Tītokowaru was born near Ōkaiawa, in South Taranaki, probably about 1823. He belonged to Ngāti Manuhiakai hapū of Ngā Ruahine, a section of Ngāti Ruanui. He traced his descent from Turi and Rongorongo, and from Manuhiakai. One of his great-grandfathers was Tūnuiāmoa, and he was related to the higher ranking chief Tāmati Hōne Ōraukawa, who preceded him as principal leader of Ngā Ruahine. Tītokowaru's mother, who died before 1854, was of the Tangāhoe people.
He was also connected, through family marriages, with Ngāti Maru of Te Āti Awa. His paternal grandmother was of Ngā Rauru, and his father may have taken another wife from Ngā Rauru, since Ētapu, of that tribe, was Tītokowaru's half-brother. There was also a younger Ngā Ruahine brother or half-brother, Rāpata Te Rangiora Nuku, and at least two sisters, Pare and Makawe. Ētapu had at least one daughter, Wairoa, and Pare and Makawe had many children. Tītokowaru himself was said to have had none, although some Ngāti Ruanui now living claim direct descent from him. When he adopted the deserter Kimble Bent, he took him as a grandson.
Tītokowaru's father, Hōri Kīngi Tītokowaru, was a principal leader of Ngāti Ruanui in the 1830s and 1840s. He was prominent in the repulse of Waikato at Waimate pā, at the mouth of the Kapuni Stream, in 1836, an achievement sometimes credited to his youthful son, and he appears as principal chief of Ngā Ruahine in CMS missionary Richard Taylor's list of 1845. The elder Tītokowaru saved the life of a chief of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi of Whanganui after an engagement with that tribe in 1840, an act of mercy which was to stand his son in good stead. He was baptised into the Methodist church as Hōri Kīngi (George King) a few years later. He may have taken the wise precaution of becoming an Anglican as well, since a Tītokowaru Te Teira was baptised by Taylor in 1843. His death, from influenza, on 22 February 1848, was important enough to make some impact even on Pākehā records.
During his first 20 years the younger Tītokowaru was probably known as Riwha, the name Tītokowaru being reserved for his father. In infancy he survived the measles and influenza epidemic known as Te Ariki; the first Pākehā he ever saw was probably three-year-old John Guard, who lived with Ngāti Ruanui as a hostage for several months in 1834; the first Christian sermon he heard, in 1837, was probably given by the great Māori missionary Wiremu Nēra Ngātai. Tītokowaru's life was always a dialectic between peace and war, and it was war which dominated these early years. Between 1826 and 1836 Ngāti Ruanui and their neighbours were frequently raided from the north, especially by the Waikato tribes. Some of his peers were killed, or taken north as prisoners, and all grew up in the shadow of war. Tītokowaru may have received formal training as a tohunga, perhaps through the renowned Ngā Ruahine priest-historian Taukē Te Hāpimana.
Tītokowaru was probably too young to have fought in the wars of the 1820s and 1830s, but these musket wars, and an engagement with British troops from the Alligator in 1834, began his military education. His first experience as a warrior is likely to have been in 1840, against Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi. But about 1842 he made the first of three conversions to peace, on this occasion in association with a conversion to Christianity. Like his father, he was baptised a Methodist by John Skevington of Heretoa. His baptismal name was Hōhepa Ōtene (Joseph Orton), after the Wesleyan mission's superintendent in New South Wales. He visited Auckland with Skevington in September 1845, and the busy capital increased his knowledge of things Pākehā. He quickly learned to write in Māori. His first known letter, dated 27 September 1845, was an appeal for a replacement for Skevington, who had died in Auckland. 'Had Mr Skevington not settled among us my people [would have] all gone over to the Church of outward shows [the Church of England]'.
Tītokowaru's Methodism seems to have been deeper than that of some fellow converts. He used his baptismal name, Hōhepa; acquired a thorough knowledge of the Bible; served as monitor or assistant teacher first for Skevington and then for William Hough at Pātea, where he was living in 1850. His first recorded speech was impeccably Christian. At a peacemaking meeting on the Waitōtara River on 22 June 1850, he said: 'We are now one in Christ. The sea was deep between us but he has made it shallow…. Give over war…. Do not say it is I who am laying down the law, it is Christ who is doing so. He makes us one.'
Between 1850 and 1854, however, like most of his tribe, Tītokowaru turned away from pacifism and missionary Christianity. He became part of the Māori nationalist movement characterised by opposition to land-selling and efforts to set up a Māori king. At the seminal meeting at Manawapou in May 1854, he was among those who signed the great oath, 'the man first; the land afterward'. His speech lost its pious hue, though not its metaphoric power. 'My mother is dead but I was nourished by her milk. Let our land be kept by us as milk for our children'. He is said to have been suggested as Māori king in 1857. Dozens of such nominations were made, and Ōraukawa was a more serious Ngā Ruahine candidate. Still, the possibility that he was nominated does imply that Tītokowaru's mana was already substantial.
Tītokowaru may have taken part when Ngāti Ruanui intervened in Te Āti Awa land feuds in 1856 and 1858, but his first known experience as a war leader came in the Taranaki war of 1860–61 against Pākehā. He was probably the Hōhepa who, with Hōri Kiwi, led the raiding party which killed Captain William Cutfield King near New Plymouth on 8 February 1861. He would have acquired at this time his great practical mastery of field engineering. Tītokowaru may also have participated in the Waikato war of 1863–64, conceivably in Waikato itself, but more likely in North Taranaki. On 30 April 1864 he took part in the disastrous attack on Te Mōrere (Sentry Hill), where a glancing blow on the brow from an Enfield bullet (or, according to another account, a shell splinter) cost him the sight of his right eye.
Tītokowaru's role in the terrible campaign of 1865–66, when Duncan Cameron, Trevor Chute, and Thomas McDonnell tore South Taranaki apart, is unknown. The defence of Pungarehu, his home, on 4 October 1866, bears some of his military characteristics, yet it is Toi who appears in contemporary records as Ngā Ruahine's war leader. This probably reflects Tītokowaru's renewed pacifism.
The attack on Sentry Hill was influenced by a misinterpretation of the new Pai Mārire religion, whose founder, Te Ua Haumēne, had considerable influence on Tītokowaru. The two may have been old acquaintances – both were assistants of Skevington – and it was Te Ua who brought about Tītokowaru's second conversion to peace. Te Ua's death in late 1866 coincides exactly with Tītokowaru's rise to a new level of eminence. He can be seen as Te Ua's successor, together with Te Whiti-o-Rongomai III, of Parihaka. However, the religion which Tītokowaru now began to develop was not precisely the same as Te Ua's. Pai Mārire was one element, but it was superimposed on Christianity, which in turn had been superimposed on traditional Māori religion. Traditional religion was more important for Tītokowaru's creed than for Te Ua's or Te Whiti's.
We know most about this religion in the context of war, when Tītokowaru, partly for propaganda reasons, adopted the Whāngai Hau ceremony (offering up the heart of a slain enemy to Tū) and ritual cannibalism, sometimes associated with Uenuku. But Uenuku, the rainbow god, had kinder aspects, and it is certain that Tītokowaru's religion, like Te Ua's and Te Whiti's, was originally directed towards reconciliation, and peace. On taking up Te Ua's mantle in late 1866 Tītokowaru, like Te Whiti, abandoned his baptismal names, and adopted his father's. He rebuilt the village of Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, near Ōkaiawa, just north of the Waingongoro River, as his base. It contained 58 houses, a large marae, and the large and beautifully decorated meeting house Wharekura. For ever associated in Pākehā minds with later bloody deeds, Te Ngutu-o-te-manu was originally a centre of peace, comparable to Te Whiti's Parihaka and initially more important.
At the beginning of 1867 Tītokowaru began his great peace campaign, symbolised by his proclamation: 'This is the year of the daughters, this is the year of the lamb'. Its context could hardly have been more adverse. Imperial troops, Whanganui government supporters, colonial settlers and civil and military authorities all had to be placated in different ways. The local Māori were divided into various shades of resistance, neutrality, and collaboration, as well as by tribal enmities. No sooner was compromise reached than it was overturned by the colonists' taking a fresh bite of Māori land – the process of 'creeping confiscation'. Yet, by the summer of 1867–68, Tītokowaru had apparently succeeded in untangling this Gordian knot. One means was a series of at least five large peace meetings (early January, 14 February, 25 May and 28–29 November 1867, and 25 March 1868), held at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu and attended by all factions. Another was the dispatch of envoys to North Taranaki and farther afield, preaching peace in Tītokowaru's name. A third was a remarkable peace march, undertaken in June and July 1867 by Tītokowaru and 140 of his people. It began on 10 June at Camp Waihī, the colonial military base, where Tītokowaru was entertained in the officers' mess; passed through Tangāhoe, Pakakohe, and Ngā Rauru villages, as well as the towns of Pātea and Whanganui; and ended at Pipiriki, among Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi.
Tītokowaru's constant theme in all these proceedings was peace, even at a price. He toasted Queen Victoria when colonial officers insisted on it; ultimately renounced his cherished connection with the Māori King, who in Pākehā eyes was still a symbol of intransigence; accepted the loss of some Ngā Ruahine land, and persuaded other groups to do likewise – 'as for the lands, let them go, I wish to live in peace'. At the same time he orchestrated non-violent resistance to the extension of confiscation, always stopping short of renewed hostilities, frustrating but never alienating the colonial authorities. Pātea Resident Magistrate James Booth summed up his achievement: 'he has shown the most untiring energy in his efforts to bring other tribes to make peace. He has visited all the hapūs between Taranaki and Wanganui, and has now succeeded in bringing them in.' Often wrongly portrayed as having been a cover for preparation for conflict, Tītokowaru's Peace was in fact as remarkable, and unsung, an achievement as Tītokowaru's War.
Despite Tītokowaru's efforts, war broke out again on 9 June 1868 when, on his orders, Ngā Ruahine killed three military settlers on disputed land at Ketemarae. Indirectly the cause was yet another renewal of creeping confiscation in March and April 1868, which gave local Māori a choice between war and starvation. Tītokowaru opposed this with a campaign of punitive plunder without bloodshed, but the colonial authorities would not tolerate it. Booth made several increasingly threatening police raids on Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, seizing allegedly stolen goods and taking random hostages. Finally, on 7 June, a Ngā Ruahine hostage escaped from Waihī gaol, and Tītokowaru went to war rather than hand him over.
The war consisted of five campaigns: Te Ngutu-o-te-manu (June–September 1868), Moturoa (September–November 1868), Tauranga-ika (November 1868–February 1869), the pursuit from Tauranga-ika (February–April 1869), and the hunt for Tītokowaru's supporters (March–November 1869). At the outset, the odds against Tītokowaru were immense, twelve to one in fighting men, and the chances of victory minuscule. Yet Tītokowaru and his people destroyed one colonist army (at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu on 7 September 1868); comprehensively defeated another (at Moturoa on 7 November 1868); and scored several lesser victories (including Turuturumōkai on 12 June 1868, and Te Karaka and Ōtautū on 3 February and 13 March 1869). Their least successful tactical performance was a drawn battle at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu on 21 August 1868, and it could be argued that even this was a strategic success. This remarkable record cannot be attributed to the incompetence of the bested leaders – Thomas McDonnell, Gustavus von Tempsky, George Whitmore and Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui were all able men. Nor can it be attributed solely to Tītokowaru's genius: his achievements must not be allowed to obscure those of his lieutenants, including Toi, Haowhenua, Kōkiri, Hākopa Te Matauawa, and especially Wiremu Kātene Tūwhakaruru, or the brave men and women of his rank-and-file following. But his military genius was certainly felt.
Tītokowaru's greatly inferior numbers meant he seldom had the option of a conventional offensive. But he still competed for the initiative by seeking to provoke his enemies into premature attack on positions prepared in advance. Raids or threatened raids into settled areas were the main means of provocation, but his occasional use of well-publicised ritual cannibalism and written propaganda can also be understood as provocations in this context. He was a fine military engineer, capable of technical virtuosity, but not bound by it. His Tauranga-ika pā, whose meeting house was named Tūtahi, was a symmetrical masterpiece of military architecture, yet, at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, the pā itself was weak and Ōtautū was defended from natural features. Technically, Tītokowaru had his peers among other Māori leaders. His special trademarks were, first, the creation of an illusion in the minds of his enemy: a false target, an apparent weakness, an inviting route of approach – all deadly traps in fact. Tītokowaru never built a fortification that was what it seemed. Second, he used his defence of pā as only one part of a complete battle-plan. Other Māori leaders repulsed attacks with equal brilliance, but few, if any, used such success as a springboard for counter-attack. Using bush concealment to compensate for low numbers, Tītokowaru would carefully but vigorously pursue the beaten foe, causing more casualties and damaging morale.
In the mid summer of 1868–69, at the peak of his success, Tītokowaru had reconquered an 80 mile tract of territory from the Waingongoro River to the Whanganui River. His victories had brought the colony to its knees, forcing the colonial government to consider peace with the hated Te Kooti (so it could concentrate its forces against Tītokowaru); the abandonment of responsible government (in return for imperial troops); and the return of all confiscated land. His following had increased from 150 people, mainly Ngā Ruahine, to 1,000, including most of Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru, as well as some Taranaki and Te Āti Awa (especially Ngāti Maru), and a few Waikato. He had strong sympathisers in the Manawatū; and his victories were overcoming the King movement's reluctance to assist him. On 3 February 1869 the King's forces intervened on his behalf with an attack on Pukearuhe redoubt in North Taranaki.
But the Kingite attack on Pukearuhe came too late, for Tītokowaru had already abandoned Tauranga-ika, near Waitōtara, and withdrawn north, his army disintegrating as he went. Various explanations have been offered for this: that he was frightened out by the imminent colonist attack or that he made a strategic withdrawal; that he ran out of food or ammunition; that he had had an affair with Pouārauranga, wife of a subordinate, which estranged his allies and destroyed his mana-tapu. The last is the most likely, but is not entirely satisfactory, and some mystery remains. Tītokowaru's retreat from Tauranga-ika to Kawau, near Tōtara, among his Ngāti Maru friends, was itself a military epic. He and his people suffered great privations, but made good their escape. Some of his followers are said to have been allowed to escape by Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, who thus made good their debt to his father. So Tītokowaru lost his war, although the colonists can hardly be said to have won it. Later in 1869, when a tohunga ritually absolved him of the sin of Tauranga-ika, his mana and following began to recover.
Tītokowaru remained in Ngāti Maru country until 1871, when he reoccupied his old territories, building villages at Ōmutarangi and Taikatu, and, subsequently, at Ōkaiawa, where his new meeting house was named Te Aroha Kāinga. He came to a tacit understanding with the government that neither would molest the other; organised a highly successful commercial enterprise selling cocksfoot grass-seed to settlers and making £3,000 a year; and established an increasingly close alliance with Te Whiti and Tohu Kākahi at Parihaka. This involved his third conversion to peace; as Te Whiti put it, 'the lion shall lie down with the lamb'. But, as the native minister, Donald McLean, admitted, it was Tītokowaru's military reputation which protected central Taranaki as an independent Māori state through most of the 1870s.
By 1878 Pākehā fear of Tītokowaru had faded sufficiently for creeping confiscation to begin again. At first Tītokowaru did not actively oppose the surveys, and accepted government payments to the value of at least £900 under the names Hōhepa, Pikirapu, and Rangipōkau, and the title Kohi Rangitira. But the money went to the common fund at Parihaka, and by 1879 Tītokowaru was orchestrating a campaign of active but non-violent resistance: the removal of survey parties and their gear, the ploughing-up of disputed land, and eventually the overloading of government resources through the peaceful acceptance of mass arrest. Tītokowaru himself suffered the first of three imprisonments at this time, although he was soon released. This remarkable feat of resistance is usually associated with Te Whiti, but it was Tītokowaru who led the people of Parihaka as well as his own people. Te Whiti and Tohu deliberated policy, and Tītokowaru carried it out.
The campaign was initially successful, but in November 1881 the native minister, John Bryce, mounted an invasion of central Taranaki with 2,500 men. He brought so large an army for fear of Tītokowaru, but the prophet's commitment to peace was now absolute, although his reputation did cost the invaders a few sleepless nights. All three leaders were seized and imprisoned; the town itself was destroyed; and much of central Taranaki became Pākehā farmland. Tītokowaru spent eight months in gaol, giving up a hunger strike only when preparations were made to force-feed him.
He was released on 14 July 1882, in a state of increasing ill health. In the mid 1870s he had survived a bout of pneumonia and he had severe rheumatism, a legacy of his campaigns. By the 1880s he had asthma, heart disease, and a kidney complaint. Despite this, he continued to be active, mounting a great round of peace and reconciliation pilgrimages in 1885 and 1886, with as many as 1,200 followers. Again, these are credited mainly to Te Whiti, but they precisely follow the pattern established by Tītokowaru in 1867. In 1885 he visited Pātea, New Plymouth, Mōkau and Ōpunake, among other places; he was at Pātea again on 14 July 1886. Everywhere he preached his message of peace: 'I will shower peace upon the people until the end of time'.
But, as in 1867, peace and goodwill did not mean supine acquiescence. Tītokowaru refused to accept rents from those of his lands compulsorily leased through the public trustee, and he still took part in various protests. After one of these, at A. J. Hastie's farm near Manaia on 18 July 1886, he was imprisoned for a month, despite his age and severe illness. His health declined still further and on 17 July 1888 he died at his home at Ōkaiawa. His funeral, attended by 2,000 Māori, was an occasion of unparalleled lamentation, and he was buried secretly.
Physically Tītokowaru in middle age was 'a stern, commanding man', without moko and somewhat disfigured by his blind eye. 'He was about five feet nine in height and somewhat spare and muscular, with fine bone, an alert active man, but by no means good-looking'. In old age he was frail and thin, with a long black beard, and disappointed Pākehā who expected to find a giant. His immediate charisma came less from his face than from his deep and clear voice, which inspired awe in his followers. Before the war he sometimes wore a full European suit, complete with boots and bowler-hat; after it, his dress was a more conventional synthesis of Māori and European.
In his youth Tītokowaru had a reputation for personal prowess as a warrior, and even in middle age he was noted for strength and endurance. During his war he normally directed operations from a safe command post, but often led parties in emergencies. At the first attack on Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, on 21 August 1868, he had to be forced to leave Wharekura by his followers. But, after 1864, he never used a weapon himself, carrying only his sacred staff, Te Porohanga. The only story of personal violence during the war described his breaking a colonist soldier's neck with his bare hands. He had a great white horse, Niu Tīrene (New Zealand), which both Māori and Pākehā held in some awe. As this suggests, he was credited with super-human attributes: the ability to stop artillery shells by command; divinely inspired prescience; and control of the wind, through Uenuku – 'Even the winds of Heaven are Titoko's'.
Tītokowaru's private life is even harder to uncover than his public, but some hints remain among the caricatures of grim villain and grim hero. Although sometimes taciturn, he was 'very friendly and hospitable', 'very sociable', 'genial in the extreme', even to Pākehā. He was fond of humour, rum, and whisky, although he gave up drinking after an unfortunate incident in a pub in Manaia about 1879. There is some evidence that he had liaisons with numerous women. He was capable of great kindness, and had a sensitive touch with those in self-doubt, as his treatment of Kātene, Kimble Bent, and Charles Kane shows. His reputation for mercilessness during his war was partly well founded, but on at least five occasions he spared enemy Pākehā. It was the government, not Tītokowaru, who killed unarmed women and children.
Tītokowaru is arguably the best general New Zealand has ever produced, but his career as prophet, peacemaker, and leader of non-violent resistance was longer and at least as significant. In the former career, he has been overshadowed by Te Kooti; in the latter, by Te Whiti. Neither of these leaders should be belittled, but it must be said that posterity has erred in this judgement. It exists because Tītokowaru's War is a dark secret of New Zealand history, forgotten by the Pākehā as a child forgets a nightmare. Such selective memory almost falsified Tītokowaru's prophecy:
I shall not die,
I shall not die,
When death itself is dead, I shall be alive.