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Māori King movement origins

Page 5 – Pōtatau Te Wherowhero

Pōtatau agrees to be king

In April 1857, at Rangiriri, Pōtatau agreed to become king. He was crowned and anointed at Ngāruawāhia in June 1858.

At his installation, many North Island chiefs laid their lands at Pōtatau’s feet. Many mountains, the pou (boundaries) of the Rohe Pōtae (Kīngitanga territory), were named as the guardians of the territory under his dominion. Pōtatau's subjects hoped to keep their communities together by removing the temptation to make ready money through selling land. The Māori kingdom was to have its own ‘Crown lands’.

In his speech of acceptance Pōtatau stressed the spirit of unity symbolised by the kingship, likening his position to the ‘eye of the needle through which the white, black and red threads must pass’. He called on his people to ‘hold fast to love, to the law, and to faith in God’.

Māori also saw the Kīngitanga as a spiritual force carried from marae to marae. Its symbols, such as the king’s flags, the pātaka (carved storehouses) and rūnanga (tribal council) houses, the mountains and boundaries, were imbued with tapu (sacredness) and the mana (authority) of the king.

What's in a name?

A number of titles were considered for this new position, including ‘Father of the Tribes’, Ariki Taungaroa (chief of chiefs), Toihau (supreme head) and Rangatira (chief). Critics complained that there was nothing original about the Kīngitanga and that it was simply copying the British monarchy. Te Moananui of Hawke's Bay, however, argued that as there were many chiefs, the title of king should be used – the position had to be unique and the title needed to set the leader apart from others.

Why Pōtatau?

Waikato was rich in resources, strategically located and surrounded by powerful tribes. Any king and his people would have to be able to sustain the burden of providing continuous lavish hospitality, so Waikato's productivity was key. Pōtatau had been a great warrior and in recent times the protector of the tribes of the Auckland isthmus. His status and mana was both personal and derived from his kin connections with many iwi. He also had mana with Europeans, having enjoyed good relations with successive governors. As early as 1841, Governor William Hobson had told his superiors that Pōtatau was the most powerful chief in New Zealand.

The death of Pōtatau

King Pōtatau died at his home in Ngāruawāhia in June 1860 and was succeeded by his son, Tāwhiao. The new king would face many challenges during his reign, in particular war and the subsequent confiscation of land.

How to cite this page

Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated