Tītokowaru's war

Page 2 – Early years

Riwha Tītokowaru was born near Ōkaiawa, north-west of Hāwera, around 1823. He belonged to Ngāti Manuhiakai hapū of Ngā Ruahine, a section of Ngāti Ruanui of which his father Hōri Kīngi Tītokowaru was a principal leader.

Riwha grew up in the shadow of the ‘musket wars’. Ngāti Ruanui were frequently raided from the north, especially by the Waikato tribes. He was trained as a tohunga (Māori spiritual expert) in his early teens before following his father by being baptised by the Methodist missionary John Skevington in the early 1840s.

As Hohepa Ōtene or Joseph Orton (after the Wesleyan mission’s superintendent in New South Wales), Tītokowaru acquired a thorough knowledge of the Bible while working for Skevington as an assistant teacher. He learnt to write in Māori, a skill that he would use to strategic advantage during his war. A trip to Auckland with Skevington in 1845 increased his knowledge of the Pākehā world. Following Skevington’s death that year Tītokowaru worked with the missionary William Hough at Pātea.

Speaking at a peacemaking hui on the Waitōtara River in June 1850, Tītokowaru urged those assembled to

give over war … we are now one in Christ. The sea was deep between us but he has made it shallow…. Do not say it is I who am laying down the law; it is Christ who is doing so. He makes us one.

Rising tensions

In 1854, hui (meetings) in Taranaki and Waikato resolved to keep all the land within certain boundaries in Māori ownership. Those who joined the emerging Māori nationalist movement swore to maintain a tapu on the land on pain of death. They also mooted the idea of a Māori king. Ngāti Ruanui participated in these discussions and Tītokowaru’s was one of many names mentioned as a possible candidate for this role.

Opposition to land selling turned violent in Taranaki with the Puketapu feud of 1856–8 involving rival factions of Te Ātiawa. Full-scale war erupted in Taranaki in 1860. Ngāti Ruanui sent men north to fight alongside Te Ātiawa partly to dissuade any of their own kin from selling land. Tītokowaru (as Joseph Otene) was still a Wesleyan Native Assistant Missionary (based at Mangatāwhiri) in early 1862, but he may have fought for the Kīngitanga during the Waikato war of 1863–64.

Tītokowaru and Pai Mārire

In 1862 a new religious faith, Pai Mārire, grew out of the conflict over land in Taranaki. Its founder, Te Ua Haumēne, had also worked for John Skevington. Te Ua’s original message of ‘goodness and peace’ was ‘misinterpreted’ by some of his followers, who soon included Tītokowaru. In April 1864 Tītokowaru lost the sight in his right eye when he took part in a Pai Mārire attack on Te Mōrere (Sentry Hill) in Taranaki. This injury may have contributed to Tītokowaru’s ‘second conversion’ to peace, as it seems he was not involved in the fighting that followed.

When Te Ua Haumēne died in 1866, Tītokowaru and Te Whiti-o-Rongomai of Parihaka were seen as potential successors. Tītokowaru had begun to develop a religion of his own that combined elements of Pai Mārire and Christianity with traditional Māori beliefs. He placed a greater emphasis on these traditional beliefs and practices than did either Te Ua or Te Whiti, and they were to underpin his military strategy in 1868. Initially his teachings, like those of Te Ua and Te Whiti, remained focused on ‘reconciliation and peace’.

By now Tītokowaru had abandoned his Christian name in favour of his father’s. He established a base at the rebuilt village of Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu (the beak of the bird), near Ōkaiawa. With 58 houses, a large marae, and a large, beautifully decorated meeting house, Wharekura, Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu became a centre for peace. At least five large meetings were held here and envoys were sent to North Taranaki. Comparisons would later be made with Te Whiti’s celebrated settlement of Parihaka.

How to cite this page

'Early years', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/titokowarus-war/early-years, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 26-Oct-2021