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A Moriori Lesson
A brief history of pacifism.


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Once upon a time, there was a people called the Moriori. Of Polynesian descent, they are believed to be the first inhabitants of the Chatham Islands, a group of four main islands about 540 miles east of New Zealand.

Based on study of their language, skeletal remains, and artifacts, scholars have concluded that the Moriori shared a common ancestry with Maori tribes who first settled in New Zealand. The Moriori probably migrated from New Zealand to the Chatham Islands around the 13th or 14th centuries.

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The Moriori brought with them a culture of violence and cannibalism. But their revered chieftain, Nunuku-whenua, became sickened by the endless combat he was witnessing. Nunuku jumped between two fighting forces, and ordered the fighting and savagery to stop. The stunned warriors pulled apart. According to Michael King’s book Moriori: A People Rediscovered, Nunuku demanded: “Listen all! From now and forever, never again let there be war as this day has been! From today on forget the taste of human flesh!” Those who refused to honor Nunuku’s decree would be cursed: “May your bowels rot the day you disobey.”

And so, virtually overnight, a warring, violent culture changed to a culture of people who practiced what Mahatma Gandhi would later call “ahimsa,” or non-violence. Most of us would recognize the Moriori philosophy as pacificism. As King noted, “The membrane of distance, which had protected the Chatham Islanders from contact with peoples who thought and behaved differently from themselves . . . allowed the uninterrupted evolution of their culture and the successful observance of Nunuku’s law.”

But the pacifist world of the Morioris would be tested to the limit when strangers began to arrive.

On November 27, 1791, 28-year-old British lieutenant William Robert Broughton, commander of the brig Chatham, sighted land where none was supposed to be. The Union Jack was planted in a ceremony that stole the Moriori land for King George III. The Europeans brought with them devastating disease, which killed 10-20 percent of the Morioris.

The Taranaki were one of the several Maori tribes of New Zealand; they were a not-so-peaceful people who did not live under Nukunu’s prohibitions. They did know about the peaceful nature of the Moriori on the Chatham Island, and in 1835, the Taranaki Maori decided to migrate to the Chathams.

The Maori majority who stayed in New Zealand fought a long and often successful series of campaigns against the white invaders. Outnumbered by the whites, the New Zealand Maori invented a form of trench warfare, using timber and earthwork structures called pa. They Maori rapidly became expert in firearms and fought longer and more successfully than any other outnumbered indigenous group in the 19th century. It was only because of overwhelming white numerical superiority that the New Zealand Maori were finally defeated in the 1860s-and even then they won citizenship rights and designated seats in the parliament. In New Zealand, the readiness of the whites and the Maori to fight had resulted, after much bloodshed, in a political settlement whereby the majority was victorious, but some minority rights were established. While the gentle stone age Aborigines of Australia had been very quickly crushed and viciously subjugated, the fighting natives of New Zealand preserved a not-insubstantial degree of their rights.

Such was not the outcome in the Chatham Islands. Early in 1835, 400 Taranaki Maori sailed on the brig Rodney to the Chathams; 500 additional Maori arrived by the end of the year. Shortly after the last group disembarked, the Maoris began to take possession of the islands by their ceremony of “takahi,” or “walking the land.”

King describes the takeover: “Parties of warriors armed with muskets, clubs and tomahawks, led by their chiefs, walked through Moriori tribal territories and settlements without warning, permission or greeting. If the districts were wanted by the invaders, they curtly informed the inhabitants that their land had been taken and the Moriori living there were now vassals.”

A council of Moriori elders was convened at the settlement called Te Awapatiki. Despite knowing of the Maori’s predilection for killing and eating the conquered, and despite the admonition by some of the elder chiefs that the principle of Nunuku was not appropriate now, two chiefs — Tapata and Torea — declared that “the law of Nunuku was not a strategy for survival, to be varied as conditions changed; it was a moral imperative.”

And so it was decided. There would be no resistance, no compromise with the principle of Nunuku. King continues: “Morioris were taken prisoners, 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 even killed from year to year.”

King suggests that the Moriori decision not to fight back was a spur to Maori brutality, for Maoris confused Nunuku with cowardice, “and — by implication — worthlessness.”

By 1862, only 101 Morioris out of an initial number of about 2,000 were left alive. The strategy “not designed for survival” led directly to the destruction of the Morioris. The Europeans watched the slaughter of Morioris by the Maoris, and did nothing to prevent it.

If Gandhi had known of the Moriori, he might have admired them: “To lay down one’s life for what one considers to be right is the very core of satyagraha [resistance by non-violent means] . . . [In non-violence] the bravery consists in dying, not in killing,” he said. But as King observes, “The Moriori had learned a tactical and philosophical truth that was to be articulated by other people from other cultures in the twentieth century: non-violence is an effective weapon only against an adversary who shares your conscience.”

The last full-blooded Moriori, Tommy Solomon, died on March 19, 1933.

In the United States, Britain, and Australia, some pacifists proclaim their moral superiority to the soldiers who protect the pacifists’ right to free speech. What happened to the Moriori would happen to these same pacifists, if not for the protection provided for many generations by the Anglosphere’s soldiers and sailors. What the Maori did to the Moriori would have been done a thousand times over to the pacifists by Hitler, Tojo, Stalin, and bin Laden — and every other tyrant whom the pacifists condemned the military for resisting.

A popular bumper sticker says “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” If you’re a pacifist who hasn’t been murdered or enslaved, thank a soldier.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: For those interested in reading more, we recommend the following books: Michael King, Moriori: A People Rediscovered (Penguin Books, 2000); Thomas Merton, ed., Gandhi on Non-Violence: A Selection from the Writings of Mahatma Gandhi (New Directions, 1965); Sheila Natusch, Hell and High Water: A German Occupation of the Chatham Islands 1843-1910 (NZ: Pegasus Press, 1977).

Dave Kopel is research director and Paul Gallant and Joanne D. Eisen are senior fellows at the Independence Institute.



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