An indolent and chilly folk' : the development of the idea of the 'Moriori myth'

1 Jul 2010

Throughout the nineteenth century probably the majority of Pakeha held the view that the East Polynesian ancestors of the Maori were the first people to settle in New Zealand. Over the same period there were always considerable numbers of Pakeha who held the alternative view that an earlier people were already living in New Zealand when the first East Polynesian immigrants arrived. Among Maori each hapu and iwi had their own origin traditions. Some held that their ancestors arrived to an empty land, while others believed there were other groups already here when their own ancestors arrived. The traditions of the Chatham Island Moriori indicated that they were also East Polynesian migrants, but some Pakeha speculated that the Moriori were a distinct people from the Maori. By the early twentieth century one set of ideas on early settlement had become the orthodox view of the past among Pakeha. This view, which held sway from the 1910s until at least the 1960s, maintained that the original people of New Zealand were the 'Moriori', a people only distantly related, if at all, to the Maori. This primitive early people were supposed to have been displaced by the arrival of the more advanced East Polynesian Maori. Some of the more fortunate Moriori were absorbed into the Maori tribes, while the majority were either killed or driven into exile on the Chatham Islands. This idea of the past, sometimes called the 'Moriori Myth', has now been largely rejected by scholars, but still holds some currency in popular circles. The current thesis examines the question of how the 'Moriori Myth' developed and eventually became the orthodox view of the past. This question is investigated in the contexts of British imperial expansion, of the development of scientific ideas on race and evolution, and of the study of language and folklore as a way to decipher racial history. The current thesis is largely based on the writings of Pakeha and Maori scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Letters and manuscripts, in both English and Maori, have been used, along with published books and papers. The major focus of the work is the idea that the Moriori Myth largely developed out of the Pakeha study of Maori oral history. This study of oral history led to a considerable degree of interaction between Pakeha scholars and Maori experts. A major focus in the early part of the work is on Pakeha attempts to determine the racial identity and history of the Chatham Island Moriori. In this part of the work considerable attention has been paid to the collaborative work of the Pakeha scholar Alexander Shand and the Moriori expert Hirawanu Tapu, who worked together to record the surviving Moriori traditions. The focus of the latter part of this thesis is on the creation by Pakeha scholars of theoretical models of the early migrations to New Zealand, based on their understandings of Maori oral traditions. It will be argued that the 'Moriori Myth' was largely based on the writings of Stephenson Percy Smith, as promoted by himself and Elsdon Best, through the medium of the knowledge network formed by the Polynesian Society. Smith's writings on the 'Moriori Myth' will be shown to have been largely based on his interpretations of the writings of the Ngati Kahungunu scholar Hoani Turei Whatahoro. It will be argued that the 'Moriori Myth' was in fact the creation of interactions between Pakeha scholars and Maori experts rather than the invention of any one person or group.

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