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Te Awa-i-taia, Wiremu Nera

?–1866

Waikato leader, missionary, assessor, mediator

This biography, written by Gary Scott, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Te Awa-i-taia was born probably in the late eighteenth century. His mother was Parehina, and his father was Te Kata. Most sources state that Te Awa-i-taia had nine wives, including Rangihikitanga, Hinu, Kararaina, Pirihira and Raimipaha.

Te Awa-i-taia was a leader of Ngati Mahanga, whose home was on the Waipa River. As a young man he led a war party that drove Ngati Koata south from Whaingaroa (Raglan Harbour) to Kawhia. He then occupied their land, and set up his home at Ohiapopoka, between Te Mata and Okete. He was a good friend and fighting companion to two of the most famous warriors in Waikato, Te Waharoa of Ngati Haua, and Potatau Te Wherowhero of Ngati Mahuta, to whom he was related.

In a period of constant skirmishing in Waikato, Te Awa-i-taia was famed for his skill with his taiaha (now in Raglan Museum). In the Waikato campaign against Te Rauparaha, at Kawhia about 1820, he led part of the seaborne invasion. In the battle at Te Kakara in the same campaign, he was involved in the killing of Raparapa, of Ngati Tama, who was famed for his great strength.

Te Awa-i-taia was a leader of the war party that pursued Te Rauparaha on his migration south through Taranaki. In late 1821 or early 1822 he took part in the battle at Motunui, in northern Taranaki, where Waikato were beaten and retreated north. He returned to Taranaki in 1824 with Te Waharoa, Te Waharoa's son Tarapipipi, and a large party, at the request of Ngatata-i-te-rangi of Te Ati Awa, to fight against Ngati Ruanui at Waitara. In 1831 Te Awa-i-taia was again in Taranaki with Te Wherowhero, to exact revenge for the defeat at Motunui. He killed Te Ao-i-te-rangi of Ngati Tama and took a leading part in the battle of Pukerangiora.

In 1833 or 1834 Te Awa-i-taia was introduced to Christianity. As a result of his conversion he tried to stop the fighting between Waikato and Ngati Ruanui at Te Ruaki, near Hawera, about this time. On his return to Whaingaroa he came under the influence of the Wesleyan missionary William White, who was setting up mission stations along the coast. Te Awa-i-taia became patron of the Kawhia station, which was built on Ngati Mahanga land, and was baptised there as Wiremu Nera (William Naylor) by the resident Wesleyan missionary, James Wallis, on 17 January 1836. The success of Christianity among Ngati Mahanga around Whaingaroa is attributed to Te Awa-i-taia's encouragement.

Te Awa-i-taia was a conscientious convert. He defended the mission against a threat from other local Maori, built the first church at Whaingaroa, and on church instructions discarded eight of his nine wives. In 1837 he helped to obtain the release of slaves brought back to Waikato from the Taranaki raids. In 1840 he tried to interpose himself in a fight between Ngati Tuwharetoa and the people of Waitotara at Patoka pa. He urged peace, but as he knelt to pray, Ngati Tuwharetoa shot two of the assembled warriors.

Te Awa-i-taia signed the Treaty of Waitangi on 11 April 1840, when it was brought to Whaingaroa by the CMS missionary Robert Maunsell, and he exhorted others to do likewise. In May 1844, at a meeting of Maori leaders at Remuera in Auckland, he reiterated his allegiance to the governor and the Queen. However, he expressed some displeasure at pressure from settlers to sell land, and at their unwillingness to pay a fair price.

In 1854 Te Awa-i-taia and the Reverend John Whiteley of Kawhia accompanied Donald McLean, the chief land purchase commissioner, to Taranaki, where war was brewing over the murder of Rawiri Waiaua by Te Waitere Katatore. Te Awa-i-taia warned that Ngati Mahanga and other Waikato tribes would intervene on the side of the Europeans in Taranaki if any harm should come to them. Pakeha observers regarded Te Awa-i-taia as the most influential leader in Waikato besides Te Wherowhero. He was asked if he would accept nomination for the Maori kingship, but would have nothing to do with the movement, considering support of it to be incompatible with his sworn allegiance to Queen Victoria. At the 1857 meeting at Paetai, near Rangiriri, he spoke against the movement. Such was his mana that his speech was followed by half an hour's silence. When Iwikau Te Heuheu Tukino III advocated the forcible expulsion of Pakeha from New Zealand, Te Awa-i-taia and Waata Kukutai interrupted him and persuaded him to sit down. Te Awa-i-taia also urged Te Wherowhero not to accept the offer of the kingship. He might have had more influence on the outcome of the meeting had it not been for his involvement in a dispute with Te Wherowhero over land on the coast. Te Awa-i-taia was one of the chiefs who subsequently visited Governor Thomas Gore Browne in Auckland. The supporters of the King and his opponents both insisted on the maintenance of Maori nationality, and asked that Maori be given a parliament of their own.

Te Awa-i-taia opposed Te Wherowhero's desire to settle at Ngaruawahia, claiming that the land was Ngati Mahanga's ancient domain. He was a member of the Ngati Mahanga government runanga and supported F. D. Fenton's appointment as resident magistrate in Waikato. He considered himself and Fenton to be partners in the maintenance of law and order, and complained to the government when one of his people was captured, tried and sent to gaol in Auckland, without consultation with him.

At a meeting at Ngaruawahia in May 1860 Te Awa-i-taia's government allegiance aroused much enmity. An attempt was made to insult him; he was urged not to speak, and to return home. Others urged him to stay, and promised to give him a fair hearing. He repeated the sentiments he had expressed at Paetai, and warned Tarapipipi (now known as Wiremu Tamihana) and Ngati Haua not to get involved in designs that would disturb the peace of the country. In August he attended the Kohimarama conference of Maori leaders, called by the government.

Te Awa-i-taia had been selling land to the Crown for several years. In March 1851 he had sold 30 square miles of land at Whaingaroa, on which Raglan township now stands. In 1859 he offered to sell land from Waitetuna to the Waipa River, on the Waikato side of the ranges. In 1862 he and his people began building a road on their own land, from Raglan through to Whatawhata on the Waipa River, to give the government greater access to central Waikato. Waikato tribes, not surprisingly, objected strongly. Months of meetings were held with other tribes who had claims to the land on which the road was being built. When a date was finally fixed to begin cutting down trees on the eastern side of the ranges, an armed party set off from Kihikihi to stop Te Awa-i-taia's men. At Whatawhata the party was stopped by a letter from Tamihana, which stated that he would consider a shot fired against his father's ally a declaration of war on Ngati Haua. However, Te Paea, Te Wherowhero's close kin, personally pulled out the survey pegs for the road, and Te Awa-i-taia found that he could get no guarantee of armed support from the government. He settled for a compromise, and his people began construction of the road on Crown land at Whaingaroa.

Although Te Awa-i-taia told Governor George Grey in 1863 that he objected to government policy on Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake's stand over land sales at Waitara, he supported the government's entrance into the war in Taranaki. He acted as a government intermediary during the war which followed the invasion of Waikato by British troops in 1863. He was appointed an assessor under the Native Circuit Courts Act 1858, and after the British occupation of Ngaruawahia in December 1863 he went to Maungatautari, Pikopiko and Paterangi to try to convince Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto to give up fighting. He believed that Waikato wanted to end the fighting, but were afraid to give up their arms lest Tamihana and Tawhiao, who had succeeded Te Wherowhero as King, be executed.

Te Awa-i-taia armed some of his men to assist government troops to defend the Raglan settlement during the war, although Raglan was never directly threatened. He provided guides and auxiliaries for Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron, and offered to send men to defend Auckland. He was awarded the rank of major, and was presented with a sword of honour, although he did no fighting. He died at Raglan on 27 April 1866. He was survived by two of his wives, Rangihikitanga and Hinu. Te Awa-i-taia had at least six children, three of whom survived him. He was succeeded as leader of Ngati Mahanga by his nephew, Hetaraka Nero.

How to cite this page:

Gary Scott. 'Te Awa-i-taia, Wiremu Nera', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t26/te-awa-i-taia-wiremu-nera (accessed 18 July 2019)