The time and place of Hēnare Matua's birth are uncertain. It may have been at Nukutaurua, on the Māhia peninsula, in the 1830s. Airini Donnelly, his stepdaughter, said that he returned from Nukutaurua to Hawke's Bay 'when he was old enough to wash without his mother's help'. The return to the south began about 1838.
Through his father, Hoani, Hēnare Matua was a descendant of Kahungunu, through Rākaipaaka and Te Huki, and also of Te Whatuiāpiti and Kerei. Through his mother, Hēnikura, he was descended from Hāmua and Rangitāne; he also claimed to belong to Ngāti Te Tau. The missionary William Colenso believed him to be a descendant of Tuanui (or Tainui), a chief who had encountered Captain James Cook in October 1773 at Pourere.
When Matua (also known as Te Kōura) returned from Nukutaurua, he lived at Waimārama, under the protection of Tiakitai. He acquired the skills and the understanding of Pākehā affairs which made him a capable man of business, especially in dealing with government.
By the late 1840s Tiakitai had allowed Ngāti Kerei and related hapū to take up residence at Pōrangahau, Tautāne and Ākitio. Hēnare Matua lived at Ākitio. Pākehā settlers were then taking an increasing interest in Hawke's Bay land; Matua arranged the leases of the Pōrangahau and surrounding blocks. He did business for his people during the good years, while squatters were paying high rents, large wheat crops were being harvested, and Māori landowners were buying sheep and cattle.
But the good years did not last. The 1850s saw the beginning of land sales to the Crown. Although Hēnare Matua signed the deed of sale for the Waipukurau block, he otherwise consistently opposed the alienation of land. He resisted early attempts to acquire Pōrangahau. In 1854 Donald McLean, chief land purchase commissioner, bought from chiefs visiting Wellington many blocks close to Pōrangahau which he had no right to buy without consulting all owners and occupiers. As these blocks were sold Matua was forced to move from Ākitio to Tautāne, and then to Whangaehu, in Southern Hawke's Bay. Eventually he induced McLean to return a large part of one block.
The settlers in the Pōrangahau district included J. D. Ormond, who urged McLean to press Māori owners to sell the flats around the settlers' homesteads and to provide access to bush country for timber. Matua wanted his people to retain the open country and the sea coast, and to allow settlers inland areas only. In March 1858 Matua and other leaders agreed to the sale of the Tautāne and Pōrangahau blocks, but insisted on large reserves.
In April 1859 a deputation from the King, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, arrived in Hawke's Bay. Tāreha, Karaitiana Takamoana and other leaders agreed to the King's rūnanga system of Māori self-government, but rejected allegiance to the King. Kurupō Te Moananui, followed by the people of coastal and Southern Hawke's Bay, including Pōrangahau, declared for the King. Matua was directed to look after land matters for the King's rūnanga. His first assignment was to persuade McLean to take back the money paid for the Pōrangahau block. But McLean refused to accept it after it had been collected from the sellers. In spite of his association with the King movement, Hēnare Matua was valued by government agents for his business acumen, good sense and legal understanding. In 1863 and again in 1866 he was recommended for appointment as an assessor. Pōrangahau people agreed to put their land through the Native Land Court because they expected Matua to be one of the assessors. In 1870 he was appointed an assessor, but under the Native Circuit Courts Act 1858 and not to the Native Land Court.
Matua prevented the spread of the Pai Mārire religion to Pōrangahau in the mid 1860s, and co-operated with his neighbour Ormond to calm both Māori and Pākehā. When, in 1864, Ngairo Takatakapūtea, the Wairarapa Pai Mārire leader, called for a general uprising against the Pākehā, Matua travelled down the coast warning that insurgents would get no support from his district. In October 1866, hearing that they planned to invade Heretaunga, Matua forbade the Wairarapa Hauhau to pass through Pōrangahau. Further, he ordered Hauhau at Rangiwhakaoma (Castlepoint) and Mātaikona either to give up their creed or to move south. Many renounced Pai Mārire and moved north, within the protection of Matua; a boundary was established which Wairarapa Hauhau were forbidden to cross. They abandoned their invasion plans.
However, the man who in 1866 was regarded by government agents as 'very reliable' and a 'trusty friend', was by 1871 advocating the repudiation of all Crown and private land deals on the grounds of fraud. Hēnare Matua had seen his people unjustly deprived of their land, for the Crown ignored the objections of those who did not wish to sell. Surveys had begun on the blocks acquired this way. Other blocks had been taken without consultation for railways, roads and telegraph lines. Matua regarded the Native Land Court as the instrument of the Crown and of private buyers; he demanded that control should be in the hands of the rūnanga.
In this situation the Hawke's Bay Repudiation movement emerged. By 1871 Hēnare was co-operating fully with the brothers H. R. and T. P. Russell, seeking by legal action to upset previous land deals. The Russells may have been genuinely concerned about Māori wrongs, but they were also pursuing their own economic and political interests, in opposition to established Hawke's Bay landowners like McLean and Ormond. The Repudiation movement attracted the attention of most Hawke's Bay Māori. Hēnare Matua, its chief Māori spokesman, addressed a number of meetings, and told his hearers that the Russells could get their tribal lands back if sufficient funds were raised.
A major meeting was held at Pākōwhai in July 1872. Matua's supporters were kept apart from those of Karaitiana Takamoana, who opposed the movement, by rope barriers. Matua made a long speech, claiming that the government helped Māori only when compelled to do so, that laws affecting Māori were enforced without consultation, that the government allowed them to be robbed and cheated of their lands by means of mortgages. When Karaitiana spoke, he snubbed Matua. William Colenso warned them, correctly, that the movement would not get the land back, but only get them deeper in debt to their lawyers.
As a result of this agitation a commission of inquiry was set up in 1872. By the end of the year Matua was holding meetings along the coast to prepare cases for the commission. During its hearings Matua handed in a long statement of Māori grievances; but little notice was taken of it, and he was angered that the many cases he had prepared would not be heard by the commission. He was also angry to find that the movement's lawyer, John Sheehan, MHR, concentrated on the Heretaunga block, in which Matua had no interest. He had contributed £100 to Sheehan's retainer and wanted something for his money. The commission of inquiry neither quietened Māori protest nor restored land wrongfully acquired.
During 1873 Hēnare Matua extended and built up the Repudiation movement. He held a meeting at Pakipaki which resolved to work for a new commission of inquiry with judicial as well as investigative powers, and for the overthrow of the government led by Julius Vogel and McLean. In May a meeting at Waimārama resolved to make the movement a national effort to gain Māori self-government and control over land. A party of 200 Ngāti Raukawa from the west coast visited Matua to declare their support. After their visit he travelled to Wairoa and as far as Tauranga to gain support.
Matua's activities made him a national figure. In May 1874, with 100 followers, he spoke to Ngāti Apa and the Wanganui tribes. The excitement was intense; no effort was spared in providing for his food and entertainment. He impressed on his hearers that for the redress of Māori wrongs he looked to a change in the law and not to violence. He told them that land-selling should cease, and also leasing, until Māori were better able to manage their own interests. The Native Land Court should be abolished; Māori representation in Parliament should include a member from every major tribe; roads, railways and telegraph construction should not traverse Māori land.
Not everyone supported Matua; many feared that his movement would in its turn end in military defeat. But over 300 Wanganui people gave their names as active supporters, and a council of 12 was elected to present their grievances and demands to Parliament. In Wairarapa Matua was regarded as the political leader of a large section of the people. In Wairoa he influenced Pāora Te Apatū to halt the construction of the telegraph and demand rent for the land over which it passed. He himself had threatened to stop the construction of the railway across Tāmaki lands (south-west of Dannevirke) and Te Aute lands.
Hēnare Matua continued to work against the government in which McLean was native minister. He drew up lists of Māori willing to help 'to overthrow this government'. As the 1875–76 elections drew near, he worked with Sir George Grey to secure favourable candidates. He supported Karaitiana Takamoana for the Eastern Māori seat against H1otene Porourangi and campaigned on the west coast of the North Island against Wī Parata, whom he regarded as a government yes-man.
At the local level Matua's leadership greatly increased the respect in which the runanga movement was held. By 1875 runanga were settling quarrels about land, sometimes issuing certificates of title, and collecting fees. Offences were tried and punished, debts and claims settled. In many instances runanga ignored the operations of the Native Land Court, and many Māori refused to accept Crown grants from the court. In the same year Matua's followers planned to set up their own newspaper in opposition not only to the government's Waka Māori, but to Te Wānanga, produced by the Repudiation movement and Hēnare Tomoana. However, Hēnare Matua's influence began to wane as the Repudiation movement ran out of funds, and began to look to Māori for money and land to finance its activities. Its promises were seen to be barren, and it was no longer trusted. When, in 1879, Matua stood for Eastern Māori, he came only third.
During the 1880s Matua lived from time to time at Waipāwa, near the Russells. His personal affairs were often in crisis, because of his debts. His stepdaughter, Airini Donnelly, accused Matua of misusing the property of her mother, Haromi Te Ata; she alleged that he would have been gaoled for debt if it had not been for her husband's help. In spite of these difficulties he continued to act energetically for his people. He attended many Native Land Court hearings, and won significant victories in 1886 and 1887, when he succeeded in making the greater part of the Pōrangahau block open only for leasing and not for sale.
Hēnare Matua died at Hastings in early September 1894. He was buried at Pōrangahau after a tangi at Waipatu. The coffin was covered with many fine cloaks, and the cortège was led by a horseman carrying a red flag with the words 'Tiriti o Waitangi' in white letters.