Wiremu Tako Ngatata, usually known as Wi Tako, was born around the beginning of the nineteenth century at Pukeariki pa in Taranaki. His father was Ngatata-i-te-rangi of Te Ati Awa and his mother Whetowheto of Ngati Ruanui. With his father, and with Te Ati Awa leaders Honiana Te Puni-kokopu and Te Wharepouri, to whom he was closely related, he left Taranaki with the Tama-te-uaua migration of 1832. This was one of a series of migrations which brought some Waikato and Taranaki tribes to the Cook Strait region. In their new home they came into conflict with tribes already resident, and with each other. After 1840 they also had to deal with the disruption caused by Pakeha settlement.
In the 1840s the leadership of Te Ati Awa in this region passed from Te Wharepouri to Te Puni at Pito-one (Petone) and Ngauranga; Wi Tako was the leader at Kumutoto. Te Ati Awa, compared with Ngati Toa and Ngati Raukawa who had also moved into the region, generally took a benign and hopeful attitude to Pakeha settlement. When the agents of the New Zealand Company, led by William Wakefield and assisted by the whaler Dicky Barrett (to whom Wi Tako was related by marriage), arrived on the Tory in 1839, they dealt primarily with Te Puni and Te Wharepouri. Wi Tako, however, was a party to the highly dubious transaction through which the company claimed to have purchased the whole region. On behalf of his people, he received a share of the trade goods which made up the purchase price.
In this way began Wi Tako's long and complicated involvement with Pakeha settlers and governments, and in the tensions and conflicts of mid nineteenth century New Zealand. It is clear that although Wi Tako anticipated advantages from settlement, neither he nor the others had any clear understanding of the transaction which the company claimed to have concluded with them. It was read to them in ponderous legal English, and was explained in a general way by Dicky Barrett, who was later shown to have been incapable of making an adequate translation. The land to be reserved for Maori use was not defined; only later did Maori learn that they were said to have sold nearly all the land they then used.
Wi Tako and his people lived at the heart of the new settlement. He later claimed that he had understood that his sixth share of the goods was payment for the right to anchor the Tory, and that Barrett had told him that the Queen would see his name if he signed. There can be no doubt that the company was guilty of sharp practice. For their own part, Te Ati Awa were over-keen to accept the strangers' goods, especially the muskets which would make them strong enough to deal with hostile tribes on their northern boundaries.
The investigation into the company claims by William Spain, appointed by the British government as commissioner, greatly reduced the amount of land awarded to the company. Nevertheless by far the greater part of what had become the Wellington settlement passed from Maori possession. The 40 or so Te Ati Awa living at Kumutoto in the early 1840s had only 52 acres. Wi Tako had also a small piece of land on which he built a house; from this time on he housed and clothed himself in a Pakeha manner.
He was literate in Maori, possibly as a result of contact with Wesleyan missionaries (although later in life he became a Roman Catholic). He used his skills to defend his interests and those of his people in letters to officials and newspapers. He was angered by the intolerance and discrimination he experienced from the early settlers. In a letter to Governor Robert FitzRoy he wrote: 'The Europeans are ill-disposed towards us all; their anger towards us is great; they say that when the Governor arrives and they hear his word, giving permission to kill the natives, we shall all be killed by the Europeans.' And later in the same letter: 'the Europeans say we are only like dogs'. Certainly Edward Jerningham Wakefield, himself an untrustworthy man, did his best to discredit Wi Tako, putting about the rumour that Wi Tako and Moturoa, a Pipitea chief, were conspiring to attack Wellington.
This hostility stemmed from Wi Tako's part in Spain's investigations. His evidence helped to establish the fact that the transaction had not been clearly explained. He is reported to have said, in reply to Wakefield, 'I ask you Pakeha what did the Queen tell you? Did she say to you "go to New Zealand and fraudulently take away the land of the natives"? You say no, then why do you encroach upon land that has not been fairly purchased?' When he made his award, Spain recognised the rights of Te Ati Awa and of Wi Tako. In 1844 Wi Tako and Moturoa accepted the £400 compensation offered to the people of Kumutoto and Pipitea for the land they had lost.
By this time Wellington was largely settled by Pakeha. It was inevitable that the remaining Maori should come into conflict with the settlers and officials. It is remarkable that Wi Tako continued to assist them. He supplied food to the settlers and raupo for building, and in fact built raupo dwellings for them; he regularly spoke out against warlike talk. He helped Donald McLean in 1851 with the purchase of the Ahuriri and Waipukurau blocks in Hawke's Bay.
And yet he had a great deal to put up with, from settlers and officials alike. When, in the early 1840s, a settler illegally occupied his land and refused to pay rent for it, a Wellington lawyer refused to act on Wi Tako's behalf. 'I have been deceived by Europeans', he wrote to the governor, FitzRoy, 'I have assisted them in buying land and in doing so I have even told lies in order to persuade my Maori people to part with their land.'
Early in the 1850s Wi Tako sought a Crown grant for a piece of his land in order to sell it. First, it was issued for his lifetime only; to the would-be purchaser that was insufficient security, as the land would revert to the Crown on Wi Tako's death. The grant was reissued, but only for the duration of the lives of Wi Tako and his wife. He threw down the useless piece of paper and exclaimed: 'You buy as much as you can of our lands and then try to cheat us out of the rest.'
This conviction led him to take a leading part, with Matene Te Whiwhi, Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake and Tamihana Te Rauparaha, in the deliberations at Otaki in 1853 which brought forward the idea of a Maori king. Around this time Wi Tako had moved from Kumutoto to the site of the old Te Mako pa at Te Taitai (Taita). Here he lived in a 17-roomed house. He built the storehouse called Nuku Tewhatewha to symbolise his support for a Maori king. The carvers included Horonuku (later Te Heuheu Tukino IV), who was also associated with other storehouses built to establish the cause of the King movement. Wi Tako also had a meeting house, Te Puku Mahi Tamariki, built near Waikanae as a headquarters for Te Ati Awa supporters of the King.
In 1859 Wi Tako brought 500 Maori and Pakeha guests to Te Waihenga in Wairarapa to hear speakers representing both the King and the government. He wished to convince both races of the value of the King movement. But settlers preferred to believe wild rumours that Wi Tako, by this time living in Waikanae, was preparing to attack Wellington. What seems to have been the opinion of many settlers, that he was a trouble-maker, is reflected by the missionary Octavius Hadfield. He said that Wi Tako had 'endeavoured to accumulate every grievance he can hear of and by presenting them in one view to draw a conclusion unfavourable to the Government.' The governor, Thomas Gore Browne, conveyed this opinion to London in a dispatch.
Wi Tako tried to fill the role of mediator. He did not send Te Ati Awa fighting men to Taranaki. Later he refused to rise against the Wellington settlers when Rewi Maniapoto of Waikato urged him to do so, and he persuaded the Wairarapa chiefs supporting the King to remain peaceful; Isaac Featherston, the Wellington provincial superintendent, thought that in this case his influence was decisive.
Until the attack on Waikato by government forces in 1863, Wi Tako was firmly on the King movement side. When he visited Ngaruawahia in 1860, and with Te Ati Awa and Ngati Ruanui people declared allegiance to Potatau Te Wherowhero, he was asked by the King to investigate Wiremu Kingi's claim to the Waitara block. He visited Te Teira, who had precipitated the dispute by offering to sell the Waitara block to the government, and concluded (with almost every subsequent investigator) that Te Teira had no right to sell the land.
The flag presented to him by Te Wherowhero on this occasion was brought back to Otaki and raised at Pukekaraka on 12 March 1861. Yet his support for the King movement was of a pacific kind: 'Let the warfare be of our lips alone!' He denounced those he called 'the mad Hauhau prophets'. As is usually the case with those who try to establish a middle position, he soon found himself condemned by both sides.
The new governor, George Grey, who believed Wi Tako was the key man in the Otaki district, visited him at Pukekaraka in September 1862. 'Waitara is the source of the evil,' Wi Tako told the governor, 'not the King. Go to the Waikato and talk with the King!' Grey, displeased to see the King's flag flying, demanded that it be handed over, but Wi Tako adamantly refused.
By the middle of the next year he was accused by a chief of Ngati Maniapoto of being more loyal to the Pakeha Queen than to the Maori King, for his opposition to the closing of the road from Wanganui to Taranaki by supporters of the King. He regarded the closing of the road as an act of provocation and argued that nothing should be done to make things more difficult. He insisted that the Taranaki war was no business of his people, and condemned Rewi Maniapoto's intervention there. However, his own followers were leaving for Taranaki, and his pacific idea of the King movement was losing ground. On 3 June 1864 he visited the colonial secretary, William Fox, and signed a declaration withdrawing his support from the King.
Early in the 1860s Wi Tako had become a Catholic, and an inveterate opponent of the Pai Marire movement. With Archdeacon Samuel Williams and Matene Te Whiwhi he travelled to Opotiki speaking against Patara Raukatauri and Kereopa Te Rau, the Pai Marire missionaries. He continued to work with McLean on land purchasing and often gave his advice to governments. He became a vice-regal companion, accompanying Governor G. F. Bowen to the South Island in January 1869. In April he attended a ball at Government House, with his wife and young child, to honour the visiting Duke of Edinburgh. He was granted, with Hemi Parae, a block of 142 acres of land in Wellington – roughly the present suburb of Vogeltown.
In 1872 he was appointed to the Legislative Council, one of the first Maori to be a member. Here he opposed legislation threatening Maori possession of land and was involved in the first unsuccessful efforts to make peace with the Maori King.
It is recorded that on becoming a Christian he experienced some tension between the convention that a major chief should have many wives, and the Christian requirement that he have only one. In the later 1840s he married Mere or Mereana Ngamai, the daughter of his father's cousin Rawiri Koheta (Kowheta) and the widow of a whaler, James Harrison. She died in 1852, and in the following year Wi Tako married her sister, who was also called Mere. The daughter of Wi Tako and his second wife was Hohipine (Josephine), also known as Te Amo, who married Daniel Kiri Love and so founded the distinguished Love family. Wi Tako was also connected with Ngawhawha, who was kin to Whanake (known too as Te Huka-tai-o-Ruatapu) who had been chief of Ngati Ira in the Porirua region.
Many portraits, sketches and photographs of Wi Tako remain. Although the celebrated painting by Gottfried Lindauer shows him with full moko, a considerable beard, a long greenstone ear pendant, and wearing a traditional cloak, earlier representations show him with a short moustache and close-cut hair, and European clothing. The best photograph was taken by A. C. Barker in 1869, in Barker's Christchurch garden. In this, Wi Tako is a handsome, dignified and impressive man, sitting peacefully in the open air.
He died on 8 November 1887, at his home in the Hutt Valley. The Legislative Council adjourned as a mark of respect. Dr M. S. Grace, a veteran of the Taranaki and Waikato wars, spoke in Wi Tako's praise. He had often, he remembered, heard Isaac Featherston say that 'Wi Tako is the cleverest man, black or white, in the country.' His funeral was a grand affair, attended by between 4,000 and 5,000 people. His body was carried on a gun-carriage, drawn by a detachment of the Petone Naval Artillery, from his house to the Lower Hutt Catholic church. The chief mourners were his cousin Wi Hape Pakau (or Pakao) and his two grandchildren, Wi Tako Kura Love and Hapi Love. Twenty Maori women followed the coffin, and about 150 from Te Ati Awa and other tribes. Numerous military detachments followed, including the Kaiwharawhara Volunteers and the Heretaunga Light Horse. The Catholic archbishop, Francis Redwood, conducted the service in the church, assisted by three priests. The procession from the church to the cemetery at Korokoro was led by the Garrison Band, playing the Dead March from Saul. There were some 50 members of Parliament in the procession. Later a memorial, in the form of a canoe, was erected there.