Mohi Tāwhai

He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene

On 28 October 1835 at the Waitangi residence of James Busby, 34 chiefs signed He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene (known in English as the Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand). By 1839, 18 more chiefs had signed He Whakaputanga, which was acknowledged by the British government. This biography of one of the signatories was originally written for the He Tohu exhibition.

Signing details

Signature number: 
Signed as: 
Probable name: 
Mohi Tāwhai
Ngāpuhi, Te Māhurehure, Te Uri Kaiwhare, Te Uri-o-Te-Aho, Ngāi Tūpoto, Ngāti Hau
1835 residence: 
Tohu (signature): 

Tāwhai – later known as Mohi (Moses) Tāwhai – was born around 1806. His father was Tāmaha. Tāwhai had at least two wives, one of whom was Rāwinia Hine-i-koaia (also known as Hārata or Charlotte), with whom he had a son, Hōne Mohi Tāwhai. Associated with Waimā in southern Hokianga, Tāwhai told one European visitor: 'There I was born, and there I wish to die, and leave my children to inherit my land.' [1]

Small in stature, Tāwhai was described as 'having an eye of fire, sinews of steel, and the tongue of an orator; his natural force is not abated.' [2] Respected as an arbiter in disputes, he intervened when Moka was believed to be trespassing on land in southern Hokianga. In response to a Te Rarawa taua, Tāwhai composed a unique peace haka with the Reverend H. H. Lawry, and violence was averted. Tāwhai marked the event by carving a taiaha, known as the ‘taiaha of peace’, as a gift to Lawry.

Tāwhai was indirectly involved in the pig wars of 1826. Pigs were valuable possessions, and some had been gifted by Pōmare II’s uncle Pōmarenui on the wedding of Pōmarenui’s cousin Te Whareumu to Tāwhai’s daughter Moehuri. When the animals were wrongfully claimed by Pōmarenui’s son Tiki, he was shot and killed. Pōmare II, Tāmati Wāka Nene, Patuone and Hokianga leader Muriwai tried to settle the dispute, but Te Whareumu, Muriwai and others were killed. Patuone and Nene then placed Te Whareumu’s body among their own dead to prevent further fighting.

Tāwhai was also a strategist who was keen to safeguard the well-being of his people. On 21 September 1835 he attended a meeting at the Wesleyan mission house at Mangungu, where a liquor ban in Hokianga was adopted. Two years later Tāwhai set out to form a committee of rangatira to keep land at Waimā in Māori hands. Such concerns would have been reasons for signing He Whakaputanga, which he did sometime between 29 March 1836 and 25 June 1837.

Around this time Tāwhai was baptised as a Wesleyan (Methodist) at Mangungu, and took the name Mohi (Moses). He is said to have challenged the validity of Māori beliefs by washing his head – an extremely tapu area of the body – in a pot previously used for food. 'If he was still alive when the sun set, that would be the appointed sign telling him that the Christian god was the true god and he would be a disciple,' writes Hazel Petrie. [3]

Soon after, he travelled north to Muriwhenua to make peace with his former enemies. Mohi Tāwhai was praised by missionaries as their 'local preacher and class-leader, and deservedly respected for his zeal and fidelity.' [4] However, his conversion to Christianity led one European observer to comment: 'Mohi was greatly feared, but now they said to him: "How is this? When in days gone by we heard of your coming, we all took to our arms. Your name was Tawhai, but now you are called Mohi; and we have no fear in your presence."' [5]

Mohi Tāwhai signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi at Mangungu on 12 February 1840. During the discussions before the signing, Tāwhai questioned the authority of the governor and whether he could 'stop all the lands from falling into the hands of the Pakehas.' He uttered the much quoted line: 'Our sayings will sink to the bottom like a stone, but your sayings will float light, like the wood of the Whau-tree.' [6]

During the 1845–46 Northern Wars, Mohi Tāwhai allied with the British forces. In 1875 he died after falling from his horse outside the Wesleyan church he had just attended. He was around seventy years of age.

[1] John Waterhouse, Journal of a Second Voyage: from Hobart-Town, Van Diemen’s Land, to New Zealand, the Friendly Islands, and Feejee, commenced October 1840, Wesleyan Mission-House and John Mason, London, 1844, p.8.

[2] J. G. Turner, The Pioneer Missionary: Life of the Rev. Nathaniel Turner, Missionary in New ZealandTonga, and Australia, George Robertson, Melbourne, 1872, p.169.

[3] Hazel Petrie, Outcasts of the Gods? The Struggle over Slavery in Māori New Zealand, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2016, pp.258–59.

[4] Charles O. B. Davis, The Renowned Chief Kawiti and Other New Zealand Warriors, Lambert, Auckland, 1855, p.15.

[5] James Buller, Forty Years in New Zealand Including a Personal Narrative, an Account of Maoridom, and of the Christianization and Colonization of the Country, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1878, p.53.

[6]  J. S. Buick, The Treaty of Waitangi: How New Zealand Became a British Colony, Thomas Avery & Sons, New Plymouth, 1936, p.173.

Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about Mohi Tāwhai

What do you know?

Can you tell us more about the information on this page? Perhaps you have a related experience you would like to share?

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments will be reviewed prior to posting. Not all comments posted. Tell me more...

John William Hohepa

Posted: 19 Dec 2017

We have an option, a contingency plan a lawful process of succession. It was taken in 1971 by the UAE since their treaty of 1820. In 1963 Malaysia became independent and recently the Kingdom Of Tonga this year Dissolved the Colonial Government. Since our hui in Kaeo finding out from a speaker from Malaysia who spoke out in support of this korero that her people being farmers and tribesman took that option and succeeded their forefathers who signed treaties with the Protectorate of the British Monarchy. It is only an option for the collective to decide who they want to manage their estate, as I mentioned at one stage "the Govtnz are happy to continue". In 2016 we initiated the 1st Roll Call of Tupuna Signatories where descendants were able to whakapapa/tatai to their tupuna, It has not been fully supported by leaders yet at this years 182 Commemorations it was the only process carried out by the collective in a dawn Ceremony at the Tau Rangatira. Since last year our efforts to rally a new process of linking all fronts began. Our leaders saw it and certain ones were able to stall it to where at this years 28th October Commemorations unfortunately the waka was stopped dead in the water, yet we gathered to carry out the 2nd Roll Call of our Tupuna! This history and research is hoped to be presented as best as possible to elders with the hope of generating support and recognition of a succession process and pathway to move our independence forward. The leaders have been impacted by the outfall of 9 yrs of hearings to settle by GOVTNZ and 30 years of corporate agenda's have plagued the unity of Nga Puhi and the Marae community of Maori as well as depleted the moral and confidence of the collective making this job very precarious.