European traders, whalers and other arrivals brought with them diseases to which Māori had no immunity. As a result disease spread rapidly, sometimes wiping out whole villages. One plague, known as Te Rewharewha (coughing death), killed hundreds in a matter of weeks. Many old villages were abandoned, the dead left unburied for fear of contagion. These sites remain tapu (restricted) and some, such as at Weriweri, are still used as cemeteries.
Te Arawa also faced enemy tribes, such as Ngāpuhi, armed with muskets obtained from Europeans. Te Arawa retreated to Mokoia with all the district’s canoes in tow, confident that they were safe from the muskets of the Ngāpuhi leader Hongi Hika. But their coastal enemies, Ngāi Te Rangi, assisted Ngāpuhi in portaging canoes from the headwaters of the Pongakawa across to Lake Rotoehu. The tables were turned and Te Arawa were taken by surprise. The resulting massacre of 1823 left all Te Arawa tribes demoralised by their inability to counter firearms. They even contemplated migrating south with Ngāti Toa to seek the protection of Te Rauparaha’s muskets on Kāpiti Island.
The impact of disease and musket raids motivated Te Arawa to reunify. The arrival in 1829 of the first European in the region, Captain Phillip Tapsell, was timely. Tapsell traded guns, which gave the tribe a new sense of security. Christian missionaries also served their purpose, introducing Western medicine, technology, education and farming methods. The integration of Christian beliefs with old world values saw a new generation of Te Arawa leaders, politically savvy in both the Māori and Pākehā worlds, bringing new wealth to the tribe. After the battle of Te Tūmū in 1836, realising the tragic consequence of European diseases and weapons, the groups banded together as Ngā Pūmanawa e Waru (the ‘eight beating hearts’ of the children of the ancestor Rangitihi). They vowed never to fight among themselves again.
By the 1860s Te Arawa were trading with markets in Auckland and Sydney. Numerous flour mills and a flax mill, orchards, farms, and fishing and sailing fleets, combined with a family-based work ethic, brought commercial success.
These enterprises stopped with the wars of the 1860s and 1870s. Te Arawa took up arms to defend their customary lands, waterways and resources. Under the leadership of Tohi Te Ururangi and Te Pōkiha at the battle of Te Kaokaoroa, Te Arawa demonstrated their allegiance to the Crown. They also extinguished any possibility that their traditional enemies (Ngāi Te Rangi and Ngāti Awa) would try to re-assert any authority from Wairaki to Matatā.
In 1840 Te Arawa opposed the Treaty of Waitangi. They were confident their prestige and authority over lands, people, fisheries and resources did not require any additional protection. But by the 1850s colonisation was affecting their way of life. Anticipating a new wave of land-hungry settlers, Te Arawa attended the 1860 Kohimarama conference, where they aligned themselves with the Crown in exchange for protection under the treaty. Te Arawa took up arms against Waikato and East Coast tribes who were fighting the government, and in 1870–72 fought against the guerrilla leader Te Kooti.
Te Arawa felt that their alliance with the Crown placed them in a strong position compared to tribes who rebelled against it. But the introduction of land surveying and the Native Land Court system affected all tribes. By the 1880s Te Arawa became divided at the extended family level. The court pitted brother against brother, forcing families to fight for individual rights to ancestral estates. Even when undivided shares in lands were awarded, these slipped away as payment for surveys, court costs, or store credit, or were sold by relatives.