Āperahama Taonui was the visionary leader of Ngāpuhi hapū Te Popoto of Utakura in the upper Hokianga, and a founder of the Kotahitanga movement, which evolved into the Māori 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. Āperahama's mother was Hinuata of Ngāti Rēhia from the central Bay of Islands. He was originally called Tautoru, but was baptised Āperahama (Abraham) by the Wesleyan missionary William White on 23 December 1833. Although usually known as Āperahama 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 Āperahama 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 Āperahama 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.
Āperahama 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 Māori in August 1843. With his father he joined forces with Tāmati Wāka Nene (another leading Wesleyan convert) against Hōne Heke, and was awarded a government pension for the severe bullet wound he received, probably in April 1845 in the early fighting near Ōkaihau. 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 Waimā.
It was during his time at Mangungu that Āperahama Taonui wrote down for the young John White (William White's nephew) his 'He Pukapuka Whakapapa mō ngā Tūpuna Māori', which narrates the history of the Hokianga ancestors from Kupe and Nukutawhiti. Āperahama 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, Āperahama 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 Pākehā, and wrote in October 1856 that if any Māori should see it, it would cause much ill-feeling and anger. He refused to collect information for White about mākutu, as this would be disrespectful and would also reveal his own ignorance. White later acknowledged his debt to Āperahama, as one of the priests of the Mamari canoe tradition who had helped him in the compilation of his Ancient history of the Māori (1887–90).
In 1859 Āperahama 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 Māori 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 Mārire 'as that name would imply a body well disposed & peaceable.' In 1867 he mediated in a dispute between Ngāti Hauata and Ngāti Kawa on the one side and Te Uri Taniwha on the other over Te Ahuahu pā, near Ōkaihau, leading the defenders out carrying a white flag and the Bible. He successfully negotiated between the opposing hapū 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 Āperahama became disillusioned by the refusal of the government to concede to Māori an effective voice in decision-making. In 1862 he had been appointed an inaugural member of the Māori rūnanga 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 Māori parliamentary seats were created in 1867, Āperahama protested: 'what are these four to do among so many Pākehās; where will their voices be as compared with the Pākehā voices?…It will not do.' He himself had been named by many chiefs as the one they would have liked as the first Northern Māori representative, and, with other Ngāpuhi 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 Āperahama 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 Nākahi cult, and according to oral tradition had taught in the whare wananga developed by Papahurihia at Te Raupō, on Herds Point (Rāwene). Their teachings emphasised peacemaking and unity. The 12 manuscript books of scriptural exegesis by Āperahama, which are held privately at Ōmanaia, probably originated in this period. But in 1869 Āperahama 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 Ngāti Whātua who had formerly been sheltered at Utakura by his relative, Muriwai, offered him sanctuary; subsequently, in February 1873, they gifted him 100 acres at Ōkapakapa and 2,061 acres at Ōtūrei, south of Dargaville, in recognition of his role as prophet and healer. Therefore Āperahama moved from Aoroa to Ōtūrei. He was appointed an assessor for Kaipara in 1873, but earned his living from gum-digging.
It was from here that Āperahama 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 Māori cloak. This had been for Āperahama an ill omen, and he is recorded as making the following prophecy in 1863: ' "Chiefs of Ngāpuhi listen to me. Do not drape the Treaty of Waitangi with the Union Jack of England, but rather with your Māori cloak, which is of this land." When Ngāpuhi did not listen to him, once more the elder spoke: "Ngāpuhi, 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 Āperahama 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 Parāone 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 nā Āperahama Taonui me Maihi Parāone Kawiti in 1885.
As one of the few surviving signatories of the treaty, Āperahama 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 Pākehā and Māori. A monument bearing the Māori text of the treaty was to be covered with a Māori 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 Māori parliament, which were to be presented at the meeting. The governor did not attend the opening. The Māori parliament movement failed to gain any European sympathy. Āperahama was also a principal supporter of Hirini Taiwhanga's petition for a Māori 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 Āperahama's influence was very considerable it 'would have been much more had he not been a little too crazy'.
Āperahama Taonui died at Ōtūrei. 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 Āperahama'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 Ōmanaia 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.
Āperahama had two, possibly three, wives. He married Ngā Hui on 19 April 1840, and later Kereihi (the daughter of Muriwai), who is buried beside him at Ōtūrei. 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 Ōtūrei. As it is narrated, he came looking for people and at Ōtūrei 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.'
Āperahama Taonui's prophetic visions have remained a part of the history of the north, and have also been adopted by the Rātana movement. His prediction of 1863 is interpreted in that faith as foreseeing the advent of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. Many of the families who followed Āperahama at Ōtūrei became Rātana believers after the First World War. His prophetic sayings were published in Dargaville as Ngā kupu o Āperahama. At Ōmanaia his teachings are more particularly associated with the Nākahi cult, for he is seen as the direct successor to Papahurihia. It is therefore as a prophet that he is remembered, and in the Māori oral traditions he stands alongside Te Kooti and Te Whiti-o-Rongomai.