“Standing proudly in the Eastern waters of Rekohu, caressed by the eternal misty skies, lies Rangiaotea, far away in the distance.”Pitt Island is undisputedly the ancestral homeland of Moriori on these islands. (Where they came from before that is a discussion for others and at another time). The acclaimed New Zealand historian, the late Michael King, recognised this in print in his spectacular publication “Moriori: a people rediscovered.”
For many hundreds of years and probably longer, Moriori lived on Pitt Island (as well as the main Chatham Island), managing the resources and sustainably harvesting what they needed. Pitt Island was home to a veritable Noah’s Ark of wildlife, marine life and plant species. Surrounded by the incredibly rich waters of the infamous ‘Roaring Forties’ a hunter-gatherer society such as Moriori had plenty of resources to survive and thrive on.
The weather may have been a different story, for Pitt Island is separated from the harshness of Antarctica’s weather by only water and time and in the winter, very little stops the wind and cold. The island abounds with numerous species of birds, insects and plants and even today after the depridations of farming and introduced pests, the island is still a valuable residence for many rare and endangered species found nowhere else in the world.
Moriori did not cultivate or farm, surviving instead on what they could gather. There is plenty of evidence that they moved around the island with the seasons. Even today, evidence of their passing is plain to see in many sites around the island. Even after the arrival of Europeans on the main Chatham island around 1805, Moriori sill resided here, literally unmolested until their peaceful existence was shattered abruptly in 1835 with the invasion of the island group by mainland Maori: Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama. Moriori that lived on Pitt Island were hunted down. Those that survived this conquest were relocated as slaves to the main island. One man, known as Koche, appears to have avoided capture initially and remained, although he was later re-captured, twice. The self-proclaimed King of Pitt Island, Koche later escaped as a stowaway on an American whaler and retold his story to a fellow sailor. It was published in 1873 in a Catholic newspaper.
Initially known by the Moriori inhabitants as Rangiaote(a), pronounced by all as Rangihaute, the island was named as part of the group of Islands originally called the Cornwallis Isles. Named Pitt’s Island after the Lord William Pitt, Earl of Chatham by Lieutenant Broughton and shortened some fifty years later to Pitt Island. The invading Maori tribes in 1835 called the Island Rangiauria and this is the name that is used in addition to the more common Pitt Island.
In 1827 a feat of maritime excellence (or stupidity) centred on Pitt Island, with the wreckage of the Brigantine “Glory”. The Vessel hit a rock in the straits between Pitt Island and South East Island (Rangatira). After having assistance to extract from this reef from another ship, the captain decided that she was too badly damaged to repair and was in iminent danger of sinking, so he ran her ashore in the small bay now known as Glory Bay. They never made it all the way in to the bay instead foundering on what is now known as Glory reef.
There is debate about the next episode in this adventure, but the crew salvaged what they could and made it ashore. they had salvaged one of the ship’s boats and it was this that was used by the captain and a small crew to sail and row from Glory, on Pitt Island, to Kororareka (Russell) in the Bay of Islands for help. They raised the alarm and returned with another vessel to rescue the remaining men. The anchor from the Glory can be found behind the old musterers cottage (1880) at Glory.
The debate is not over whether they did in fact make the voyage without any navigational aids (they had all been lost) which is remarkable, but over why they did it. There were already Europeans resident on the nearby Chatham island and presumably ships there too. Also, in one recount of the sinking, they mention another ship alongside helping them off the first reef and watching while they attempted to run the Glory ashore. Surely hitching a ride on that would have been a better option?
Frederick Hunt, (centre) was destined to become another self-proclaimed “King of Pitt Island,” Celine’s great, great, great, grandfathert, Frederick Hunt settled on Pitt Island in the Chathams group in 1843. He made a living from farming and trading with sealers and whalers. He was also reputed to have a healthy income from smuggling and was once fined 100 Guineas for avoiding excise duty. More can be read about Frederick and his tenure and legacy on Pitt Island on this page >>>>>
The arrival of sealers and whalers in the region also bought with it problems unique to an industry where ships were often crewed by slaves or press-ganged crewmen. On Pitt Island a jail was carved out of solid rock to contain slaves and crewmen ashore “firewooding” for fuel for the blubber pots.
The jail is just above the high tide mark and has enough room for four or five men to sit overnight, although it wouldnt be the most comfortable way to spend an evening.
There were numerous places around the island where evidence of casual occupation by Sealers and whalers could be found, including the odd piece of broken whale pot.
Farming was the cornerstone of income on Pitt Island from the 1940s and through to today. Sporadic spikes in returns for the fishing industry have yielded short term results for the island, but in the long term have done little to improve infrastructure or environment.