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Story: Te Pēhi Kupe

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Te Pēhi Kupe


Ngāti Toa leader, warrior

This biography, written by Steven Oliver, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.

Te Pehi Kupe was born at Kāwhia. He was the elder son of Toitoi and was descended in the senior line from Toa Rangatira, the eponymous ancestor of Ngāti Toa. His mother was Waipunāhau, a woman of the Ngāti Hinetuhi section of Ngāti Mutunga in Taranaki. Te Pehi Kupe's portrait, painted in England in 1824, shows an elaborately tattooed man aged about 30; from this portrait his date of birth has been estimated as about 1795. Te Pehi Kupe had two wives, Tiaia, the mother of his son, Te Hiko-o-te-rangi, and of four daughters, and Te Purewa, mother of his daughter, Ria Waitohi.

Little is known about Te Pehi's childhood except that he was raised as a chief. As a young man in 1819 he joined other Ngāti Toa warriors in the musket-armed war expedition of the northern leaders Tūwhare, Patuone and Nene. They took part in raiding Horowhenua and Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington). On Kapiti Island, during peacemaking after an unsuccessful siege of Taepiro pā, Te Pehi was presented with a greenstone mere by the defenders.

After the return of Ngāti Toa warriors to Kāwhia their territory was invaded by war parties of Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto. At the battle of Te Kakara, near Lake Taharoa, Te Pehi was one of four Ngāti Toa leaders to be armed with a musket. The others were Te Rauparaha, Te Rangihaeata and Pōkaitara. Ngāti Toa were defeated by an overwhelming enemy force. Soon after, they abandoned their ancestral homeland at Kāwhia and withdrew south, first to Taranaki and later to Horowhenua. During the retreat from Kāwhia Te Pehi's wife, Tiaia, dissuaded Te Rauparaha from killing a Waikato man who had helped Ngāti Toa.

In Taranaki relatives of Te Pehi from Ngāti Mutunga joined Ngāti Toa, and the combined war party defeated a Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto army at Motunui in late 1821 or early 1822. Ngāti Toa then moved on to Horowhenua where Te Pehi captured Kapiti Island from Muaūpoko and Ngāti Apa. The island became the stronghold of Ngāti Toa. Te Pehi also captured Muaūpoko leader Te Rātū and was wounded in doing so. As a consequence the other Ngāti Toa leaders gave up to Te Pehi the land that Te Rātū and his people had held at Kukutauaki. In other fighting, against Rangitāne, Ngāti Toa killed three Ngāti Apa leaders who were assisting Rangitāne at Motuiti pā, in northern Manawatū. In revenge Ngāti Apa struck unexpectedly at Ngāti Toa at Waikanae and killed 60 of them, including 4 children of Te Pehi. Te Pehi wanted revenge but for that he needed guns and ammunition.

On 26 February 1824 the Urania was becalmed in Cook Strait. Three canoes paddled out to the ship. One, a great war canoe, drew up to the Urania and Te Pehi, after making signs of peace, leapt aboard. By signs he asked for guns and on being told there were none said he would stay on board and go to Europe and ask King George for some. He pronounced these names clearly enough. He resisted being thrown overboard and ordered the canoes to return to shore. A breeze had sprung up so the captain of the ship, Richard Reynolds, was forced to let him stay. Te Pehi became friends with Reynolds and in Montevideo saved him from drowning.

In England Te Pehi was presented to George IV. He learnt to ride horses, saw regiments reviewed and visited factories; he was given gifts of tools and clothing but not muskets, although he may have acquired some from other sources. He survived a bout of measles and left England on 6 October 1825 on the Thames, travelling at the government's expense. In Sydney he sold the gifts he had been given and bought arms and ammunition. His return to Kapiti increased Ngāti Toa's supply of guns shortly before their invasion of the South Island.

In Te Pehi's absence Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata had made peace with Ngāti Apa. Despite this, Te Pehi took a war party to Rangitīkei and sacked a Ngāti Apa pā, probably Pikitara. There was no further warfare between Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Apa.

About 1828 Ngāti Toa and allied tribes invaded the South Island to avenge tribal insults, to conquer new territories with their armoury of muskets and to take captives. They were also seeking greenstone. The Ngāi Tahu pā of Kaikōura and Ōmihi were sacked and their inhabitants killed or enslaved. Ngāti Toa continued south to the Ngāi Tahu pā at Kaiapoi and there professed friendship and a wish to trade. Te Pehi, Pōkaitara, Te Aratangata, Kikotiwha and others entered the pā to trade guns and ammunition for greenstone. Tāmihana Te Rauparaha wrote in his account of his father's life that Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata remained outside, but Te Pehi, Pōkaitara and Te Aratangata stayed the night in Kaiapoi pā and were killed while sleeping. Ngāi Tahu sources say that there was a quarrel, initiated by Te Pehi, over a block of greenstone, in which he said to a Ngāi Tahu named Moimoi: 'Why do you with the crooked tattoo, resist my wishes – you whose nose will shortly be cut off with a hatchet'. Ngāi Tahu then closed the gates of the pā and killed the chiefs inside. Te Pehi Kupe was killed by Tangata Hara.

It is said that Te Pehi's last words, while struggling with his attackers, were, 'Don't give it to the god, but to the Kākā-kura'. The meaning of this saying is now lost. Te Pehi's body was cooked and eaten and his bones were later made into fish-hooks. Ngāti Toa had insufficient forces to capture Kaiapoi pā so returned to Ōmihi and killed Ngāi Tahu prisoners there. Te Rauparaha and Te Hiko-o-te-rangi took further revenge against Ngāi Tahu in subsequent campaigns.

How to cite this page:

Steven Oliver. 'Te Pēhi Kupe', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t55/te-pehi-kupe (accessed 22 April 2024)