Te Hapuku, sometimes called Te Ika-nui-o-te-moana, was born in the late eighteenth century. He was a leader of Ngati Te Whatu-i-apiti. Kinship links within Ngati Kahungunu, Rangitane, Ngati Ira and other major tribal groups in Hawke's Bay made him influential throughout the region. Te Hapuku's father was Kurimate, also known as Te Rangi-ko-ia-anake II, whose main hapu were Ngati Te Manawa-kawa and Ngati Te Rangi-ko-ia-anake, named after his grandfather, Te Rangi-ko-ia-anake I. His mother was Tatari of Ngai Tapuhara, and Ngati Hinepare, of Ngati Kahungunu. One brother, Haurangi, sometimes called Te Waihiku, may have been an older son of Kurimate with a junior wife. Another brother was Ihaka Motoro. His kinswoman, Hine-i-paketia, though a generation younger, was his contemporary and ranked as ariki of Ngati Te Whatu-i-apiti. Te Hapuku was overshadowed within Ngati Te Whatu-i-apiti and Ngai Tapuhara by the war leader Te Pareihe, his senior by one generation.
Wars rent Hawke's Bay in the 1820s as a result of invasion. When Te Pakake pa was attacked about 1824 by Waikato, Te Hapuku was among the many prisoners. He was then exchanged for obsidian with a Ngati Raukawa war party. In one version of events, having, perhaps, been permitted to escape at Tarawera, he made his way to his people on the Mahia peninsula. In another version he was recaptured at Te Haroto and taken to Te Wherowhero of Waikato, who sent for Tiakitai to escort him and the other prisoners home. Later that year Te Momo-a-Irawaru of Ngati Te Kohera, a hapu of Ngati Raukawa, invaded central Hawke's Bay with the intention of settling there. Te Hapuku was inclined to make peace with Te Momo, a policy which others regarded as treachery. Te Pareihe and his allies subsequently killed Te Momo and drove out the remnants of Ngati Te Kohera. A party of Ngati Te Upokoiri who had been Te Momo's allies came to take revenge for this defeat, killing Te Hapuku's sister, Hine-i-hoaia.
After this battle Te Hapuku lived with Tiakitai at Te Pakake for about eight years. He forcibly opposed Te Pareihe for agreeing to make peace with Waikato. Te Hapuku may have joined in the campaign to punish Ngati Raukawa and its Rangitane allies for their attack on Hawke's Bay, in which the mother of Kurupo Te Moananui had been killed. It is recorded that he consumed part of the body of the son of Te Hirawanu Kaimokopuna. One of the prisoners taken was a female cousin of Te Hirawanu; Te Hapuku took her to wife; their son was Watene Te Hapuku.
About 1833 Te Hapuku joined the exodus of Ngati Te Whatu-i-apiti and Ngati Kahungunu at Heretaunga (Hawke's Bay) to the Mahia peninsula, where they had taken refuge from the continuous invasions. From there he joined the Wairarapa leader Nuku-pewapewa in a punitive raid against the Taranaki tribes who had occupied Wairarapa, only to withdraw when he realised the numbers of the enemy. He is reputed to have asked Nuku-pewapewa: 'Where are we going to get enough water to put all those fires out?'
On the Mahia peninsula Te Hapuku had established himself at the township of Te Mahia, near the neck of the peninsula, which whalers frequented in the 1830s. He became notorious for his overbearing conduct towards the whaling community, to such an extent that British Resident James Busby threatened him with the visitation of a warship. Te Hapuku seems to have held all Europeans in contempt at this stage of his life, and he fiercely rejected Christianity.
In 1838 Te Hapuku visited the Bay of Islands where, on 25 September, he signed the 1835 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand. In 1840, therefore, Major Thomas Bunbury deemed it important to obtain his agreement to the Treaty of Waitangi. He called at the Tukituki River in Hawke's Bay where Te Hapuku had recently returned. At first Te Hapuku refused to sign, saying that Nga Puhi were now slaves through the treaty, but Bunbury convinced him that his assent to the treaty could only increase his mana; he gave it on 24 June 1840.
Te Hapuku's rise to eminence within Ngati Te Whatu-i-apiti was assisted by the death of Te Pareihe in 1844. His dignity and deep knowledge of tradition were reflected in his public utterances. Like those of other chiefs and skilled orators, his utterances were often cryptic to the uninitiated; he was often satirical or laconic. He delighted to tease the missionary William Colenso when the behaviour of the latter's sometimes shaky converts failed to measure up to the Christian ideal. His temperament was unusually autocratic, not only with Europeans but also with his kin. He deeply resented slights to his personal mana, but was gracious to Europeans he respected, and inclined to protect them.
Te Hapuku's personal household was large, suited to his rank and importance. Te Heipora, his principal wife, had become his spouse in the late 1820s. She was the mother of his recognised heir, Karanama (Cranmer) Te Nahu, the father of Arihi Te Nahu. Karanama was to die of measles in 1854. Other wives were Whaitiri, the mother of Eke-nga-rangi and Arapata; and Hinerangi, the mother of Tangata-ke and Te Pohuka. Other sons were Te Whakahemo and Nepia. Colenso knew of eight wives in 1850; Donald McLean reported ten. There may have been strife among them; one wife strangled herself in 1850 in a fit of jealousy.
Although Te Hapuku continued to resist Christianity, he permitted his people and his own children to become converts, and found both the Protestant and Catholic missionaries useful. He had learned to write by 1852 but made use of a Catholic priest, at the pa of his kinsman, Puhara, as an amanuensis, especially in communication with the governor. He listened to Colenso's advice concerning his land in 1848, although missionary efforts to persuade him to set up extensive reserves with natural boundaries did not succeed.
In December 1850 Donald McLean arrived in Hawke's Bay to investigate the availability of land for purchase by the government; he encountered Te Hapuku on 13 December. McLean learnt from Colenso that Tareha, Kurupo Te Moananui and Puhara were of equal mana to Te Hapuku but he seems to have made a conscious decision that his best chance of acquiring extensive territory was through the latter. In January 1851 McLean recorded that, 'Hapuku is acting precisely as I have directed him, that is he goes about negotiating and arranging with his tribe for the sale of more land.' Te Hapuku arranged extensive land sales in Hawke's Bay. He encountered little initial opposition, such was the enthusiasm for selling; indeed, he had difficulty in persuading some groups to retain any reserves. Te Hapuku was motivated by a grand vision of the future. Both he and Hine-i-paketia realised that much of their forested land had now become virtually useless economically; the game hunted there in former times had been destroyed by introduced pests. He wanted to enrich his territory by settling on it respectable Europeans with whom his people could trade their grain and other crops for clothes, tools, horses and horse-tackle, tobacco and spirits. In May 1851 Te Hapuku told McLean he intended to sell all his land except the block known as Raukawa, 'which was as sacred as his brains'. He also promised to assist McLean in purchasing Wairarapa.
Tareha and Kurupo Te Moananui soon began to resent Te Hapuku's assumption of the role of Crown land agent in chief as well as McLean's apparent acceptance of his pre-eminence. Their insistence on selling land on their own behalf forced McLean to arrange simultaneous surveys of the Waipukurau and Ahuriri blocks, and to negotiate with Te Moananui.
Te Hapuku ignored advice from Taupo, Manawatu and Wairarapa not to sell land. No prices had been settled, and those offered were much less than Te Hapuku expected. Twenty thousand pounds was asked for the 300,000 acre Waipukurau block; McLean offered £3,000. Te Hapuku, who seems to have been forewarned, was annoyed at the sudden announcement; he told McLean that the proposed price was too little to satisfy 'his numerous tribes', and pointed out that although the land was now depopulated through war and disease, it was capable of sustaining thousands. He drew a parallel with Wairarapa, telling McLean he offered too little there as well, and regretting that he had offered to help him purchase land in that region. He was anxious to have European settlers to replace his tribes, now nearly extinct; he reminded McLean that the Crown would recoup the money it expended through subsequent sales to settlers, whereas the Maori sellers got only perishable articles. Te Hapuku's appeal resulted in the price being raised by some £1,800, which he distributed among the more than 200 hapu, but some of the occupiers remained unsatisfied. Nevertheless, Te Hapuku's mana was never higher than at this period. He was the influential friend of the governor and the governor's most powerful agent; he was appointed a magistrate in 1852. He was at McLean's side in September and October 1853 when the major purchases in Wairarapa took place. Colenso made further efforts to get him and the other major leaders to set up substantial reserves, but their jealousies prevented anything being achieved. Te Hapuku agreed to the setting up of Te Aute College trust, established on Crown land which had been Ngati Te Whatu-i-apiti territory.
In late December 1853 Te Hapuku visited Wellington with his son Karanama Te Nahu, Puhara, Hine-i-paketia, Hori Niania Te Aroatua and others. A dinner was put on at which Te Hapuku said that he would like more Europeans in Hawke's Bay. With his companions, Te Hapuku arranged with McLean the sale of four large blocks for a total of £3,200 in January 1854. These sales were undertaken without the knowledge of many of the owner-occupants of the land, and without the agreement of others; outrage spread and protests were made to the land commissioners. In 1855 Te Hapuku, who had bought a small schooner for trade, visited Auckland to protest the non-arrival of payments for some of the lands sold. While there he sold the Manga or Rangipeke block, claimed by Ngai Takaha; he failed to distribute any purchase money to the occupiers.
Opposition to Te Hapuku's course began to mount; the leaders of the non-sellers were Kurupo Te Moananui, Tareha, Karaitiana Takamoana and Renata Kawepo. In 1856 the quarrel came to a head over a block offered for sale by a woman, Tawhara. G. S. Cooper, the district commissioner, found that he could not make a payment for this land in the face of the determination of Te Hapuku's opponents to fight him if it was made. Te Hapuku declared that unless Cooper did make a payment on Tawhara's land he would refuse to receive any money for the Ruataniwha and Aorangi blocks, and would turn off the settlers. When Cooper tried to patch up a peace Te Hapuku aborted it by sending a sarcastic message to Tareha and others, telling them not to forget their guns and ammunition when they came to the proposed meeting.
Part of Te Hapuku's stubborn determination to sell land in the face of mounting opposition arose from his indebtedness. The money he was to receive as instalments later that year would not cover his existing liabilities; he could no longer get goods on credit, and a fall in grain prices meant that he could not trade his way out of his difficulties. His changed lifestyle had made continuous supplies of imported goods a necessity, and he had no alternative but to continue selling land.
In February–March 1857 Cooper took Kurupo Te Moananui, Tareha and others with him to point out their lands included in Te Hapuku's sales. Cooper knew that Te Hapuku would regard this as interference in his 'special work'; the 'survey' went armed. Cooper regarded himself as forced to continue to trust and work with Te Hapuku because a quarrel with him would have spoiled his chances of acquiring the Forty Mile Bush.
Te Hapuku, determined to assert his right to sell Tawhara's block, camped at Whakawhiti in August 1857 and began to build a pa with timber taken from Te Pakiaka, a stand of bush near Whakatu, thus contravening a previous agreement that his people could have as much firewood as they wished but no growing timber. Hostilities began, with clashes on 18 August, 14 October and 9 December 1857; in each case Te Hapuku's party came off slightly the worse and in the last battle his kinsman Puhara lost his life. Te Hapuku's opponents kept him besieged, cutting off all access to Clive and Napier, and preventing the conveyance of any goods to his pa. They declared they would be satisfied with nothing less than Te Hapuku's withdrawal from Whakatu to his inland residence at Poukawa. Eventually Donald McLean persuaded the reluctant Te Hapuku to retire, literally smoothing the way by preparing the Te Aute road for cart and dray traffic. Having sent his non-combatants and goods on ahead, he finally withdrew with his fighting force in March 1858, having burnt down his pa before he left. In spite of his refusal to ratify the peace made in September 1858, he seemed to feel it precluded any more fighting, and turned his attention to farming, the building of a watermill and other improvements to his Poukawa lands. He offered a piece of land there for sale, hoping to get a trading store established.
Deserted by 1859 by most of his followers, Te Hapuku was still held in awe by his contemporaries. In 1859 a King movement deputation visited him, but he remained totally opposed to the King and runanga movements. In 1859 his brother Haurangi raised the King's flag in his pa in his absence. In 1860 Te Hapuku was among those who attended the Kohimarama conference of Maori leaders called by the government. Despite his reinforced loyalty to the Crown, his relations with Europeans continued to be difficult; they sometimes found him overbearing and lawless. Cooper confessed to McLean that Te Hapuku was 'beyond him to manage'. In 1862 he seized a flock of 2,400 sheep when a lessee refused to pay increased rent. His relations with his Maori opponents continued to be acrimonious; he refused to allow the sale of their interests in various blocks; Cooper found it would be unsafe to purchase the land or to occupy it.
In 1864 Te Hapuku permitted the followers of Pai Marire to settle at Te Hauke, even though he himself was averse to their doctrines; their presence strengthened him against his enemies. A number of his own people joined the movement and Te Hapuku's support was believed to have encouraged the adoption of the new religion in Wairarapa. He made a temporary alliance with Tareha, who was also playing host to Pai Marire disciples, against Karaitiana Takamoana and Renata Kawepo. In March 1866 Governor George Grey visited Te Hapuku, and induced him and his brother Haurangi to sign an oath of allegiance; they surrendered their Pai Marire flags to the governor. Subsequently Te Hapuku tried to negotiate with the Pai Marire prophet Panapa, but when that failed, he fought against the Pai Marire occupiers of Omarunui, near Napier. In 1868 he took part in the campaign against Te Kooti.
In 1866 the Native Land Court began its Napier sittings. Te Hapuku gave evidence in a few cases, but was not enthusiastic about some of the results. At one point he was forcibly ejected from the court for disorderly conduct. His debts continued to mount; in April 1870 his trap and his sheep were seized for debt, and by 1871 his creditors were seeking to have him declared a bankrupt. Various Europeans, including H. R. and T. P. Russell, sought to use this bankruptcy in an attempt to wrest control of Te Hapuku's interests in the Ngatarawa block from Donald McLean, who was a lessee and attempting to purchase on his own account. McLean and J. D. Ormond were similarly determined to profit from the situation. Te Hapuku benefited financially from the European contention for his interests; he was offered £400, perhaps as a loan to cover his most pressing debts, and traders were once again happy to accept his credit. His pension, first granted in the 1860s, was increased to £100 a year in 1871.
Despite his support for the movement to repudiate land sales, once their economic effects had become obvious, Te Hapuku retained his friendship for McLean, and was devastated when McLean lost office in 1872. He took several cases to the Hawke's Bay Native Lands Alienation Commission in 1873, most of which were either withdrawn or repudiated. Those which did come before the commission showed that he had known what he was doing when he signed deeds, or that he had failed to distribute moneys fairly. Dissatisfied with this result, Te Hapuku attended the meeting at Pakipaki at which the Repudiationists planned a monster petition to demand a new commission with greater judicial powers. But he was too much a rival of Karaitiana Takamoana to co-operate whole-heartedly with him.
Land matters continued to plague Te Hapuku throughout his last years, but other activities were more productive. He continued to run sheep at Poukawa. He became involved in efforts by Hawke's Bay leaders to improve the standard of education offered to their people, particularly with regard to Te Aute College. Te Hapuku was concerned that children from other tribal areas seemed to be reaping most of the benefits. In 1876 Te Hapuku, in response to an ancient prophecy, caused the house Kahuranaki to be built at Te Hauke.
Te Hapuku died on 23 May 1878 at Te Hauke. His last illness continued for five weeks. As he lay dying he asked to be placed so that his eyes should close watching the sacred Kahuranaki hill. He was visited on his deathbed by Sir George Grey. His funeral was attended by 400 Maori and Pakeha; the service was conducted by Samuel Williams. He was buried in a vault, 12 feet deep, 200 feet from the pa.