Te Rangitāke is thought to have been born in the last years of the eighteenth century, at Manukorihi pā, Waitara. He was of Ngāti Kura and Ngāti Mutunga descent, and is primarily identified with Te Āti Awa. His father was Te Reretāwhangawhanga, who was one of the great Te Āti Awa leaders of his time. His mother was Te Kehu (also known as Te Whetū-o-te-ao). Te Rangitāke, also known as Whiti, was baptised in the early 1840s, taking the name Wiremu Kīngi. His younger brothers were also known from the 1840s by their baptismal names: Ēnoka (Tatairau), Matiu, and Penihāmine. Te Rangitāke married twice. His first wife was Te Kautū-ki-te-rangi, and they had a son, Eruera; then he married Hēni Hūnia, sister of Te Kautū, and their daughter was Hōriana Ngāraorao, who married Matahau of Ngāti Raukawa.
Te Rangitāke's life was bound up with the great migrations on the west coast of the North Island which took place between the 1820s and 1840s. According to one account he and his father Te Reretāwhangawhanga accompanied Te Rauparaha and Ngāti Toa when they made their way south from Kāwhia to the Kapiti coast in the early 1820s. The Te Āti Awa party returned home about 1823. Subsequently, however, Te Reretāwhangawhanga was one of the leaders of Te Heke Niho-puta (the 'boar's tusk' migration) in the mid 1820s, a major migration of Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama to the south; he settled with his people at Waikanae from this time on. Other migrations of Te Āti Awa followed.
Te Reretāwhangawhanga and his son took part in a number of Te Āti Awa expeditions with Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Raukawa in both islands. However, there was tension between Ngāti Raukawa and the Taranaki peoples, and sometimes fighting; the last occasion was the battle of Te Kūititanga, near Waikanae, towards the end of 1839.
By this time great changes were about to take place in the lives of the peoples of the Cook Strait region. In the space of only a few months, in 1839 and 1840, there arrived land purchasers, missionaries, treaty-bearers and British settlers. Te Āti Awa, like the other tribes of the region, had no idea of the impact the New Zealand Company settlers were to make on their lives. As Colonel William Wakefield, the company's chief agent, toured their settlements, they put their names to three deeds, which, on the face of it, transferred to the company all the lands they had held in generations past, or had settled in recent years in both islands. Te Rangitāke (sent by the elder Waikanae chiefs to escort Wakefield to Queen Charlotte Sound) put his mark on the deed drawn up there on 8 November 1839. Clearly it never occurred to him or to the other chiefs that these pieces of paper might make them guests on their own lands, for such written transactions, involving vast tracts, were quite outside their experience.
Six months later, in May 1840, Te Reretāwhangawhanga and Te Rangitāke drew their moko as signatures at the head of the Waikanae names on the copy of the Treaty of Waitangi brought by the missionary Henry Williams. By this time another missionary, Octavius Hadfield, had arrived to begin his work on the coast; in December 1839 he recorded that Te Rangitāke (whom he described as 'the principal chief' at Waikanae) gave him a warm welcome. During 1842 and 1843 Te Rangitāke and his people built a splendid adzed timber church, over 70 feet long, with kōwhaiwhai and tukutuku panels. 'The labour is immense', wrote a visiting missionary; and Bishop G. A. Selwyn, who preached there to congregations of several hundred people, thought it 'the best native workmanship in the country'. It was this church which is said to have inspired the building of Rangiātea.
In the wake of the company 'purchases' came the British settlers: shiploads of families who poured forth on the water's edge at Petone and at Taranaki. The plan of the New Plymouth settlement spread over all the coastal lands of Te Āti Awa, to a point north of the Waitara River. In June 1844 the land claims commissioner, William Spain, awarded the company 60,000 acres by virtue of the deed negotiated in February 1840 with the small group of Te Āti Awa living at Ngāmotu, at present day New Plymouth. The only lands excepted from the award were pā, cultivations, 'burying-places' and 'native reserves' (to be chosen by the company) equal to one tenth of the total area. Spain's decision came as a shock to Te Āti Awa, who had already returned to Taranaki in considerable numbers to defend their ancestral lands. Trapped by the land deeds to which they had attached so little significance, they were still determined to assert their own rights of occupation. In June 1844 Te Rangitāke set down in a letter to Governor Robert FitzRoy a phrase which he would repeat many times in the following years: 'Waitara shall not be given up'. In 1845 he informed the government that the Waikanae people would return home. In fact their departure was delayed by the fighting which broke out in the Wellington region in 1846, and the determination of the new governor, George Grey, to make a show of force against Ngāti Toa. Te Rangitāke prevented opponents of the government from passing along the Waikanae coast to reinforce Te Rangihaeata, for he was determined to protect Wellington. He stopped short, however, of joining in the pursuit of Te Rangihaeata in August 1846.
Before long Te Rangitāke had his first confrontation with Grey. In February and March 1847 Grey visited Taranaki, accompanied by Te Puni-kōkopu and Te Rangitāke from the south; he intended to 'solve' the Taranaki land question. The British government had instructed him to make over to the company the lands awarded it by Spain, which FitzRoy had refused to do. Grey, finding the Taranaki settlers confined to the small block of 3,500 acres which FitzRoy had secured for them, took a high tone, and announced that the Crown would resume all the land in dispute, paying those Māori who could prove their claims, and that it would mark off ample reserves for them. Taranaki, in fact, defeated Grey; he soon found that he would not be able to carry out his policy. Te Āti Awa were quite unimpressed by Grey's threats; and Te Rangitāke, informed that he might settle on the north bank of the Waitara where a village would be laid out for him, told the governor that he would build his pā where and when he pleased. Grey is said to have replied that if Te Rangitāke left Waikanae without his permission, he would send a steamer after him and destroy his canoes.
However, the great Te Āti Awa migration of nearly 600 people proceeded peacefully, leaving in April 1848 and travelling slowly along the coast. Most went by canoe and some in whaleboats; others went on foot driving their stock with them. In 1851 Te Rangitāke sent a large party back to Waikanae to bring home the bones of those laid to rest there. Te Rangitāke settled on the south bank of the Waitara, whether to protect the people against Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto, as was often claimed, or to protect the land from the government, is open to question. Just under 300 people lived there, in a complex of three pā.
But the situation to which Te Rangitāke returned was an unhappy one. For the next 11 years government land purchase agents, desperately anxious to buy land for the New Plymouth settlement, assiduously cultivated those chiefs they thought most likely to be land-sellers (the 'friendlies' as the settlers called them), while referring with disdain or hostility to those chiefs who appeared 'obstructive'. As early as 1849 Te Rangitāke was goaded by a settler to remark that he 'wished there was no land at all that he might hear no more about it'. The unrelenting pressure to sell created constant unrest among Te Āti Awa, and disputes of whatever origin tended to end in offers of land to the government.
In 1854 fighting broke out among the various Puketapu hapū, who lived north of New Plymouth, after such a dispute and offer of land. Te Rangitāke held aloof at first, but finally supported Te Waitere Kātātore, the leader of the people resisting the sale, when it seemed that the conflict was in danger of spreading, and that land near Waitara might be claimed and offered for sale. By the end of 1856, however, Te Rangitāke was seeking peace. The visit of his wife Heni to various pā signalled the beginning of peacemaking among Puketapu.
Te Rangitāke was well aware, however, that the events of the last two years had hardened settler attitudes towards him. He complained bitterly to Major C. L. Nugent, commanding officer of the New Plymouth garrison, of the false statements about him in the local papers; Nugent considered he had good grounds for his complaint. Some writers in the Taranaki Herald, he said, 'do not disguise [their] wish…to drive William King and his party away from the Waitera [sic].'
These attitudes on the part of the settlers affected Te Rangitāke's attitude towards them. After their return from the south, his people provided a great deal of labour on settler farms, and their earnings helped them to farm their own land. Te Rangitāke often wrote of his wish for friendly relations with settlers, but he did not believe that he should have to sell land to achieve this result. He was, after all, a chief of great influence and authority, who ultimately stood on his dignity and kept his distance from those he saw as quite careless of Māori rights.
Matters came to a head in March 1859, when Te Teira Mānuka renewed his earlier offer of a small block of land on the south bank of the Waitara, this time to Governor Thomas Gore Browne in person. Doubtless this move was not much of a surprise to Te Rangitāke; he had since his return from the south successfully held off challenges from Īhāia Te Kirikūmara of the Ōtaraua hapū, a most astute politician, whose determination to sell land in the Waitara area may have originated in his feelings about the Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto attacks of the early 1830s. Te Teira, however, appears to have had a different motive. He held Te Rangitāke responsible for the refusal of a young woman to marry a close relative of his, to whom she had been promised. According to Hadfield, she married Te Rangitāke's son instead. Believing that his family had been wronged, and that the compensation offered by Te Rangitāke was insufficient, Te Teira evidently decided to seek satisfaction by creating difficulties for his people, thus applying a well-understood remedy traditionally available to those who felt that the community was not supporting them sufficiently.
Te Rangitāke, however, was determined that the land should not be sold for such a reason. He was also determined to resist the government's new land purchase policy. The government, in spite of denials, had been considering for some time a policy of buying up the claims of small groups as they came forward, rather than waiting for all claimants to agree on a sale. This was seen as the only way to break the 'deadlock' in Taranaki. So far, however, it had not attempted to separate the claims of sellers from those of non-sellers, and to conclude and survey a purchase based only on those claims offered. This is what the government contemplated at Waitara. In the document recording Te Teira's receipt of an instalment of £100 in November 1859, the governor declared 'that if the assertion of any man is true who states that he has a portion of the land situated within the boundaries recited in this document, and he does not wish his portion to be sold (that is his own strip of cultivation ground), it may be distinctly marked off and his portion left to him.'
Te Rangitāke and all those opposed to the sale refused to make individual claims of this kind. He took his stand on his rangatiratanga. As principal chief at Waitara, he was the trustee and protector of the rights of the whole community there. After Te Teira had spoken at the 1859 meeting Te Rangitāke stood up and said: 'Listen, Governor…I will not permit the sale of Waitara to the Pākehā. Waitara is in my hands, I will not give it up; I will not, I will not, I will not'. He said this as the representative of all those inter-related hapū whose interests would be directly affected by the sale, and who opposed it. That land, he wrote on another occasion, 'belongs to us all: to the orphan and to the widow, belongs that piece of land'. He utterly disputed the right of the government to pay a deposit to any group who came forward and to oblige other members of the hapū involved to prove their rights to the government in order to protect them. Indeed, at Waitara the government had gone further, and specified the sort of claims that it would acknowledge – only individual rights to cultivations.
To Te Rangitāke this was clearly quite unwarranted interference with Te Āti Awa land rights, and with the rights of the Waitara community to make their own decisions, according to their own established procedures, about the use and disposal of land. Only when a consensus had been reached to proceed with a sale, would it be proper for the government to step in. How, otherwise, could the land-buyers ever be held at bay? In February 1859 the rūnanga at Waitara defined the lands, including Waitara, they wished to be kept in Te Āti Awa hands. 'These lands', wrote Te Rangitāke to Donald McLean, the chief land purchase commissioner, 'will not be given by us into the Governor's and your hands, lest we resemble the sea-birds which perch upon a rock, when the tide flows the rock is covered by the sea, and the birds take flight, for they have no resting place.' And it had been his father's dying instruction that the land at Waitara should be held.
At the time the Waitara purchase caused considerable controversy. The government had to defend itself from fierce criticism in pamphlets by the missionary Octavius Hadfield (One of England's little wars, 1860) and by the former chief justice, William Martin (The Taranaki question, 1860). But the official view was that Te Rangitāke had no real claims; no 'personal' claims to the land in question (proved, it was assumed, by his failure to point them out); that the 19 people who signed the deed had the right to dispose of their 'own' land without consulting any chief; that Te Rangitāke himself should properly have been living on the north bank of the river; and that he disputed the sale solely because he was carrying out the policy of the 'Taranaki and Waikato Land Leagues'. In effect, the 'leagues' were no more than agreements not to sell tribal land. However, it was asserted that they challenged the Queen's sovereignty and threatened the use of force against Māori who wished to sell; that the government could not allow either chiefs or leagues to browbeat individual Māori owners to whom the Treaty of Waitangi had guaranteed the rights of British subjects, including the sale of their individual land rights. Governor Browne appears to have sincerely believed these arguments. However, he also referred to the purchase of all the land south of the Waitara as being 'essentially necessary for the consolidation of the Province, as well as for the use of the settlers'. Whether McLean or C. W. Richmond, the native minister, believed such arguments, is another question. They both had close links with the Taranaki settlers, and knew that to the settlers the purchase of Waitara (always seen as a highly desirable district) had come to symbolise the breaking of Māori 'resistance' to sales.
After the first payment to Te Teira and his people the government sent in surveyors, on 20 February 1860, although the purchase deed itself was not signed until 24 February. Te Rangitāke's people staged a peaceful obstruction of the surveyors at Waitara. Troops were then sent to protect the surveyors, and both sides fortified positions on the Waitara (or Pekapeka) block.
The first shots of the Taranaki war were fired on 17 March 1860, when the British attacked Te Kohia pā. Taranaki, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Rauru and warriors from the King's tribes in the Waikato district, all assisted in the defence against the British forces. Browne hoped for a quick victory, but his troops, to his great disappointment, did not achieve one. Using 'modern' pā, quickly thrown up and expendable, to draw the British fire, with anti-artillery bunkers and covered trenches to protect the garrison, the Taranaki tribes soon showed themselves (as the governor put it) to be 'brave and formidable enemies'. By mounting an offensive against settler property (in response to the destruction of their own by the troops) they kept the settlers crowded into New Plymouth, where morale was soon low. A year later British troops were still in the field.
But the war put a strain on the Taranaki tribes too. In March 1861 Wiremu Tāmihana Tarapīpipi, the Waikato leader, came south, seeking peace. Te Rangitāke agreed to leave the negotiations in Tamihana's hands, but also indicated that he wanted the Waitara purchase judicially investigated, and that he himself would not make peace until Waitara was returned. The governor agreed that the title should be investigated by his appointees. However, he also made it clear that he regarded the Crown as having acquired certain rights to the Waitara land. Te Rangitāke did not sign the 'terms of peace', although Hāpurona, who had led Te Āti Awa forces in the fighting, signed on 8 April 1861.
Two years later, in May 1863, Governor Grey, intent on 'dealing' with the King's tribes in the Waikato, renounced the Waitara purchase, citing 'new facts' which had come to light, most of which were not new at all. But Grey had previously ordered the military reoccupation of the Tātaraimaka block, Crown land held by the Māori at the end of the Taranaki fighting as a 'hostage' for the return of Waitara. This provocative move prevented his 'return' of the Waitara from having any good result; Ngāti Ruanui had ambushed a party of British troops, and fighting broke out again in Taranaki.
War in Waikato and in Taranaki led to land confiscation as the punishment for 'rebellion', as the government termed it. To Te Āti Awa and to other tribes subjected to confiscation this was a bitter injustice. The confiscation, which included the Waitara block, was effected in January 1865, and the town of Raleigh (as it was called at first) was laid out on both sides of the Waitara River. Lands were set apart by the government for those it deemed 'loyal' Māori in various parts of Taranaki and much smaller amounts for those considered 'rebels'. Te Rangitāke never occupied the land set apart for him in the Waitara township. After the first Taranaki war he had withdrawn inland, out of sight of the Pākehā. At first, in the early 1860s, he stayed at Kihikihi, with Rewi Maniapoto. He is said to have lived for 12 years with Ngāti Maru in 'strict seclusion in the forest ranges lying between Waitara and Whanganui'.
On 22 February 1872, the anniversary of the proclamation of martial law in Taranaki, he and a large group of his people, after crossing the Waitara River a week before, walked quietly into New Plymouth to meet Donald McLean, by now native minister. Te Rangitāke did not raise his eyes from the ground as he walked (despite the crowds of Pākehā who came to stare), and sat lost in thought during the speeches that followed. Te Rangitāke and Hāpurona assured McLean of their wish for peace and friendship with Pākehā. They had nothing to ask from Pākehā, they said, except one thing: Te Rangitāke was very anxious for the return of Ōtokauri, a greenstone mere of his ancestors, which Rīwai Te Ahu had presented in the past either to Grey or to Hadfield. After a few days they left for Parihaka, to join the community of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai III. Here Te Rangitāke, now an old man, remained for some five years, later moving again to the village of Kaingaru, inland of Waitara. He died there on 13 January 1882, said to be over 90 years old. The Taranaki Herald obituary encapsulated the local Pākehā view of Te Rangitāke: it acknowledged his importance in New Zealand history but described him as 'the turbulent chief to whom may fairly be attributed the difficulties and troubles Taranaki has passed through since 1860'.
It was 1927 before a royal commission, charged with inquiring into the confiscation of 'Native lands' in the 1860s, reached a very different conclusion. When martial law was proclaimed in Taranaki, they reported, Te Rangitāke and his people were 'not in rebellion against the Queen's sovereignty…the Natives were treated as rebels and war declared against them before they had engaged in rebellion of any kind, and in the circumstances they had no alternative but to fight in their own self-defence. In their eyes the fight was not against the Queen's sovereignty, but a struggle for house and home.' But by then it was too late for Te Rangitāke; the government had long since gained control of the Waitara land. In June 1936 the carved house Te Ikaroa-a-Māui was opened at Manukorihi pā, Waitara, at a memorial hui for Māui Pōmare. A representation of Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke stands at the front of the house.