South Island (Te Wai Pounamu) territories
After the difficult migration from their homeland in Kāwhia to the Kapiti region, the fortunes of Ngāti Toa rose. At Kapiti Island in 1824, they and their allies inflicted a crushing defeat on the tribes who had previously occupied the Kapiti district. This victory placed Ngāti Toa in a position of dominance in the Cook Strait region. They were also able to expand into the South Island, the source of highly prized greenstone. A series of Ngāti Toa-led invasions of the South Island added new territory to their domain, and resulted in the conquest of the Kurahaupō people in northern parts of the South Island.
The leadership of Te Rauparaha
When the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Ngāti Toa controlled extensive lands on both sides of Cook Strait. This remarkable achievement was largely due to the skilful leadership of Te Rauparaha. He was a masterful tactician in battle, as well as being adaptable and open to new ideas; as a result, he frequently chose diplomacy over force. By fostering alliances with other tribes he ensured the successful conquest and settlement of the lands throughout the Cook Strait region. He also instigated trade with Pākehā by welcoming visiting ships to Kapiti and encouraging whalers and traders to live among Ngāti Toa. Cook Strait became the centre of a lucrative maritime trading empire, controlled by Ngāti Toa from their island fortress of Kapiti.
The colonial challenge
After 1840 the government undermined the political and economic power of Ngāti Toa, asserting its right to the lands, harbours and coastline of the Cook Strait region. Ngāti Toa made every attempt to protect their land. This was the motivation behind the tribe’s martial response to the surveying of land on the Wairau (Blenheim) plains for Pākehā settlement in 1843. But by 1846 their leading chiefs had been removed by the government: Te Rauparaha was kidnapped and his nephew Te Rangihaeata was forced into exile. While Ngāti Toa’s leaders were effectively held to ransom, the Crown forced the sale of most of the tribe’s lands on both sides of Cook Strait.