The Kīngitanga or Māori King movement is one of the most enduring Māori institutions that emerged in colonial times, and one of the longest-running political institutions in New Zealand. Originating in 1858, it continued into the 2000s. The king in 2012, Kīngi Tūheitia, was the seventh successive sovereign since the inception of the Kīngitanga.
There was no single Māori sovereign when Europeans first came to New Zealand. Instead, Māori tribes functioned independently under the leadership of their own chiefs. 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 chief in New Zealand, while Tāmihana was reminded by his father, the famous chief Te Rauparaha, that his people had been forced to leave Kāwhia by the powerful Waikato.
Te Kani-ā-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!1
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.
From 1853 Mātene Te Whiwhi of Ngāti Raukawa, assisted by Tāmihana Te Rauparaha, travelled around the central North Island to promote the idea of a Māori king for the Māori people. Te Whiwhi looked to the ariki or aristocracy, first approaching Tōpia Tūroa, paramount chief 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 chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa of the Taupō region. Te Heuheu responded, ‘Tongariro is the mountain, Taupo 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 kokopu, koura and koaro.’3 Te Heuheu in turn suggested Te Amohau of Te Arawa, who also declined, saying, ‘My mountain is Ngongotaha, Rotorua is the sea, and the fish in it are koura, kakahi and inanga.’4 Te Amohau suggested Te Hāpuku of Ngāti Kahungunu, who in turn suggested Te Kani-ā-Takirau of 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, these chiefs acknowledged that they were primarily tribal leaders and were not well positioned to take on the burden of a 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.
In 1856 Iwikau Te Heuheu of Tūwharetoa convened a famous meeting known as Hīnana ki uta, Hīnana ki tai (search the land, search the sea) at Pūkawa, on the western shores of Lake Taupō. All the major tribes were represented. Here Te Heuheu proposed the famed Waikato chief Pōtatau Te Wherowhero for the kingship.
In 1841 Governor William Hobson had reported to London that Pōtatau was the most powerful chief in New Zealand. Mātene Te Whiwhi of Ngāti Raukawa had canvassed the genealogical experts Te Hūkiki Te Ahukaramū and Te Whīoi of Ngāti Raukawa, who believed that Pōtatau was the most suitable candidate. He had extensive genealogical connections with many iwi and his kingship could be well supported by the fertile lands and resources of the then wealthy Waikato. The wealth of Pōtatau was important, as his people would host many gatherings.
Like the others, Pōtatau stubbornly refused the kingship. Several meetings were held to discuss the proposal, including an 1857 meeting known as Te Puna o te Roimata (the wellspring of tears) at Haurua among Ngāti Maniapoto. Here Ngāti Maniapoto leader Tanirau announced his tribe’s decision to support Pōtatau as king. Pōtatau replied, ‘E Ta, kua tō te rā’ (o sir, the sun is about to set), meaning that he had not much longer to live. Tanirau replied, ‘E tō ana i te ahiahi, e ara ana i te ata, e tū koe he Kīngi’ (it sets in the evening to rise again in the morning: thou art raised up a king). He was suggesting that on Pōtatau’s passing his son, Tāwhiao, could carry on the kingship, which might then become hereditary. Pōtatau replied, ‘E pai ana’(it is good).1 With this he accepted the kingship, and Waikato the role of kaitiaki (guardians) of the Kīngitanga.
In 1858 Pōtatau was declared the king at Ngāruawāhia. Iwikau Te Heuheu spoke: ‘Potatau, this day I create you King of the Maori people. You and Queen Victoria shall be bound together to be one (paiheretia kia kotahi). The religion of Christ shall be the mantle of your protection; the law shall be the whariki mat for your feet, for ever and ever onward (ake, ake tonu atu).’2
At another gathering at Rangiaowhia in 1858, Te Tāpihana of Ngāti Hikairo asked the people what formal title should be given to Pōtatau. From the crowd came the traditional Māori suggestions, an ariki tauaroa (chief of chiefs), a toihau (supreme chief), a kahutatara (paramount chief), until finally ‘king’ was proposed by Hawke’s Bay chief Te Moananui. The people agreed.
The following year Pōtatau was confirmed as king at Ngāruawāhia and was anointed by Wiremu Tāmihana Tarapīpīpī Te Waharoa (known as the kingmaker), who held a bible over Pōtatau’s head in the whakawahinga ceremony.
In his short time as king, Pōtatau was based at Ngāruawāhia, where he established his great council, Te Rūnanga o Ngāruawāhia, to guide his kingship. He died on about 25 June 1860 at his home in Ngāruawāhia.
King Pōtatau was succeeded by his son, Tāwhiao, who was proclaimed king on 5 July 1860 at Ngāruawāhia. Wiremu Tāmihana Tarapīpīpī Te Waharoa anointed him in the whakawahinga ceremony, using the same bible that he had used for Pōtatau’s investiture.
The first years of Tāwhiao’s reign were dominated by war. Governor Thomas Gore Browne demanded Tāwhiao submit 'without reserve' to Queen Victoria.1
Gore Browne’s successor, Sir George Grey, was also not prepared to accept dual sovereigns in New Zealand. On a visit to Ngāruawāhia Grey famously declared that ‘I shall not fight against him with the sword, but I shall dig round him till he falls of his own accord.’2 Grey spent little time testing this isolating policy. He quickly authorised his military to cross the Mangatāwhiri Stream (which Tāwhiao had established as an aukati or boundary) and invade the Waikato in July 1863.
The Waikato war ensued, with major battles leading to an ultimate defeat for Waikato. Tāwhiao and his fellow ‘Kingites’ were forced to retreat across the Pūniu River into Te Nehenehenui (the great forest), to their neighbouring Ngāti Maniapoto relatives.
Tāwhiao and his followers were declared rebels and some 1.2 million acres (almost 500,000 hectares) of their fertile lands were confiscated. The return of these confiscated lands became a central concern for Tāwhiao and subsequent Waikato leaders. Their catchcry was ‘I riro whenua atu, me hoki whenua mai’3 (as land was taken then land should be given back).
Tāwhiao and Ngāti Maniapoto leaders established an aukati (boundary) along the confiscation line at the Pūniu River, forbidding European intrusion. The territory beyond the aukati subsequently became known as the King Country.
From his exile, a more pacifist Tāwhiao declared that killing must cease. However, he also argued against land surveys, land sales, courts, gold mining, telegraphs, schools, and the Pākehā justice system. Suspicious of the Pākehā, Tāwhiao stated in 1869 that Māori and Pākehā should remain separate. However, in 1881, after a number of years of negotiations with the government, Tāwhiao and his followers symbolically laid down their weapons before the resident magistrate at Alexandra (Pirongia) and returned to the Waikato.
Tāwhiao did not renounce his efforts to have Waikato’s confiscated lands returned. In 1884 he travelled to England with several companions to seek redress from Queen Victoria. Tāwhiao’s tattooed face caused heads to turn in London, but he and his Māori embassy were declined an audience with the queen. He was informed by the colonial secretary that confiscations were a domestic matter under the jurisdiction of the New Zealand government.
On his return, Tāwhiao instituted the poukai – annual visits to marae, principally in the Waikato, to comfort the widowed, bereaved and impoverished. The first poukai was at Whatiwhatihoe in 1885, and this tradition has continued into the 2000s, where almost 30 marae hold poukai and are visited by the sovereign.
Tāwhiao continued his quest for mana motuhake (Māori political independence), setting up the Kauhanganui, a parliament, in 1892. It had a council of 12 tribal representatives (the Tekau-mā-rua), as well as ministers. Tupu Taingākawa, the second son of Wiremu Tāmihana (and kingmaker at the time), was the tumuaki (premier). Tāwhiao was offered, and accepted, a government pension. There was much iwi concern about the implication that he had given up his independence, and the pension was paid back, with interest.
As Pōtatau was nearing death he gave Tāwhiao and his people some advice. ‘I muri, kia mau ki te whakapono, kia mau ki te aroha, ki te ture. Hei aha te aha, hei aha te aha.’4 (After I am gone, hold fast to faith; hold fast to love; hold fast to law. Nothing else matters now – nothing.)
Tāwhiao is famous for his many tongi (prophetic sayings). For example, with the issue of Waikato’s confiscated lands unresolved, and faced with poverty, Tāwhiao spoke of rebuilding using the less well-known, more humble trees:
I will build my house
Its ridge pole will be made of hīnau
Its posts will be made of māhoe (whiteywood) and patatē (seven-finger).
Tāwhiao’s sayings have guided the Kīngitanga over many years.
King Tāwhiao died on 26 August 1894 at Pārāwera. He was buried on Taupiri mountain, the sacred burial ground of the Waikato, where King Pōtatau was to be reinterred in 1903. Some 3,000 Māori from all parts of the country attended Tāwhiao’s tangihanga.
In the days leading up to his death, Tāwhiao, the second Māori king, made known his choice of successor with these words:
Papa te whaitiri, ka puta Uenuku, ka puta Matariki. Ko Mahuta te kingi!
The thunder crashes, Uenuku appears, Matariki appears. Mahuta is the king!1
Tāwhiao’s son, Mahuta, was anointed as the third Māori king in the whakawahinga ceremony by Tupu Taingākawa Te Waharoa, the kingmaker at the time.
Mahuta remained the head of the Kauhanganui (Kīngitanga parliament), which continued to meet. In the 1890s his movement attempted to unite with the Kotahitanga (Māori parliament movement) without success. At one meeting with the Kotahitanga in 1895 the Kīngitanga was invited to sign the Kotahitanga deed of union. Instead, a rival Kīngitanga deed, later known as Mahuta's deed, was set up and signed by 5,000.
In 1898 the Western Māori MP Hēnare Kaihau, who was under Mahuta’s patronage, attempted to introduce to Parliament the Maori Council Constitution Bill, which provided for a form of Māori self-government. This was unsuccessful.
Mahuta increasingly looked to bring Māori and Pākehā closer together. He perceived an opportunity to influence the government when in 1903 he accepted Premier Richard Seddon’s offer of a seat on the Legislative Council and in the ministry. Seddon hoped to win over the King movement and free up more Māori land for purchase. However, in 1906, in a rare speech in Parliament, Mahuta stated that it ‘was not sufficient merely to open up Maori lands for European settlement. Parliament should enable the Maori to work his lands.’2
During his time in the legislature, Mahuta temporarily passed on the kingship to his younger brother, Te Wherowhero Tāwhiao. When Mahuta’s term ended in 1910 he resumed his kingship.
Politician Āpirana Ngata made this assessment of Mahuta in 1900:
The King of Waikato (Mahuta) is a personage who can well bear the honourable title, and in whom the hopes of those within the circumference of the King Movement may well be centred. He has personality, but more he is a thinker. To me he is keen to discern, quick to consider good advice, and diplomatic, perhaps somewhat stunted by the authority of custom prevalent in that Waikato region. I think he has shown initiative in advance of his people, striving to turn to their advantage those things of worth in the European way of life.3
King Mahuta died on 9 November 1912. During his tangihanga, when all the chiefs had assembled, the question of Mahuta’s successor was considered. The leaders chose his son, Te Rata, whose investiture was carried out before Mahuta was buried on Taupiri mountain.
There was much hope for the new king, Te Rata, but his kingship was hindered by illness – rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease. Te Rata’s major activity was the study of tribal traditions and whakapapa. During his kingship, his cousin Te Puea Hērangi exerted a strong influence on and practical leadership within the Kīngitanga.
During a visit to London in 1914, King Te Rata and his companions witnessed all the sights, from the underground to Piccadilly Circus to the World Lawn Tennis Championship (Wimbledon), as well as the arrest of Emily Pankhurst, the leader of the British women’s suffrage movement, outside of Buckingham Palace. Te Rata and his travelling companions were at Westminster to witness the third reading of the Home Rule Bill for Northern Ireland – which may have given them hope that the King movement might also one day achieve a degree of autonomy.
One of Te Rata’s closest confidantes, Tupu Taingākawa Te Waharoa, had for some years advocated that the Māori king should travel to England to present a petition to the British Crown. Despite opposition from a number of Māori, including politician Āpirana Ngata, in 1914 Te Rata and Taingākawa, accompanied by Mita Karaka and Hōri Tiro Pāora, travelled to London, as King Tāwhiao had some 30 years earlier. On arrival Te Rata recorded his occupation with the British immigration authorities as Māori king, while Taingākawa facetiously wrote ‘settler’.
In London Te Rata, although continuously beset with illness, was fêted by the English aristocracy and gentry and former residents of New Zealand. An audience was eventually granted with King George V and Queen Mary, but Te Rata, whose secretary by then was referring to him as H. H. Te Rata, was under clear instructions not to mention his grievances. Like Tāwhiao before him, Te Rata was advised that these were matters for the New Zealand government to address.
While in London, Te Rata witnessed the outbreak of the First World War. His secretary wrote, ‘Kei te kino rawa atu inaianei te porangirangi o nga pakeha’1 (the English are in an absolute frenzy). Once home, Te Rata and his followers did little to support the war effort. Waikato opposed conscription in 1917, leading to several of Te Rata’s relatives being imprisoned. Representatives of Waikato explained that in 1881 Tāwhiao had forbidden Waikato from taking up guns ever again, saying, ‘Ko te pakanga i runga i tenei motu, kua rite ki te koka harekeke. Ko te tangata whakaara pakanga a muri ake nei, koia tonu hei utu’2 (warfare in this land has ended just like a withered flax bush. For those who wish to promote warfare after this, they in turn shall suffer.) Many Waikato Māori did not want to fight for the land of the English when their own land had not been restored to them.
Te Rata, who had suffered from rheumatism almost continuously over the previous six years, died at Waahi Pā, Huntly, on 1 October 1933. His tangihanga lasted a week, with Te Puea in charge of the arrangements. Again the succession of the kingship was discussed by the visiting chiefs, and again they chose a successor from the kāhui ariki (royal house) of Pōtatau.
Particularly influential in Waikato opposition to participating in the war effort was Te Rata’s cousin, Te Puea Hērangi. She became the most prominent Kīngitanga leader of her time. As Taingākawa’s influence waned, Te Puea increasingly became Te Rata’s mouthpiece. She was determined to rebuild the mana of the Kīngitanga with Ngāruawāhia at its centre, and took guidance from Tāwhiao’s tongi (saying):
Ko Arekahānara tōku haona kaha
Ko Kemureti tōku oko horoi
Ko Ngāruawāhia tōku tūrangawaewae.
Alexandra [present-day Pirongia] will ever be a symbol of my strength of character
Cambridge a symbol of my wash bowl of sorrow
And Ngāruawāhia my footstool.3
Te Puea's opposition to the First World War brought her much personal criticism. The German ancestry of her grandfather, William Searancke (whose family had lived in England for four generations before coming to New Zealand), was thrown at her, and she was called ‘the German woman’. She astutely responded, ‘Is not the King of England of German descent?’4
An accomplished kapa haka performer, Te Puea formed the cultural group Te Pou o Mangatāwhiri. The group toured the country giving concerts to raise funds for the establishment of Tūrangawaewae marae, and in 1929 its celebrated meeting house, Māhinaarangi, was opened. In the 2000s Tūrangwaewae marae remained the centre of the Kīngitanga.
Te Puea worked tirelessly for the Kīngitanga. Eager to rebuild an economic base for the movement, she also enthusiastically embraced Āpirana Ngata's schemes to develop Māori land through government loans. The once isolationist and intransigent Kingites were now some of the exemplars of this government scheme. Te Puea was also a driving force behind the partial settlement of Waikato’s land grievances in 1946, which led to the establishment of the Tainui Māori Trust Board.
The kingship was passed on to the eldest son of Te Rata, Korokī, who reluctantly accepted, and became known as Korokī Te Rata Mahuta Tāwhiao Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, the fourth Māori king. He was crowned on 8 October 1933. Te Puea Hērangi continued her influence, arranging a marriage for him with Te Atairangikaahu, the daughter of her brother, Wanakore Hērangi.
A young King Korokī subsequently endured a public life of official engagements. His first major appearance was at the celebrations held at Waitangi in 1934 to mark Governor-General Lord Bledisloe’s gift of what is now known as the Waitangi Treaty grounds. Korokī led thousands of visitors onto the grounds.
His first recorded public speech was on 18 March 1938 at the opening of Tūrongo meeting house at Tūrangawaewae marae, Ngāruawāhia. At Tūrangawaewae he entertained Allied officers during the Second World War, and other important visitors, including a young Queen Elizabeth in 1953. It is said that he was up much of the night encouraging the people in their work readying the marae for her visit. Queen Elizabeth returned the hospitality by gifting the Chrysler she arrived in to the Māori royal household.
While Korokī attended numerous poukai (annual visits to Kīngitanga marae), tangihanga and other tribal functions, he could also be found working alongside his people in the gardens, or, with his propensity for mechanics, repairing vehicles. He promoted literacy among adults and education for children.
As Korokī got older he was beset by health problems and looked to others such as his wife, adviser and scholar Pei Te Hurinui Jones and Tūrangawaewae marae carver Piri Poutapu to represent him. Under the guidance of Te Puea, Korokī’s daughter Piki also took an increasingly prominent role as a representative of the Kīngitanga. King Korokī died at Ngāruawāhia on 18 May 1966.
King Tāwhiao prophesied, ‘Kei te haere mai te wa, ka puta mai i taku pito ake, he wahine, he urukehu, mana hei whakatutuki i tenei oranga.’1 (The time is coming when from my loins a woman will come of fair complexion. She will pave the way to the fulfilment of this recovery.)
A young Princess Piki was crowned Kuini Te Atairangikaahu before Korokī's burial. She became the first woman to lead the Kīngitanga and the first Māori queen. Tāwhiao’s prophecy had come true. She assumed her mother’s name, Te Atairangikaahu, and quickly endeared herself to her people with wise but gentle leadership. Among Waikato people she was also affectionately known as ‘The Lady’, and assumed the Māori title Te Arikinui.
Te Atairangikaahu’s life of public engagements continued and she welcomed and entertained dignitaries. In 1970 she was made a dame, and she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Waikato University in 1973. She and Sir Edmund Hillary were the first to be inducted into the Order of New Zealand in 1987, and she was made an honorary doctor of laws by Victoria University of Wellington in 1999.
Under Te Atairangikaahu’s leadership and that of her stepbrother, Robert Mahuta, the matter of the raupatu (land confiscations) was finally settled. In 1995 Tainui–Waikato signed a settlement, the Crown compensating the tribe with $170 million, including the return of some land.
When Te Atairangikaahu died on 15 August 2006, she was the longest-serving Māori monarch, having reigned for 40 years. The high regard in which she was held was evident from the many thousands who attended her tangihanga, both Māori and Pākehā, as well as many foreign dignitaries.
During the funeral for Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, Tainui kaumātua Tui Adams asked three times: ‘Ko Tuheitia hei Kingi?’ (should Tūheitia be King?) and three times the people present responded, ‘Ae’ (yes).2 With that Tūheitia was anointed as the seventh Māori monarch. Anaru Tāmihana used the same bible his ancestor Wiremu Tāmihana had placed on Pōtatau’s head in 1859.
In the 2000s the Kīngitanga was an enduring institution. Historic traditions such as the poukai (annual visits by the monarch to marae) and the koroneihana (coronation celebrations) continued. The century-old Kauhanganui (Kīngitanga parliament) continued in a rejuvenated form.
In 2015 Tūheitia’s reign continued, embodying the history and traditions of the Kīngitanga.
Gorst, John Eldon. The Māori king. Auckland: Reed, 2001.
Jones, Pei Te Hurinui. King Pōtatau: an account of the life of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, the first Māori king. Auckland: Polynesian Society; Wellington: Huia, 2010.
King, Michael. Te Puea, a biography. Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.
Kirkwood, Carmen. Tāwhiao: king or prophet. Huntly: MAI Systems, 2000.
Te Kīngitanga: the people of the Māori King movement: essays from the dictionary of New Zealand biography. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Wellington: Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 1996.
Winiata, Maharaia. Centennial celebration, 2nd May, 1858–1958: founding of the Maori King Movement, Turangawaewae Marae, Ngaruawahia. Ngāruawāhia: King Korokī, 1958.
NZHistory’s section on the Kīngitanga.