The Moriori were the indigenous people (tchakat henu) of Rekohu, now known as the Chatham Islands, in modern times part of New Zealand. The Moriori migrated there from New Zealand some time between 1400 and 1600. They share common ancestry with the Maori, and are Polynesians, but their own distinct culture developed over the period of 400 years of isolation. Their first contact with the outside world was in 1791, when a British ship stumbled upon the islands. They lived in relative peace with both Europeans and Maori until 1835 when the islands were invaded by Taranaki Maori tribes. A fifth of the population of Moriori were slaughtered, and the rest taken into slavery. Over the next 30 years of slavery the population sharply declined, and eventually the last full-blooded Moriori, Tommy Soloman, died in 1933.
Before contact with the outside world, the Moriori had adapted to their harsh environment, and eked out a subsistence living based mainly around fish, seals, and birds. A unique feature of their culture was a taboo against the killing of another human. According to their ancient traditions, a chief named Nunuku stopped warring parties from fighting to the death, as he realized this was counter-productive to survival of the small population on the islands. men still fought, but only until blood was drawn – then they stopped.
When the Taranaki tribes commandeered a British ship to the Chathams in 1835, the Moriori at first welcomed them. The Maori initially ignored them, as they explored the islands. Concerned by a possible theta, the Moriori held a large gathering, discussing whether or not they should fight the Maori (who they greatly outnumbered). The older chiefs prevailed, citing Nunuku’s law of non-violence. The Maori, on the other hand, did not hold back: they massacred 300 Moriori (men, women and children) and held a large cannibal feast in accordance with their tikanga, or fighting customs. The treatment of the survivors was horrendous. The Moriori continued to be treated poorly, being regarded by most Europeans as an inferior race, low in intellect, lazy, and degenerate; of course the Europeans were seeing only the sad remnants of an oppressed people. In addition to these in justices, the land courts of the 1870s awarded the vast majority of the land to the Maori, and not to the Moriori.
It was not until late in the 20th century that the true story of the Moriori became better known, thanks largely to Michael King’s book Moriori: A People Rediscovered (1989). The marae on the Chatham Islands has been restored, and in 2005, relatives of Moriori submitted a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal.
A Survivor from Rekohu was inspired by the story of the Moriori and commissioned by Alexa Still, for flute, piccolo and Maori flute. It is based around the life of a Moriori named Koche who witnessed the 1835 massacre, survived years of slavery under the Maori chief Matioro, and made many attempts to escape from captivity.
Eventually he did escape, permanently, on a ship to the USA where he told his story to an American lawyer. His whereabouts after this are unknown. The music recalls three main passages from Koche’s life:
his childhood on Rekohu in the days before the invasion
the massacre of 1835
slavery and escape
These are framed by four little melodies (variations on a theme) played on different Maori instruments, acting as meditations on the events. They are each labelled ‘Kopi Grove’, after the sacred place on Rekohu where chiefs would meet and ceremonies were held.