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Te Wherowhero

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
Te Wherowhero
Waikato, Ngāti Mahuta
1835 residence
Tohu (signature)

Te Wherowhero was born in Waikato towards the end of the eighteenth century. He was the eldest son of Te Rauangaanga and Parengaope, and belonged to the senior chiefly line of Ngāti Mahuta. He had four wives – Whakaawi, Raharaha, Waiata and Ngāwaero – and his children were Matutaera (later known as Tāwhiao, the second Māori King), Makareta Te Otaota and Tiria. Te Wherowhero’s whakapapa connected him to all of the major waka from which Māori trace their descent.

As a young man, Te Wherowhero was schooled in tribal knowledge and trained in warfare. From around 1815 he led his Waikato people through two decades of frequent warfare known as the ‘musket wars’. A series of attacks by Waikato, culminating in their victory at the battle of Te Kakara, was a major factor in Ngāti Toa, under the leadership of Te Rauparaha, leaving Kāwhia around 1821. Further fighting against Ngāti Toa in northern Taranaki saw Waikato suffer a major defeat at Te Motunui. During this battle Te Wherowhero demonstrated his prowess in hand-to-hand combat, but he was fortunate to escape with his life; Te Rauparaha intervened on his behalf on two separate occasions.

After returning to Waikato, Te Wherowhero resisted the invasion of the musket-armed Ngāpuhi under Hongi Hika, who inflicted a heavy defeat on Waikato at Mātakitaki pā in May 1822, resulting in many deaths. Waikato retreated south for several years, for fear of further attacks. Te Wherowhero was living at Ōrongokoekoea on the upper Mōkau River when his son, Matutaera, the future King Tāwhiao, was born.

When peace was made with Ngāpuhi in 1823, Waikato gradually returned to their homes. The peace was cemented by the marriage of Te Wherowhero’s brother, Kati, to Matire Toha of Ngāpuhi. Despite this, fighting with some segments of Ngāpuhi continued intermittently through the 1820s.

In 1831 Te Wherowhero led an expedition to Taranaki to seek revenge for Te Motunui. After a three month siege, the Te Āti Awa pā of Pukerangiora fell to the Waikato invaders, with great loss of life. Te Wherowhero continued his attacks on Taranaki, but made peace after an unsuccessful attack on Waimate pā in 1836.

Ngāpuhi raided Waikato again in 1832 but were driven off by Te Wherowhero’s people, this time armed with muskets. By the late 1830s, conflict in the region had ceased, and Te Wherowhero personally escorted many of the northern people back to the Auckland area, Tamaki-makau-rau.

In Waikato, Te Wherowhero maintained the peace between different Māori communities, and after 1840 extended that role to local Pākehā. Missionaries had arrived in the region in the mid 1830s, but although Te Wherowhero attended church services he was never formally baptised.

On 22 July 1839 Te Wherowhero was the second rangatira from outside Te Tai Tokerau (Northland) to sign He Whakaputanga, signing through his representative Kahawai. He was also the final signatory overall. By this time Te Wherowhero was widely recognised as one of the most important rangatira in the land; by endorsing He Whakaputanga he extended its reach and significance greatly.

Although kindly disposed towards the government, Te Wherowhero refused to sign the Treaty the following year. It is said that putting his signature to He Whakaputanga seven months earlier was one of the reasons he refused to sign; he also resented not having been consulted about the Treaty earlier. When Governor William Hobson died in 1842, Te Wherowhero wrote to Queen Victoria, offering advice on the kind of man his replacement should be. In this way he made it clear that he and other rangatira expected to be consulted on important decisions of this kind.

When the settlement of Auckland was under threat of attack in 1845, Te Wherowhero vowed to defend it, referring to the area as the hem of his cloak and in this way placing it under his personal tapu. The government built Te Wherowhero a house in Auckland Domain, and hundreds of Waikato Māori moved to Māngere, where they provided military protection for the settlers and developed a flourishing trade in feeding them as well.

Inspired in part by the example of the British monarchy, in the 1850s some Māori advocated for the installation of a Māori king, who could serve as a symbol of unity across the many different iwi and hapū, while protecting their lands from alienation. Te Wherowhero’s status was such that he was a leading candidate for such a position. After lengthy negotiations, Te Wherowhero accepted the kingship, and was raised up as King Pōtatau by Wiremu Tāmihana of Ngāti Hauā at Ngāruawāhia in 1858.

Although Te Wherowhero and other Kīngitanga supporters made it clear that their movement was not intended as a challenge to Queen Victoria, many government officials chose to interpret the King movement as a direct challenge to British rule. Their view came to dominate Crown thinking, especially after some Kīngitanga supporters from Waikato went to the aid of Te Āti Awa after the outbreak of the first Taranaki War in March 1860.

Pōtatau Te Wherowhero did not live to see conflict spread to the Waikato. He died at Ngāruawāhia on 25 June 1860 and was succeeded by his son, King Tāwhiao, who went on to lead his people during the 1863–64 Waikato War.