Story: Tawhai, Hone Mohi

Page 1: Biography

Tawhai, Hone Mohi


Nga Puhi leader, politician

This biography, written by Ranginui J. Walker, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Hone Mohi Tawhai was the son of Mohi Tawhai and his wife, Rawinia Hine-i-koaia (also known as Harata). His father belonged to Te Mahurehure, a hapu of the Nga Puhi confederation, and the family was also connected with Te Whanau Puku. Te Mahurehure held the territory of Waima in Hokianga, and it was probably there that Hone Mohi Tawhai was born in 1827 or 1828. He was about 12 years of age when his father signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Hokianga on 12 February 1840. Little is known of his early life, but it is likely that he attended a local mission school and was associated with the Wesleyan missionaries in the area. His name, Hone Mohi (John Moses), is probably a baptismal name.

Tawhai assumed the responsibilities of leadership early in life. When the official runanga at Waimate North (established under Sir George Grey's runanga system) became defunct in 1865, he kept an informal one functioning in Hokianga. He was appointed as an assessor to the Native Land Court in the north and influenced the people at Waimate North to co-operate peacefully with the court. He became highly regarded, and in 1867 was recommended by the resident magistrate E. M. Williams to the government for commendation for negotiating peace during an inter-tribal conflict that had led to blows. When quarrels again broke out over land at Otaua in 1882, the resident magistrate Spencer von Stürmer acknowledged the part played by Tawhai in preventing bloodshed.

By 1876, however, Tawhai had become disillusioned with the Native Land Court. The expense of getting a Crown grant, including survey and court costs, was seen as an unnecessary financial imposition. In June, in a letter to the council of Tuhourangi at Rotorua, he indicated that Nga Puhi wanted the court abolished and the law changed so that land which had not been put through the court would remain under ancestral title. Nevertheless, he represented his hapu before the court, and conducted their cases for major claims such as the Waima block in 1885 and 1886.

Tawhai was the member of the House of Representatives for Northern Maori from 1879 to 1884. In January 1880 he was appointed to sit on the West Coast Royal Commission to inquire into Maori claims against land confiscations in Taranaki and the detention of prisoners who resisted the government survey. Initially, he did not want to take his place, but he was persuaded by the minister for native affairs on the grounds that he was impartial, not having been involved in the wars.

Before the commission sat, Tawhai voted against the Maori Prisoners Detention Bill of 1880 because it had not been printed in Maori and was being rushed through the House: he refused to support 'blindfold' a measure that was hurriedly presented. He also criticised the shipping of Maori prisoners from Taranaki to gaols in Dunedin and Hokitika as a move to get rid of them; he felt they would perish in the colder climate of the South Island. Tawhai then declined to sit on the commission with William Fox and Francis Dillon Bell, because the former was implicated in the Taranaki confiscations and the latter in the purchase at Waitara.

Although he had little formal education, Tawhai was naturally talented and made a strong contribution to parliamentary debates on a wide range of issues. He was independent-minded and claimed the right to vote as he pleased. He was particularly critical of the government's borrowing from Britain to pay for a war he regarded as aimed at destroying the people at Waitara. He opposed the introduction of legislation designed to alienate Maori land, believing that the proceeds of land sales would be used to help defray interest on the loans. He also criticised the expenditure of more than £20 million borrowed for public works in the 1860s and 1870s, objecting to the imposition of a property tax on his constituents to pay for the loans when none of the money had benefited the north. He claimed that other districts received benefits in the form of railways and public works but Hokianga had received nothing. He warned that if the government persisted in taxing Maori land it would need an army of 24,000 to enforce the taxes. Tawhai voted against the Crown and Native Lands Rating Bill 1880 on the grounds that taxing Maori land was another step towards its alienation.

In 1881 and 1882 Tawhai and Henare Tomoana were responsible for the Native Committees Empowering Bill; it provided for committees which would replace the Native Land Court and determine titles more rapidly and honestly. The government sponsored a modified version the following year, but it was not a success. In 1881 Tawhai accused the government of betraying its duty to protect the Maori and ward off such evils as might threaten them; instead, it had oppressed them. Because the Legislative Council had produced bills which he approved of, such as the Native Lands Frauds Prevention Bill and the Native Succession Bill, he thought that the House of Representatives should be abolished and the council retained. When suggestions were made in the debate on the Representation Bill that the Maori seats should be abolished, Tawhai defended them. He argued that the right to representation emanated from Queen Victoria through the Treaty of Waitangi; if members could show him an act or law which had abolished the treaty, then he would say no more.

As an advocate of Maori rights, Tawhai argued that laws not made in accordance with the Treaty of Waitangi were the cause of ill-feeling between Maori and Pakeha. He believed that Maori aspirations could be achieved by working through Parliament. Accordingly, in the early 1880s he remained aloof from the movement advocating full implementation of the treaty. Instead, he urged Parliament not to make laws from which evil effects flowed. But by 1890, when it became clear that Parliament was not interested in following Tawhai's advice on the treaty, his political views shifted, and he began to respond to Maori movements outside Parliament. In May 1890, he chaired a meeting of the Northland tribes at Omanaia, a place that was spiritually significant to the followers of the mystic Aperahama Taonui, who had been prominent in the treaty movement of the early 1880s. This meeting established an organisational structure that culminated in the formation of the first Maori parliament at Waitangi in April 1892. When there was conflict in the north in the 1890s over the controversial dog tax, Tawhai continued to urge moderation and adherence to the rule of law, advising his people that the proper course was to petition Parliament to change the law.

Tawhai had reservations about the writing of Maori history by Pakeha. Nevertheless, he corresponded with the ethnographer Stephenson Percy Smith, supplying him with information on Maori origins in Rangiatea, the Hawaiki origin of the names Waima-Tuhirangi and Moehau, the ancestral canoe Omamari, the descent lines of Nga Puhi from Tumutumuwhenua and Nukutawhiti, and Hongi Hika. Tawhai also intended to write the history of Hongi Hika, but the protracted illnesses which ended his life prevented him from undertaking this work.

Hone Mohi Tawhai died on 31 July 1894. He and his wife, Makere Maraea, had at least two children: Hone Takerei Tawhai and Kereama Tawhai. Kereama died in 1885 at the age of 21, while studying law with the Auckland firm of Whitaker and Russell.

How to cite this page:

Ranginui J. Walker. 'Tawhai, Hone Mohi', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 February 2020)