Te Whiwhi, sometimes called Te Whiwhi-o-te-rangi, was the son of Te Rangitopeora, the sister of Te Rangihaeata, a woman who held a foremost place among Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Raukawa; she was the daughter of Waitohi, Te Rauparaha's sister. Te Whiwhi's hapū were Ngāti Huia and Ngāti Kikopiri; he was also closely connected with Ngāti Toa. His father was Rangikapiki, of whom little else is recorded. When, with his mother, Te Whiwhi was baptised by CMS missionary Octavius Hadfield in 1843, he took the name of Hēnare Mātene, from that of Henry Martyn, a notable missionary to India. He is most commonly known as Mātene Te Whiwhi.
Te Whiwhi was born in the northern home of his tribe well before Ngāti Raukawa migrated south to the Cook Strait region. He is said to have travelled on the first section of the migration, Te Heke Tahutahu-ahi, about 1821. Thus, as a young man he lived through the turmoil caused by the movement of many northern peoples to the south of the North Island in the 1820s and 1830s. It is not surprising that the unifying theme of his life is the preservation of peace for his own people.
Te Whiwhi first appears in the historical record in 1839, when he and Tāmihana Te Rauparaha went to the Bay of Islands to seek a missionary for their district. Christianity had already been taught in the Ōtaki district by Māori teachers; Te Whiwhi and Tāmihana had learned their letters by poring over a battered copy of St Luke's gospel. At Paihia they explained their mission by saying that the leaders of their peoples were weary of the strife of the previous two decades. When Henry Williams offered them a missionary as soon as one could be spared, they declined to return without one. Octavius Hadfield then volunteered for the task. He set up his station at Waikanae in November 1839. In May 1840 Te Whiwhi signed a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi, brought to the area by Henry Williams.
The missionary Richard Taylor describes how 'the young chiefs' formed a club at Ōtaki in the 1840s, and determined to adopt what he called 'the manners of civilized life' in housing, dress, food and eating habits. When, in the later 1840s, the English traveller W. J. T. Power visited Te Whiwhi he was treated to lunch 'in a comfortably furnished house, with tables, chairs, knives and forks, and pictures of the Queen and Prince Albert over the mantel-piece.'
On 11 September 1843 Te Whiwhi married Pipi Te Ihurape at Ōtaki. In the same year he himself became a missionary, travelling with Tāmihana to the South Island to preach to their own people and to Ngāi Tahu, so recently attacked by Tāmihana's father. By early 1844 he was back in the Cook Strait region. In February he attached Te Rangihaeata's name to a deed selling much of the Hutt Valley, and in January 1846 again signed his uncle's name on a letter expressing loyalty to the Queen. Later that year he spent some time at St John's College, Auckland. In March 1847 he was one of those who signed, on behalf of Ngāti Toa, a deed conveying the Wairau district to the Crown for £3,000. At this time Te Rauparaha was in captivity and Te Rangihaeata in hiding. Te Whiwhi and the other tribal leaders who signed may well have reasoned that there was little chance of retaining those lands.
Te Whiwhi and the ageing Te Rauparaha were at odds with each other. Te Whiwhi is said to have kept the governor, George Grey, informed about ammunition stores in the Porirua district, and to have passed on rumours of a supposed plan to attack Wellington. He was aboard the naval ship Driver when Te Rauparaha was arrested in 1846 and taken to captivity in Auckland. Te Whiwhi met his uncle on the gangway of the ship as he was being taken on board; Te Rauparaha 'eyed him with ineffable contempt.' With the author of this account, Henry Tacy Kemp, Te Whiwhi was sent ashore to reassure the people that they had nothing to fear if they behaved well, and that the prisoners would be well treated.
A major change in Te Whiwhi's life came in the early 1850s, as a result of Tāmihana's visit to England in 1851 and 1852. Tāmihana returned impressed with the power and prestige of the British monarchy and saw it as a model for Māori to follow. He passed the lesson on to Te Whiwhi. Beginning in 1853, the pair undertook a series of journeys in the central North Island, urging upon the tribes the idea of a Māori king to protect their remaining lands. The idea caught on, although it also provoked hostile responses.
At the heart of Te Whiwhi's advocacy was the protection of the land. He had observed, and in fact taken part in, the alienation of land in the Cook Strait region. He advocated the building of the great house Taiporohēnui, at Manawapou in Ngāti Ruanui territory, as a place for the discussion of land issues. A meeting there in 1854 resolved to end all further land sales, on pain (some reports said) of death. In late 1856 a meeting at Pūkawa, near Lake Taupō, nominated Pōtatau Te Wherowhero as the prospective Māori king and he was installed in June 1858.
Te Whiwhi's part in the formative years of the King movement was pacific and defensive. In the 1850s the central North Island had little Pakeha settlement, and Te Whiwhi wished to preserve the situation. He was disappointed by the outcome. Mounting pressure from government and settlers produced a growing readiness among many Māori to resist by force.
When war broke out and spread through the centre of the North Island in the 1860s, Te Whiwhi's main concern was to keep it away from his own district, even at the cost of working with the government. By 1860 he was firmly opposed to the movement he had helped to found; at an Ōtaki meeting in that year he and Tāmihana strenuously opposed the raising of the King's flag.
When, in 1865, Te Ua Haumene brought a Pai Mārire party to the Ōtaki district, Te Whiwhi urged his people not to join. Ōtaki people, he said, had no wish to kill Pākehā. But he added: 'any young man who wishes to join the movement is free to do so, but no fighting must take place in the Manawatū.' After the missionary C. S. Völkner was killed at Ōpōtiki in March 1865, he (and Wī Tako Ngātata) accepted Samuel Williams's invitation to join him on a journey through the East Coast districts countering Pai Mārire beliefs. Later, in 1870, he is reported to have been active in trying to compose differences with Hauhau on the East Coast.
No doubt Te Whiwhi felt the difficulties of his situation. He would have sympathised with the goals, if not the methods, of those who took up arms in the 1860s, to preserve Māori independence and to protect Māori lands. But he also wanted peace for his people, and this drove him into the arms of the government. In 1860 an official, William Searancke, referred to Te Whiwhi as one of Native Secretary Donald McLean's old friends. By 1864 he was receiving an annual salary of £100 as a senior assessor; by 1868 he was receiving the same sum as a pension for 'Services rendered to the Government'.
Little is recorded of his later years. He visited the Urewera in 1876 and in 1878 attended a meeting at Waitara where Rewi Maniapoto concluded a peacemaking with the government. He died at Ōtaki on 28 September 1881. His wife had died much earlier, in 1857. They had at least three children, Hēni, Ruiha and Wirihana.
The half century from 1820 to 1870 transformed Mātene Te Whiwhi's life and the lives of his people. His response was positive and constructive. He contributed in a major way to the formation of the King movement, still one of the main forces in Māori life.