Page 1: Biography
Ngātai, Wiremu Nēra
Ngāti Ruanui missionary, mediator
This biography, written by Ian Church, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.
Wiremu Nēra (William Naylor) Ngātai introduced Christianity to South Taranaki in the late 1830s. Although probably born in Taranaki, his parents are not known. In the 1820s he was taken by Ngāpuhi raiders to Hokianga, where he came under the influence of the Wesleyan Missionary Society missionary Nathaniel Turner. Towards the end of 1837 he was released and returned to Waipapa, near Ōhangai on the Tangāhoe River. According to the Reverend John Skevington, through Nēra's teaching and preaching 'nearly all the tribes' along the South Taranaki coast adopted Christian forms of behaviour 'before a single English Missionary had been near them.' Initially there was considerable opposition to Christianity, but eventually Nēra built a church named Mangungu at Maraeroa.
According to the CMS missionary Henry Williams, Nēra could not read and like many early mission teachers his understanding of Christianity was rudimentary. He baptised his converts with warm water from an iron pot in a ceremony called Kokiro, which blended Christian with Māori custom. These converts took the message of Christianity to Ngā Rauru of Waitōtara, to Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi of Wanganui, and to Ngāti Tuwharetoa of Taupō. At least four of his messengers were martyred, but eventually Nēra's frequent visits to Te Ahituatini, a village on the Wanganui River, opposite Pūtiki Wharanui, led to the conversion of the chief Mare and the building of a chapel at the village. However, the killing of the four Ngāti Ruanui Christian messengers was one of the grievances that led to the outbreak of fighting at Te Kūititanga pā, Waikanae, in October 1839. Nēra led a war party, armed with muskets and copies of the New Testament, to support Ngāti Ruanui. At Rangitīkei they met Henry Williams, who condemned their plan and attempted to dissuade them. Nēra cited Tāmati Wāka Nene of Ngāpuhi taking his people armed with guns to the Bay of Islands, but nevertheless he agreed to return home.
In June 1840 Nēra escorted visiting missionaries, Samuel Ironside, George Buttle and John Aldred, to Tangāhoe where 42 converts, who had been meeting in class for 'more than two years', were baptised. The missionaries also visited his chapel at Pātea. Nēra's position and the cause of Christianity were strengthened in August 1840 in an intertribal engagement. Pātoka pā at Waitōtara was occupied by Ngāti Pēhi raiders from Ngāti Tūwharetoa, who had swept down the Waitōtara River taking many captives. After Nēra had led Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru in a service prior to battle, they suffered no further casualties and took the pā. As the missionary John Whiteley wrote: 'The results…seem to operate wonderfully upon the minds of the people in favour of the Christian Atua & Pukapuka (God & Book)'.
Nēra's work expanded. He conducted the Reverend Charles Creed on a journey through South Taranaki in February 1841. At Nēra's pā at Tangāhoe Creed preached to 140 'very attentive' people and married 42 couples. He thought the experience of the class members 'encouraging altho' they are only in an insipient [sic] state'. Nēra's preparatory work nevertheless opened the way to European missionaries. In April 1842 Ngāti Ruanui obtained their first resident missionary, Skevington, whom Nēra escorted through the district. Nēra was living at Manawapou, near Hāwera, in July 1842 and in 1846 was listed as a Wesleyan teacher there.
Early in 1843 Nēra's reputation suffered a sharp reverse when he married the sister of Te Herekiekie of Tokaanu, Rora Tūrori, who had been captured at Waitōtara. She belonged to another man, also called Wiremu, but transferred her affections to Nēra, who was said to be handsome and good-humoured. According to Edward Jerningham Wakefield she soon dominated Nēra. A fierce quarrel ensued between the relatives of both men and Skevington reported that this 'entirely disorganised and almost destroyed some of the [Wesleyan] societies.'
In the next decade Nēra was one of the leaders who tried to unite Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Rauru and Taranaki in the goal of holding onto their land. After a great intertribal meeting at Manawapou in May 1854 he signed the letter which outlined their boundaries. Three years later he participated in the protest over the possible sale of the Whakangerengere block. When the Taranaki tribe fought at Waireka in March 1860 he arrived too late to stop them. He condemned their action and as his party returned home they plundered the tribe's villages.
Nēra's life from the 1860s is unclear. There are no reliable records. An unconfirmed source says that he was later known as Wī Parirau. He may have been associated with the religious leader Te Ua Haumēne who had a follower of this name. It is also likely that he accompanied the military leader Tītokowaru into retreat in the upper Waitara country. In his latter years it is said that Nēra suffered from 'religious mania' and that he died in the Porirua asylum in the late nineteenth century.