Story: Te Whenuanui

Page 1: Biography

Te Whenuanui


Tuhoe chief, builder and carver

This biography, written by Pou Temara,  was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Te Whenuanui was born in the early nineteenth century at Maungapohatu, near Lake Waikaremoana, the son of Te Umuariki and Tikina. He belonged to the Tuhoe hapu, Te Urewera, and to Ngati Rongo. He married Te Akiu of Ngati Koura, with whom he had two children. His father was killed at Whangara on the East Coast, probably in the 1820s, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Te Au. In 1836 Te Whenuanui and his nephew, Paora Kingi I, Te Au's son and successor as chief, rallied the tribes of Mataatua in order to avenge Te Umuariki. Ngati Awa, Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Te Whakatohea and Tuhoe put aside their animosities. They went up the Tauranga River and made a large canoe, Te Totara-o-Huiarau, to transport their combined war party to Whangara; but when the canoe was launched Paora called off the expedition: the uniting of the tribes of Mataatua was seen as redress enough. Paora and Te Whenuanui then set off to Whangara and confirmed a peace pact with the local tribes. Following the death of Paora, Te Whenuanui became one of the two leading chiefs of Tuhoe.

In the late 1830s Tuhoe, having established peace with Ngati Awa, began asserting their property rights at Ruatoki and Opouriao. They cleared suitable land and planted potatoes, corn and wheat. About 1863 they also tried to build a flour mill, but the first of the two sites, Oromairoa, was considered unsuitable by the Pakeha builder. This led to an argument among the leaders, and because no agreement could be reached the project was abandoned. In disgust Te Whenuanui built a carved house, Tuhua, to vent his frustrations. This established his standing as a builder and carver. He later developed a reputation for work in greenstone.

In 1864 the Ngati Maniapoto leader, Rewi Maniapoto, sent emissaries to Ruatahuna requesting Tuhoe to take part in the war against advancing government forces. According to tribal tradition, Tuhoe met at Oputao to discuss this request. Piripi Te Heuheu of Maungapohatu felt obliged to honour the pledge of support given to the King movement at Pukawa in 1857. Te Ahoaho and Te Whenuanui, on the other hand, felt that armed resistance should take place only when their borders were threatened. Piripi stood his ground and left for Waikato with his fighting force. Soon after, Te Whenuanui had a change of heart and followed with his force, which included eight women.

Te Whenuanui caught up with Te Heuheu at Aratitaha. They persuaded Rewi to make a stand at Orakau, where they courageously held out for three days against a numerically superior and better armed force. Te Whenuanui and his daughter, Te Mauniko, were two of the survivors. Although Te Whenuanui was shot in the knee, he and a small band reached Ruatahuna safely. There the old women and the widows of those who had died in Orakau reproached him with a chant of derision.

In 1865 Patara Raukatauri of Taranaki led a Pai Marire mission to Tuhoe. Tuhoe, including Te Whenuanui, became converts, and the Taranaki people set off for home accompanied by some Tuhoe. At Te Tapiri they were intercepted by a force of government auxiliaries made up of Ngati Manawa and Te Arawa, who demanded that Kereopa Te Rau be handed over to stand trial for the killing of the missionary C. S. Völkner at Opotiki. Tuhoe refused, and Te Whenuanui is said to have taken part in the ensuing fight which resulted in the defeat of the pro-government force.

In January 1866 Te Whenuanui took part in a battle at Te Kopane in the Wairoa district. He then remained quietly at Ruatahuna. When compensation was not agreed on for the Opouriao and Waimana lands confiscated in 1866, Tuhoe met at Ruatahuna in 1867 to discuss future strategies. Representatives of the Maori King, Tawhiao, carried his message: hold fast, for salvation will come from the sea-coast. Te Whenuanui, supported by the people of Ruatahuna, Maungapohatu and Waikaremoana, counselled neutrality. Ngai Tama of Waimana, together with the people of Ruatoki, were for fighting. A raid was made on Ohiwa and Waiotahe in January 1868.

The arrival of Te Kooti in Poverty Bay in 1868 saw Te Whenuanui once again take up arms. Te Kooti was the salvation predicted by Tawhiao, and from 1869 to 1870 Te Whenuanui was one of the Tuhoe chiefs who supported him. Tuhoe experienced the rigours of war when government troops and auxiliaries invaded the Urewera. It was difficult to grow food and crops were destroyed. People starved, and without shelter they suffered from the cold; the population dwindled.

Because of the plight of his people, Te Whenuanui left Te Kooti and attempted to make peace with the government. He met with Captain Gilbert Mair at Ruatoki in September 1870. As an expression of good intent, he presented Mair with three cloaks and two greenstone mere. Mair reciprocated with a watch, a ring, a gold pin and a shawl. In December 1870 Te Whenuanui led a delegation of chiefs consisting of Paerau, Tutakangahau, Tamarau Waiari and others to Napier where they formally made their peace with J. D. Ormond, superintendent of Hawke's Bay, who was responsible for the East Coast war effort. The government, however, continued to hold out for the capture of Kereopa, still hiding in Tuhoe territory. He agreed to surrender, but when he tried to flee he was chased and caught by Te Whiu Maraki and handed over to the government.

Te Whenuanui was now a guide for the government forces, although it is said that he would lead them in the opposite direction to that of Te Kooti. In 1872 Te Kooti departed for Waikato and came under the protection of the King movement. For Tuhoe, the war was over.

Despite the peace, the confiscated lands were still a source of contention. In 1872 Te Whenuanui was one of the chiefs instrumental in setting up Te Whitu Tekau (the seventy) at Ruatahuna. The mandate of this council was to prevent any application to the Native Land Court for a survey of Tuhoe land or investigation of titles. It forbade the building of roads or leasing of lands. It was also an arbitrator for internal tribal disputes, and aimed at preventing the intrusion of representatives of European law.

During 1872 Te Whenuanui began building a house to commemorate the hardships Tuhoe had suffered during the war. Because of the uncertainty of the peace, Manawaru, a hilltop pa near Ruatahuna, was chosen as a defensible site. However, growing confidence in the peace led the people to occupy the flats, and the house was not finished. It was termed 'te whare tihokahoka', the incomplete house. Te Kooti sent word to Te Whenuanui to complete it: an unfinished house carried grave portents for Maori. Te Whenuanui enlisted the assistance of Ngati Kotore, who were experts at building houses. His kinship with Ngati Kotore, and with the celebrated Tuhoe composer, Mihi-ki-te-kapua, helped to make this possible. Te Whenuanui intended the dimensions of the house to be a symbol for restoring Tuhoe pride. The house, opened in 1888, was named Te Whai-a-te-motu, memorialising Te Kooti's flight and pursuit by government forces.

In the 1870s Te Whenuanui was involved in meetings with government officials dealing with Tuhoe land interests. He chose not to speak at these meetings; matters of concern to his hapu, Te Urewera, were put forward through representatives. On the occasion of the opening of Mataatua meeting house at Whakatane in 1875, Tuhoe chiefs sought redress from the minister for native affairs Sir Donald McLean. Directing his comments specifically to Te Whenuanui, he replied that the land had been confiscated because Tuhoe had, without cause, taken up arms against the government. Te Whenuanui refused to give ground. The following day McLean was more amenable. He promised that if too much land were lost through purchase, a law would be passed to stop this.

Despite these assurances Tuhoe closed their borders. In 1894 the premier, Richard Seddon, and the member of the Executive Council representing the native race, James Carroll, visited Tuhoe to seek, among other things, co-operation in allowing roads to be built in the Urewera. An agreement was reached, and Te Whenuanui and Tuhoe began the labour of road-making. However, his people were not happy about Te Whenuanui doing work unbefitting a chief and he was asked to desist. In 1895 an armed party, possibly under instructions from Te Whenuanui, confronted surveyors; no shots were fired.

At this time, Te Whenuanui was given leading women of Tuhoe as wives: Te Haupai of Ngati Kakahutapiki and Anitana of Ngati Manunui. The object was to produce issue of rank for those hapu. Unfortunately, Te Whenuanui was ageing. Although Anitana did have a child, which Ngati Manunui claimed was Te Whenuanui's, she later revealed that he was not the father.

Te Whenuanui remained active into old age. In 1901 he and other chiefs of Tuhoe were present at the welcome to the duke and duchess of Cornwall and of York at Rotorua, where Te Whenuanui was presented with a medal. In June 1904 he requested the urgent establishment of a school in Ruatahuna (eventually established in 1917). In 1905 he was in Waikaremoana directing the building of another meeting house, Te Poho-o-Tuhoe-potiki, at Waimako Pa. According to oral evidence, Te Whenuanui met with an accident in 1906 while handling a newly broken horse which took fright and dragged him along the ground. His injuries incapacitated him and led to his death in 1907. He was buried in a lead coffin behind Te Poho-o-Tuhoe-potiki. In 1910 his body was exhumed and returned to Te Whai-a-te-motu, where he now lies. The meeting houses Te Whai-a-te-motu and Te Poho-o-Tuhoe-potiki stand as memorials to him, and he is immortalised in the saying, 'The mountain is Panekiri, Te Whenuanui the man'.

How to cite this page:

Pou Temara. 'Te Whenuanui', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 September 2020)