The origins of Manuel José are clouded in mystery. It is not known for certain where he came from, nor when he arrived in New Zealand. He arrived in the Waiapu area on the East Coast, probably in the late 1830s, and became known to Māori as Manuera, and to Europeans as Manuel José (or Josef), Emmanuel, or 'The Spaniard'. It is likely that Manuel and José were his given names. His surname is unknown, and he may have suppressed it because, as one tradition suggests, he had deserted from an American whaling ship. Tradition among his descendants states that he was born in Segovia, Spain, and came to New Zealand via Peru. He is recalled as a tall, strong man with fair skin, green eyes, and long, reddish hair. His voice was loud and his gestures animated.
By the 1850s Manuel José was regarded by Māori and European alike as the leading trader in Ngāti Porou territory. In 1861 he established a trading-post at Te Awanui, between Waipiro Bay and the mouth of the Waiapu River. He owned five horses and held half an acre of Ngāti Porou land 'by sufferance', paying rent of £12 a year. An olive tree, which still stands, marks the site of his store. In 1873 he established a further trading-post at Tīkapa, on the eastern bank of the Waiapu River, near Waiomatatini. He has been credited with the introduction to Waiapu of the plough, and also of the gorse bush.
Manuel José found greater acceptance among Māori than Europeans. He lived among the people of his principal wife, Tapita Te Here-kaipuke. Her father, Te Kaitu, was an adherent of Pai Mārire. In July 1865 Samuel Deighton, the resident magistrate for Wairoa, was in camp at Te Hātepe pā, near Rangitukia, in preparation for the attack on Hauhau forces at Pākairomiromi. He suspected Manuel of spying, and reported in a letter to Donald McLean that one of Manuel's sons had been arrested on suspicion. Deighton stated his intention of arresting and even shooting Manuel, should his rebel sympathies be proved. Nevertheless, Manuel's store at Te Awanui was plundered by Hauhau later in July.
Manuel José had five wives, all from Ngāti Porou: Tapita Te Here-kaipuke, Kataraina Te Auwhi (a sister of Te Here-kaipuke), Maraea (of Te Whānau-a-Takimoana), Mihi Taheke (of Te Whānau-a-Hinepare) and Uruhana (who was also called Maraea Ruihi, of Te Whānau-a-Hinekehu). Manuel and Tapita Te Here-kaipuke had five children, one of whom died in infancy. Each of his four other wives bore one child. Their descendants now number several thousand, and are known as the Paniora (Spaniards) of Ngāti Porou. Descendants in the male line have taken Manuel as their surname. The descendants of Mihi Taheke's son, Hori Waikari, take the name Waikari, which was given by Ngāti Porou leader Te Kani-ā-Takirau to commemorate the death of his own son, Te Waikari-ā-Takirau.
Manuel José died in retirement at Tīkapa; the date is unknown. A reunion of the descendants of Manuel José and his wives was held at Rahui marae at Tikitiki, across the Waiapu River from Waiomatatini, over the New Year in 1981. A monument was erected at his burial place, Taumata, at Tīkapa, overlooking the Waiapu River.