Kawiti was born, probably in the 1770s, in northern New Zealand. He was descended from Nukutawhiti, commander of the Ngā-toki-mata-whao-rua canoe, which made its landing at Hokianga. He was the 11th generation from Rāhiri, ancestor of Ngāpuhi; Hunā was his father and his mother, Te Tāwai. They were of Ngāti Hine, whose identity with their territory runs thus:
Tokerau is the mountain
Taumārere the river
Ngāti Hine the hapū
Hineāmaru the ancestress.
When Kawiti reached maturity, he was admitted into Te Whare Wānanga mō nga Tohunga, at Taumārere, one of the ancestral villages of Ngāti Hine. As he gained a reputation as a fighting warlord, Europeans gave him the nickname 'The Duke' (Te Ruki).
Kawiti and his first wife, Kawa, had three sons: Taura, Wiremu Te Poro, and Maihi Parāone Te Kuhanga. His second wife was Te Tiwha, and they had a daughter, Tuahine. His villages were at Ōtūihu, Pūmanawa, Waiōmio, Taumārere, Ōrauta and Mangakāhia; his carved whare, Āhuareka, stood in Waiōmio, a short distance from where Te Rapunga meeting house now stands.
Kawiti was a notable warrior and detested being bottled up in a fort. He favoured rugged terrain as his battleground, and preferred to pursue an opponent and fight in hand-to-hand combat to the death. His fighting pā, therefore, were sited on hilly slopes at points which offered safe exit routes into thick bush. His pā were Ōtārawa, immediately below Te Pouaka-a-Hineāmaru; Tikokauae at Mōtatau; Wahapū (Te Wahapū Inlet) at Ahikiwi; Ruapekapeka and Puketona.
At the battle of Moremonui, at Maunganui Bluff, in 1807 or 1808 Kawiti saw Ngāpuhi fall before the assembled might of Ngāti Whātua; Hongi Hika barely escaped with his life. In 1824 Te Whareumu of Ngāpuhi came to Kawiti, chanting his ngākau, a special request for assistance to avenge the deaths of his relatives at Moremonui. He had presented Kawiti with a pig, and when Kawiti shared the pig among his people it was a sign to Te Whareumu of Ngāti Hine support. The battle of Te Ika-ā-ranganui, on the Kaiwaka River, followed in 1825, and on this occasion Ngāti Whātua fell before the assembled might of Ngāpuhi; the deaths of Taurawhero, Koriwhai and other Ngāpuhi at Moremonui were avenged.
Kawiti also earned the reputation of a peacemaker among his people. This was evident at Te Ika-ā-ranganui when a serious disagreement occurred between Hongi and Kawiti. Kawiti, who had kinship ties with Ngāti Whātua, realised that Hongi would annihilate that tribe, so just before the battle took place, he took a number of them as hostages to protect them. Hongi heard about Kawiti's hostages and went to Taumārere to demand their release; they were his 'possessions' by right of conquest. Hongi threatened to invade Ngāti Hine territory, but Kawiti warned him off.
Hongi did not carry out his threat. Sentries, posted by Kawiti along the route to Whangaroa as a precaution, reported that no preparations for full-scale war were being made at Hongi's camp. This allowed Kawiti and Ngāti Hine to embark at once on their mission of peace to return Ngāti Whātua safely to Kaipara. Mate Kairangatira of Ngāti Hine was left with Ngāti Whātua to cement the peace pact made between the two tribes, and to warn Hongi of the consequences should he ever attack Ngāti Whātua again.
Kawiti also intervened at the battle known as the Girls' War, at Kororāreka (Russell) in 1830, and helped to speed up peace negotiations between Ngāpuhi and the Kororāreka people. Ngāpuhi were seeking to avenge the loss of their chief Hengi. To avoid full-scale war between Ngāpuhi and the people of Kororāreka, Kawiti induced Kiwikiwi to surrender the lands of Kororāreka, which were Kawiti's by right of conquest, to Ngāpuhi as atonement for the loss of Hengi.
In 1840, when William Hobson arrived in New Zealand having been commissioned as lieutenant governor, Kawiti vigorously resisted the introduction of British rule. He aimed to ensure that the lands of his people would be left intact so that Ngāti Hine would never become landless or homeless, or slaves to the Pākehā. Before 1840 he had already lost Ōpua lands; it is said that a Paihia missionary had waited until Kawiti was absent at Kaipara, before negotiating a purchase with a local chief of lesser rank. Kawiti was not in a trusting mood when confronted by Hobson and other British officials at the Waitangi meeting on 5 and 6 February 1840. He refused to sign the treaty for fear that his sacred moko would provide the means by which the government would commence taking the lands. He said to Hobson, 'Who said we want you to stay here? We don't want to be restricted, or to be trampled on by you. The missionaries may stay, but you must return to your own country. There is no place here for the governor!'
Kawiti did not give his agreement to the treaty on 6 February when others signed at Waitangi, but his people still pressed him to sign. At a special meeting with Hobson, in May 1840, Kawiti reluctantly agreed to sign the treaty. (His name appears above the signatures of 6 February.) He expressed his reservations in the strongest terms, saying the Māori population was declining so fast that the Europeans were likely to get the land anyway. He did not want to 'sign away his land'.
Possibly Kawiti regretted giving his agreement. Early in 1845 he joined forces with Hōne Heke in challenging British sovereignty. At Kororāreka, on 11 March, his forces created a diversion while the flagstaff on Maiki Hill was cut down for the fourth and last time. Kawiti saw the flagstaff as a symbol of the assertion of British sovereignty over Māori land, and was determined that it should not be re-erected (which it was not, until 1858).
The northern war of 1845–46 involved the forces of Kawiti and Heke against British troops and Māori allies. The British launched three major expeditions into the hinterland of the Bay of Islands. In the first, at Puketutu, Kawiti and his warriors remained outside the pā. When the British attacked the pā, Kawiti's forces staged well co-ordinated strikes at the British rear. They sustained quite heavy casualties but it was a Māori victory, despite British claims to the contrary. Skilled in military tactics, Kawiti never risked his men in open combat again.
At Ōhaeawai he saw to the construction of a carefully designed pā that withstood a British attack on 1 July. Outnumbered six to one, the Māori forces inflicted a serious defeat on the British. Kawiti's military tactics were crucial to this Māori victory. For five months fighting ceased while Governor Robert FitzRoy tried to arrange a peace which would salvage British pride. Kawiti rejected the peace terms, which included a cession of land.
It is said that he censured Heke, who was tempted to make peace, with these words: 'You and your territory have done enough. This time let me have them [the British]. I warned you that the water was too deep for you alone to net the big fish, but you would not listen. Now the water just barely reaches your knees and you cry, enough!'
Governor Robert FitzRoy was replaced by George Grey, who arrived in November 1845. Grey gave Kawiti and Heke only five days to respond to the peace offer, and meanwhile organised an expedition against Kawiti's new pā of Ruapekapeka. Kawiti's aim was to draw British troops into battle on a fairly inaccessible site. He succeeded: 1,100 men took nearly a month to cover the 15 miles from the Bay of Islands to the inland pā. Kawiti, knowing that the pā had to be stronger than Ōhaeawai, selected pūriri trunks 20 feet long and 3 feet thick, and embedded them 8 feet into the soil for the main palisades. No major building was erected within the pa; underground rooms were built instead. These pits could hold up to 20 men each; they were designed to withstand the heavy bombardment which the British launched in late December 1845 and which lasted two weeks. Kawiti and his men sheltered together in the dark bunkers like a colony of bats, an arrangement which gave the pā its name, Ruapekapeka, the Bats' Nest. Heke and his men were camped outside.
On Sunday, 11 January, the British troops entered the pā. It appeared deserted, although Kawiti and a small group remained. (There are confusing accounts that either they, or the rest of the force, were at prayer.) Detachments of Kawiti's men had slipped away previously, in a tactical move, aimed at enticing the troops to follow into the bush, where they could easily be picked off. A strong defensive position had been prepared at the rear of the pā.
The feigned retreat was partly successful. The British suffered a total of 45 casualties, while Māori killed and wounded numbered about 30. The pā, like Ōhaeawai, was abandoned. It had served its purpose: blood had been spilled and therefore it would never be used again. The battle was not an outright victory for the British. Nevertheless, at the end of January Kawiti and Heke negotiated a peace. Kawiti is said to have pressed a kōtuku feather into the hat of the senior British officer, as a gesture of accord. An important part of the peacemaking was Kawiti's reconciliation with Tāmati Wāka Nene.
The divisions in Ngāpuhi, and Ngāpuhi's failure to support him in the war, were the subject of a now famous takuate (lament) which Kawiti sang, it is said, at Ruapekapeka. The lament acknowledged that the ancestors of Ngāpuhi had arrived in many different canoes. Each ancestor had formed his own tribe, who selected their chief, who in turn was the guardian of his own territory. A chief had the right to refuse to support another.
After the peacemaking Kawiti moved to Waiōnui and later to Pākaraka Some sources say that he was baptised, by Henry Williams, on 20 February 1853. He was thought to be about 80 years of age when he died at Waiōmio on 5 May 1854; his tangi continued for a year. Afterwards his remains were placed with those of his ancestors in Te Pouaka-a-Hineāmaru. His son, Maihi, succeeded him as leader of Ngāti Hine.
Before his death Kawiti warned his people to hold fast to the treasures of their ancestors, and to wait 'until the sandfly nips the pages of the book [the treaty]; then you will rise and oppose'. Descendants have taken this as a special injunction to act, when treaty promises are not upheld.
A marae complex, a loving memorial to Kawiti, was erected at Waiōmio Caves by Kawiti's great-grandson, Tāwai, who did not live to see its completion; his whānau added his name to the meeting house along with that of his father, his grandfather, and Kawiti. The meeting house name now reads: Tāwai, Te Riri, Maihi, Kawiti.