Te Kooti was born into Ngāti Maru, a hapū of Rongowhakaata, at Pā-o-Kahu, overlooking the Awapuni lagoon in Poverty Bay. According to the traditions he was born in 1814. However, when in 1866 he was banished to the Chatham Islands, his age was estimated to be about 35.
Arikirangi was the name under which his birth was predicted by Te Toiroa of Nukutaurua, on the Māhia Peninsula. European contemporaries sometimes called him Rikirangi but he signed himself Te Kooti Te Tūruki. He received the name Te Kooti in baptism, a transliteration of Coates. By his own account he took the name from official notices he had seen on a trading trip to Auckland. The missionary Thomas Grace, who considered him to be one of his more promising pupils at William Williams's Whakatō mission, believed the name to have been taken from that of the lay secretary of the Church Missionary Society in England, Dandeson Coates. In later life Te Kooti always used the name Te Tūruki, from his father's younger brother or cousin.
His father was Hōne Te Rangipātahi and his mother Tūrākau. He was descended from Rongowhakaata and his senior wife, Tūrāhiri; it was a line of descent collateral to that of the senior Ngāti Maru chiefs. He had many wives. With his first wife, Irihāpeti Puakanga, of Te Whānau-a-Ruataupare, he had a son, Te Wētini, about 1860. During his imprisonment and after his escape he had other wives: Hana, Tangimēriana, Te Mauniko Te Waru, Maata Te Ōwai, Hūhana, and Orīwia Nihipora Kunaiti. Hēni Kumekume was with him from 1868 to his death. Tāmaku and Makurata are also remembered in association with Te Kooti.
Te Toiroa foresaw the birth of two children (or in some versions three) within Ngāti Maru, both of whom would be struck by illness. If the first born, the child of Te Tūruki, died, and the younger, the child of Te Rangipātahi, lived, then evil would come to the land. That child Te Toiroa named Arikirangi. These events came to pass, and the very order of the births was also considered to be an ill omen. Under the shadow of these predictions the boy grew up at Pā-o-Kahu and Manutūkē.
In the traditions it is told how Te Kooti's father rejected him as a youth. He buried him alive in a kūmara pit or well, but Te Kooti escaped and was adopted by Te Tūruki. Te Toiroa then performed the naming ceremony over him. He dedicated Arikirangi to Tūmatauenga, god of war and of humankind. He attended the Whakatō Anglican mission, acquired a mastery of the Scriptures, and by 1852 was baptised. He had ambitions to become a lay preacher but came into conflict with the mission. By this time he had acquired a reputation as a turbulent youth and was associated with a group of young men living at Mākaraka, who took Pākehā possessions as utu for grievances. His lawlessness offended the senior chiefs and he also gained a reputation for philandering. Wī Pere, who became a leading chief of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, took part in a raiding expedition against the pā of Te Kooti in 1853, because he 'had become a terror to the district'. He was involved in trade with Auckland, on two Māori-owned vessels which undercut the monopoly of the settlers J. W. Harris and Captain G. E. Read. He thereby acquired influential enemies, both Māori and Pākehā.
The oral traditions interpret his wildness as the evil from which he was to be rescued by divine intervention. They say that in the 1850s he was visited by the Archangel Michael, who told him that 'your people will be crushed by the weight of your deeds upon them…and you will know with certainty at that time I am a God who saves people'. As well as predicting the coming of civil war to Poverty Bay, Michael gave him the white lunar rainbow of the night for his protection.
In 1865 most of Ngāti Maru converted to a new religion, Pai Mārire. Te Kooti and the senior chief, Tāmihana Ruatapu, were among the few who did not. At the siege of the Hauhau at Waerenga-a-hika, near Tūranga (Gisborne), from 17 to 22 November 1865, Te Kooti fought with the government forces. However, few of the government's Poverty Bay allies co-operated with any enthusiasm, while Te Kooti's elder brother Kōmene was fighting inside the pā. On 21 November Te Kooti was arrested, 'on suspicion of being a spy'. He was accused in the midst of the fighting by the old Rongowhakaata chief Pāora Parau of supplying powder to those inside the pā. But the charges could not be proved, and he was released. In March 1866 he was again arrested as a spy.
Harris advised Donald McLean, the provincial superintendent and agent for the general government, that Te Kooti 'ought to be got rid of'. George Preece claimed that in February Te Kooti had sent a warning to his chief, Ānaru Mātete (younger brother of Tāmihana Ruatapu), a Hauhau leader who had gone into hiding. On 3 March Te Kooti was bundled onto the boat to Napier with the first batch of Hauhau prisoners. A song he composed on the voyage tells the people to heed the 'law of the governor' which will make good 'the work of Rura', the Pai Mārire god, who had brought all the present trouble. Despite his appeal on 4 June to McLean for a hearing of the charges against him, the next day he was sent to Wharekauri (Chatham Island) with the third batch of prisoners.
The Ringatū church dates its origin from the revelations given to Te Kooti while imprisoned. During acute bouts of fever early in 1867 he had strange visions. In the first entry in his diary (on 21 February 1867) he described how he became unconscious and the 'Spirit of God' raised him up. He subsequently told the story of the visits of this spirit, a voice telling him that God had heard his 'crying'. One of the signs he was given was a flame that did not burn, which Te Kooti first showed the other prisoners on 18 June 1867. The resident magistrate reported that Te Kooti had been holding religious services and rubbing phosphorus of matches on his hands, to represent God. In June 1868 he was placed in solitary confinement, but the Ringatū accounts tell that he escaped every night to hold prayers secretly in the compound. He also instructed a released prisoner to 'scratch the land' in a direct line to Wharekauri when he reached home, to mark the pathway for their escape.
On 4 July Te Kooti led the escape of the prisoners – 163 men, 64 women, and 71 children. They seized the supply ship, the Rifleman, the redoubt, and all the guards. As one report said, the 'precision, rapidity, and completeness' of the move was only surpassed by the 'moderation' they showed their captives. One guard was tomahawked by Tāmihana Tekateka (Teketeke), against Te Kooti's instructions. They captured arms, ammunition, and money, but took no other property. It was next day before the Rifleman could beat its way out. Contrary winds continued until Te Kooti demanded a sacrifice: greenstone and other treasures, together with his uncle Te Wārihi Pōtini (Paratene), believed to be a spy, were tossed overboard.
Gaining the wind, the Rifleman made landfall at Whareongaonga in Poverty Bay on the evening of 10 July 1868. The prisoners unloaded the ship, and paid off its Pākehā crew. Te Kooti then ordered the sacrifice of a pig and a fowl as thanksgiving for their safe return, and told the people that they would no longer kneel at prayer. Their homage to God would be the raising of the hand at the end of the prayers. From this gesture, first used at Whareongaonga, the Ringatū derive their name.
Negotiations with the government began on 12 July. Pāora Kati, who was a Rongowhakaata chief and brother of Raharuhi Rukupō, and a guard over Te Kooti on the voyage to Wharekauri, was sent by Reginald Biggs, the resident magistrate at Tūranga, to demand that the prisoners surrender their arms. No promises were made except that an investigation would be held. But they refused to give up their arms. They said they sought only to go peaceably inland to Waikato. Te Kooti intended to challenge the Māori King, Tāwhiao, for the spiritual leadership of the Māori, and to depose him. He wanted no fight with the government, for he considered God had restored the people to the land of their ancestors. The war began with Biggs's decision that they had to be stopped.
Biggs blocked their passage at Pāparatū, south of Poverty Bay, on 20 July. This was the first of a series of defeats for the colonial militia. The success of Te Kooti rested on many skills. Because his authority was thought to be divine, he was able to command effectively. He possessed, as a Pākehā who knew him from her childhood said, 'force of will, decision, and great ingenuity to plan, and determination to execute'. His followers included some accomplished fighters. He knew the local terrain intimately. He was experienced in trading with Pākehā. It seems that he could read English. He therefore possessed an unusual knowledge of his opponents. The victory at Pāparatū gained him extensive supplies. Two further victories followed, at Te Kōnaki on 24 July, and on the Ruakituri River on 8 August. He thereby achieved his strategic objective: to establish a base at Puketapu pā, north-east of Lake Waikaremoana, for the trek to Waikato.
While Te Kooti was at Puketapu the government made its only serious attempt to negotiate. Father Euloge Reignier, a Catholic missionary, was instructed to tell him that if the ex-prisoners surrendered their arms, no further proceedings would be taken against them, and that land would be found for them. But Reignier panicked, and merely sent messages through a trooper. Te Kooti, who had already been forewarned of a plan to attack Puketapu, could hardly take the offer seriously. The tragedy was that it seems to have been genuine.
Te Kooti waited at Puketapu for answers to his messages to Tūhoe and to King Tāwhiao, seeking permission to enter their territories. On 29 October he received Tāwhiao's rejection. Should he attempt to enter the King Country, he would be repelled. Neither would Tūhoe fully commit themselves to him. Probably because he had nowhere else to go, Te Kooti decided to attack Poverty Bay. In prophetic terms he declared that: 'God would give the Tūranganui country, and all the best places of the Europeans, back to him and his people'.
Te Kooti struck at Matawhero in the early hours of 10 November 1868. About 54 people were killed, including Biggs. More than 20 were Māori. Te Kooti subsequently ordered the execution of some prisoners, including women and children, followed by the singing of Psalm 63. He seized Pātūtahi from where his patrols swept through the district, capturing supplies and 300 Māori prisoners. On 12 November he went to Ōweta pā, at the invitation of its chief, Paratene Pototi (Tūrangi), who had returned all his arms to the government. Paratene had been implicated in Te Kooti's exile, kicking him, it is said, and mimicking the soldiers with the broken words, 'Go on t' boat'. Paratene was seized as he stood unarmed and was executed, with six other chiefs, among them Waaka Puākanga, the father of Te Kooti's first wife. These deaths and Biggs's were Te Kooti's utu for his betrayal. Some deaths, however, had a religious inspiration. A Māori survivor heard him say: 'God has told me to kill women & children, now fire on them.'
These executions earned Te Kooti powerful Māori enemies. They also created support, motivated partly by fear. Wiremu Kīngi Te Paia said: 'The reason I followed in his footsteps was that I feared him on account of the death of Paratene.' Others became convinced that he did wield divine retributive power. Many who were taken prisoner chose to stay with Te Kooti. Almost all Ngāti Maru were converted and some of Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki.
Te Kooti now held control in Poverty Bay. However, on 17 November he began his withdrawal, aware that extensive forces were being assembled against him from Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou. His objective was Ngātapa, an ancient hill-top pā. But he was encumbered with stock, and there were also women and children. On 22 November he reached Mākāretu, on the Wharekōpae Stream, where, the next day, he was besieged.
Because of a lightning raid on the Pātūtahi militia depot on 26 November, to seize ammunition and arms, Te Kooti was able to escape to Ngātapa, where he was again besieged. Although there were between 500 and 800 people in Ngātapa, Te Kooti had a fighting force of only about 200 men. His warriors included members of the upper Wairoa Ngāti Kahungunu, Tūhoe from Te Whāiti and Maungapōhatu, some of his own kin, and the remaining escaped prisoners. The pā at Ngātapa was impregnable, but the defenders could not survive long without water. Early on the morning of 5 January 1869 they lowered themselves by vines over the steep north cliffs and escaped. Although around 270 were subsequently captured in the Urewera bush (120 males were shot), it was the first of the many escapes which gave Te Kooti his formidable reputation. Sheltering at Ruatāhuna, he uttered the famous prediction: 'Although you go in pursuit of me, even with the Governor, I will not be captured by you, nor will I be killed by you, and it will be simply through accident that I shall die'.
Te Kooti's escape into the Urewera forced a decision on Tūhoe. Their formal commitment to him was made at Tāwhana, in the Waimana Valley, on 20 March 1869. They gave their land to Te Kooti while he, in turn, said: 'I take you as my people and I will be your God; you will know that I am Jehovah'. With Tūhoe support, together with some Te Whakatōhea, Te Kooti had re-established a fighting force of some 160 to 200 men.
Te Kooti continued to make swift raids, seeking men and arms. On 9 March he had descended on Rauporoa pā, near Whakatāne. On 10 April he struck at Mōhaka, south of Wairoa, seeking utu against Ngāti Pāhauwera. Here Te Kooti rode the white horse with which, thereafter, he would always be associated. It became the horse with spiritual power, ensuring that its rider would elude capture. It was the white horse of Revelation, which bears him who 'was called Faithful and True; and in righteousness he doth judge and make war'.
From Mōhaka he returned to the Urewera. In April government forces began a scorched earth policy, to destroy Tūhoe's capacity to shelter him. Te Kooti crossed to Taupō and in early July reached Tokangamutu (Te Kūiti), the centre of the King's territory, accompanied by 60 to 70 followers. His attitude towards Tāwhiao was now conciliatory, but the King withheld his support. Tāmati Ngāpora, Tāwhiao's chief adviser, described Te Kooti's purpose as 'to lower their chieftainship, and to destroy their Atua [God]'. But Rewi Maniapoto and Horonuku Te Heuheu Tūkino IV followed him when he left for Taupō on 5 August.
His defeat at Te Ponanga, near Tokaanu, on 25 September cost him the support of Rewi Maniapoto and any prospect of help from the King movement. A further defeat at Te Pōrere on 4 October ended his alliance with Ngāti Tūwharetoa. Here he was wounded, losing the two middle fingers of his left hand. He did not fight again from a prepared position. His success was always in guerrilla warfare.
From Te Pōrere, Te Kooti withdrew into the King Country with 200 followers. He went to Tūhua, where his warlike proposals were rejected by Rewi Maniapoto. Invited to Tokangamutu by Tāwhiao, he replied: 'tell him I will not sheath the sword; that when I go again to Tokangamutu it will be to raise the sword, not to lay it aside'. In January 1870 he went instead to Te Tāpapa, the village of the Waitaha prophet Hākaraia Mahika, where he met Josiah Firth, a friend of Wiremu Tāmihana Tarapīpipi. Te Kooti made it clear that, if 'left alone', he would 'remain at peace with all'. But the government refused to negotiate and rejected Firth as a meddlesome fool. Te Tāpapa was besieged and the war renewed.
Te Kooti moved into Te Arawa territory, where he negotiated with the chief Pētera Te Pukuatua. He sought from Te Arawa an unmolested passage back to the Urewera. While Te Kooti was at Paiaka, near Ōhinemutu, Gilbert Mair, with Te Arawa allies, tore down the white flag of truce under which the negotiations were being held, and attacked Te Kooti on 7 February.
The final phase of the war was the bitter campaign in Tūhoe lands, to which Te Kooti then escaped. One by one Tūhoe leaders were forced to surrender, with the destruction of their villages and their potato crops. Parāone Te Tuhi of Ngāti Whare said, as he surrendered on 17 April 1870, 'I am the rope; pull me and the horse will follow'. The forces which plundered Tūhoe in 1870 and 1871 were Māori: Te Arawa, Ngāti Kahungunu, and Ngāti Porou, all concerned for their own utu, but also serving the government's purposes.
Te Kooti's prediction that Tūhoe would ultimately betray him became a reality. Some of their leaders were forced to act as guides in his pursuit. But it was also with their help that he managed to escape. He continued to elude his hunters, and on 15 May 1872 reached Arowhena, in the King Country, beyond the government's arm. He was accompanied by Hēni Kumekume, probably another woman, and six men.
Te Kooti sought sanctuary at Tokangamutu. But Tāwhiao still rejected him. It was not until September 1873 that Te Kooti accepted Tāwhiao's pacifism. From that date, he said, 'I ceased strife…I came into the presence of Tāwhiao, and will not withdraw myself from it'. In that month Te Kooti supervised the carving by his followers of a meeting house at Tokangamutu, which was gifted to Hīkaka, Makaroa and other Ngāti Maniapoto leaders. The house was later moved and re-named Te Tokanganui-a-noho. In the original decorations, history was told in figurative painting, a style to be developed in the later meeting houses built for him.
From 1873 to 1883 Te Kooti lived at Te Kūiti. Here he evolved the rituals of his church. In 1874 he instituted the First of January and, in 1876, the First of July as the sacred days of the faith. In 1879 he added planting and harvest rites as the other two annual festivals. In 1888 the twelfth of every month was set apart as a sacred day, in addition to the Saturday sabbath. The Twelfth commemorates the Passover, the safe return of the exiles to Whareongaonga. It also celebrates 12 May 1868, when the articles of the faith were said to have been revealed to Te Kooti on Wharekauri. He composed the texts and prayers of the church, drawing always from Scripture. He also composed a body of waiata, which tell the people's history.
From the later 1870s these teachings began to spread, and with them belief in his powers as healer and prophet. People from the East Coast and Bay of Plenty, in particular, came to listen and be healed. From 1877 he began a series of predictions, which looked towards his successor. He predicted the advent of 'a good and peaceful child', who would appear between Ngā Kurī-a-Whārei and Tikirau (the boundaries of the Mataatua canoe tribes of the Bay of Plenty) and 'have very great powers. Though I may have two, three, or four feet, I shall come and bow down at his feet'. This prophecy generated many claimants. The predictions are now more often interpreted by Ringatū as the promise of Christ's return.
In 1883 Te Kooti was formally pardoned, at Rewi Maniapoto's insistence. On 12 February he and Rewi met the native minister, John Bryce, at Mangaōrongo, and pledges of peace were exchanged. Te Kooti left Te Kūiti and in April moved to Ōtewā, where he founded his religious community. He began a series of journeys to visit his followers and make peace with his enemies. He visited Wairoa in 1885 and Napier in 1886. He planned to return to Poverty Bay to open (on 1 January 1888) the great meeting house Rongopai. But hostility among the Rongowhakaata and Ngāti Porou, as well as from the settlers, dissuaded him from going. He had composed his version of the famous waiata 'Pinepine te kura', and it was sung by his followers who went through to Rongopai. In it he asks why he alone was banished from Poverty Bay, and tells of the 'deceiving peace' that had been made. In 1889 he set out for Poverty Bay. But at Ōmarumutu he turned back. While hesitating at Waiotahe, on 28 February, he was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly.
Found guilty by the resident magistrate at Ōpōtiki, Te Kooti was sent to Mount Eden gaol in Auckland and released after two days, when two sureties were paid. He agreed, as a condition of his release, never to return to Poverty Bay. On his appeal to the Supreme Court, the sentence was overturned. The judge found no misconduct, and no action on the part of Te Kooti to justify the 'terror and alarm'. But the government took its case to the Court of Appeal, which in 1890 reinstated the original decision. The judges ruled that the state of mind of the public was relevant, even though it had been created by prejudice and 'jealousies'. They also castigated Te Kooti as 'a Māori prophet and a drunken one to boot'. Yet the teachings of Te Kooti show a commitment to the rule of law. One of his more famous directives was repeated near the end of his life: 'The canoe for you to paddle after me is the Law. Only the Law can be set against the Law'.
His relationship with Rewi and Tāwhiao had deteriorated by 1891, and he again rejected the King movement. He turned his back on the prophet Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and considered the Kotahitanga movement to be futile. He taught, instead, to hold to 'the Way and the Faith'. He sought from the government another place for himself and his followers. Land purchased for him at Ōrākau in 1884 turned out to be almost entirely swamp. Finally, in 1891, he was given 600 acres at Wainui, on the Ōhiwa Harbour. In February 1893 he travelled to the new settlement. On this last journey he suffered the accident which would, as he had predicted, cause his death. On the 28th his sprung cart, in whose shade he had been resting, slipped and fell on him. Injured, he continued the journey through to Hokianga Island in the Ōhiwa Harbour, a strong Ringatū community, and even travelled to Rūātoki on 29 March, where the Tūhoe chiefs were gathered to block the survey of their land. He died on 17 April at Te Karaka, on the shore of the harbour.
It is not known where Te Kooti is buried. He was first interred at Maromahue, Waiotahe, but his body was removed and hidden by his followers. In his death, as in his life, he remains an enigmatic figure. In written accounts and in Pākehā memories he appears as a violent rebel and a religious fanatic. But two drawings, made in 1887, show a bearded, firm-faced, kindly man, his left ear pierced for an ear-ring. The well-springs of the war were his unjust imprisonment and bitter pursuit, and the last 20 years of his life were dedicated to the ways of peace, the law, and the gospel.