Is it time for New Zealand to recognise its own genocide?


This week Germany made headlines by joining the small list of countries of countries that recognise the Armenian Genocide. 

New Zealand does not currently recognise the event as a genocide.

Without delving into the debate about whether or not New Zealand should recognise the Armenian Genocide, it’s prompted me to think about one particular unsavoury event in New Zealand’s history.

In 1835 a group of 900 Maori from the Taranaki region hijacked a shipped, sailed to the Chatham Islands, where they enslaved the Moriori inhabitants and killed the others. After the invasion the Moriori were prohibited to marry or have kids with each other. Only 101 Moriori out of a population of about 2,000 were left alive by 1862.

This history is summarised in the Wikipedia page on the Moriori, which largely references New Zealand historian Michael King’s book Moriori. 


It’s hard to see how this systemic eradication of a people could not be considered genocide.

When I was a child growing up in the 90s, a common narrative espoused by Pakeha who disagreed with Treaty of Waitangi settlements, was ‘So what we took the land from the Maori- they in turn took it from the Moriori!’. This narrative is based on a myth that the Moriori were a separate people that occupied New Zealand as a whole, before the Maori arrived, instead of the reality, that the Moriori were one distinct Polynesian group that existed simultaneously .  The abstract for this paper has more details. 

The counter narrative by progressives was ‘That’s a myth! The Maori were the first here!’ – which is true – but in my experience, it neglected to acknowledge that the Moriori genocide did happen, or that even the Moriori were a real people. I was not taught about it at school; it wasn’t until I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel as an adult that I become aware that the Moriori genocide was a real event.

At this point one might ask – ‘Why dredge up the past and cause ill feelings?’ or suggest that mentioning the Moriori is a tactic to create political division between Pakeha and Maori.

Certainly, the Moriori Genocide shouldn’t be used for cynical political point scoring, nor should it be used to heap blame or unrecoverable guilt on a particular group of people. Rather, it’s important to acknowledge that all humans are capable of atrocities, of which there are numerous examples throughout history and spanning globe, right back to prehistoric massacres.

Giving a ‘free pass’ to a political minority or explaining things away with ‘cultural context’, I think is a symptom of what’s becoming known as the ‘regressive left‘, whereby regressive attitudes are fostered under the pretext of tolerance or multiculturalism.

Acknowledging these events shouldn’t be about score-keeping. I’d even suggest that we should consider that it’s not practical to try ‘even the scales’. But acknowledging these events helps us understand we’ve got to the progressive society we live in, and helps us understand the range of human capability.

We should acknowledge what happened, as truthfully and factually as possible and without an emotive agenda. A good start would be calling it what it is – a genocide – and talking about it along with other significant parts of New Zealand history – Gallipoli, the Treaty of Waitangi, the Land Wars, the Springbok tour, the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, etc.

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