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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Chapter XXXIV — Te Kooti Rikirangi Te Turuki

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Chapter XXXIV
Te Kooti Rikirangi Te Turuki

Fictions Associated With His Birth and Childhood—Farmhand, Sailor, Soldier and Trader—Unpopular Among Natives and Europeans—Exile Without Trial.

There was not a more daring, nor a more resourceful, rebel leader in New Zealand than Te Kooti Rikirangi te Turuki. His exile, escape and revolt form one of the most colourful and most dramatic chapters in its history. Even to-day, although in pakeha eyes he stood for all that was worst in his race, his name is revered by a large number of natives in the Urewera Country and on the mid-eastern side of the North Island. He was not a rangatira (chief), but he will remain an historic figure when the names of most of the Maori aristocrats have passed into obscurity.

Te Kooti was the son of Hone te Rangi Pataihi; his mother bore the name Turakau. Ngati-Maru (his hapu) was a branch of the Rongowhakaata tribe. In his veins there was also Ngati-Ruapani blood, which he inherited through Waikura, his father's mother.

Several fictitious stories concerning his birth and childhood remain current among his adherents. One is to the effect that a tohunga named Toiroa foretold that in two of three male children about to be born there would be good, and, in the third, evil and calamity. To Turakau he is said to have remarked: “Your unborn child will be a son whose fame will reach to the four corners of the earth for good or evil.” Another story states that, when Te Kooti reached the age of 12 years, his evil propensities occasioned his parents much anxiety. No longer able to endure his misdeeds, his father imprisoned him in a kumara pit and left him to die. To everybody's surprise, he escaped, claiming that a spirit, in the shape of a man, had visited him when he was close to death, saying: “Arise! Let us go forth!” A path then opened in the covering to the pit.

As a lad, Te Kooti was sent to the Whakato mission station school. It was stated by some of his early followers that he proved most proficient in the reading of the Scriptures. His special Biblical hero (we are told) was the Psalmist David, whose writings, it has since been suggested, made a powerful impression upon his young and imaginative mind. The Rev. T. S. Grace, in a letter to the Church Missionary Society in 1877, mentions that, at his baptism, he was given the name “Te Kooti,” a transliteration of “Coates” [C. Danderson Coates, the lay secretary of the society.] Early adherents also believed that he wished to be trained as a mission teacher, but that Bishop W. Williams did not discover sufficient grounds to justify him in gratifying his desire.

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In early manhood Te Kooti followed various occupations, including farm and bush work. He was a very capable horseman. Then he followed the sea for some years. Cowan says that he rose to the position of supercargo on the native schooner Henry, and that, later on, he became captain of the native-owned Rua-Whetuki. No shipping list, however, has been traced which shows him in the role of a master mariner. Consequent upon visits to Auckland, he became a victim to over-indulgence in liquor and to other vices. Irihapeti was his principal wife.

Te Kooti was of medium height and of athletic build. He was broad-shouldered and keenly knit. His head was well shaped, with a high and arched forehead, and he had an aquiline nose. Colonel Porter reckoned that his profile resembled that of Julius Cæsar on Roman coins. Dark, bloodshot and deeply-set eyes were a prominent feature of his stern countenance, and a restless glance betokened that he was suspicious to a degree. Heavy lines drooping towards his mouth and firm and tight lips assisted to give him a cruel appearance. He had a moustache and long, pointed beard; his face was not tattooed. No genuine photograph has been traced. The name “Rikirangi” was engraven in blue across his chest and “Te Turuki”—an old family name—was tattooed on his right arm. Porter says that he rarely smiled and that, when he did, it was in a sinister manner. He spoke in a jerky, dictatorial tone.

Fought With Loyalists

Although his brother Komere—and, probably, most of his other relatives—linked up with the Hauhaus, Te Kooti himself filled the role of a loyal warrior at the Siege of Waerenga-a-Hika in November, 1865. His conduct, however, aroused suspicions, and he was placed under arrest in the Bishop's house. Charged with treasonable communication with the enemy, in that he had visited the rebel camp at Pukeamionga, he explained that he had gone there merely in an attempt to induce his brother to desert from the Hauhaus. Paora Parau (his principal accuser) then complained that he had withdrawn the bullets from his cartridges during the fighting, but he was unable to sheet home the charge, and Te Kooti was released.

Quite contrary to a widespread belief, Te Kooti was not rearrested and banished until some months after the siege. In the meantime his name remained on the district military roll. Towards the end of February, 1866, a party, led by Robert Espie, was waylaid and roughly handled by some Hauhaus in Mangatu Valley. Some members of the Defence Corps and some Forest Rangers were sent to scour the locality. Te Kooti was attached to the expedition.

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Why Te Kooti was rearrested has never been satisfactorily cleared up. He had, it seems, been absent from home for some time. Some Forest Rangers, who were sent to apprehend him, found him with some other armed natives at Repongaere, and, despite his plea that they were out only on a pig-hunting expedition, they took him to Wilson's Redoubt on Kaiti and locked him up. Nothing incriminating was found at his abode. He was sent off to the Chatham Islands with the third batch of exiles at the end of May, 1866. Moss (School History of New Zealand) says that, when Napier was reached, Te Kooti made three appeals through Edwin Hamlin (Government Native Interpreter) “be tried, or at least to be informed why he had been made a prisoner.” Moss adds: “No reply was given, but Te Kooti was put on board the ship with the rest.”

Responsibility for the exiling of Te Kooti must have rested with Major Biggs. It is certain, however, that the step had the approval of the loyal chiefs. Some accounts state that the settlers along the Waipaoa River [J.R. Wyllie, J. Hawthorne and others] were the prime movers. According to Hawthorne (Southern Cross, 1/12/1868), Te Kooti was a mere tutua (a scrub, a nobody) up to the time of his exile. He was known to natives and Europeans alike as the greatest thief in Poverty Bay, and was a confirmed drunkard, who would sell his last rag for grog.

“As might have been expected of such a scurvy wretch,” he added, “Te Kooti was a double-dyed traitor and spy.” Colonel Porter (Gisborne Times, 14/2/1914) avers that Te Kooti was regarded by the loyal natives, as well as by the Europeans, as a spy. Inquiries made by W. L. Williams (East Coast, New Zealand, Historical Records, p. 56) went to show that, when the Hauhaus were being taken into exile, someone suggested that, if Te Kooti was deported with them, the district would be relieved, for a time at least, “of a very troublesome character.”

A Gay Lothario

It seems that the loyal natives were also glad to see Te Kooti banished. Tuta Nihoniho told James Cowan—vide an article in the Lyttelton Times—that Te Kooti, on one occasion, abducted a dusky charmer by means of a clever and daring stratagem. In broad daylight he rode up to his inamorata's home, carrying, balanced on his saddle, a dead pig wrapped up in several folds of canvas. Without undue delay he deftly substituted the lady—fortunately she was on the petite side!—for the porker, and then rode off. In this particular case, however, Te Kooti, in Tuta's eyes, richly deserved his prize: the husband, he held, should have taken better care of his wife!

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This amusing and daring feat led to retributive action being taken against Te Kooti's relatives. Colonel T. W. Porter (Gisborne Times, 21/2/1914) says that the wronged husband and his people muru'd (plundered) them. In retaliation Te Kooti raised a band of 200 malcontents, who, in turn, plundered the hapu to which his lady-love belonged. Laden with their loot, the freebooters retired to an inland pa. [It stood on the western side of the Waipaoa River, close to the site now occupied by the Matawhero bridge.] Porter adds that they were ejected and scattered by a force recruited from the adjacent tribes.

Wi Pere, in the story of his life (published posthumously in the Gisborne Times, 16/2/1916), says that the trouble occurred in 1853. Te Kooti assembled a strong following of young men belonging to Rongowhakaata tribe. They stole all the horses, pigs, cattle and grog that they could lay their hands upon, and then gathered in a number of young women, some of whom were married. When the angry fathers and husbands protested, the culprits pointed to their loaded guns. The chiefs were afraid to make an attack on the pa, lest some of the women might be killed.

According to Wi Pere, he headed 100 young men belonging to T'Aitanga-a-Mahaki tribe, who crept upon the pa held by the terrorists. Climbing a tree, he called to Te Kooti to come over to him, as he wished to speak to him. Whilst they were in conversation, his force rushed through the open gate of the pa and overpowered the occupants. Te Kooti escaped by swimming across the river. Wi Pere added: “I took all the prisoners to Manutuke, and handed them over to their own people. The Church Committee demanded £400 from Te Kooti for the damage he had caused. He only laughed at them, and sent back insolent messages. So we seized all his pigs and cattle and sold them, realising £1,000!” As Wi Pere was only 15 years old in 1853 it is plain that he did not understate his part in the raid. For all that, the story bears out the contention that Te Kooti was loathed by many members of his own race as well as by the pakehas.

Tuta Nihoniho, however, held that it was on account of another fickle native beauty that Te Kooti was exiled. She was, he said, the wife of Hamiora Whakataka, a Rongowhakaata chief. For a long time the amorous Te Kooti had sought after her, but she feared her husband. Scenting that all was not well in his matrimonial abode, Hamiora caused a strict watch to be kept, and, on that account, he was enabled to retain his spouse. He would have liked to have burdened Te Kooti with a bullet, but, instead, he complained to Paratene Turangi, who, after consulting the other chiefs, advised Major Biggs to include Te Kooti in the next batch of prisoners to be sent to the Chatham Islands.

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It is difficult to believe that Te Kooti was exiled merely to please some of the settlers and some of the loyal natives who felt that it would be better to have him out of the way because he was such a bad character. The delay in rearresting him until after two batches of rebels had been sent away appears rather to indicate that, at the time he was apprehended, he had only recently committed some act which was held to have been designed to aid the rebels.

Alleged Incriminating Message

Cowan (The New Zealand Wars) says that what brought about Te Kooti's undoing was an incriminating letter which he wrote to the noted rebel, Anaru Matete, and which fell into the hands of the authorities when they captured the messenger. The missive, it is stated, contained secret information to the effect that Captain Westrup was about to move some troops from Poverty Bay towards Te Reinga to co-operate with a force from Wairoa under Major Fraser in rounding up the Hauhaus who had fled from the pa at Waerenga-a-Hika before it was surrendered.

Te Kooti's letter, it is averred, contained the words: “Wednesday is the day and Te Reinga is the place.” According to Cowan, the authorities reckoned that the cipher-like message was a valuable hint to Matete as to where and when Westrup's force might be taken by surprise. It is also stated that five times as many cartridges as a loyal native was entitled to have in his possession were found upon the messenger. A like story was told by Colonel Porter, Captain Preece and others.

An explanation which Te Kooti offered in 1889 to James Mackay (Government Agent in the Waikato), and which appeared in the New Zealand Herald, is interesting, even although he did not divulge the nature of the charge of spying which, he says, was made against him before he was exiled. It states:

“Shortly after the fight at Waerenga-a-Hika, Captain Read and some others trumped up a case against me of horse-stealing. I was brought before the magistrate, but the charge was dismissed. It was then said that I was a Hauhau and a spy for the Hauhaus. Captain Read used his influence against me, and I was made a military prisoner and sent to Napier. There I saw Sir Donald McLean and appealed to him, but he would not listen to me. He said: ‘Send him away with the rest to the Chatham Islands!’ I went there very pouri [angry], as I had been unjustly treated, after fighting for the Europeans. Captain Read instigated it all to prevent my hurting his trade with the natives. He was always jealous of me …”

Te Kooti died on “Wainui”—a 600-acre block, about 10 miles west of Opotiki and adjacent to Ohiwa Harbour—on 17 April, 1893. This property had been placed at his disposal by the Crown. He had been on a visit to Ruatoki, and his party had decided to page 304 camp at Maraetotara. Feeling un-well, he wrapped himself in a rug and lay down. Some dogs began to fight and collided with, and set in motion, a dray which had been left, without a wheel being chained, on a slope above his resting-place. A wheel passed over him, crushing his chest.

Various stories went into circulation concerning the burial, but in all of them it was stressed that it had been carried out secretly. In May, 1902, Hamiora Aparoa told the Opotiki Herald that only he and two other members of the Ringatu Church knew the exact burial spot, and that it had been agreed that, upon the death of any of the trio, the survivors should select a successor to him, and that that procedure should continue for all time. Rikirangi Hohepa informed the Poverty Bay Herald in August, 1938, that he was the sole survivor of a party of four which carried out the burial, and that the grave had never been disturbed. In April, 1948, it was announced, at the close of a tribal meeting at Gisborne, that hostility on the part of Lady Carroll's relatives to the removal of the remains to Poverty Bay had, at last, been abandoned. So far (1949) the matter has remained in abeyance.

A memorial, which was erected by members of the Ringatu faith to Te Kooti, bears an inscription, in Maori, to the following effect:

In Memory of Te Kooti Rikirangi
Prophet and General
Who died on the 17th day of April, in the
year 1893; aged 79 years.
He was a Chief and a Hero.
He displayed great gallantry in great battles
fought in Aotearoa (the North Island of New Zealand).
The Government made peace with him and gave him
and his people some land; and also confirmed
his religion (known as the “Ringatu”).
These matters were settled and fully confirmed
In the presence of the Native Minister in the year 1883.

To Kooti's age, at the time of his death, was, probably, not above 63 years. His mother died at Whakato (Poverty Bay) in 1890, at the age of 79 years. She was very proud of her son; indeed, so fulsome was her praise of him that she had aroused disfavour on the part not only of her European neighbours, but also of many of the natives. According to the Gisborne Standard, she had become almost an outcast.” A tangi will not be troubled about in the case of poor old Heni,” it added.


“With the end of the Hauhau War we reach the last landmark in the historical past of the Maori race. Te Kooti is the last and greatest representative of the worst side of the Maori character—its subtlety, cunning and treachery; its cruelty and love of bloodshed; and its immorality and fanaticism. His character had no relieving trait; no anecdotes of liberality or magnanimity extenuate the horror we must feel for him. It was not to be wondered at; he was not a chief. In all his schemes and undertakings there is lacking the kindly liberality, the magnanimity, the true dignity of the Maori chief.”—Sir A. T. Ngata (The Past and Present of the Maori, “Weekly Press”).

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Gisborne's first public school, 1872–76. (North-west corner of Childers Road and Lowe Street)

Gisborne's first public school, 1872–76.
(North-west corner of Childers Road and Lowe Street)

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Gisborne-Motuhora Railway. Opening of first section to Ormond (June, 1902).

Gisborne-Motuhora Railway. Opening of first section to Ormond (June, 1902).