Story: Kīngitanga – the Māori King movement

Page 1. Origins of the Kīngitanga

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The Kīngitanga or Māori King movement, which originated in 1858 with the crowning of Kīngi Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, is one of the most enduring of the Māori institutions that emerged in colonial times, and one of the longest-running political organisations in New Zealand. Kīngi Tūheitia is the current and seventh sovereign.

The idea of a king

There was no single Māori sovereign when Europeans first came to New Zealand. Instead, hapū Māori  functioned independently under the leadership of their own rangatira. However, by the 1850s Māori were faced with increasing numbers of British settlers, political marginalisation and growing demand from the Crown to purchase their lands. Māori were divided between those who were prepared to sell and those who were not. 

Some Māori attributed the power of the British to their one sovereign. This idea was particularly common among men who had travelled to England and had seen British institutions, industry and law and order in operation, such as Piri Kawau (Te Āti Awa), who met Queen Victoria in 1843, and Tāmihana Te Rauparaha (Ngāti Toa), who met her in 1852. They believed that a pan-tribal movement, unifying the Māori people under one sovereign equal to the Queen of England, could bring an end to intertribal conflict, keep Māori land in Māori hands and provide a separate governing body for Māori.

Both Kawau and Tāmihana initially thought they might become king. However, Kawau had admitted to Queen Victoria that Pōtatau Te Wherowhero of Waikato was the most powerful rangatira in New Zealand, while Tāmihana was reminded by his father, the famous rangatira Te Rauparaha, that his people had been forced to leave Kāwhia by the powerful Waikato.

Right of refusal

Te Kani a Takirau from the East Coast famously refused the kingship, saying:

Ko taku maunga ko Hikurangi,
He maunga tū tonu
Ehara i te maunga haere.
Ko tōku Kīngitanga
Nō tua whakarere,
Nō aku tīpuna o te Pō!

My mountain is Hikurangi,
It is an enduring mountain,
It is not a mountain that travels.
My kingship is from time immemorial,
Handed down from my ancestors.1

The search for a king

From 1853 Mātene Te Whiwhi of Ngāti Raukawa, assisted by Tāmihana Te Rauparaha, travelled around the central North Island promoting the idea of a Māori king for the Māori people. Te Whiwhi looked to the ariki, first approaching Tōpia Tūroa, paramount rangatira of Whanganui. Tūroa replied, ‘I must decline. My mountain is Matemate-a-onga. My sea is Whanganui, the fish in it are the toitoi and white-bait.’2

Tūroa suggested Iwikau Te Heuheu, the paramount rangatira of Ngāti Tūwharetoa of the Taupō region. Te Heuheu responded, ‘Tongariro is the mountain, Taupō is the sea and Te Heuheu is the man. He stands in the middle of the Island and toward him flow the rivers from all sides. Look, the fish of those waters are kōkopu, kōura and kōaro.’3 Te Heuheu in turn suggested Te Amohau of Te Arawa, who also declined, saying, ‘My mountain is Ngongotahā, Rotorua is the sea, and the fish in it are kōura, kākahi and īnanga.’4 Te Amohau suggested Te Hāpuku of Ngāti Kahungunu, who in turn suggested Te Kani a Takirau of Te Aitanga a Hauiti and Ngāti Porou. He replied, ‘Certainly I am of the lines of your noble ancestors, but I am situated on one side of the Island. Furthermore my mountain Hikurangi is not one that easily moves from its own resting place.’5

Like true rangatira, each affirmed that they were primarily iwi leaders and were not well positioned to take on the burden of kingship, and suggested others for the honour. Karauria of Ngāti Kahungunu, Tūpaea of Ngāi Te Rangi and Pāora Kīngi of Mataatua were also approached before the request was sent back to Te Heuheu.

  1. Quoted in Steven Oliver, ‘Te Kani a Takirau – haurongo.’ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 30 August 2023). Back
  2. Quoted in Maharaia Winiata, Centennial celebration, 2nd May, 1858–1958: founding of the Maori King Movement, Turangawaewae Marae, Ngaruawahia. Ngāruawāhia: King Korokī, 1958, no page number. Back
  3. Centennial celebration, no page number. Back
  4. Centennial celebration, no page number. Back
  5. Centennial celebration, no page number. Back
How to cite this page:

Rahui Papa and Paul Meredith, 'Kīngitanga – the Māori King movement - Origins of the Kīngitanga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Rahui Papa and Paul Meredith, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 2 Mar 2023