Tarapīpipi was the second son of Te Waharoa of Ngāti Hauā. 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 Ngāti Korokī kin, he led a retaliatory attack on Ngāti Hinetū, a sub-tribe of Ngāti Apakura, at a pā called Kaipaka, near Te Awamutu. In the battle Rangiānewa, younger sister of Te Kahurangi, grandmother of the Waikato leader Te Wherowhero, was killed. Reprisals were averted when Te Waharoa allowed Ngāti Apakura to settle on lands at Rangiaowhia which had been occupied by Ngāti Korokī. In the mid 1830s Tarapīpipi also participated in the fighting between Ngāti Hauā and Te Arawa, instigated by the killing of Te Hunga, a relation of Te Waharoa, by Haerehuka of Ngāti Whakaue in December 1835. In the fighting at Ōhinemutu in August 1836 Tarapīpipi interceded on behalf of two CMS mission workers, and led them to a place of safety when the mission premises were destroyed by Ngāti Whakaue.
Tarapīpipi came under the influence of Christian teachings when the Reverend A. N. Brown established a CMS station near Matamata pā in April 1835. Within six months Tarapīpipi had learned to read and write in Māori, 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 Ngāti Hauā 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 Tarapīpipi, 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 Tarapīpipi'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 Tarapīpipi found himself with a new leadership role among Ngāti Hauā. Te Ārahi was the eldest son of Te Waharoa, but it was Tarapīpipi who inherited his father's mana. He resisted pressure from the tribe to carry on Ngāti Hauā 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, Tarapīpipi was given an opportunity to exercise his powers of diplomacy, at a meeting of Tauranga and Ngāti Hauā people to discuss relations with Te Arawa. After a haka and a number of speeches were made urging war, Tarapīpipi, 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, Tarapīpipi's leadership and his efforts to abide by Christian ideals prevented a major battle.
On 23 June 1839 Tarapīpipi was one of the first converts to be baptised by Brown at Tauranga. He was given the name Wiremu Tāmihana (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 Tarapīpipi 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 Tarapīpipi 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 Māori.' Tarapīpipi put into practice the Christian teachings he had embraced within a traditional Māori 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 Tāmihana.
During 1838 construction began on a new pā, the Christian village of Te Tāpiri, not far from Matamata pā, north of the present township of Waharoa. By March 1839 about 300 people were living there and a chapel and school had been built. Tāmihana'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 Tāpiri. 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 Tāpiri, Tāmihana 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 Tāpiri. Tāmihana later married Paretekanawa (also called Wikitōria), another daughter of Pohepohe. They had at least three sons, Hōtene, Tupu Taingākawa, and Tana Taingākawa, and a daughter, Te Raumako (Te Reo).
During the 1840s Tāmihana was occupied mainly with tribal and community affairs. He taught in a school at Te Tāpiri, established farming among Ngāti Hauā communities, and traded surplus produce to Pākehā 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. Tāmihana 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 Ngāti Hauā.
In 1846 Tāmihana began construction of another Christian pā, at Pēria, although Te Tāpiri remained occupied through the 1840s. The pā was named after the biblical town of Berea (Acts 17:10). Tāmihana spent much of his time there during the 1850s. It was a model Christian community set on rolling hills south of Matamata pā. There were separate clusters of houses for each kin group, surrounded by fields of wheat, maize, potatoes and kūmara, and orchards, mainly of peach trees. There were large raised storehouses for food, and numerous pits for storing potatoes and kūmara. 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 Tāmihana. The rūnanga at Pēria provided local government and also dispensed justice, after discussion in the meeting house. While other Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto hapū also held their own rūnanga, John Gorst, the Waikato civil commissioner, was particularly impressed with the rule of law among Ngāti Hauā, which he attributed to 'the character and personal influence of Wiremu Tāmihana 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 Tāmihana became involved in the establishment of a Māori king. For this he was given the title 'Kingmaker' by Pākehā. A number of incidents, including a rebuff when he sought government support for his system of government for Ngāti Hauā, culminated in tribal meetings to consider resistance to further land sales and Pākehā encroachment, the potential disintegration of Māori society, and the need for political solidarity among Waikato, Ngāti Maniapoto and adjacent tribes. At an important meeting held at Pūkawa, Lake Taupo, in 1856, Iwikau Te Heuheu Tūkino III of Ngāti Tūwharetoa supported Pōtatau Te Wherowhero of Ngāti Mahuta as king. Te Wherowhero was reluctant to take the position. Tāmihana 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 Ngāti Hauā, and suggesting a meeting of all Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto tribes to ratify this. In May 1857, at a meeting at Paetai, near Rangiriri, there was considerable debate on the merits of a Māori king and the question of support for the governor and Queen Victoria. Tāmihana spoke strongly to express his concern for the establishment and maintenance of law and order within the tribes. He hoped that a Māori kingship would provide effective order and laws, unlike the Pākehā government, which allowed Māori to kill each other and only involved itself when Pākehā were killed.
Te Wherowhero was still reluctant to accept the kingship. Tāmihana's involvement in the death of Rangiānewa in 1825 was an obstacle, but this was removed when Te Raumako, a daughter of Tāmihana, was offered to Ngāti Apakura at Rangiaowhia. Peaceful relations between the tribes were restored. After further discussion at another meeting at Ihumātao, on the Manukau Harbour, a large gathering at Ngāruawāhia in June 1858 agreed to the installation of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero as the first Māori King. Tāmihana 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 Ngāruawāhia on 2 May 1859 confirmed Te Wherowhero as holding the mana of kingship, in an alliance with Queen Victoria, with God over both. Tāmihana placed a Bible over Te Wherowhero's head, establishing part of the ritual which is still carried out by the leader of Ngāti Hauā for the successors of Te Wherowhero.
Tāmihana became deeply involved in maintaining tribal relationships and a system of Māori government within the King movement, against a background increasingly suspicious of Pākehā motives. In June 1860 Pōtatau Te Wherowhero died and was succeeded by his son, Matutaera, who later took the name Tāwhiao. Tāmihana was instrumental in setting up a Māori language newspaper, Te Hōkioi e Rere Atu Nā, for the King movement. The government responded with Te Pīhoihoi Mokemoke, published by John Gorst at Te Awamutu. Tāmihana maintained a precarious alliance among the chiefs, some of whom wanted to fight, others to co-operate with the Pākehā governor. When war broke out in Taranaki in 1860, Tāmihana assumed the role of negotiator and mediator between Māori and Pākehā. 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 Tāmihana and his power in the King movement, and fears of armed uprising. Tāmihana tried to calm the rising tensions.
On 21 May 1861 Browne issued a declaration accusing Waikato of violating the Treaty of Waitangi, and requiring Māori submission to the Queen's sovereignty. Tāmihana wrote a lengthy response, indicating, with reference to Scripture and Māori metaphor, that the King movement was an organisation to control Māori people, and was not in conflict with the Queen's sovereignty. He then outlined the Māori perspective on events in Taranaki and expressed concern that the governor seemed intent on conflict. There were more meetings at Ngāruawāhia to discuss the situation. Tāmihana wrote more letters to the governor, reiterating that the Māori were not seeking war, and questioning the construction of roads and redoubts between Auckland and northern Waikato. Several CMS missionaries joined the debate, urging Tāmihana to withdraw from the King movement. Tāmihana agreed to meet the governor, but was dissuaded by other Māori leaders.
In September 1861 George Grey returned for another term as governor of New Zealand, and the pressure on the King movement was maintained. Tāmihana spent as much time as he could at Pēria, keeping his community together, trying to prevent the illicit sale of liquor by Pākehā 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 rūnanga already established provided an appropriate system. Grey's proposals were discussed at several meetings, and again Tāmihana mediated, as concern increased over military activity north of the Mangatāwhiri River, the northern boundary of the King's territory during 1862.
In October 1862 a meeting at Pēria brought together Waikato, Hauraki and Ngāti 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 Pākehā 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 Tāmihana to keep the peace, Ngāti Maniapoto, led by Rewi Maniapoto, favoured war against the Pākehā. There was now an open rift between Ngāti Hauā and Ngāti Maniapoto. Tāmihana still sought negotiations with the government, but, as Gorst recorded, government people 'did not like Tāmihana. Few Europeans knew him personally, and it was the fashion to believe him insincere.' In 1862 William Fox had expressed his distrust of Tāmihana'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 Mangatāwhiri River, and invaded the lands of the King and his people. Tāmihana wrote a number of letters to North Island Māori 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 Tāmihana.
After the battle at Rangiriri in November 1863 Tāmihana 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 Tāmihana. The only fighting in which Tāmihana 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'. Tāmihana returned to the pā called Te Tiki-o-te-ihinga-rangi, on Maungatautari. In April he and his people quietly abandoned the pā overnight and retreated to Pēria. Tāmihana wrote again to Grey and to other Māori leaders, seeking peace negotiations. The Waikato campaign shifted to Tauranga, with battles at Gate pā in April and at Te Ranga in June 1864. Tāmihana offered to mediate, but was ignored.
On 17 December 1864 a proclamation was issued by Grey, confiscating a large area of Waikato and Ngāti Hauā lands. Military settlements were established in the Waikato, Waipā and Tauranga districts, and the tribes retreated beyond the boundary of confiscated land. There was some further correspondence between Tāmihana and government officials, and a letter from Grey in January 1865 suggested a meeting, which was not immediately arranged. In April Tāmihana submitted a petition to Parliament outlining a Māori view of the causes of the war, and seeking redress for the confiscations. There was no immediate response, but in May Tāmihana followed up earlier moves to meet Brigadier General G. J. Carey.
On 27 May 1865 Tāmihana laid down his taiaha before Carey at Tamahere, and agreed that the Queen's laws would also be the laws for the Māori King. Among Pākehā this act was described as a surrender. Tāmihana described it in a letter to Grey as 'te maungārongo' (the covenant of peace), indicating that arms had been laid down on both sides. Scepticism and distrust were again expressed by Pākehā leaders. Stung by accusations of insincerity, the pain of the misinterpretation of his 1863 letter to Archdeacon Brown, and the label of rebel, Tāmihana 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. Tāmihana 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, Tāmihana 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 Tūranga-o-moana, near Pēria, 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 Tāmihana Tarapīpipi 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.