Lost race fights to regain islands

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The Independent Online
WELLINGTON - A Polynesian race driven to the edge of extinction 150 years ago - many even deny that it existed - may win justice after the New Zealand High Court ruled that it was entitled to seek compensation for lost lands.

The Moriori lived on the isolated Chatham Islands, 540 miles from the mainland, until 1835 when a Maori tribe arrived and began slaughtering them. One survivor, Tommy Solomon, was referred to as the 'last' Moriori when he died in 1933.

Now, the 200 or so remaining Moriori have filed a suit with a quasi-judicial body, seeking a return of lands.

Maoris, who claim a right of conquest and point out that the Native Land Court last century refused to recognise the Moriori, had asked the High Court to stop the hearing.

The claim is an odd one, because on the mainland any such argument by whites against Maoris would be regarded as unacceptable.

Whites used to claim the Moriori were a peaceful race who occupied mainland New Zealand until the Maoris arrived and exterminated them, although there is no evidence of Moriori populations in mainland New Zealand.

Two years ago a joint New Zealand-Thai study of skulls revealed marked differences between Maori and Moriori. But pro-Maori academics claim that there was no such race as the Moriori, and the group on the Chathams were descendants of Maori fishermen taken by wind and tide to the islands.

Whites first visited the Chathams in 1791, then occupied by an estimated 2,000 Moriori. They were known as pacifists, and when word of this reached the Maori Te Ati Awa tribe in 1835, they seized a ship in Wellington harbour and sailed to the Chathams.

Moriori, A People Rediscovered, by Michael King, published in 1990, told of about 1,400 deaths in the wake of the Maori arrival. One Moriori said they had been taken prisoner. 'The women and children were bound, and many of these, together with the men, were killed and eaten, so that the corpses lay scattered in the woods and over the plains. Those who were spared from death were herded like swine, and killed from year to year.'

By 1870 there were fewer than 100 Moriori left, and the Maori Land Court then held the Chathams to be Maori land by right of conquest. - AFP