Story: Taonui, Aperahama

Page 1: Biography

Taonui, Aperahama


Nga Puhi leader, prophet, historian, teacher, assessor

This biography, written by Judith Binney, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Aperahama Taonui was the visionary leader of Nga Puhi hapu Te Popoto of Utakura in the upper Hokianga, and a founder of the Kotahitanga movement, which evolved into the Maori parliaments of the 1890s. He was born, by his own account, after the burning of the Boyd at Whangaroa in 1809; in about 1866 he was thought to be 50 years of age. His father was Te Taonui, a senior Te Popoto chief who was later baptised Makoare after the governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie; Makoare had been one of the initiators of the extensive timber trade in the upper Hokianga in the 1820s. Aperahama's mother was Hinuata of Ngati Rehia from the central Bay of Islands. He was originally called Tautoru, but was baptised Aperahama (Abraham) by the Wesleyan missionary William White on 23 December 1833. Although usually known as Aperahama Taonui, he is thought to have signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 as Abaraham Tautoru.

Considered by the Wesleyans to be 'a very respectable young chief, and in person very good looking', he soon caused them a great deal of anxiety. In September 1834 a conflict developed over the manner of burial of Hauhau, a noted chief and tohunga of Utakura. During the debate Aperahama Taonui spoke several times, predicting the imminent arrival of the Saviour and the restoration of the chief to life. On the day of his resurrection, he said, the clouds would be red and there would be 12 suns in the sky. On 23 September Aperahama appeared before the missionaries dressed in 'decent English clothing, with a long white veil before his face' and sang them chants of his own composition. A day or two later he announced himself to be the Son of God. Although he soon recanted under the teachings of White, he had revealed to the missionaries a piety and 'apparent force of scriptural argument', together with an ability to predict some events, which astonished them.

Aperahama Taonui would remain closely involved with the religious world of the Wesleyans. He helped the missionary John Hobbs translate the Book of Job, which was published in Maori in August 1843. With his father he joined forces with Tamati Waka Nene (another leading Wesleyan convert) against Hone Heke, and was awarded a government pension for the severe bullet wound he received, probably in April 1845 in the early fighting near Okaihau. He was sent to Auckland to recuperate and there became friendly with Governor George Grey. Considered an outstanding leader, he attended the new Wesleyan Native Institution in Auckland in 1846–47, where he and 13 other students were taught 'experimental religion' by the Reverend Thomas Buddle. It was probably here that he learnt to read and write in English; he is particularly remembered for his outstanding facility with languages. He returned as a preacher to Utakura, persuading the people there to build themselves a weatherboard chapel in European style at the end of 1847. During the next two years he was employed as a native day-school teacher at Mangungu mission station, receiving an annual salary of £10. In 1851 he returned to Utakura as the Wesleyan teacher, and in 1856 became the schoolmaster at the Wesleyan school at Waima.

It was during his time at Mangungu that Aperahama Taonui wrote down for the young John White (William White's nephew) his 'He pukapuka whakapapa mo nga Tupuna Maori', which narrates the history of the Hokianga ancestors from Kupe and Nukutawhiti. Aperahama told White that he had learnt the genealogies as a boy and that he had then been instructed never to write the names down, because the paper would be put with profane things in a box and these men 'are now gods'. Despite this he was prepared to give written information because he was a believer in the Christian God. During the 1850s, after John White had left Hokianga, Aperahama corresponded with him on the difficulties of the task he had agreed to: writing down and explaining waiata, proverbs and other material. He made it clear that he understood that the book would only be read by Pakeha, and wrote in October 1856 that if any Maori should see it, it would cause much ill-feeling and anger. He refused to collect information for White about makutu, as this would be disrespectful and would also reveal his own ignorance. White later acknowledged his debt to Aperahama, as one of the priests of the Mamari canoe tradition who had helped him in the compilation of his Ancient history of the Maori (1887–90).

In 1859 Aperahama Taonui was made an assessor for Hokianga under the Native Circuit Courts Act 1858, at an annual salary of £15. From this time he became increasingly involved in Maori politics of the north. His stance was always a commitment to peace, and from the beginning his political voice expressed itself in visionary terms. In December 1863 he and others warned Governor Grey that the 'clouds and stars (discontents and agitations)' which had stirred in Waikato and Taranaki could occur in the north. The premonition derived not from 'the voice of man, but by the signs of the heavens'. In 1865 he wrote opposing the 'Hauhau fanatics', arguing that they should not be termed Pai Marire 'as that name would imply a body well disposed & peaceable.' In 1867 he mediated in a dispute between Ngati Hauata and Ngati Kawa on the one side and Te Uri Taniwha on the other over Te Ahuahu pa, near Okaihau, leading the defenders out carrying a white flag and the Bible. He successfully negotiated between the opposing hapu using prayers and readings from the Scriptures. Consulted in 1869 by the native and defence minister, Donald McLean, concerning the establishment of peace in Waikato, he argued that the sovereignty of New Zealand had been ceded in 1840: 'this is what we at the northern part of the island acknowledge.' Therefore, the King movement and the Waikato tribes, who had, in his view, challenged that agreement, should initiate the peacemaking.

But Aperahama became disillusioned by the refusal of the government to concede to Maori an effective voice in decision-making. In 1862 he had been appointed an inaugural member of the Maori runanga set up by the government for the north. It was ineffectual because no authority had been granted to it, and it met only four times between 1862 and 1865. When the four Maori parliamentary seats were created in 1867, Aperahama protested: 'what are these four to do among so many Pakehas; where will their voices be as compared with the Pakeha voices?…It will not do.' He himself had been named by many chiefs as the one they would have liked as the first Northern Maori representative, and, with other Nga Puhi leaders, he urged a system of tribal selection of candidates. Instead, Frederick Nene Russell was nominated and returned unopposed in 1868. The chiefs had refused to participate.

By the mid 1860s Aperahama Taonui was becoming known in the north as a major prophet. In the 1850s he had come into close association with Papahurihia, the founder of the Nakahi cult, and according to oral tradition had taught in the whare wananga developed by Papahurihia at Te Raupo, on Herds Point (Rawene). Their teachings emphasised peacemaking and unity. The 12 manuscript books of scriptural exegesis by Aperahama, which are held privately at Omanaia, probably originated in this period. But in 1869 Aperahama left Hokianga and its intense disputes. Some thought him too deeply Christian and too sympathetic to the government. He went to live on the Wairoa River in northern Kaipara. Kinsmen from Ngati Whatua who had formerly been sheltered at Utakura by his relative, Muriwai, offered him sanctuary; subsequently, in February 1873, they gifted him 100 acres at Okapakapa and 2,061 acres at Oturei, south of Dargaville, in recognition of his role as prophet and healer. Therefore Aperahama moved from Aoroa to Oturei. He was appointed an assessor for Kaipara in 1873, but earned his living from gum-digging.

It was from here that Aperahama Taonui emerged as a founder of Te Kotahitanga. His best-known prophecy concerns the Treaty of Waitangi, and the error he felt had occurred in 1840 when (according to northern oral tradition) the document was placed for signing on the Union Jack and not a Maori cloak. This had been for Aperahama an ill omen, and he is recorded as making the following prophecy in 1863: ' "Chiefs of Ngapuhi listen to me. Do not drape the Treaty of Waitangi with the Union Jack of England, but rather with your Maori cloak, which is of this land." When Ngapuhi did not listen to him, once more the elder spoke: "Ngapuhi, since you refuse to listen, the only man that will inhabit this house will be a spider. The day will come when you will see a man bearing in his hands two books, the Bible and the Treaty of Waitangi. Listen to him." '

By 1880 Aperahama rested his hopes for the resolution of grievances about land loss and political powerlessness in a prophetic vision of a great law (tikanga nui) which would be fulfilled in 1890, 50 years after the signing of the treaty. He corresponded with Maihi Paraone Kawiti, a leader in the Kotahitanga movement at the Bay of Islands, between 1863 and 1882, offering prophetic guidance for the cause. These letters were published as He whakaaro na Aperahama Taonui me Maihi Paraone Kawiti in 1885.

As one of the few surviving signatories of the treaty, Aperahama was involved in the opening of the meeting house called Te Tiriti o Waitangi, at Te Tii, Waitangi, in March 1881. He designed the planned ceremony as a statement of unity between Pakeha and Maori. A monument bearing the Maori text of the treaty was to be covered with a Maori cloak, then a Union Jack, and all was to be unveiled by the governor, Arthur Gordon. He also drew up the proposals from the north for a separate Maori parliament, which were to be presented at the meeting. The governor did not attend the opening. The Maori parliament movement failed to gain any European sympathy. Aperahama was also a principal supporter of Hirini Taiwhanga's petition for a Maori parliament, which Taiwhanga took to Queen Victoria in 1882, but the delegation proved similarly abortive. F. E. Maning, who knew him well, commented that although Aperahama's influence was very considerable it 'would have been much more had he not been a little too crazy'.

Aperahama Taonui died at Oturei. His gravestone there records his date of death as 23 September 1883, but his obituary and two letters, one written by his wife, Kereihi (Grace), to George Grey telling Grey of Aperahama's death, establish that it was 23 September 1882. It is said that he gave instructions for his grave to be dug very deep and filled with broken bottles so that his body could not be taken back to Hokianga. Nevertheless, his teachings live on in that region, and a monument erected to him at Omanaia in 1975 carries the image of his footprint stamped on the Bible and the words 'This is The foundation of jesus christ', in memory of an occasion when he preached standing on the Bible.

Aperahama had two, possibly three, wives. He married Nga Hui on 19 April 1840, and later Kereihi (the daughter of Muriwai), who is buried beside him at Oturei. He may also have had a wife named Harriet in the 1830s. He is thought to have had no issue. Those who took his name belonged to the families who had, as he said, become his own at Oturei. As it is narrated, he came looking for people and at Oturei he found his new family. His obituary recalled his 'strict integrity' and goodwill towards Europeans: 'No man who carried to him any complaint went away without feeling that justice was done to him.'

Aperahama Taonui's prophetic visions have remained a part of the history of the north, and have also been adopted by the Ratana movement. His prediction of 1863 is interpreted in that faith as foreseeing the advent of Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana. Many of the families who followed Aperahama at Oturei became Ratana believers after the First World War. His prophetic sayings were published in Dargaville as Nga kupu o Aperahama. At Omanaia his teachings are more particularly associated with the Nakahi cult, for he is seen as the direct successor to Papahurihia. It is therefore as a prophet that he is remembered, and in the Maori oral traditions he stands alongside Te Kooti and Te Whiti-o-Rongomai.

How to cite this page:

Judith Binney. 'Taonui, Aperahama', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 February 2020)