Te Whiti-o-Rongomai III was a descendant of both Awanuiārangi, the founder of Te Āti Awa of Taranaki, and Tahuaoariki. More directly, he was descended from Te Rangiāpitirua, paramount chief of Te Āti Awa, and Korotaia. Te Rangiāpitirua is considered to have founded the hapū within which Te Whiti was born, Ngāti Te Whiti, after a series of strategic conflicts. His extensive domain was centred at Pukeariki, near Ngāmotu (at present day New Plymouth). Te Whiti's father was Hōne Kākahi (sometimes known as Tohu Kākahi), the great-great-grandson of Takarangi and Raumāhora, whose marriage is said to have united the tribes of Te Āti Awa and Taranaki. His mother was Rangikawau, daughter of Te Whetū of the Taranaki hapū Patukai.
Te Whiti-o-Rongomai's birth is placed by some descendants at Ōtaka pā, Ngāmotu, on the eve of the battle of Ōtaka in early 1832, at which his father died. The battle was a savage encounter between ancient enemies, the invading Waikato and besieged Te Āti Awa. It has been suggested that Te Whiti was moved during the fighting, along with the very young and the aged, to the safety of Rātāpihipihi pā some miles away, an inland site of extensive cultivations. Other family traditions hold that he was born earlier (his tombstone at Parihaka indicates 1816 or 1817), and that he was present as a young man at the siege of Ōtaka.
Following the defeat of Waikato at Ōtaka, fears of reprisals persuaded most of the local Te Āti Awa to migrate south. Te Whiti's family are thought to have moved to southern Taranaki or Waikanae. In the early 1840s they travelled north to Wārea, where they took up residence among the Patukai people at Hopuhopu and Tarakihi, under the leadership of Te Whiti's uncle, Pāora Kūkūtai, and Āperahama Te Reke. Wārea at this time was sparsely occupied by Taranaki and Ngāti Ruanui.
It is believed by descendants that Te Whiti was identified early in his life as one who would carry a special spiritual authority in teaching and prophecy. His relative, Tohu Kākahi, was also so identified. Accordingly, special care was taken to ensure their safety. As Te Whiti grew he confirmed his possession of this gift. Before his introduction to the Bible and Christianity he had already established his spiritual authority: he had received from elders a vast measure of traditional knowledge, from which his later teaching, tempered by Christian Scripture and an astute world view, would flow.
Te Whiti may have been introduced to the Bible by Minarapa Rangihatuake of Ngāti Māhanga, a freed Ngāpuhi slave who had preached at Rāhotu since 1842. Minarapa had earlier served as a Wesleyan minister at Te Aro from mid 1839, and preached at Wārea before the arrival in 1846 of the Lutheran, Johann Riemenschneider, of whom Te Whiti became a pupil. Other former slaves may also have propagated forms of Christianity that appealed to the young Te Whiti. A new religion, called by its followers Tikanga Hōu (the new doctrine), appeared in the area in 1845.
Te Whiti's status as teacher and prophet was enhanced by his knowledge of Christian doctrines, and his acquisition of a baptismal name, Erueti (which he would later reject). But his mission was to lead his people to a spiritual afterlife, a journey which had been interrupted by the coming of the Pākehā and Christian beliefs. Some descendants speak of an ancient prophecy originating in the far north foretelling the appearance of two spiritual birds of knowledge on the peak of Taranaki. Pōtatau Te Wherowhero is said to have received a similar vision of the mission and spiritual authority which Te Whiti and Tohu shared, immediately before his appointment as king at Ngāruawāhia in 1858. It is remembered by Te Whiti's descendants as follows: 'towards the south there is a sacred mountain; below the shadow of the mountain there is a tree with a branch and on this branch are two birds of knowledge, Mumuhau and Takeretō. These birds will receive the message from on high, and they will lead the people into everlasting life.' Potatau's son Tāwhiao, the second Māori King, in part acknowledged this prophecy by sending apostles to live with Te Whiti and Tohu, the two birds of knowledge, at Parihaka in 1866.
Family tradition states that Te Whiti's and Tohu's people moved in the late 1840s to the inland village which was to become known as Parihaka, but was then called Repanga, as they wished to withdraw from the pressures of coastal life to a more contemplative setting. However, other sources indicate that Te Whiti went to Parihaka in the 1860s. The name Parihaka recalled the lamentations and sufferings of earlier occupants of the area. Some descendants believe Tohu and the people of Parihaka saw an albatross descending onto the village, symbolising the sanction of the Holy Spirit on the growing movement at Parihaka, and on the two men who were to lead it. A feather was left behind by the albatross, and Tohu's marae at Parihaka was called Toroanui (great albatross). Others believe the vision was celestial – a trail of light from a comet in the shape of a feather. The raukura, the single albatross feather, was adopted as a symbol protecting the mana of the Parihaka movement.
One of Te Whiti's earliest recorded encounters with Pākehā was when he participated in September 1862 in the rescue of passengers and crew from the steamer Lord Worsley, which ran aground at Te Namu Bay (Middleton Bay). With Ārama Karaka and Wiremu Kīngi Te Matakātea, he worked to bring the settlers to safety, obtaining carts and seeing them safely conveyed to New Plymouth.
Te Whiti is believed to have accompanied Taranaki war parties in the early fighting in Taranaki in 1860. By this time he was taking a leading role among his people in their dealings with the government. According to Ngāti Ruanui chief Te Kahu Pūkoro, both Te Whiti and Tohu Kākahi were among the chiefs leading warriors at the attack on the Sentry Hill redoubt in April 1864. They did not carry guns, however, but a tokotoko, or walking stick, and appeared to rely on the power of Pai Mārire incantations taught by the prophet Te Ua Haumēne. But after 1864 Te Whiti is said to have taken no further part in hostilities, and was the more persuaded to pursue a course of resistance without recourse to arms.
Descendants believe Te Whiti and Tohu agreed that Te Whiti should extend their spiritual mission; because Te Whiti had 'heard a thunder and sensed an approaching flood' – a reference to encroaching European settlement – he was to pursue a special mission to deal with the European. Te Whiti would be active, even aggressive, in seeking a resolution to issues relating to land, but this activism was to be peaceful, permitting no acts of physical violence. Subsequently, when dealing with the Pākehā, Te Whiti tended to assume the role of spokesman for both leaders. Tohu continued to play a prominent religious role, concerned with safeguarding the spiritual dimension of the Parihaka movement, although he also played a practical part in the arrangement of the protest activities. The two men became complementary speakers to assembled adherents. The mission of Te Whiti paralleled that of Tohu, but focused more specifically on understanding, and dealing with, the encroaching Pākehā.
Te Whiti developed an oratory which addressed Māori misgivings over the loss of their land. He skilfully utilised a spiritual Māori idiom and the rhetoric of Christianity, imbued with a knowledge of the Pākehā world. Robert Stout, writing of Te Whiti in 1883, observed that he preached temperance and peace. His only literature was the Bible. His favourite book was said to be Revelation, in contrast to Te Kooti, who favoured the books of the Old Testament. He developed an especial belief in the affinity of Māori and Jew, once telling James Cowan, 'We come from the land of Canaan.'
Te Whiti's teaching became influential throughout Taranaki and beyond. Many came to listen and to consider his advice, although some found the counsel of resistance by peaceful means difficult to contemplate. Titokowaru had recruited warriors after the collapse of his military campaign in 1869 and was anxious to fight again; he was counselled against violence by Te Whiti, and even when a government road was cut through his cultivations, desisted from taking up arms.
The primary focus of Māori discontent was the widespread confiscation of land. Te Whiti protested against the confiscations and the loss of all lands. He objected particularly to occupation of confiscated land which had long been left unoccupied by settlers and was believed to have been returned through the quiescence of the native minister, Donald McLean. He also protested at the failure of the government to set aside reserves as promised. In 1879, when the government proceeded with its survey of 16,000 acres of the confiscated Waimate plain without first allocating reserves, followers of Te Whiti embarked on a campaign of disrupting the surveyors and ploughing land occupied by settlers from Pukearuhe to Hāwera. Settler outrage and arrests did not deter them. Robert Parris, the former civil commissioner in Taranaki, sought to mediate with Te Whiti, but was distrusted. The prospect of a new governor induced from Te Whiti only an expression of deep suspicion.
Throughout the west coast, tribal communities, most of which were becoming smaller and poorer, were attracted to Parihaka. Followers carrying food and belongings trekked there from their homes, often making journeys of great distances lasting several days. These expeditions became a phenomenon of the Taranaki coast, much to the chagrin of government officials like the resident magistrate at Wanganui, William Woon, who noted the continued absence of significant numbers of Māori along the Whanganui River. He declared that 'one would think that the patience of his adherents will soon be exhausted'.
Yet the campaign of ploughing and protest intensified. Surveying was continued by a government keen to see the land sold and settled. Te Whiti continued to urge restraint from the use of arms. After a series of proclamations, a force of 1,589 Armed Constabulary and volunteers, led by John Bryce, the minister for native affairs and defence, and Lieutenant Colonel J. M. Roberts, invaded Parihaka on 5 November 1881. They were met by about 2,000 seated Māori. Bryce called on Te Whiti and Tohu to surrender. The two were dressed in the korowai, the traditional dress of their younger days. They were arrested, along with Wiremu Hīroki, who was accused of murdering a member of a survey party; the rest of the assembled people were arrested or dispersed.
At his trial in New Plymouth Te Whiti was charged with 'wickedly, maliciously, and seditiously contriving and intending to disturb the peace.' Tohu faced similar charges. After an inconclusive trial they were detained in custody in New Plymouth for nearly six months. They were then transferred to the South Island, a move sanctioned by the government, probably to prevent a Supreme Court review of their case. Initially imprisoned at Addington gaol in Christchurch, they were taken on an intensive tour of the South Island, designed to impress upon them the accomplishments of Pākehā civilisation.
Te Whiti frequently demanded his right to a trial, but this was denied. Others arrested at Parihaka were released, the judge questioning the legality of the government actions and ordering the charges to be withdrawn. However, Te Whiti and Tohu continued to be held in Nelson while their fate was being determined in Parliament.
Such a reaction to the Parihaka movement reflected a prevailing opinion that a strong government hand was needed to deal with a movement and a leader commonly described as 'fanatical'. West coast settler opinion no doubt influenced the actions of the government, given the settlers' declared apprehension at the 'language used by Te Whiti, and the threatening attitude assumed by his followers'. Bryce was later praised for his skill and judgement in using the forces at his command to such advantage that 'the fanatics lost all hope, and in the end quietly submitted'.
While in captivity Te Whiti was impressed with what he saw of the South Island landscape, but he often complained of a lowness of spirit. He did not desist from his demand for a trial and a resolution to the injustice that he felt he and his people had suffered at Parihaka, and he rejected all offers of compromise. Amnesty offered to certain Māori leaders in February 1883, including Te Kooti, was not offered to Te Whiti. He was described at this time as being 'about 5ft. 10in. in height, and…nearly 13 stone in weight. He has a high, narrow forehead…small, but piercing eyes…[and] that square facial expression that denotes great firmness of character'.
Te Whiti and Tohu were finally permitted to return to Taranaki in March 1883; with some indignity, they were driven the last few miles to Parihaka in an open cart. Parihaka, in their absence, had fallen into neglect. The extensive damage inflicted by the invading constabulary had been left unrepaired. Meetings were prohibited, but protest activity continued. One commentator reported that Te Whiti's mana had increased with his absence, and that his persecution was likened to that of Christ. Te Whiti commenced a series of visits to other villages, but these were soon abandoned.
Ploughing was again urged by Te Whiti in 1886, culminating in his imprisonment for six months in Wellington for the occupation of disputed land. Ploughing campaigns persisted as a means of protest, focusing on the provisions of the West Coast Settlement Reserves Act 1892, which instituted a system of renewable leases to settlers on over 200,000 acres of Māori land, the leases to be administered by the public trustee. In 1897 92 Māori were arrested for ploughing in protest at long delays in the resolution of issues pertaining to the management of native reserves by the native trustee.
Much has been said about the contrast between Tohu and Te Whiti. Tohu Kākahi, the cousin of Te Whiti's father, Hone Kākahi, is thought by some to have been older than Te Whiti. His affiliation was to Puketapu of Te Āti Awa, but he and Te Whiti strengthened the family bond when they married sisters, Wairangi and Hikurangi. They are said to have quarrelled, each claiming to be the true prophet. Yet they and their histories are largely inseparable. That differences emerged between their followers in the 1880s and 1890s was, and remains, the source of some sorrow. Both men regularly sought each other's counsel; descendants speak of the men as complementary, two figures sharing a titanic burden. The name Te Whiti-o-Rongomai (celestial flight of the shining one, resting at Puke-Te Whiti) came to symbolise, according to descendants, the essence of the mission that he, with Tohu Kākahi, was called to work out in the Māori world.
Following the death of Tohu, on 4 February 1907, Te Whiti is said to have mourned until his own death 11 months later at Parihaka on 18 November. His wife, Hikurangi, had died during Te Whiti's last imprisonment, and they were survived by a son, Nohomairangi, and a daughter, Ngāruaki or Pereni.