Te Rangihiwinui, also known as Taitoko and later as Te Keepa, or Major Kemp, is thought to have been born in the first half of the 1820s at Tuwhakatupua, on the Manawatu River, near Opiki. His mother was Rere-o-maki, the sister of Ngati Ruaka leader Te Anaua. Her major tribal affiliations were Ngati Ruaka and Ngati Tupoho of Te Ati Haunui-a-Paparangi, and through her mother, Te Arawa. His father, Mahuera Paki Tanguru-o-te-rangi, was a major leader of Muaupoko. Te Rangihiwinui is thought to have had three wives. The first, Makere or Makareta, was a close relative of Te Anaua. His third wife, who survived him, was named Te Mata Kaihoe.
In the period of Te Rangihiwinui's birth and early childhood, the west coast tribes, Ngati Apa, Rangitane and Muaupoko, were under severe pressure from Ngati Toa and their allies, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa, who were migrating into the area from the north. There is a story told that when Te Rauparaha attacked the Muaupoko island pa at Lake Horowhenua, Rere-o-maki swam across the lake to safety with her child on her back. Muaupoko survivors existed for many years under the protection of Ngati Raukawa, but Rere-o-maki, Tanguru and Te Rangihiwinui found refuge with Rere-o-maki's people at Putiki Wharanui, near the mouth of the Wanganui River.
The Church Missionary Society mission station at Putiki, established in 1841, was to exert a strong influence on the lower Wanganui tribes. Te Rangihiwinui was possibly baptised at Putiki, taking the name Te Keepa (Kemp). Unlike his relatives Hoani Wiremu Hipango, Te Mawae and Te Anaua, however, he was less distinguished for his piety than for his fighting qualities. In the mid 1840s he was involved in fixing the boundaries of the Wanganui block, and received a £10 share of the payment when the purchase was completed in May 1848. About this time he was enrolled as a constable in the Armed Police Force of New Munster. He was probably stationed with Major D. S. Durie at Waikanae; he was serving under Durie when the latter was transferred to Wanganui as magistrate in April 1851. Besides police duties, Durie and his Maori constables, Te Keepa, Benjamin and Poutahi, were employed to carry mail along the coastal trail between Taranaki and Wellington.
By 1862 Te Keepa and Hipango were regarded as the leading pro-government Maori at Wanganui. The Taranaki war of 1860–61 had left considerable anxiety in the township, particularly about the attitude of the upper Wanganui tribes. Accordingly, Te Keepa and Hipango travelled to Wellington in 1862 to invite Governor George Grey to visit the settlement. Grey accepted their invitation, but gave offence to the Putiki Maori by refusing to go upriver, although he did appoint native magistrates.
War developed among the Wanganui tribes in 1864, when upper Wanganui Maori adopted the Pai Marire faith. The lower Wanganui tribes, who had prospered through the presence of the mission at Putiki and the trade generated by the European settlement, refused free passage to the Hauhau force for an attack on the town. Te Keepa fought at Moutoa, an island in the Wanganui River, on 14 May 1864, where, after a formal challenge, the Hauhau force was repulsed. He was among the force which subsequently captured the main Hauhau pa, Ohoutahi, below Pipiriki, in February 1865. In this engagement Hipango was killed. Wanganui honoured its Maori defenders with a ceremonial presentation of a Moutoa flag and the erection of a statue.
This was the beginning for Te Keepa of six years' military service in support of the government. He enlisted in the Native Contingent, and in April 1865 was sent to Wanganui, where he supervised the construction of one of three redoubts at Pipiriki. By this time Te Keepa was assembling a personal following of warriors. They fought first at Weraroa pa, on the Waitotara River, in July 1865, but were then recalled to Pipiriki as part of a large force to relieve the redoubt garrisons, now under siege. In September they were part of a punitive force sent to Opotiki to conduct operations against those who had killed the missionary C. S. Völkner six months earlier.
In December 1865 the provincial superintendent, Isaac Featherston, held a meeting at Putiki to recruit Maori warriors for the military effort. The value of the Native Contingent was clearly recognised, but payment thus far had been niggardly, and the response was reluctant. Nevertheless a force, fluctuating in number between 100 and 200, gathered around Te Keepa. As well as Wanganui men a contingent arrived from his ancestral territory, Horowhenua. In January–February 1866 they took part, under Captain Thomas McDonnell, in Major General Trevor Chute's campaign in South Taranaki. Most of the fighting was done by the Maori contingent, who in one day destroyed seven villages. Te Keepa distinguished himself in this campaign by his 'activity and dash'.
By the end of 1866 the leadership of the Hauhau forces had passed to Titokowaru, who, realising that they faced being starved into submission, declared 1867 to be 'the year of the lamb', a time of peace. By mid 1868, however, Titokowaru was again on the offensive from his base at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, just north of the Waingongoro River. In all the major engagements of the following year, during which he gained control of the coastal lowlands almost to the Wanganui approaches, Titokowaru had the upper hand against large, mixed forces of regular troops, Forest Rangers, colonial volunteers and Maori troops. Of the government forces, only Te Keepa and his men won universal praise. Several times they acted as the rearguard as Pakeha troops retreated, under McDonnell at Pungarehu and Te Ngutu-o-te-manu in September 1868, and under Lieutenant Colonel G. S. Whitmore at Moturoa in November. The turning point in the campaign came unexpectedly in February 1869, when Titokowaru's forces abandoned their stronghold of Tauranga-ika.
Te Keepa was dispatched with a 'flying column' of volunteers in pursuit of Titokowaru. For the first time European officers and rank-and-file soldiers chose to serve under a Maori leader. It was a ruthless pursuit, for Te Keepa a personal vendetta. After many narrow escapes, however, Titokowaru and his remnant faded into the sanctuary of the upper Waitara area.
Te Keepa had been promoted to major in November 1868, and by now was generally known as Meiha Keepa, or Major Kemp. His Wanganui troops, like those of the East Coast Maori leader Rapata Wahawaha, were feared and revered. They were the colonial government's greatest military assets. In 1868–69 both forces were committed against Te Kooti on the East Coast. At Te Porere, south of Tokaanu, the last defence built by Te Kooti, the government troops which stormed the pa in October 1869, while nominally led by Lieutenant Colonel J. L. Herrick were based around Te Keepa and his men. His mana was such that on returning to Wanganui on a recruiting drive, he won the adherence of the upper Wanganui Hauhau leader Topia Turoa and 200 of his warriors. In the pursuit of Te Kooti in the Bay of Plenty, Rotorua and Urewera districts, the Armed Constabulary was increasingly withdrawn in favour of Maori troops, in a campaign in which frustration at Te Kooti's elusiveness was worked off in looting of Urewera villages.
By 1871 Te Keepa had returned to Wanganui with a formidable reputation, a personal bodyguard of some 100 warriors, and the government's gratitude. Praise by Whitmore and Grey brought inquiries from the secretary of state for the colonies, Earl Granville, about a suitable reward. Te Keepa was presented with the Queen's sword of honour in June 1870, and was awarded the New Zealand Cross in 1874 and the New Zealand War Medal in 1876. Despite the Pakeha honours heaped on him, however, Te Keepa's real power base was in Maoridom; respect for his military skill had demonstrably unified traditional rivals. In peace as in war, he sought to be his own master.
In June 1865 he had been made a Native Land Court assessor, and he also held assessorships under the Native Circuit Courts Act 1858 and the Resident Magistrates' Court Act 1858. In 1871 he was appointed a land purchase officer at Wanganui, with a salary of £300; yet two years later he put this position in jeopardy by using his reputation and military force to reverse the humiliations suffered by his tribe during his childhood. Many Ngati Raukawa had chosen to support Titokowaru in 1868–69, or had joined related tribes in the Waikato war, but the original people of Manawatu and Horowhenua had on the whole supported the government. For Rangitane and Muaupoko the war provided an opportunity to seize back from Ngati Raukawa the land they had lost by conquest in the 1820s. The situation developed into a contest of mana between Te Keepa as leader of Muaupoko, and Kawana Hunia Te Hakeke, the Ngati Apa leader, at Parewanui, near Bulls. An attempt by Ngati Raukawa at Horowhenua to fix tribal boundaries by law in 1871 led Hunia to call a conference of Wanganui, Manawatu and Wairarapa tribes at Lake Horowhenua that year. For his part Te Keepa brought his battle-hardened Muaupoko troops to Horowhenua to erect a fighting pa, which he named Pipiriki, by the lake. Although war was averted, there were violent clashes. The native minister, Donald McLean, intervened in haste and the issue was submitted to the Native Land Court at Foxton in 1873. The judge's decision was powerfully assisted by Te Keepa's threat to bring 400 of his force from Wanganui if Muaupoko territory was not extended; their land was more than doubled. In punishment for these proceedings Te Keepa was deprived of his office as assessor, but reappointed the following year.
Although support for the government during the war had led to demoralisation of some tribes, Te Keepa had developed an independent power base at his own command. In the decades following he drew his mana not only from his inherited leadership of Muaupoko, but from the tribal cohesion and power built up in war. In 1876 he stood unsuccessfully against Hoani Nahe for the Western Maori seat in Parliament. In the 1880s he used his authority to pursue means of increasing Maori control of their land. His vision focused not on economic development of land, but on autonomous control and Maori involvement in decision-making in areas which affected them. 'If you sell your land,' he said, 'you will become slaves'.
In September 1880 he organised a Maori land trust at Wanganui. A large tract of inland Wanganui land was declared off limits to European buyers, its four corners marked by huge carved poles. The territory was to be administered by a Maori committee on behalf of all those with ancestral rights within it, and was committed to Te Keepa's care under a trust deed. A similar arrangement had been made for the Horowhenua block, of which he was known as 'Kaitiaki', caretaker. The first pole was set up with a great ceremony of flags, gunfire and feasting. European settlers and authorities were provoked at this exercise of autonomy, especially when he declared the river upstream of the pole at Kauarapaoa closed to all Europeans travelling without his permission. His personal warrior force was a powerful inducement to caution, but following this and other incidents, including a tribal dispute over land at Murimotu, near Waiouru, in which Muaupoko took up arms and occupied the disputed block, he lost his position as land purchase officer and found his assessorship again revoked.
Te Keepa's vision of Maori development commended itself to many, however, including the Wanganui newspaper editor and politican, John Ballance. In 1884 Ballance became native minister in the Stout–Vogel government, proposing greater Maori control over their land by reintroducing the Crown's pre-emptive right, but with Maori control. Ballance, who had played a minor role in the Wanganui volunteers during Titokowaru's invasion, had considerable respect for Te Keepa, and reinstated him in his official positions.
In 1882 Te Keepa had granted a nine mile strip of land through the Horowhenua block for the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company's line, and a few years later he gave his consent to the North Island main trunk project. By the late 1880s he was as autocratic as ever, but increasingly subject to illness. His complicated land dealings had also piled up debts to lawyers. In 1886 he was approached by the government to sell 4,000 acres of the Horowhenua block. The land was ideally suited to the village settlement scheme promoted by Ballance. Te Keepa agreed to sell, but laid down specifications for a market town in the block, to be known by his sobriquet, Taitoko. It was a vision of a multiracial urban community, with a 10 acre park on the lakeside, 10 acres of school grounds for both Maori and Pakeha, a central square, and every 10th section returned under Crown grant to Maori named by himself. The lake and streams were to be preserved for the Maori in perpetuity. Subdivision of the block, however, proved an exceedingly complex process, and Ballance, for his own purposes, dragged out the negotiations for the sale, causing Te Keepa anxiety over his legal debts. When at last the deal was completed in July 1887, the price had been held down to the government offer, and Te Keepa's proposal was scrapped in favour of Ballance's village of smallholders.
The Horowhenua subdivision was not the inter-racial partnership he had sought, but an agenda set at all points by Pakeha authority. Maori initiatives were seen as quaint anachronisms. Te Keepa had learned through experience that, even in the combined weight of the tribe, there was no equality in dealing with government. Out of this realisation, shared by other leaders, was born the movement known as Te Kotahitanga (unity of purpose). A large intertribal gathering at Putiki in 1888, one of four held that year, agreed to over-ride tribal differences and demanded the implementation of the partnership promised by the Treaty of Waitangi. Te Keepa was elected to an unofficial Maori council, with the purpose of scrutinising all legislation relative to Maori affairs, endeavouring to influence the government, and disseminating information back to tribal areas. The committee supported Ballance's scheme for committees to examine land deals, but rejected government representation. It also condemned the Native Land Act 1888 which had restored direct purchase of Maori land, halted by legislation in 1886.
In March 1889 a conference of Te Kotahitanga at Orakei was attended by some 500 Maori and a notable representation of Pakeha, including the premier, Harry Atkinson, and the attorney general, Frederick Whitaker. Te Keepa made an impressive speech. The aim of the movement, he declared, was to unify the races as one people, yet preserve unity of purpose among the Maori. The Treaty of Waitangi should be ratified on the basis of equality and a sharing of mana. This appeal for equality was rejected by the government.
In 1890 Te Keepa found himself embroiled with the sons of his old rival, Kawana Hunia, over control of and rents from Muaupoko land at Horowhenua in the aftermath of the 1886 subdivision. Te Keepa claimed that the land in question had been sold by himself and Hunia in trust for the Muaupoko tribe, and one of Hunia's sons, Warena Hunia, counter-claimed that it was a gift to them as rangatira. The protracted dispute was exacerbated by Pakeha interference: the minister of lands, John McKenzie, purchased a large section from Warena Hunia for a state farm, while Te Keepa's lawyer, the rapacious Walter Buller, took his fee in the form of a mortgage over a piece of land. Supreme Court hearings and rehearings, parliamentary committee hearings, debates, a parliamentary bill and finally a royal commission in 1896 wore down the physical, spiritual and financial resources of the ageing warrior.
Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui died at Putiki on 15 April 1898, and was buried there on 24 April. His last recorded words were: 'Sell no more land, keep the remainder you have as sustenance for the Maori people'. His leadership descended to his daughter, Wiki Taitoko.