousness of a young scholar, I decided to write something myself. I should have begun by engaging more with Moriori community leaders, as I am a Pākehā outsider; I am grateful to have since received positive support and encouragement from those with whom I have spoken.

More broadly, this research has fostered my interest in the environmental violence of British imperialism in the South Pacific. Rēkohu was not the only archipelago to experience rapid, destructive change.

The chief Tapu Hirawanu (also known as Maitarawai) and his wife Rohana
Rohana (right) and Hirawanu Tapu. Alexander Shand, a Pākehā, worked closely with Hirawanu Tapu to record many Moriori traditions.
Photographer unknown, National Library of New Zealand, 1/2-020706-F

I am proud to say that one of my awards for research acknowledges this work. I received a high commendation, i.e. second place, in the 2017 Barrett Prize for the best article in the Journal of Australian Studies for that year. The judges’ citation reads as:

This fascinating, original research on Australian individuals’ involvement in the exploitation of the Chatham Islands and Moriori people makes an excellent case for stronger links between Australian and New Zealand history. It exemplifies the new historical interest in imperial networks and is a welcomed intervention that highlights the importance of moving beyond national histories. The extensive footnotes attest to the strong critical engagement with scholarly literature.

My publications on Moriori, Rēkohu, and histories of violence

Book chapter

‘“I’m Not Even Making That Up”: The Moriori Myth and Denials of Indigeneity in New Zealand’. In History in a Post-Truth World: Theory and Praxis, edited by Marius Gudonis and Benjamin T. Jones, 199–217. London: Routledge, 2020. Buy book here. (Given the steep price, ask your library to order it!)

Journal articles

‘Australia and the Secretive Exploitation of the Chatham Islands to 1842’, Journal of Australian Studies, 41:1 (2017), 96–112. Highly commended, 2017 Barrett Prize. Read online (open access).

‘“The Miserable Remnant of this Ill-Used People”: Colonial Genocide and the Moriori of New Zealand’s Chatham Islands’, Journal of Genocide Research, 17:2 (2015), 133–52. Read online (paywalled).

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