Tarapipipi was the second son of Te Waharoa of Ngati Haua. His mother was Rangi Te Wiwini. He was born in the early nineteenth century, possibly about 1805, at Tamahere, on the Horotiu plains. As a young man in the 1820s he participated in several war expeditions in the Taranaki and Waikato districts. In 1825, in support of Ngati Koroki kin, he led a retaliatory attack on Ngati Hinetu, a sub-tribe of Ngati Apakura, at a pa called Kaipaka, near Te Awamutu. In the battle Rangianewa, younger sister of Te Kahurangi, grandmother of the Waikato leader Te Wherowhero, was killed. Reprisals were averted when Te Waharoa allowed Ngati Apakura to settle on lands at Rangiaowhia which had been occupied by Ngati Koroki. In the mid 1830s Tarapipipi also participated in the fighting between Ngati Haua and Te Arawa, instigated by the killing of Te Hunga, a relation of Te Waharoa, by Haerehuka of Ngati Whakaue in December 1835. In the fighting at Ohinemutu in August 1836 Tarapipipi interceded on behalf of two CMS mission workers, and led them to a place of safety when the mission premises were destroyed by Ngati Whakaue.
Tarapipipi came under the influence of Christian teachings when the Reverend A. N. Brown established a CMS station near Matamata pa in April 1835. Within six months Tarapipipi had learned to read and write in Maori, and was writing letters on behalf of his father. The fighting in 1836 led to the abandonment of the Matamata mission, but in January 1838 Brown took over the Tauranga mission station, including Ngati Haua within his parish. Early in 1838 the missionary printer W. R. Wade visited Matamata and described the son of Te Waharoa as 'a fine, clever, active young man named Tarapipipi, one of the most forward in knowledge and most desirous to know. In the absence of Missionaries he used to take the lead in all school matters.' During 1838 Brown also noted Tarapipipi's eagerness to discuss spiritual matters, and encouraged him in the idea of setting up a separate Christian settlement.
Te Waharoa died in September 1838 and Tarapipipi found himself with a new leadership role among Ngati Haua. Te Arahi was the eldest son of Te Waharoa, but it was Tarapipipi who inherited his father's mana. He resisted pressure from the tribe to carry on Ngati Haua campaigns against Te Arawa. Brown considered that he possessed 'too much natural decision of character to be moved from his purpose by the anger of his countrymen'. On 21 October 1838 at Maungamana, near Tauranga, Tarapipipi was given an opportunity to exercise his powers of diplomacy, at a meeting of Tauranga and Ngati Haua people to discuss relations with Te Arawa. After a haka and a number of speeches were made urging war, Tarapipipi, according to Brown, 'rose with his Testament in his hand and in a bold yet pleasing manner "witnessed a good confession" before his countrymen whom with holy courage he reproved, rebuked, exhorted.' Although matters were not resolved at this meeting and sporadic skirmishes did occur, Tarapipipi's leadership and his efforts to abide by Christian ideals prevented a major battle.
On 23 June 1839 Tarapipipi was one of the first converts to be baptised by Brown at Tauranga. He was given the name Wiremu Tamihana (William Thompson), and embarked on a life of teaching and preaching in the Tauranga and Matamata districts. Edward Shortland, who visited Waikato in 1842, commented that Tarapipipi was 'the most influential young chief of the tribe', having inherited the mana of his father and displaying the highly esteemed qualities of bravery and eloquence. Shortland also considered that Tarapipipi had not abandoned all traditional beliefs, 'But he believes the Christ to be a more powerful Atua, and of a better nature; and therefore he no longer dreads the Atua Maori.' Tarapipipi put into practice the Christian teachings he had embraced within a traditional Maori framework, and guided his people to do likewise. The influence of missionaries was important, but qualities of intellect, and leadership, courage, eloquence and diplomacy, were of far greater significance in the life of Wiremu Tamihana.
During 1838 construction began on a new pa, the Christian village of Te Tapiri, not far from Matamata pa, north of the present township of Waharoa. By March 1839 about 300 people were living there and a chapel and school had been built. Tamihana's rules for the settlement followed the precepts of the Ten Commandments.
In late December 1839 a fire destroyed the chapel, several houses and much of the fencing at Te Tapiri. The community set to work constructing a new and much larger chapel, about 80 feet by 40 feet, and 20 or 30 feet high. The interior was decorated with tukutuku panels between wall posts made of smooth slabs of totara. In 1842 William Colenso considered it 'the largest native built house in New Zealand', capable of holding up to 1,000 people.
About the time of the establishment of Te Tapiri, Tamihana had taken a wife, Ita, daughter of Pohepohe of Matamata. Late in 1839 she was in the mission at Tauranga receiving medical attention, but in May 1840 she died, at Te Tapiri. Tamihana later married Pare-te-kanawa (also called Wikitoria), another daughter of Pohepohe. They had at least three sons, Hotene, Tupu Tainga-kawa, and Tana Tainga-kawa, and a daughter, Te Raumako (Te Reo).
During the 1840s Tamihana was occupied mainly with tribal and community affairs. He taught in a school at Te Tapiri, established farming among Ngati Haua communities, and traded surplus produce to Pakeha settlers in Auckland. On the diplomatic front he played an important role in resolving an incident and restoring stolen property after a large tribal gathering in Auckland in 1844, and in 1845 peacemaking feasts were organised with Te Arawa. Tamihana also tried to cope with the effects of new diseases among his people and wrote to Bishop G. A. Selwyn in 1844 seeking a doctor to help stem the death rate among Ngati Haua.
In 1846 Tamihana began construction of another Christian pa, at Peria, although Te Tapiri remained occupied through the 1840s. The pa was named after the biblical town of Berea (Acts 17:10). Tamihana spent much of his time there during the 1850s. It was a model Christian community set on rolling hills south of Matamata pa. There were separate clusters of houses for each kin group, surrounded by fields of wheat, maize, potatoes and kumara, and orchards, mainly of peach trees. There were large raised storehouses for food, and numerous pits for storing potatoes and kumara. On one hilltop there was a large church, and a burial ground on another. There was also a post office, a flour mill, a schoolhouse with separate boarding houses for up to 100 boys and girls, and a large meeting house in a central position. Visitors to the school commented on the high standards of reading, writing and arithmetic achieved by students.
The establishment of a code of laws and effective administration of the laws were high priorities for Tamihana. The runanga at Peria provided local government and also dispensed justice, after discussion in the meeting house. While other Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto hapu also held their own runanga, John Gorst, the Waikato civil commissioner, was particularly impressed with the rule of law among Ngati Haua, which he attributed to 'the character and personal influence of Wiremu Tamihana and the chiefs by whom he is…surrounded and supported. I never heard a complaint of injustice from the Europeans resident amongst his tribe.'
During the late 1850s Tamihana became involved in the establishment of a Maori king. For this he was given the title 'Kingmaker' by Pakeha. A number of incidents, including a rebuff when he sought government support for his system of government for Ngati Haua, culminated in tribal meetings to consider resistance to further land sales and Pakeha encroachment, the potential disintegration of Maori society, and the need for political solidarity among Waikato, Ngati Maniapoto and adjacent tribes. At an important meeting held at Pukawa, Lake Taupo, in 1856, Iwikau Te Heuheu Tukino III of Ngati Tuwharetoa supported Potatau Te Wherowhero of Ngati Mahuta as king. Te Wherowhero was reluctant to take the position. Tamihana had already decided that Te Wherowhero was the appropriate person. On 12 February 1857 he wrote a letter to the chiefs of Waikato expressing the support of Ngati Haua, and suggesting a meeting of all Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto tribes to ratify this. In May 1857, at a meeting at Paetai, near Rangiriri, there was considerable debate on the merits of a Maori king and the question of support for the governor and Queen Victoria. Tamihana spoke strongly to express his concern for the establishment and maintenance of law and order within the tribes. He hoped that a Maori kingship would provide effective order and laws, unlike the Pakeha government, which allowed Maori to kill each other and only involved itself when Pakeha were killed.
Te Wherowhero was still reluctant to accept the kingship. Tamihana's involvement in the death of Rangianewa in 1825 was an obstacle, but this was removed when Te Raumako, a daughter of Tamihana, was offered to Ngati Apakura at Rangiaowhia. Peaceful relations between the tribes were restored. After further discussion at another meeting at Ihumatao, on the Manukau Harbour, a large gathering at Ngaruawahia in June 1858 agreed to the installation of Potatau Te Wherowhero as the first Maori King. Tamihana provided a statement of laws, based on the laws of God. The King would exercise power over people and lands, over chiefs and councils of all the tribes; the tribes would continue to live on their own lands, and the King would protect them from aggression. The ceremonial installation of the King was held at Rangiaowhia shortly after. A meeting at Ngaruawahia on 2 May 1859 confirmed Te Wherowhero as holding the mana of kingship, in an alliance with Queen Victoria, with God over both. Tamihana placed a Bible over Te Wherowhero's head, establishing part of the ritual which is still carried out by the leader of Ngati Haua for the successors of Te Wherowhero.
Tamihana became deeply involved in maintaining tribal relationships and a system of Maori government within the King movement, against a background increasingly suspicious of Pakeha motives. In June 1860 Potatau Te Wherowhero died and was succeeded by his son, Matutaera, who later took the name Tawhiao. Tamihana was instrumental in setting up a Maori language newspaper, Te Hokioi e Rere Atu Na, for the King movement. The government responded with Te Pihoihoi Mokemoke, published by John Gorst at Te Awamutu. Tamihana maintained a precarious alliance among the chiefs, some of whom wanted to fight, others to co-operate with the Pakeha governor. When war broke out in Taranaki in 1860, Tamihana assumed the role of negotiator and mediator between Maori and Pakeha. He travelled to Taranaki in March 1861 and arranged a truce. He refused to meet Governor Thomas Gore Browne in Auckland, fearing the same fate as Te Rauparaha, who had been taken from his people and exiled to Auckland from 1846 to 1848. On the government side there was growing suspicion of the role of Tamihana and his power in the King movement, and fears of armed uprising. Tamihana tried to calm the rising tensions.
On 21 May 1861 Browne issued a declaration accusing Waikato of violating the Treaty of Waitangi, and requiring Maori submission to the Queen's sovereignty. Tamihana wrote a lengthy response, indicating, with reference to Scripture and Maori metaphor, that the King movement was an organisation to control Maori people, and was not in conflict with the Queen's sovereignty. He then outlined the Maori perspective on events in Taranaki and expressed concern that the governor seemed intent on conflict. There were more meetings at Ngaruawahia to discuss the situation. Tamihana wrote more letters to the governor, reiterating that the Maori were not seeking war, and questioning the construction of roads and redoubts between Auckland and northern Waikato. Several CMS missionaries joined the debate, urging Tamihana to withdraw from the King movement. Tamihana agreed to meet the governor, but was dissuaded by other Maori leaders.
In September 1861 George Grey returned for another term as governor of New Zealand, and the pressure on the King movement was maintained. Tamihana spent as much time as he could at Peria, keeping his community together, trying to prevent the illicit sale of liquor by Pakeha traders, and keeping up his correspondence with tribal leaders and the government. He was not enthusiastic about Grey's proposals for native government, insisting that the runanga already established provided an appropriate system. Grey's proposals were discussed at several meetings, and again Tamihana mediated, as concern increased over military activity north of the Mangatawhiri River, the northern boundary of the King's territory during 1862.
In October 1862 a meeting at Peria brought together Waikato, Hauraki and Ngati Maniapoto leaders, as well as representatives of Tauranga and East Coast tribes. The principal issues discussed were opposition to the construction of roads into Waikato from Auckland and Raglan, a fair system for adjudication on land, control of Pakeha traders, and the failure of the governor to settle the dispute over Waitara.
War broke out again in Taranaki in May 1863. In spite of the efforts of Tamihana to keep the peace, Ngati Maniapoto, led by Rewi Maniapoto, favoured war against the Pakeha. There was now an open rift between Ngati Haua and Ngati Maniapoto. Tamihana still sought negotiations with the government, but, as Gorst recorded, government people 'did not like Tamihana. Few Europeans knew him personally, and it was the fashion to believe him insincere.' In 1862 William Fox had expressed his distrust of Tamihana's motives, and this attitude persisted in government circles through the 1860s. In July 1863, in a memorandum to Grey, the premier, Alfred Domett, wrote, 'It is now beyond all question that the Native Tribes of Waikato the most powerful in New Zealand are resolved to attempt to drive out or destroy the Europeans of the Northern Island, and to establish a Native kingdom under a Native king.'
A proclamation, issued by Grey on 11 July 1863, required submission to Queen Victoria. On 12 July, before it could reach the King and Waikato tribes, British imperial troops, under Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron, crossed the Mangatawhiri River, and invaded the lands of the King and his people. Tamihana wrote a number of letters to North Island Maori leaders, informing them of events in Waikato. He also wrote to A. N. Brown at Tauranga, warning him of the approach of war. Copies of these letters were passed to government people, who construed them as confirmation of their distrust of Tamihana.
After the battle at Rangiriri in November 1863 Tamihana again sought to negotiate peace, sending his greenstone mere to Cameron as a token of his good faith. Neither Grey nor government ministers were prepared to negotiate, or to release prisoners taken at Rangiriri and held in Auckland. The conquest of Waikato proceeded. The attack in February 1864 on Rangiaowhia, a village where women, children and old people had been sent, caused particular anguish to Tamihana. The only fighting in which Tamihana was personally involved was the action at Hairini which followed the attack on Rangiaowhia: 'then for the first time my hand struck, my anger being great about my dead, murdered, and burnt with fire, at Rangiaohia'. Tamihana returned to the pa called Te Tiki-o-te-ihinga-rangi, on Maungatautari. In April he and his people quietly abandoned the pa overnight and retreated to Peria. Tamihana wrote again to Grey and to other Maori leaders, seeking peace negotiations. The Waikato campaign shifted to Tauranga, with battles at Gate Pa in April and at Te Ranga in June 1864. Tamihana offered to mediate, but was ignored.
On 17 December 1864 a proclamation was issued by Grey, confiscating a large area of Waikato and Ngati Haua lands. Military settlements were established in the Waikato, Waipa and Tauranga districts, and the tribes retreated beyond the boundary of confiscated land. There was some further correspondence between Tamihana and government officials, and a letter from Grey in January 1865 suggested a meeting, which was not immediately arranged. In April Tamihana submitted a petition to Parliament outlining a Maori view of the causes of the war, and seeking redress for the confiscations. There was no immediate response, but in May Tamihana followed up earlier moves to meet Brigadier General G. J. Carey.
On 27 May 1865 Tamihana laid down his taiaha before Carey at Tamahere, and agreed that the Queen's laws would also be the laws for the Maori King. Among Pakeha this act was described as a surrender. Tamihana described it in a letter to Grey as 'te maungarongo' (the covenant of peace), indicating that arms had been laid down on both sides. Scepticism and distrust were again expressed by Pakeha leaders. Stung by accusations of insincerity, the pain of the misinterpretation of his 1863 letter to Archdeacon Brown, and the label of rebel, Tamihana sent another petition to Parliament on 18 July 1865. He sought an impartial court of inquiry to investigate events in Waikato. The government response was to send a resident magistrate to talk to him. The interview was inconclusive and no inquiry ensued. Tamihana wrote more letters to Grey and met him in Hamilton early in May 1866. He was persuaded to go to Wellington, ostensibly to give evidence before a parliamentary committee. On 24 July he presented another petition to Parliament, seeking a return of confiscated lands and a proper inquiry into the causes of the war. The petition was referred to the superintendent of Auckland province and no further action was taken.
In spite of illness, already apparent on his Wellington visit, Tamihana maintained his involvement in tribal affairs. He attended sittings of the newly established Native Land Court, and mediated in disputes with surveyors in the Tauranga district, where land had also been confiscated. By October his health was deteriorating. He died at Turanga-o-moana, near Peria, on 27 December 1866. The missionary Richard Taylor wrote: 'There is something very sad in the death of this patriotic chief; a man of clear, straight-forward views; sad that a man, who possessed such an influence for good, should thus have been ignored by the Government, when, by his aid, had he been admitted to our councils, a permanent good feeling might have been established between the two races.'
Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi was a man of peace forced into war. He lived by the principles of Te Whakapono, Te Ture, Te Aroha: be steadfast in faith in God, uphold the rule of law, show love and compassion to all.