Te Rangitopeora, also known as Rangi Topeora, was born at Kāwhia probably early in the nineteenth century. Her mother was Waitohi, of Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Raukawa, and her father Te Rākaherea. Her hapū were Ngāti Kimihia and Ngāti 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 Rātūtonu, of Ngāti Māhanga in Taranaki; he died about 1822. The second was to Rangikapiki, of Te Arawa; Mātene Te Whiwhi, celebrated for his advocacy of a Māori 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 Rākapa 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 Ngāti Toa and other Waikato tribes, Ngāti Pou killed a number of Ngāti Toa women, including Te Rangitopeora's sisters. She composed a cursing song, predicting violent and degrading deaths for the chiefs of Ngāti Pou. Her uncle, Te Rauparaha, fulfilled the prophecy, killing and eating those named in the curse.
On their way from Kāwhia to the Cook Strait area, Ngāti Toa passed through Taranaki. Armed with muskets, they captured many Taranaki pā. As a result the Taranaki people gathered into a strong pā, Tāpuinīkau (near Ōpunake), where they were besieged by Te Rauparaha and his allies. Among those in the pā was Te Rātūtonu, who had been Te Rangitopeora's lover. He was summoned from the pā so that she could marry him. But Nekepapa, a woman of Te Āti Awa, decided that Te Rātūtonu 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 pā 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 Ngāti Toa's tangled relationships with their neighbours. After Ngāti Tama went from Te Horo on the mainland to Kapiti, fighting broke out on the island in the later 1820s between them and Ngāti Toa, allied to Ngāti Raukawa. After suffering losses, Ngāti 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 Mātene Te Whiwhi was sent to make peace, and Ngāti Tama retired to the mainland.
But Te Rangitopeora had a warlike side to her nature. Muaūpoko 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. Muaūpoko 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 Pākehā, in 1846 (according to the contemporary account of a British soldier) she denounced the Pākehā settlers and upbraided those Māori in the Ōtaki 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 Ōtaki River, she rented land to Pākehā settlers and offered it for sale; she and her son Mātene Te Whiwhi were reputed to be considerable landowners among the people who lived at Katihiku, near the mouth of the Ōtaki 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 Ōtaki 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 Ōtaki, 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.