Conflict over land
The people of the Whanganui River were spared neither the musket-armed invasions of the early 19th century nor the attentions of Ngāti Toa under the leadership of Te Rauparaha. Twice Ngāpuhi swept through the region, once in 1819 under Patuone accompanied by Te Rauparaha and his fighting chief Te Rangihaeata. Pūtiki pā, across the river from today’s city of Whanganui, was attacked. After destroying a number of pā, the invading war party became trapped in the gorges of the upper river. They were defeated by Whanganui forces, led by Te Peehi Tūroa, at Kaiwhakauka, less than a kilometre below the junction of the Retāruke River with the Whanganui.
Another raid from the north reached the Whanganui River in 1821. This time it was the lower river chief Hōri Kīngi Te Ānaua who led the defeat of the invaders at Mangatoa. Te Peehi also ensured that Ngāti Raukawa, who twice attacked the upper river, were defeated.
Then in 1829 Te Rauparaha, returning to a new tribal home on Kapiti Island, again attacked Pūtiki pā with Ngāti Raukawa. This time many of the local chiefs escaped upriver – long known as te kōura putu roa (the crayfish’s lair).
Europeans and the New Zealand Company
The Whanganui tribes’ early contact with Europeans was sporadic, and mainly with whalers and traders, some of whom married into the tribes of the river. Following the signing at Whanganui of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the land for the town of Whanganui was sold to the New Zealand Company in a questionable purchase. The settlers who followed slowly swelled the town, but their presence and demands for more land caused tensions between the lower river Māori and their upriver cousins. This resulted in an attack in 1847 on the now garrisoned town, led by the Ngāti Hāua-te-rangi chief Tōpine Te Mamaku and Te Peehi Tūroa; there was little bloodshed.
Same name, different spelling
The name of the Whanganui River means ‘the great harbour’ – probably in reference to its broad tidal lower reaches. The town of Whanganui, at the river’s mouth, was for many years called Wanganui – the version of the name that European settlers heard.
The New Zealand wars
During the New Zealand wars in 1864, upper river tribes came downriver with the intention of taking the town of Whanganui. They were followers of Pai Mārire (Hauhau), a religious movement combining Christian and traditional Māori beliefs, which strongly opposed Europeans taking the land. At an agreed time and place, they attacked their cousins who were defending their mana on the lower river at Moutoa, a small island downriver from Rānana. This battle became a tribal tragedy, with the deaths of perhaps 50 Hauhau and 16 defenders, including one European. It still casts a long shadow on the river.
The battle of Moutoa compounded the divisions between the supporters of the Māori King Tāwhiao, mostly on the upper river, and the group known as kūpapa, who actively supported the Crown, on the lower river. These divisions continued through the wars of the 1860s, with kūpapa leader Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui (Major Kemp) distinguishing himself in a number of battles.
It was the external threat of the East Coast guerrilla leader Te Kooti’s incursion into the upper river in 1869 that once again brought together the woven strands of the river tribes. The combined forces of Te Keepa and Tōpia Tūroa – 500 men in a 65-canoe flotilla – drove up the river in pursuit of Te Kooti, but he eluded them.