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Chatham Islands

The Chatham Islands from Space.
Chatham Island is the largest, Pitt Island is the second largest, and South East Island is the small island to the right of Pitt Island

The Chatham Islands (Rekohu in the Moriori language) archipelago consists of about ten islands within a 40 kilometre radius, of which the three main islands are Chatham, Pitt and South-East. It is located at 44 Degrees South and 176 Degrees West, roughly 800 kilometres to the east of New Zealand, to which the islands belong.


First human habitation involved migrating Polynesian tribes who settled the islands approximately one thousand years ago, and in their isolation became the Moriori people. The exact orgins of these people is a matter of some dispute. It has been thought they arrived directly from Polynesia, but it is now more commonly theorised they were Maori from mainland New Zealand. The debate has poltical overtones as modern Maori inhabitans, decedents of those who arrived in the nineteenth claim access to ancestral Maori fishing rights.

The Moriori population of the islands was about 2000. They lived as hunter gatherers living off the sea and native flora. The society was a peaceful one, with little organization. Population numbers were kept stable by castrating a certain percentage of the male children.

The name Chatham Islands comes from the ship HMS Chatham which landed on November 29, 1791, and claimed possession. Sealers and whalers soon made the islands a centre of their activities. Fishing activities continue to be a significant aspect of the economy, although sealing and whaling industries closed many years ago.

The indigienous Moriori population was all but wiped out by invading Maori from New Zealand as well as European whalers. Today there some island families with a Moriori lineage, but the Moriori culture has been all but wiped out.


The population of about 700 [1] individuals is of European (70%), Maori and Moriori origin. The main settlement is at Waitangi.


The international date line lies to the east of the Chathams, even though the islands are east of 180 degrees of longitude. Consequently, the Chatham Islands observe their own time, which is nominally 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand time, including daylight saving. (New Zealand time being the time observed at 180 degrees longitude.)

The Chatham Islands are accessible by air and sea. While freight generally arrives by ship, the journey is too slow for passengers. For many years the islands were served by a Bristol Freighter, a slow and noisy freight aircraft that was converted to carrying passengers by installing a passenger container, equipped with airline seats and a toilet, in part of the cargo hold. The prime reason for the air service was to ship high value export crayfish products.

The grass landing-field at Waitangi was a limiting factor as the Bristol Freighter was one of a few aircraft that had the range to fly to the islands and then rugged enough to land on the grass airstrip. Although other aircraft did use the landing field occasionally, they would often require repairs to fix damage resulting from the rough landing. In the early 1990s(?), after many years of requests by locals and the imminent demise of the aging Bristol Freighter aircraft, a sealed runway was constructed to allow more modern aircraft to land safely.

Visitors to the islands are expected to have pre-arranged their accommodation before arrival.


Local government on the islands is unique in New Zealand in that the council is established by its own Act of Parliament (Chatham Islands Council Act 1995). The Chatham Islands Council is a district council 'with regional council functions', making it in effect a unitary authority. In Parliament, the Chatham Islands are represented by the member for the Rongotai electorate in Wellington, Annette King, whose term expires mid-2005.

Health services are provided by the partially-elected Hawkes Bay District Health Board. Policing is provided by a sole charge constable appointed by the Wellington police district, who at various times has often doubled as an official for many government departments, including court registrar (Department for Courts), customs officer (New Zealand Customs Service) and immigration officer (Department of Labour -- New Zealand Immigration Service). Court sittings are presided over by a District Court judge sent from New Zealand; urgent sittings are held at the Wellington District Court.

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