Hone Riiwi Toia 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 Nga Puhi, married Levy at Hokianga. Their son, Himi Riiwi Toia, was Hone Toia's father; his mother was Maraea, a woman of Te Mahurehure hapu, of Waima. Himi Riiwi Toia also had another wife, Mihiarangi, and Hone had one half-brother and two half-sisters. He was also kin to Ngati Korohue.
Hone Toia 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 Taheke, Omanaia, or Waima, 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 Hone Toia 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 Maori as Whiowhio, because of the whistling noise made by spirits; and also as Nakahi, 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 Maori 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 Maori 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 Hone Toia 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 Maori. 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 Maori at Whangape in 1893 and Kaikohe in 1894, James Stephenson Clendon, stipendiary magistrate at Russell, decided to inflict the full penalty allowed by law after Paki Wi Hongi of Kaikohe announced that his people had decided not to pay. Paki Wi Hongi's greatest support came from the family and adherents of a recently deceased chief named Te Whata, and probably included Hone Toia.
About 1895 many of the members of Te Huihui moved to the Hauturu gum-field, which lay between Waima and Kaikohe. Hone Toia'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 Hone Toia acted as an intermediary rather than a leader; occasionally he paid part of the fines imposed on others. Like Paki Wi 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 (Hone Toia's village in the Waima 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.
Hone Toia 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 Maori were present. Pigeons were offered to the Europeans but were refused as out of season. Romana Te Paehangi, Hone Toia'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'. Hone Toia confirmed that the people would resist rather than allow themselves to be taken to gaol, and that they were going to Rawene 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 Hone Toia'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 Rawene, 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 Hone Toia, led by Romana, stripped for war and carrying guns came to Rawene to 'show themselves to the law'. They had been instructed by Romana 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 Rawene on 2 and 3 May. The British warship Torch was also dispatched, and anchored off Rawene on 4 May. On the fifth, despite efforts at intervention by local chiefs, the government forces marched on Waima. Hone Toia sent a message requesting that the troops wait at Omanaia until Hone Heke, the local Maori MHR, could mediate; but Newall refused. An ambush was feared in the bush-clad hills between Omanaia and Waima, and two shots had been fired over the heads of the troops, possibly only as a signal of their approach.
As the troops approached Waima Hone Toia had received a telegram from Heke advising him to disband his followers, retire peacefully to his home, and petition Parliament about his grievances. Toia sent out two men to warn his outpost not to fire. Hone Heke negotiated a truce, the surrender of Hone Toia and his people and some of their guns. Toia was arrested on 6 May with four others; 11 more were arrested later.
They were imprisoned in the Rawene 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 Nga Puhi and Te Rarawa chiefs at Waima. 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. Hone Toia 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.
Hone Toia 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. Hone Toia 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 Nga Puhi, Te Rarawa and Te Aupouri.
Hone Toia 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 Taheke and Kaikohe. He had three wives. His first wife was Ripeka Timoko of Ngai Tawake; they had five children. His second wife was Keita Penekahi of Ngati Korokoro and Te Mahurehure; they had 10 children. His third wife was Mate Romana; 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 Hone Toia lived on a farm close to Lake Omapere. 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 Hone Toia's death, meetings continued to be held by the family on the 16th of every month until the 1960s. These continued the practices of Hone Toia's meetings in the 1890s; they featured prayers, hymns and family feasts. Sometimes the whiowhio continued to be heard.