Story: Te Pehi Kupe

Page 1: Biography

Te Pehi Kupe


Ngati Toa leader, warrior

This biography, written by Steven Oliver, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Te Pehi Kupe was born at Kawhia. He was the elder son of Toitoi and was descended in the senior line from Toa Rangatira, the eponymous ancestor of Ngati Toa. His mother was Waipuna-a-hau, a woman of the Ngati Hinetuhi section of Ngati Mutunga in Taranaki. Te Pehi Kupe's portrait, painted in England in 1824, shows an elaborately tattooed man aged about 30; from this portrait his date of birth has been estimated as about 1795. Te Pehi Kupe had two wives, Tiaia, the mother of his son, Te Hiko-o-te-rangi, and of four daughters, and Te Purewa, mother of his daughter, Ria Waitohi.

Little is known about Te Pehi's childhood except that he was raised as a chief. As a young man in 1819 he joined other Ngati Toa warriors in the musket-armed war expedition of the northern leaders Tuwhare, Patuone and Nene. They took part in raiding Horowhenua and Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington). On Kapiti Island, during peacemaking after an unsuccessful siege of Taepiro pa, Te Pehi was presented with a greenstone mere by the defenders.

After the return of Ngati Toa warriors to Kawhia their territory was invaded by war parties of Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto. At the battle of Te Kakara, near Lake Taharoa, Te Pehi was one of four Ngati Toa leaders to be armed with a musket. The others were Te Rauparaha, Te Rangihaeata and Pokai-tara. Ngati Toa were defeated by an overwhelming enemy force. Soon after, they abandoned their ancestral homeland at Kawhia and withdrew south, first to Taranaki and later to Horowhenua. During the retreat from Kawhia Te Pehi's wife, Tiaia, dissuaded Te Rauparaha from killing a Waikato man who had helped Ngati Toa.

In Taranaki relatives of Te Pehi from Ngati Mutunga joined Ngati Toa, and the combined war party defeated a Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto army at Motunui in late 1821 or early 1822. Ngati Toa then moved on to Horowhenua where Te Pehi captured Kapiti Island from Muaupoko and Ngati Apa. The island became the stronghold of Ngati Toa. Te Pehi also captured Muaupoko leader Te Ratu and was wounded in doing so. As a consequence the other Ngati Toa leaders gave up to Te Pehi the land that Te Ratu and his people had held at Kukutauaki. In other fighting, against Rangitane, Ngati Toa killed three Ngati Apa leaders who were assisting Rangitane at Motuiti pa, in northern Manawatu. In revenge Ngati Apa struck unexpectedly at Ngati Toa at Waikanae and killed 60 of them, including 4 children of Te Pehi. Te Pehi wanted revenge but for that he needed guns and ammunition.

On 26 February 1824 the Urania was becalmed in Cook Strait. Three canoes paddled out to the ship. One, a great war canoe, drew up to the Urania and Te Pehi, after making signs of peace, leapt aboard. By signs he asked for guns and on being told there were none said he would stay on board and go to Europe and ask King George for some. He pronounced these names clearly enough. He resisted being thrown overboard and ordered the canoes to return to shore. A breeze had sprung up so the captain of the ship, Richard Reynolds, was forced to let him stay. Te Pehi became friends with Reynolds and in Montevideo saved him from drowning.

In England Te Pehi was presented to George IV. He learnt to ride horses, saw regiments reviewed and visited factories; he was given gifts of tools and clothing but not muskets, although he may have acquired some from other sources. He survived a bout of measles and left England on 6 October 1825 on the Thames, travelling at the government's expense. In Sydney he sold the gifts he had been given and bought arms and ammunition. His return to Kapiti increased Ngati Toa's supply of guns shortly before their invasion of the South Island.

In Te Pehi's absence Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata had made peace with Ngati Apa. Despite this, Te Pehi took a war party to Rangitikei and sacked a Ngati Apa pa, probably Pikitara. There was no further warfare between Ngati Toa and Ngati Apa.

About 1828 Ngati Toa and allied tribes invaded the South Island to avenge tribal insults, to conquer new territories with their armoury of muskets and to take captives. They were also seeking greenstone. The Ngai Tahu pa of Kaikoura and Omihi were sacked and their inhabitants killed or enslaved. Ngati Toa continued south to the Ngai Tahu pa at Kaiapoi and there professed friendship and a wish to trade. Te Pehi, Pokai-tara, Te Ara-tangata, Kiko-tiwha and others entered the pa to trade guns and ammunition for greenstone. Tamihana Te Rauparaha wrote in his account of his father's life that Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata remained outside, but Te Pehi, Pokai-tara and Te Ara-tangata stayed the night in Kaiapoi pa and were killed while sleeping. Ngai Tahu sources say that there was a quarrel, initiated by Te Pehi, over a block of greenstone, in which he said to a Ngai Tahu named Moimoi: 'Why do you with the crooked tattoo, resist my wishes – you whose nose will shortly be cut off with a hatchet'. Ngai Tahu then closed the gates of the pa and killed the chiefs inside. Te Pehi Kupe was killed by Tangata Hara.

It is said that Te Pehi's last words, while struggling with his attackers, were, 'Don't give it to the god, but to the Kaka-kura'. The meaning of this saying is now lost. Te Pehi's body was cooked and eaten and his bones were later made into fish-hooks. Ngati Toa had insufficient forces to capture Kaiapoi pa so returned to Omihi and killed Ngai Tahu prisoners there. Te Rauparaha and Te Hiko-o-te-rangi took further revenge against Ngai Tahu in subsequent campaigns.

How to cite this page:

Steven Oliver. 'Te Pehi Kupe', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 10 April 2020)