Te Hāpuku, sometimes called Te Ika-nui-o-te-moana, was born in the late eighteenth century. He was a leader of Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti. Kinship links within Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne, Ngāti Ira and other major tribal groups in Hawke's Bay made him influential throughout the region. Te Hāpuku's father was Kurīmate, also known as Te Te Rangikoiānake II, whose main hapū were Ngāti Te Manawakawa and Ngāti Te Rangikoiānake, named after his grandfather, Te Rangikoiānake I. His mother was Tatari of Ngāi TaPūhara, and Ngāti Hinepare, of Ngāti Kahungunu. One brother, Haurangi, sometimes called Te Waihiku, may have been an older son of Kurīmate with a junior wife. Another brother was Īhaka Mōtoro. His kinswoman, Hine-i-paketia, though a generation younger, was his contemporary and ranked as ariki of Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti. Te Hāpuku was overshadowed within Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti and Ngāi TaPūhara by the war leader Te Pareihe, his senior by one generation.
Wars rent Hawke's Bay in the 1820s as a result of invasion. When Te Pakake pā was attacked about 1824 by Waikato, Te Hāpuku was among the many prisoners. He was then exchanged for obsidian with a Ngāti Raukawa war party. In one version of events, having, perhaps, been permitted to escape at Tarawera, he made his way to his people on the Māhia peninsula. In another version he was recaptured at Te Hāroto and taken to Te Wherowhero of Waikato, who sent for Tiakitai to escort him and the other prisoners home. Later that year Te Momo-a-Irawaru of Ngāti Te Koherā, a hapū of Ngāti Raukawa, invaded central Hawke's Bay with the intention of settling there. Te Hāpuku was inclined to make peace with Te Momo, a policy which others regarded as treachery. Te Pareihe and his allies subsequently killed Te Momo and drove out the remnants of Ngāti Te Koherā. A party of Ngāti Te Upokoiri who had been Te Momo's allies came to take revenge for this defeat, killing Te Hāpuku's sister, Hineihoāia.
After this battle Te Hāpuku lived with Tiakitai at Te Pakake for about eight years. He forcibly opposed Te Pareihe for agreeing to make peace with Waikato. Te Hāpuku may have joined in the campaign to punish Ngāti Raukawa and its Rangitāne allies for their attack on Hawke's Bay, in which the mother of Kurupō Te Moananui had been killed. It is recorded that he consumed part of the body of the son of Te Hirawanu Kaimokopuna. One of the prisoners taken was a female cousin of Te Hirawanu; Te Hāpuku took her to wife; their son was Watene Te Hāpuku.
About 1833 Te Hāpuku joined the exodus of Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti and Ngāti Kahungunu at Heretaunga (Hawke's Bay) to the Māhia peninsula, where they had taken refuge from the continuous invasions. From there he joined the Wairarapa leader Nuku-pewapewa in a punitive raid against the Taranaki tribes who had occupied Wairarapa, only to withdraw when he realised the numbers of the enemy. He is reputed to have asked Nuku-pewapewa: 'Where are we going to get enough water to put all those fires out?'
On the Māhia peninsula Te Hāpuku had established himself at the township of Te Māhia, near the neck of the peninsula, which whalers frequented in the 1830s. He became notorious for his overbearing conduct towards the whaling community, to such an extent that British Resident James Busby threatened him with the visitation of a warship. Te Hāpuku seems to have held all Europeans in contempt at this stage of his life, and he fiercely rejected Christianity.
In 1838 Te Hāpuku visited the Bay of Islands where, on 25 September, he signed the 1835 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand. In 1840, therefore, Major Thomas Bunbury deemed it important to obtain his agreement to the Treaty of Waitangi. He called at the Tukituki River in Hawke's Bay where Te Hāpuku had recently returned. At first Te Hāpuku refused to sign, saying that Ngāpuhi were now slaves through the treaty, but Bunbury convinced him that his assent to the treaty could only increase his mana; he gave it on 24 June 1840.
Te Hāpuku's rise to eminence within Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti was assisted by the death of Te Pareihe in 1844. His dignity and deep knowledge of tradition were reflected in his public utterances. Like those of other chiefs and skilled orators, his utterances were often cryptic to the uninitiated; he was often satirical or laconic. He delighted to tease the missionary William Colenso when the behaviour of the latter's sometimes shaky converts failed to measure up to the Christian ideal. His temperament was unusually autocratic, not only with Europeans but also with his kin. He deeply resented slights to his personal mana, but was gracious to Europeans he respected, and inclined to protect them.
Te Hāpuku's personal household was large, suited to his rank and importance. Te Heipora, his principal wife, had become his spouse in the late 1820s. She was the mother of his recognised heir, Karanama (Cranmer) Te Nahu, the father of Arihi Te Nahu. Karanama was to die of measles in 1854. Other wives were Whaitiri, the mother of Ekengārangi and Arapata; and Hinerangi, the mother of Tangatakē and Te Pōhuka. Other sons were Te Whakahemo and Nēpia. Colenso knew of eight wives in 1850; Donald McLean reported ten. There may have been strife among them; one wife strangled herself in 1850 in a fit of jealousy.
Although Te Hāpuku continued to resist Christianity, he permitted his people and his own children to become converts, and found both the Protestant and Catholic missionaries useful. He had learned to write by 1852 but made use of a Catholic priest, at the pā of his kinsman, Pūhara, as an amanuensis, especially in communication with the governor. He listened to Colenso's advice concerning his land in 1848, although missionary efforts to persuade him to set up extensive reserves with natural boundaries did not succeed.
In December 1850 Donald McLean arrived in Hawke's Bay to investigate the availability of land for purchase by the government; he encountered Te Hāpuku on 13 December. McLean learnt from Colenso that Tāreha, Kurupō Te Moananui and Pūhara were of equal mana to Te Hāpuku but he seems to have made a conscious decision that his best chance of acquiring extensive territory was through the latter. In January 1851 McLean recorded that, 'Hāpuku is acting precisely as I have directed him, that is he goes about negotiating and arranging with his tribe for the sale of more land.' Te Hāpuku arranged extensive land sales in Hawke's Bay. He encountered little initial opposition, such was the enthusiasm for selling; indeed, he had difficulty in persuading some groups to retain any reserves. Te Hāpuku was motivated by a grand vision of the future. Both he and Hine-i-paketia realised that much of their forested land had now become virtually useless economically; the game hunted there in former times had been destroyed by introduced pests. He wanted to enrich his territory by settling on it respectable Europeans with whom his people could trade their grain and other crops for clothes, tools, horses and horse-tackle, tobacco and spirits. In May 1851 Te Hāpuku told McLean he intended to sell all his land except the block known as Raukawa, 'which was as sacred as his brains'. He also promised to assist McLean in purchasing Wairarapa.
Tāreha and Kurupō Te Moananui soon began to resent Te Hāpuku's assumption of the role of Crown land agent in chief as well as McLean's apparent acceptance of his pre-eminence. Their insistence on selling land on their own behalf forced McLean to arrange simultaneous surveys of the Waipukurau and Ahuriri blocks, and to negotiate with Te Moananui.
Te Hāpuku ignored advice from Taupō, Manawatū and Wairarapa not to sell land. No prices had been settled, and those offered were much less than Te Hāpuku expected. Twenty thousand pounds was asked for the 300,000 acre Waipukurau block; McLean offered £3,000. Te Hāpuku, who seems to have been forewarned, was annoyed at the sudden announcement; he told McLean that the proposed price was too little to satisfy 'his numerous tribes', and pointed out that although the land was now depopulated through war and disease, it was capable of sustaining thousands. He drew a parallel with Wairarapa, telling McLean he offered too little there as well, and regretting that he had offered to help him purchase land in that region. He was anxious to have European settlers to replace his tribes, now nearly extinct; he reminded McLean that the Crown would recoup the money it expended through subsequent sales to settlers, whereas the Māori sellers got only perishable articles. Te Hāpuku's appeal resulted in the price being raised by some £1,800, which he distributed among the more than 200 hapū, but some of the occupiers remained unsatisfied. Nevertheless, Te Hāpuku's mana was never higher than at this period. He was the influential friend of the governor and the governor's most powerful agent; he was appointed a magistrate in 1852. He was at McLean's side in September and October 1853 when the major purchases in Wairarapa took place. Colenso made further efforts to get him and the other major leaders to set up substantial reserves, but their jealousies prevented anything being achieved. Te Hāpuku agreed to the setting up of Te Aute College trust, established on Crown land which had been Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti territory.
In late December 1853 Te Hāpuku visited Wellington with his son Karanama Te Nahu, Pūhara, Hine-i-paketia, Hōri Niania Te Aroatua and others. A dinner was put on at which Te Hāpuku said that he would like more Europeans in Hawke's Bay. With his companions, Te Hāpuku arranged with McLean the sale of four large blocks for a total of £3,200 in January 1854. These sales were undertaken without the knowledge of many of the owner-occupants of the land, and without the agreement of others; outrage spread and protests were made to the land commissioners. In 1855 Te Hāpuku, who had bought a small schooner for trade, visited Auckland to protest the non-arrival of payments for some of the lands sold. While there he sold the Manga or Rangipeke block, claimed by Ngāi Tākaha; he failed to distribute any purchase money to the occupiers.
Opposition to Te Hāpuku's course began to mount; the leaders of the non-sellers were Kurupō Te Moananui, Tāreha, Karaitiana Takamoana and Rēnata Kawepō. In 1856 the quarrel came to a head over a block offered for sale by a woman, Tāwhara. G. S. Cooper, the district commissioner, found that he could not make a payment for this land in the face of the determination of Te Hāpuku's opponents to fight him if it was made. Te Hāpuku declared that unless Cooper did make a payment on Tāwhara's land he would refuse to receive any money for the Ruataniwha and Aorangi blocks, and would turn off the settlers. When Cooper tried to patch up a peace Te Hāpuku aborted it by sending a sarcastic message to Tāreha and others, telling them not to forget their guns and ammunition when they came to the proposed meeting.
Part of Te Hāpuku's stubborn determination to sell land in the face of mounting opposition arose from his indebtedness. The money he was to receive as instalments later that year would not cover his existing liabilities; he could no longer get goods on credit, and a fall in grain prices meant that he could not trade his way out of his difficulties. His changed lifestyle had made continuous supplies of imported goods a necessity, and he had no alternative but to continue selling land.
In February–March 1857 Cooper took Kurupō Te Moananui, Tāreha and others with him to point out their lands included in Te Hāpuku's sales. Cooper knew that Te Hāpuku would regard this as interference in his 'special work'; the 'survey' went armed. Cooper regarded himself as forced to continue to trust and work with Te Hāpuku because a quarrel with him would have spoiled his chances of acquiring the Forty Mile Bush.
Te Hāpuku, determined to assert his right to sell Tāwhara's block, camped at Whakawhiti in August 1857 and began to build a pā with timber taken from Te Pakiaka, a stand of bush near Whakatū, thus contravening a previous agreement that his people could have as much firewood as they wished but no growing timber. Hostilities began, with clashes on 18 August, 14 October and 9 December 1857; in each case Te Hāpuku's party came off slightly the worse and in the last battle his kinsman Pūhara lost his life. Te Hāpuku's opponents kept him besieged, cutting off all access to Clive and Napier, and preventing the conveyance of any goods to his pā. They declared they would be satisfied with nothing less than Te Hāpuku's withdrawal from Whakatū to his inland residence at Poukawa. Eventually Donald McLean persuaded the reluctant Te Hāpuku to retire, literally smoothing the way by preparing the Te Aute road for cart and dray traffic. Having sent his non-combatants and goods on ahead, he finally withdrew with his fighting force in March 1858, having burnt down his pā before he left. In spite of his refusal to ratify the peace made in September 1858, he seemed to feel it precluded any more fighting, and turned his attention to farming, the building of a watermill and other improvements to his Poukawa lands. He offered a piece of land there for sale, hoping to get a trading store established.
Deserted by 1859 by most of his followers, Te Hāpuku was still held in awe by his contemporaries. In 1859 a King movement deputation visited him, but he remained totally opposed to the King and rūnanga movements. In 1859 his brother Haurangi raised the King's flag in his pā in his absence. In 1860 Te Hāpuku was among those who attended the Kohimarama conference of Māori leaders called by the government. Despite his reinforced loyalty to the Crown, his relations with Europeans continued to be difficult; they sometimes found him overbearing and lawless. Cooper confessed to McLean that Te Hāpuku was 'beyond him to manage'. In 1862 he seized a flock of 2,400 sheep when a lessee refused to pay increased rent. His relations with his Māori opponents continued to be acrimonious; he refused to allow the sale of their interests in various blocks; Cooper found it would be unsafe to purchase the land or to occupy it.
In 1864 Te Hāpuku permitted the followers of Pai Mārire to settle at Te Hauke, even though he himself was averse to their doctrines; their presence strengthened him against his enemies. A number of his own people joined the movement and Te Hāpuku's support was believed to have encouraged the adoption of the new religion in Wairarapa. He made a temporary alliance with Tāreha, who was also playing host to Pai Mārire disciples, against Karaitiana Takamoana and Rēnata Kawepō. In March 1866 Governor George Grey visited Te Hāpuku, and induced him and his brother Haurangi to sign an oath of allegiance; they surrendered their Pai Mārire flags to the governor. Subsequently Te Hāpuku tried to negotiate with the Pai Mārire prophet Pānapa, but when that failed, he fought against the Pai Mārire occupiers of Ōmarunui, near Napier. In 1868 he took part in the campaign against Te Kooti.
In 1866 the Native Land Court began its Napier sittings. Te Hāpuku gave evidence in a few cases, but was not enthusiastic about some of the results. At one point he was forcibly ejected from the court for disorderly conduct. His debts continued to mount; in April 1870 his trap and his sheep were seized for debt, and by 1871 his creditors were seeking to have him declared a bankrupt. Various Europeans, including H. R. and T. P. Russell, sought to use this bankruptcy in an attempt to wrest control of Te Hāpuku's interests in the Ngātarawa block from Donald McLean, who was a lessee and attempting to purchase on his own account. McLean and J. D. Ormond were similarly determined to profit from the situation. Te Hāpuku benefited financially from the European contention for his interests; he was offered £400, perhaps as a loan to cover his most pressing debts, and traders were once again happy to accept his credit. His pension, first granted in the 1860s, was increased to £100 a year in 1871.
Despite his support for the movement to repudiate land sales, once their economic effects had become obvious, Te Hāpuku retained his friendship for McLean, and was devastated when McLean lost office in 1872. He took several cases to the Hawke's Bay Native Lands Alienation Commission in 1873, most of which were either withdrawn or repudiated. Those which did come before the commission showed that he had known what he was doing when he signed deeds, or that he had failed to distribute moneys fairly. Dissatisfied with this result, Te Hāpuku attended the meeting at Pakipaki at which the Repudiationists planned a monster petition to demand a new commission with greater judicial powers. But he was too much a rival of Karaitiana Takamoana to co-operate whole-heartedly with him.
Land matters continued to plague Te Hāpuku throughout his last years, but other activities were more productive. He continued to run sheep at Poukawa. He became involved in efforts by Hawke's Bay leaders to improve the standard of education offered to their people, particularly with regard to Te Aute College. Te Hāpuku was concerned that children from other tribal areas seemed to be reaping most of the benefits. In 1876 Te Hāpuku, in response to an ancient prophecy, caused the house Kahurānaki to be built at Te Hauke.
Te Hāpuku died on 23 May 1878 at Te Hauke. His last illness continued for five weeks. As he lay dying he asked to be placed so that his eyes should close watching the sacred Kahurānaki hill. He was visited on his deathbed by Sir George Grey. His funeral was attended by 400 Māori and Pakeha; the service was conducted by Samuel Williams. He was buried in a vault, 12 feet deep, 200 feet from the pā.