Rāpata Wahawaha, of Te Aowera hapū of Ngāti Porou, was born at either Te Puia or Akuaku, in the Waiapu district. His father was Hīpora Koroua and his mother Te Hapamana Te Whao. His most distinguished ancestor was Pākira, a prominent warrior in the wars that led to the emergence of Ngāti Porou. By his own account Wahawaha was a child when Christianity was introduced; if this refers to the East Coast district, it suggests he was born about 1820. The second Ngāpuhi invasion is also associated with his birth; this too suggests that his birth took place about 1820. He is known to have been a child when he was captured in 1828 in a land dispute between Ngāti Porou and Rongowhakaata.
Wahawaha became the slave of Rāpata Whakapuhia, from whom his first name derives. Later the name was sometimes pronounced Rōpata, because that is how it sounded when spoken by the Scots Donald McLean. Rāpata was pleased with the new pronunciation, as it did not recall his childhood slavery. His release from captivity was secured by Tama-i-whakanehua-i-te-rangi, and by 1839, when he married, Rāpata was back in Ngāti Porou territory. In later life he took revenge on Rongowhakaata.
Rāpata married Hārata Te Ihi at Tūranga (Gisborne) in 1849. Little else is recorded of the life of Rāpata until the wars of the 1860s, when Ngāti Porou were divided by mounting tensions. Delegates from the East Coast attended a meeting at Pāwhakairo in Hawke's Bay with Tāmihana Te Rauparaha to discuss the movement for a Māori king; and in 1862 the flags of the King movement were raised at Waiomatatini by Tamatatai, a Waiapu man who had been to Waikato. In reply, Mōkena Kōhere raised the Queen's flag at Rangitukia. With the onset of war in 1863 some Ngāti Porou joined the King's forces. In March 1864 a large Ngāti Porou war party was prevented from entering Waikato by Te Arawa, but some East Coast warriors succeeded in reaching Waikato through Tauranga.
Warfare came to the East Coast with the arrival in 1865 of the Pai Mārire emissaries Kereopa Te Rau and Pātara Raukatauri. They made many converts among Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, and virtually took over Poverty Bay. Meanwhile, further north, fighting broke out within Ngāti Porou. Some hapū sympathised with Pai Mārire, some were divided, and others opposed the new religion. Each faction concentrated its forces in opposing pā, many of them newly built.
Rāpata, a leading lay member of the Anglican diocese of Waiapu, was attending a church opening at Popoti in June 1865 when the Reverend Mohi Tūrei brought news that Hauhau had arrived in the Waiapu Valley and were at Pukemaire. Rāpata led 40 men, mostly of Te Aowera hapū, against them. Although the Hauhau won the battles of Mangaone and Tikitiki, Rāpata distinguished himself by killing a Hauhau chief in single combat at Tikitiki. After Hēnare Nihoniho was killed at Mangaone, Rāpata became the leader of Te Aowera.
The Hauhau held the advantage in these early encounters, in numbers, arms and ammunition. Loyalist Ngāti Porou appealed to Donald McLean, the provincial superintendent and agent for the general government; war material was sent, and James Fraser with 100 Hawke's Bay volunteers landed at the mouth of the Waiapu River to relieve Te Hātepe, the pā of Mōkena Kōhere. Without government assistance Ngāti Porou territory might have become a Hauhau stronghold.
Having beaten the Hauhau from Te Hātepe, Fraser and Mōkena stormed their position at nearby Pākairomiromi, and Rāpata won a small battle at Te Horo. Rāpata then went to relieve Te Māwhai, the pā built by Hēnare Pōtae at Tokomaru Bay. They drove off the Hauhau and took the neighbouring pā of Tautini and Pukepapa. After these victories Rāpata shot Hauhau captives who belonged to Te Aowera. Having skirmished towards Tolaga Bay and killed 12 Hauhau in an engagement at Tahutahupō, Rāpata and his men returned to the Waiapu Valley. They joined Fraser's troops and 50 Forest Rangers in an attack on the Hauhau fortifications on Pukemaire hill. Although the attack was beaten off, the Hauhau abandoned the pā and retired to Hungahungatoroa, further north. They surrendered there after Rāpata and Major R. N. Biggs scaled the cliff above the pā and fired down into it. At the request of Mōkena, Hauhau of Ngāti Porou were spared and called from the pā, hapū by hapū. They were later made to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria. Most Hauhau from other tribes, captured fighting in Ngāti Porou territory, escaped into the bush, but those that remained were executed. The surrender at Hungahungatoroa eliminated the Hauhau in Waiapu, and thereafter Ngāti Porou as a whole supported the government.
But Hauhau continued to control Poverty Bay; in October 1865 Rāpata and Mōkena led 300 Ngāti Porou south. Fighting on the East Coast now became intertribal. With other government troops Ngāti Porou besieged the Hauhau at Waerenga-a-hika. A mass charge by Hauhau carrying white fighting flags was defeated, and after a cannon was brought into action, the pā surrendered. Prisoners from Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki were deported by the government to the Chatham Islands. It was after this battle that Te Kooti was arrested.
Fighting continued further south. On 4 January 1866 Rāpata and 150 Ngāti Porou landed at Wairoa to assist pro-government Ngāti Kahungunu leaders Kōpū Parapara and Īhaka Whaanga. The Hauhau retreated inland to Lake Waikaremoana and while pursuing them Ngāti Kahungunu were ambushed at Te Kōpane. Defeat and military disaster seemed imminent but Rāpata fired the bush and the flames drove the Hauhau from their positions. Many prisoners were taken in the pursuit; Rāpata wished to spare local Ngāti Kahungunu and only execute those of Ngāti Porou, Tūhoe and Rongowhakaata. This was not acceptable to Ngāti Kahungunu and all the prisoners were shot. By the winter of 1866 the East Coast was largely pacified, although the Hauhau leaders Te Waru Tamatea and Eru Tamaikowha were undefeated and the Urewera was beyond the control of government forces.
Warfare broke out again on the East Coast on 10 July 1868, when Te Kooti and his followers landed after escaping from the Chatham Islands. They were pursued inland unsuccessfully by Māori and Pākehā volunteers and Armed Constabulary, led by Lieutenant Colonel G. S. Whitmore. Rāpata and 200 Ngāti Porou were again brought down to Wairoa and set out for Puketapu, led by Major Charles Lambert. On learning that Te Kooti had left, Lambert led his force back to Wairoa. Rāpata wished to advance after Te Kooti, who was reported to be preparing to attack Poverty Bay. The report was correct; on the night of 9–10 November 1868 Te Kooti attacked and killed some 54 people, more than 20 of them Māori. He held the district for a week and then retired with booty and captives to Mākāretu, which he fortified. There Rāpata and other members of Ngāti Porou, and government troops, attacked him. Te Kooti and his followers were driven from the pā and retreated to the fortress of Ngātapa, inland from Tūranga.
The first assault on Ngātapa, on 5 December 1868, was led by Rāpata, Hōtene Porourangi and Lieutenant G. A. Preece; they succeeded in gaining the outer defence works. Rāpata and a few troops fought all night, but had to retreat in the morning because they were not supported by Porourangi's Ngāti Porou or by Ngāti Kahungunu. Rāpata was awarded the New Zealand Cross for gallantry in this action and raised to the rank of major. Preece and Rāpata retreated towards Gisborne and met Whitmore, who was advancing against Te Kooti with a force of Te Arawa and Wanganui Armed Constabulary. Rāpata refused to accompany him; with Whitmore's agreement, he announced his intention of returning to Waiapu to recruit new Ngāti Porou troops. He also threatened to attack Ngāti Kahungunu, who had failed to support him at Ngātapa.
Whitmore, with too few troops to attack Ngātapa, went to Mākāretu and waited for Rāpata's return. After an illness Rāpata arrived on 31 December. With Captain T. W. Porter and a contingent of Te Arawa he cut Ngātapa off from its water supply. An assault on the pā on 4 January captured the outworks and the pā was abandoned during the night. In the pursuit several hundred prisoners were taken; 120 male prisoners were shot and thrown over a cliff. Rāpata, throughout his military career, executed only male prisoners taken in arms; by the standards of the time he showed restraint. Te Kooti escaped into the Urewera, and, finding new followers, raided Whakatāne and Mōhaka.
Whitmore decided that the Urewera would have to be invaded, to put an end to its use as a sanctuary and a supply and recruitment area by Te Kooti and the remaining Hauhau leaders. The district, for example, was known to harbour Kereopa, who was held responsible for the killing of the missionary C. S. Völkner in 1865. Whitmore planned to invade the Urewera with three converging columns. Rāpata and Ngāti Porou were attached to Lieutenant Colonel J. L. Herrick's column, which was to go to Waikaremoana and capture refugees driven south by the other columns. The columns led by Whitmore and Lieutenant Colonel John St John destroyed the villages and crops of the Tūhoe people and met in the valley of Ruatāhuna. On 6 May 1869 Whitmore took the Tūhoe pā of Te Hārema; for the first time the Urewera had been successfully invaded. As winter closed in, Whitmore led his troops out of the mountains and Te Kooti went to Taupō and the King Country in a last attempt to build around himself a great Māori alliance.
After failing in this goal and after losing against Te Arawa, Te Kooti returned to the Urewera. Rāpata made four expeditions in pursuit of him. The first was a joint operation with Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, leader of the Wanganui Native Contingent, which began in February 1870. Rāpata took the Tūhoe stronghold of Tore-a-tai on the mountain of Maungapōhatu, which had never fallen before. On 23 March Te Keepa and then Rāpata stormed the pā of Te Kooti at Maraetahi, high up in the Waiōeka Gorge, ending his last attempt to hold a fortified position and freeing Te Whakatōhea prisoners taken in raids near Ōpōtiki. Te Keepa made peace with the Hauhau leader Eru Tamaikowha, and returned to Whanganui in April. Rāpata searched the hills around Ōpōtiki for hidden ammunition supplies and returned to Waiapu. Tūhoe continued to surrender throughout 1870; Te Waru Tamatea surrendered late that year. Te Kooti had ceased to be a military threat; he and his followers lived as fugitives.
In January 1871 Rāpata and Porter returned to the pursuit, in partnership with Captain Gilbert Mair and Te Arawa troops; the campaign against Te Kooti was now left to Māori troops. They were no longer paid, and compensated themselves by plundering Tūhoe. In July Mair and Te Arawa found Te Kooti's camp at Waipaoa but Te Kooti had escaped. Ngāti Porou took up his trail and at dawn on 1 September surrounded his camp at Te Hāpua (also known as Ruahapū), near Te Whāiti. Te Kooti broke through the bark wall at the back of his sleeping hut, and shouting 'save yourselves, it's Ngāti Porou', plunged into the bush. He escaped with one of his wives and five followers, and took refuge in the King Country.
Later in 1871 Rāpata carried out a final pacification of the Urewera, where he had built several pā, suggesting a permanent Ngāti Porou presence. He told Eru Tamaikowha, who acted as an intermediary, that he only wished to capture rebels and murderers and that refugees and fugitive hapū could return home. Tūhoe were now tired of war and destruction; they helped to capture Kereopa, so that the war would end. After this Rāpata had Tūhoe assemble at Ruatāhuna and in a farewell speech told them to end their association with the Hauhau, and that the government was now at peace with them. He withdrew his garrison from Maungapōhatu and returned to the East Coast in December, after ensuring that Tūhoe had food supplies and seed for new crops.
Rāpata had become a leading man in Ngāti Porou through his prowess as a soldier. In battle he never took cover and always pursued retreating enemies. He had fought on the side of the government, but in doing so had taken revenge on his childhood captors, Rongowhakaata, and had safeguarded the land of Ngāti Porou from confiscation.
Although Rāpata fought in alliance with the government and rejected ideas of Māori nationalism, he always acted as a tribal leader. When he took prisoners, he wished to show clemency to local people who had fought against him under their tribal leaders, and to execute only those who had come from other districts. Like other loyalist leaders, he used government assistance to strengthen his tribe and to attack traditional enemies.
Rāpata did not feel sufficiently rewarded for his services in war. He said he was promised much which he had not received. It is probable that he was referring to the acquisition of Poverty Bay land, confiscated from Rongowhakaata. In 1873 Ngāti Porou received a cash settlement of their land claims in Poverty Bay.
In the 1870s Rāpata was an opponent of the Repudiation movement on the East Coast. This movement, which included former Hauhau, originated in Hawke's Bay. In alliance with Pākehā opponents of the dominant settler landowners, it attempted to regain Māori land by litigation. In the 1876 election for the Eastern Māori seat Rāpata opposed Karaitiana Takamoana, a Ngāti Kahungunu leader of the Repudiation movement, and attempted to rig the vote in favour of the East Coast candidate, Hōtene Porourangi, but was unsuccessful. Ngāti Porou leaders then tried to get a new election held, claiming that flooding of the Waiapu River had prevented hundreds of their people from voting, but Karaitiana Takamoana eventually took his seat in Parliament.
In 1878 Rāpata was awarded a sword of honour by Queen Victoria for his services in the wars. He was appointed officer in charge of the militia in the Ngāti Porou district, with a salary of £200 a year, and under the Native Circuit Courts Act 1858 was made an assessor to assist in law enforcement. When these salaries were stopped in 1884, as a result of government economies, he objected bitterly. Later, he received a pension of £100 a year, and in 1887 was appointed to the Legislative Council. He continued to encourage Ngāti Porou to co-operate with the government, and to adapt to the changed situation in order to control its impact.
Rāpata encouraged education and in 1871 a permanent school was established at Waiomatatini. James Booth, the resident magistrate, noted that there was no absenteeism at the Waiomatatini school, as the school committee, with Rāpata as chairman, fined parents heavily if their children stayed away without cause. Rāpata encouraged young Māori to learn English, which he regretted never having learnt.
Rāpata had a meeting house built at Waiomatatini and called it Porourangi. Carvings were made for it by Tāmati Ngākaho; it was completed and dedicated in 1888. Later it was re-sited on higher ground to protect it from floods. The house still stands and some of the original carving has survived. Rāpata was also a sheepfarmer and co-operated with the government in the eradication of animal diseases. A campaign against eczema had wiped out his flocks in 1879, but the government paid compensation, and by 1894 he had 2,400 sheep. He was also active as a seller and lessor of land, and as a government land purchase officer. In 1876 he addressed a meeting of 2,000 Māori at Waiomatatini, advising them to put their land through the Native Land Court and make it available for sale or lease. Land was let extensively by Ngāti Porou to satisfy settler demand while retaining ownership for the future; some major leases ran out as early as 1911 and were not renewed. In 1880 a dispute over a block of land developed between Te Aitanga-a-Mate and Te Whānau-a-Ruataupare hapū of Ngāti Porou. The disagreement almost resulted in a gun battle, but Rāpata persuaded the disputants to take the case to the Native Land Court. Native Land Court sittings in Waiapu were noted for their good order and for the presentation to the court of decisions arrived at by earlier tribal discussion.
Te Kooti, who was formally pardoned in 1883, attempted to visit Poverty Bay in 1889. There was considerable opposition from both settlers and East Coast Māori, many of whom were related to victims of the raids by Te Kooti. On 21 February Rāpata arrived at Gisborne with a contingent of Ngāti Porou. He and Thomas Porter (now a colonel) were appointed by the premier, Harry Atkinson, to lead an expedition to Ōpōtiki to stop Te Kooti from entering the East Coast or the Urewera. Te Kooti was confronted at Waiotahi by Inspector Joseph Goodall and was disputing his arrest when Ngāti Porou arrived. He then submitted to arrest and told his people to be quiet. Rāpata was not present at the arrest; it seems that he was unwell, and had remained at Ōpōtiki.
Rāpata died at Gisborne on 1 July 1897. He was buried with military honours on the rock fortress of Pūputa in the Waiomatatini Valley. His last words to his people were to be loyal to the Queen, steadfast to the church and friendly to Europeans, and to maintain their unity as a tribe.