Hōne Riiwi Tōia was born probably sometime between 1858 and 1860 at Waimate North in the Bay of Islands. His grandfather was a Jewish trader called Levy (Riiwi), who, in different family traditions, jumped ship at Hokianga or was a certificated master mariner trading in his own ship to Hokianga. Rena, of Ngāpuhi, married Levy at Hokianga. Their son, Hīmi Riiwi Tōia, was Hōne Tōia's father; his mother was Maraea, a woman of Te Māhurehure hapū, of Waimā. Hīmi Riiwi Tōia also had another wife, Mihiārangi, and Hōne had one half-brother and two half-sisters. He was also kin to Ngāti Korohue.
Hōne Tōia was regarded as clever, could understand English, and by the 1890s was running his own trading store. He was good-looking and stoutly built. As a young man he had visited Te Whiti at Parihaka. He was brought up as an Anglican, but as an adult he gained a position of influence among his mother's people, who were mainly Wesleyan. His mana was enhanced by a reputation for being able to communicate with the spirits of ancestors, and as a matakite or prophet.
He became the religious leader of a breakaway group of Wesleyans often called Te Huihui or Te Huihuinga. Meetings were held on the 16th of each month at Tāheke, Ōmanaia, or Waimā, initially for religious purposes. Each meeting opened with prayers, and there were sometimes three or four prayer sessions in the night. The people would then discuss political matters. A number of Europeans regarded Hōne Tōia as an impostor, and other people associated his meetings with the Hauhau movement. Some reported that seances were held at night in meeting houses. The movement was known by Māori as Whiowhio, because of the whistling noise made by spirits; and also as Nākahi, after the cult of the earlier Hokianga prophet, Papahurihia.
The group came to regard themselves as having seceded from Te Kotahitanga, the movement to form an autonomous Māori parliament, but shared the aims of its leaders in wanting to govern themselves and their lands. They also took elements of Te Whiti's programme. They wanted the right to live as Māori without interference, and to make use of their traditional resources as guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi. Specific grievances included seasonal restrictions on the hunting of native birds, the land tax (on land held under Crown grant within five miles of a public road), the wheel tax (on vehicles with certain tyre widths), and the dog tax, under which local authorities issued owners with a licensed collar for each dog at 2s. 6d. It was probably during one of his night-time meetings that Hōne Tōia prophesied that if dogs were to be taxed, men would be next.
Opposition to the dog tax, the payment of rates and restrictions on traditional bird hunting was widespread among Māori. In Hokianga it was particularly intense after the departure of Resident Magistrate Spencer von Stürmer, who had deemed it inadvisable to introduce the dog tax there. Despite petitions from Māori at Whāngāpē in 1893 and Kaikohe in 1894, James Stephenson Clendon, stipendiary magistrate at Russell, decided to inflict the full penalty allowed by law after Paki Wī Hongi of Kaikohe announced that his people had decided not to pay. Paki Wī Hongi's greatest support came from the family and adherents of a recently deceased chief named Te Whata, and probably included Hōne Tōia.
About 1895 many of the members of Te Huihui moved to the Hauturu gum-field, which lay between Waimā and Kaikohe. Hōne Tōia's store seems to have been their main source of supplies. This concentration of the movement probably reinforced its adherents' determination to resist the dog tax. Although reports varied on the yield of the gum-field, and poverty played its role in strengthening resolves not to pay taxes, opposition seems to have sprung from a conscious decision to protest against the law. Between 1896 and 1898 pigeons and ducks were shot out of season and offered to law officers as a form of challenge. Non-payers of the dog tax were fined, refused to pay, were summonsed for debt and refused to appear. Here Hōne Tōia acted as an intermediary rather than a leader; occasionally he paid part of the fines imposed on others. Like Paki Wī Hongi, the Hauturu people suggested that the police could destroy their dogs. They did not, however, resist arrest.
In June 1897 dog registration was taken over from the police by Henry Menzies, an appointee of the Hokianga County Council. He was not paid a salary, but received a shilling for every dog collar he sold. On 8 February 1898 Menzies visited Hauturu and issued 40 or more summonses to be heard on 6 April. The people of Hauturu and Pukemiro (Hōne Tōia's village in the Waimā valley) were deeply disturbed by a threat alleged to have been made by Menzies that if they did not pay they would be sent to an ice-bound country where their bones would crack from the extreme cold. The people were in such a state of terror that many, including women and children, took to sleeping in the bush.
Hōne Tōia attempted to intervene by asking for an adjournment of the cases. He told William Seon of the Hokianga County Council that he did not think the people would pay unless the council adopted a conciliatory attitude. Successful in achieving an adjournment to 11 May, he then set up a meeting at Pukemiro on 28 April, inviting Seon, Constable Alexander McGilp, Menzies and others. One hundred and fifty Māori were present. Pigeons were offered to the Europeans but were refused as out of season. Rōmana Te Paehangi, Hōne Tōia's elder and relative, announced that the people would not pay the land tax, the dog tax and other taxes, and would not stop shooting pigeons. He stated, 'we will die on account of these taxes'. Hōne Tōia confirmed that the people would resist rather than allow themselves to be taken to gaol, and that they were going to Rāwene the next day with their guns. He said he was going with them because they were his people, but that no women or children or settlers would be hurt: there would be no bloodshed unless they came in contact with the law. On 29 April a telegram composed at the Pukemiro meeting was sent to Clendon in Hōne Tōia's name. It was understood to mean that war would be waged on account of the dog tax and other taxes, and that blood would be shed.
At the news of the projected descent on Rāwene, panic ensued among the settlers; many withdrew to Kohukohu or embarked on the steamer Glenelg. On Sunday 1 May at dusk, a party of less than 20 including Hōne Tōia, led by Romana, stripped for war and carrying guns came to Rāwene to 'show themselves to the law'. They had been instructed by Rōmana not to shoot any Europeans, and intended to fight only if they were arrested. The Wesleyan missionary William Gittos, local contractor Robert Cochrane and others talked to them. They were quiet, expressed friendship to everyone but the law, and said they would not fire first. On the advice of Gittos and Cochrane they then returned home.
The government responded to the situation by sending a force of over 120 men, armed with rifles, two field guns and two rapid-fire guns in the steamers Gairloch and Hinemoa under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Newall. They arrived at Rāwene on 2 and 3 May. The British warship Torch was also dispatched, and anchored off Rāwene on 4 May. On the fifth, despite efforts at intervention by local chiefs, the government forces marched on Waimā. Hōne Tōia sent a message requesting that the troops wait at Ōmanaia until Hōne Heke, the local Māori MHR, could mediate; but Newall refused. An ambush was feared in the bush-clad hills between Ōmanaia and Waimā, and two shots had been fired over the heads of the troops, possibly only as a signal of their approach.
As the troops approached Waimā Hōne Tōia had received a telegram from Heke advising him to disband his followers, retire peacefully to his home, and petition Parliament about his grievances. Tōia sent out two men to warn his outpost not to fire. Hōne Heke negotiated a truce, the surrender of Hōne Tōia and his people and some of their guns. Tōia was arrested on 6 May with four others; 11 more were arrested later.
They were imprisoned in the Rāwene courthouse, spending their time in prayers, hymn singing and conversation, while awaiting transport to trial in Auckland. They were permitted to attend an all-night meeting of Ngāpuhi and Te Rarawa chiefs at Waimā. The chiefs wanted the charges dropped on a promise of good behaviour, but the authorities would not agree. Transported to Mount Eden prison in Auckland by 16 May, they faced a preliminary hearing in the police court on the 20th, and were tried in the Supreme Court before E. T. Conolly in July. They were charged with 'Intending by conspiring to levy war against the Queen in order to force her to change her measures, and conspiring by force to prevent collection of taxes.' When the prisoners changed their pleas to guilty on the second count, proceedings were stayed on the first. Hōne Tōia and four others were sentenced to 18 months' hard labour on this charge and 12 months on other charges, the sentences to be concurrent. The other prisoners were fined, and imprisoned until surety was given.
Hōne Tōia served his sentence in Mount Eden prison. While in prison he was comforted by visits from a priest, and became a Catholic. His powers as a prophet were demonstrated again towards the end of his sentence. He informed his followers that an angel had told him when they would be released. When the appointed day came, and wore on without any apparent change, his companions began to scoff. Hōne Tōia told them to wait; the day was not over. At 9 p.m. the announcement was made, and the prisoners released. The balance of the prisoners' sentences was remitted from 15 March 1899, probably in response to a petition in September 1898 from over 100 influential leaders of Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa and Te Aupōuri.
Hōne Tōia was about 40 years old at this time. Little is known of him in the years after his release, but he always retained the status of a leader of his community. His religious ministry continued. He was a strong character, and his grandchildren remember his will prevailing at hui and tangihanga whenever disputes arose. At different times he lived at Tāheke and Kaikohe. He had three wives. His first wife was Rīpeka Tīmoko of Ngāi Tāwake; they had five children. His second wife was Keita Penekahi of Ngāti Korokoro and Te Māhurehure; they had 10 children. His third wife was Mate Rōmana; they had a son and a daughter. Many of his children and grandchildren were given names which commemorated the events of 1898–99, but none was given his full name, as he had prophesied that such a child would not live beyond seven years.
In old age Hōne Tōia lived on a farm close to Lake Ōmāpere. He died there on 9 August 1933, aged 73 or 74. He was survived by his second and third wives and by many children and grandchildren. He was taken to Waimate North for burial. He had predicted that he would not lie down for three days after his death, and his grandchildren remember him sitting upright until the third day.
After Hōne Tōia's death, meetings continued to be held by the family on the 16th of every month until the 1960s. These continued the practices of Hōne Tōia's meetings in the 1890s; they featured prayers, hymns and family feasts. Sometimes the whiowhio continued to be heard.