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Kawiti, Te Ruki

by Kene Hine Te Uira Martin


Kawiti was born, probably in the 1770s, in northern New Zealand. He was descended from Nukutawhiti, commander of the Nga-toki-mata-whao-rua canoe, which made its landing at Hokianga. He was the 11th generation from Rahiri, ancestor of Nga Puhi; Huna was his father and his mother, Te Tawai. They were of Ngati Hine, whose identity with their territory runs thus:

Tokerau is the mountain
Taumarere the river
Ngati Hine the hapu
Hineamaru the ancestress.

When Kawiti reached maturity, he was admitted into Te Whare Wananga mo nga Tohunga, at Taumarere, one of the ancestral villages of Ngati Hine. As he gained a reputation as a fighting warlord, Europeans gave him the nickname 'The Duke' (Te Ruki).

Kawiti and his first wife, Kawa, had three sons: Taura, Wiremu Te Poro, and Maihi Paraone Te Kuhanga. His second wife was Te Tiwha, and they had a daughter, Tuahine. His villages were at Otuihu, Pumanawa, Waiomio, Taumarere, Orauta and Mangakahia; his carved whare, Ahuareka, stood in Waiomio, a short distance from where Te Rapunga meeting house now stands.

Kawiti was a notable warrior and detested being bottled up in a fort. He favoured rugged terrain as his battleground, and preferred to pursue an opponent and fight in hand-to-hand combat to the death. His fighting pa, therefore, were sited on hilly slopes at points which offered safe exit routes into thick bush. His pa were Otarawa, immediately below Te Pouaka-a-Hineamaru; Tikokauae at Motatau; Wahapu (Te Wahapu Inlet) at Ahikiwi; Ruapekapeka and Puketona.

At the battle of Moremonui, at Maunganui Bluff, in 1807 or 1808 Kawiti saw Nga Puhi fall before the assembled might of Ngati Whatua; Hongi Hika barely escaped with his life. In 1824 Te Whareumu of Nga Puhi came to Kawiti, chanting his ngakau, a special request for assistance to avenge the deaths of his relatives at Moremonui. He had presented Kawiti with a pig, and when Kawiti shared the pig among his people it was a sign to Te Whareumu of Ngati Hine support. The battle of Te Ika-a-ranga-nui, on the Kaiwaka River, followed in 1825, and on this occasion Ngati Whatua fell before the assembled might of Nga Puhi; the deaths of Taurawhero, Koriwhai and other Nga Puhi at Moremonui were avenged.

Kawiti also earned the reputation of a peacemaker among his people. This was evident at Te Ika-a-ranga-nui when a serious disagreement occurred between Hongi and Kawiti. Kawiti, who had kinship ties with Ngati Whatua, realised that Hongi would annihilate that tribe, so just before the battle took place, he took a number of them as hostages to protect them. Hongi heard about Kawiti's hostages and went to Taumarere to demand their release; they were his 'possessions' by right of conquest. Hongi threatened to invade Ngati Hine territory, but Kawiti warned him off.

Hongi did not carry out his threat. Sentries, posted by Kawiti along the route to Whangaroa as a precaution, reported that no preparations for full-scale war were being made at Hongi's camp. This allowed Kawiti and Ngati Hine to embark at once on their mission of peace to return Ngati Whatua safely to Kaipara. Mate Kairangatira of Ngati Hine was left with Ngati Whatua to cement the peace pact made between the two tribes, and to warn Hongi of the consequences should he ever attack Ngati Whatua again.

Kawiti also intervened at the battle known as the Girls' War, at Kororareka (Russell) in 1830, and helped to speed up peace negotiations between Nga Puhi and the Kororareka people. Nga Puhi were seeking to avenge the loss of their chief Hengi. To avoid full-scale war between Nga Puhi and the people of Kororareka, Kawiti induced Kiwikiwi to surrender the lands of Kororareka, which were Kawiti's by right of conquest, to Nga Puhi as atonement for the loss of Hengi.

In 1840, when William Hobson arrived in New Zealand having been commissioned as lieutenant governor, Kawiti vigorously resisted the introduction of British rule. He aimed to ensure that the lands of his people would be left intact so that Ngati Hine would never become landless or homeless, or slaves to the Pakeha. Before 1840 he had already lost Opua lands; it is said that a Paihia missionary had waited until Kawiti was absent at Kaipara, before negotiating a purchase with a local chief of lesser rank. Kawiti was not in a trusting mood when confronted by Hobson and other British officials at the Waitangi meeting on 5 and 6 February 1840. He refused to sign the treaty for fear that his sacred moko would provide the means by which the government would commence taking the lands. He said to Hobson, 'Who said we want you to stay here? We don't want to be restricted, or to be trampled on by you. The missionaries may stay, but you must return to your own country. There is no place here for the governor!'

Kawiti did not give his agreement to the treaty on 6 February when others signed at Waitangi, but his people still pressed him to sign. At a special meeting with Hobson, in May 1840, Kawiti reluctantly agreed to sign the treaty. (His name appears above the signatures of 6 February.) He expressed his reservations in the strongest terms, saying the Maori population was declining so fast that the Europeans were likely to get the land anyway. He did not want to 'sign away his land'.

Possibly Kawiti regretted giving his agreement. Early in 1845 he joined forces with Hone Heke in challenging British sovereignty. At Kororareka, on 11 March, his forces created a diversion while the flagstaff on Maiki Hill was cut down for the fourth and last time. Kawiti saw the flagstaff as a symbol of the assertion of British sovereignty over Maori land, and was determined that it should not be re-erected (which it was not, until 1858).

The northern war of 1845–46 involved the forces of Kawiti and Heke against British troops and Maori allies. The British launched three major expeditions into the hinterland of the Bay of Islands. In the first, at Puketutu, Kawiti and his warriors remained outside the pa. When the British attacked the pa, Kawiti's forces staged well co-ordinated strikes at the British rear. They sustained quite heavy casualties but it was a Maori victory, despite British claims to the contrary. Skilled in military tactics, Kawiti never risked his men in open combat again.

At Ohaeawai he saw to the construction of a carefully designed pa that withstood a British attack on 1 July. Outnumbered six to one, the Maori forces inflicted a serious defeat on the British. Kawiti's military tactics were crucial to this Maori victory. For five months fighting ceased while Governor Robert FitzRoy tried to arrange a peace which would salvage British pride. Kawiti rejected the peace terms, which included a cession of land.

It is said that he censured Heke, who was tempted to make peace, with these words: 'You and your territory have done enough. This time let me have them [the British]. I warned you that the water was too deep for you alone to net the big fish, but you would not listen. Now the water just barely reaches your knees and you cry, enough!'

Governor Robert FitzRoy was replaced by George Grey, who arrived in November 1845. Grey gave Kawiti and Heke only five days to respond to the peace offer, and meanwhile organised an expedition against Kawiti's new pa of Ruapekapeka. Kawiti's aim was to draw British troops into battle on a fairly inaccessible site. He succeeded: 1,100 men took nearly a month to cover the 15 miles from the Bay of Islands to the inland pa. Kawiti, knowing that the pa had to be stronger than Ohaeawai, selected puriri trunks 20 feet long and 3 feet thick, and embedded them 8 feet into the soil for the main palisades. No major building was erected within the pa; underground rooms were built instead. These pits could hold up to 20 men each; they were designed to withstand the heavy bombardment which the British launched in late December 1845 and which lasted two weeks. Kawiti and his men sheltered together in the dark bunkers like a colony of bats, an arrangement which gave the pa its name, Ruapekapeka, the Bats' Nest. Heke and his men were camped outside.

On Sunday, 11 January, the British troops entered the pa. It appeared deserted, although Kawiti and a small group remained. (There are confusing accounts that either they, or the rest of the force, were at prayer.) Detachments of Kawiti's men had slipped away previously, in a tactical move, aimed at enticing the troops to follow into the bush, where they could easily be picked off. A strong defensive position had been prepared at the rear of the pa.

The feigned retreat was partly successful. The British suffered a total of 45 casualties, while Maori killed and wounded numbered about 30. The pa, like Ohaeawai, was abandoned. It had served its purpose: blood had been spilled and therefore it would never be used again. The battle was not an outright victory for the British. Nevertheless, at the end of January Kawiti and Heke negotiated a peace. Kawiti is said to have pressed a kotuku feather into the hat of the senior British officer, as a gesture of accord. An important part of the peacemaking was Kawiti's reconciliation with Tamati Waka Nene.

The divisions in Nga Puhi, and Nga Puhi's failure to support him in the war, were the subject of a now famous takuate (lament) which Kawiti sang, it is said, at Ruapekapeka. The lament acknowledged that the ancestors of Nga Puhi had arrived in many different canoes. Each ancestor had formed his own tribe, who selected their chief, who in turn was the guardian of his own territory. A chief had the right to refuse to support another.

After the peacemaking Kawiti moved to Waionui and later to Pakaraka. Some sources say that he was baptised, by Henry Williams, on 20 February 1853. He was thought to be about 80 years of age when he died at Waiomio on 5 May 1854; his tangi continued for a year. Afterwards his remains were placed with those of his ancestors in Te Pouaka-a-Hineamaru. His son, Maihi, succeeded him as leader of Ngati Hine.

Before his death Kawiti warned his people to hold fast to the treasures of their ancestors, and to wait 'until the sandfly nips the pages of the book [the treaty]; then you will rise and oppose'. Descendants have taken this as a special injunction to act, when treaty promises are not upheld.

A marae complex, a loving memorial to Kawiti, was erected at Waiomio Caves by Kawiti's great-grandson, Tawai, who did not live to see its completion; his whanau added his name to the meeting house along with that of his father, his grandfather, and Kawiti. The meeting house name now reads: Tawai, Te Riri, Maihi, Kawiti.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

    Belich, J. The New Zealand wars. Auckland, 1986

    Lee, J. 'I have named it the Bay of Islands…'. Auckland, 1983

How to cite this page:

Kene Hine Te Uira Martin. 'Kawiti, Te Ruki', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 February 2020)