Te Rangitopeora, also known as Rangi Topeora, was born at Kawhia probably early in the nineteenth century. Her mother was Waitohi, of Ngati Toa and Ngati Raukawa, and her father Te Ra-ka-herea. Her hapu were Ngati Kimihia and Ngati Te Maunu. As a young woman she migrated south with these tribes to Kapiti Island and the adjacent mainland coast. Four marriages are recorded and the traditions tell of many other relationships. The first, in 1818, was to Te Ra-tu-tonu, of Ngati Mahanga in Taranaki; he died about 1822. The second was to Rangikapiki, of Te Arawa; Matene Te Whiwhi, celebrated for his advocacy of a Maori king in the 1850s, was a child of this marriage. Another husband, Te Wehi-o-te-rangi, of Te Arawa, was the father of her daughter Rakapa Kahoki, like her mother a notable composer. Yet another husband, Hauturu, had an affair in 1840 with a slave on Kapiti Island; Te Rangitopeora saw to it that she was killed and eaten.
As a very young woman, before the southward migration, Te Rangitopeora had made her mark as a composer of waiata. In the course of the wars between Ngati Toa and other Waikato tribes, Ngati Pou killed a number of Ngati Toa women, including Te Rangitopeora's sisters. She composed a cursing song, predicting violent and degrading deaths for the chiefs of Ngati Pou. Her uncle, Te Rauparaha, fulfilled the prophecy, killing and eating those named in the curse.
On their way from Kawhia to the Cook Strait area, Ngati Toa passed through Taranaki. Armed with muskets, they captured many Taranaki pa. As a result the Taranaki people gathered into a strong pa, Tapuinikau (near Opunake), where they were besieged by Te Rauparaha and his allies. Among those in the pa was Te Ra-tu-tonu, who had been Te Rangitopeora's lover. He was summoned from the pa so that she could marry him. But Nekepapa, a woman of Te Ati Awa, decided that Te Ra-tu-tonu should marry her and tried to reach him first. Te Rangitopeora won the race and threw her dogskin cloak over him. Although the marriage did not at once bring peace, later negotiations enabled those inside the pa to slip quietly away. These memories of Te Rangitopeora's deeds show her to have been from an early age a leader and a woman of great strength.
The tribes which invaded and occupied the Cook Strait area were frequently in conflict with one another and with the tribes they found already there. Te Rangitopeora played an important part in Ngati Toa's tangled relationships with their neighbours. After Ngati Tama went from Te Horo on the mainland to Kapiti, fighting broke out on the island in the later 1820s between them and Ngati Toa, allied to Ngati Raukawa. After suffering losses, Ngati Tama sent the daughter of their chief, Pehitaka, to make peace. She was received by Te Rangitopeora, who in turn conferred with Te Rauparaha. As a result her son Matene Te Whiwhi was sent to make peace, and Ngati Tama retired to the mainland.
But Te Rangitopeora had a warlike side to her nature. Muaupoko, the people already established in Horowhenua, strenuously resisted the northern invaders. Te Rauparaha had at least three of his children killed by them. Te Rangitopeora and her mother, Waitohi, played a full part in planning vengeance. Muaupoko were hunted down and killed in great numbers.
On 14 May 1840 Te Rangitopeora signed a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi, taken to Kapiti by Henry Williams. She was one of only five women to sign. Despite this and her later acceptance of the presence of Pakeha, in 1846 (according to the contemporary account of a British soldier) she denounced the Pakeha settlers and upbraided those Maori in the Otaki district who welcomed settlement and did not support her brother Te Rangihaeata's resistance. On this occasion an old chief is said to have told her to sit down, that she was the silly sister of a sillier brother, and no better than a dog's daughter. He went on to compare the benefits of peace – pigs and potatoes, warm fires and tobacco – with the discomforts and tribulations of war, and seems to have won the day.
Te Rangitopeora was evidently a woman with considerable control over property and land. On Kapiti she over-rode the opposition of Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata and insisted on allowing a whaler, William Mayhew, to use a piece of land. Her uncle and brother, however, having lost the argument, made sure of a share of the goods Mayhew paid. Later, living near the mouth of the Otaki River, she rented land to Pakeha settlers and offered it for sale; she and her son Matene Te Whiwhi were reputed to be considerable landowners among the people who lived at Katihiku, near the mouth of the Otaki River.
Te Rangitopeora inherited her mother's capacities for leadership. She was an important figure among her people, influential in the decisions they made, whether for war or for peace. She was an orator who claimed and was accorded the right to speak at meetings, a singer whose support any speaker was glad to have, and a poet whose songs are still sung. She was, too, a passionate woman of many marriages and many other relationships. She gives a striking self-portrait in one of her waiata:
A notorious one, indeed, am I
Because of my heart's desires,
And so utterly consumed with love.
When she was baptised at Otaki on 2 May 1847, no name would satisfy her but Te Kuini (the Queen); one of her husbands was given the name Arapeta (Albert), after Queen Victoria's consort. Later Te Rangitopeora was commonly known as 'Queen of the South'. Her portrait by Gottfried Lindauer shows her, in her later years, as a woman of proud, imperious bearing, with strong, handsome features, clad in the traditional clothing she is said never to have given up.
She died probably some time between 1865 and 1873, at Otaki, after a long, eventful and energetic life, during which she had been a major figure in the turbulent history of her people in the disturbed first half of the nineteenth century.