TE KOOTI, Rikirangi Te Turuki
Maori guerilla leader and founder of the Ringatu Church.
A new biography of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Te Kooti Rikirangi was born about 1830 near Gisborne. He was a member of the Ngati Maru hapu of the Rongowhakaata subtribe of Ngati Porou, his father being Hone Rangipatahi, and his mother, Turakau. While he was not a chief by birth, Rikirangi's genealogy was illustrious by Maori standards. He was descended from Toi as well as from Kiwa, Pawa, and Toroa – the captains, respectively, of the Takitimu, Horouta, and Mataatua canoes. He was related to Ropata Wahawaha, and to Heni Mataroa, the wife of Sir James Carroll. Rikirangi was educated at the Waerenga-a-hika Mission School, near Gisborne. For a time he was a horse dealer at Gisborne. Later he sailed as supercargo on the native schooner Henry, which traded between Gisborne and Auckland. At another time he commanded a small native schooner called Rua-whetuki and traded along the coast. He subsequently claimed that he was driven out of the coastal trade by a Captain Read, then one of the principal businessmen in Gisborne, who was envious of his rival's success.
Rikirangi was present, as a Pakeha supporter, at the siege of Waerenga-a-hika pa on 19 November 1865. After this engagement he was accused of supplying the Hauhau rebels with ammunition and also of acting as their spy and advisor. His own explanation, which he gave to Sir George Grey in 1879, was that he had visited the rebel camp to persuade some of his relatives to surrender. Neither of these charges was ever proved and Rikirangi was never brought to trial. As several influential Gisborne people, including one of the local chiefs, thought Rikirangi troublesome, they had him re-arrested in March 1866 and shipped, with a group of Hauhau prisoners, to the Chatham Islands, where they were to be held pending settlement of the East Coast disturbances. While in the Napier gaol awaiting a ship to take them to the Chathams, he made several unsuccessful requests to Sir Donald McLean to be brought to trial. It is said that he was so persistent in this desire to be tried in Court that his fellow prisoners named him “Te Kooti” (pronounced “Korti”).
The prisoners went to the Chathams on the understanding that their exile would not last for more than three years. Towards the end of this period the Government repatriated several chiefs and their departure enabled Te Kooti to gain an ascendancy among those left. He contracted tuberculosis, but recovered – apparently by a miracle. He also studied the Old Testament and from it drew the tenets for his Ringatu faith. In December 1867 he announced that he had received a Divine Revelation and that he had been commanded to found a church. With this revelation and with the aid of certain sleight-of-hand tricks, Te Kooti established himself as the prisoner's leader. Because he was convinced that the Government had no intention of releasing them, Te Kooti planned to escape. On 4 July 1868 the prisoners captured the Rifleman in a bloodless coup and forced its crew to carry them to New Zealand.
On 10 July they were landed at Whareongaonga, a few miles south of Poverty Bay. As soon as news of their landing reached Gisborne, Major Biggs, commandant of the Poverty Bay district, sent a small party to request their surrender. Te Kooti refused and announced his intention of leading his party to the Waikato. A small force sent to arrest the prisoners was beaten off and, on 8 August, a larger force, commanded by Colonel Whitmore, fought a fierce but unsuccessful action with Te Kooti's rearguard in the Ruakituri Gorge. After each of the first two engagements Te Kooti wrote to the Government asking to be left alone, but after the third he intimated that, as the Government desired war, he would begin it in November. Te Kooti gathered his forces at Puketapu pa and, because he was embittered by his earlier treatment and annoyed by the Government's efforts to hunt him down, he decided to show the authorities that he was not to be trifled with. Accordingly, in the early hours of 10 November 1868 he descended upon Matawhero, where his men killed 33 Europeans and 37 friendly Maoris. Government forces pursued him to Makaretu, where, after a fierce battle, Te Kooti entrenched himself on Ngatapa hill. Whitmore attacked him there on 31 December 1869 and, after a three-day siege, Te Kooti escaped into the Urewera bush with a remnant of his force. On this occasion Ropata, whose antipathy towards his adversary amounted to a personal vendetta, had 120 Ngatapa prisoners summarily executed. In March 1869 Te Kooti raided the Whakatane district and, on 10 April, attacked Mohaka (near Wairoa). In May Whitmore led a strong force into Ruatahuna, but Te Kooti escaped and on 7 June 1869 defeated a volunteer force at Opepe near Taupo. He then carried on a remarkable campaign around Lake Taupo, which concluded in October 1869 when a large Government force captured Te Porere pa. Te Kooti escaped into the King Country. He visited Matamata in January 1870, where J. C. Firth, a prominent settler in the district, interviewed him and urged him to surrender. Te Kooti refused, saying, “If they let me alone I will live quietly; if not I will fight”.
After Te Porere, Te Kooti was forced on the defensive and his battles often became running fights with his pursuers. There was such an engagement at Tapapa (24 January 1870), and after this he planned a raid on Rotorua. This was prevented by Captain Gilbert Mair, and Te Kooti retreated into the Urewera country. For the next two years he eluded his pursuers and, from bases near Matawai and in the Te Wera district, he continued to launch lightning attacks against the East Coast tribes. In 1871 the Ngati Porou, under Ropata, systematically searched the Te Wera district, but Te Kooti escaped into the forests around Lake Waikaremoana. He was always closely pursued, and in 1872, after a series of bush engagements with Government troops, he reached the King Country, where the pursuit was abandoned.
Te Kooti settled at Tokangamutu, near Te Kuiti, where he lived under Tawhiao's protection and where he was joined by members of his band. He devoted the remainder of his life to propagating the Ringatu faith. In 1878 he attended the great meeting at Te Kopua when Sir George Grey met Tawhiao. In May 1879, when the proposal to issue a general amnesty to those involved in the Maori Wars was being considered, Te Kooti's case caused the Government serious disquiet. Whitmore, then Colonial Secretary, advised Grey “that Te Kooti must be considered a political offender. It is true he … caused these crimes to be committed but he did so in fair war and did not contravene Maori custom in war”. The issue of the amnesty was delayed until 1883, by which time Bryce, the new Native Minister, had interviewed Te Kooti and secured his promise not to take up arms again.
In 1887 Te Kooti visited the Bay of Plenty. He planned to visit Gisborne in 1889, but was dissuaded by Sir H. A. Atkinson after the settlers, reinforced by Ropata and his Ngati Porou, stood to arms in protest. He later visited Wairoa and Napier. In 1891 the Government granted him land at Ohiwa in the Bay of Plenty district and he died there on 17 April 1893.
Te Kooti was about 5 ft 9 in. in height, possessed regular aquiline features, and was not tattooed. He sported a small pointed beard. Europeans who met him often professed to be shocked when they realised that the mild-mannered man before them had planned the deeds associated with his name. The attack on Matawhero, intended partly for a traditional Maori utu (revenge for past wrongs) and partly to show the Government that he was not to be trifled with, transformed Te Kooti into a legend. His guerilla campaigns were carefully planned and ruthlessly executed. Time and again he proved that he was more than a match for the best colonial forces. As a warrior Te Kooti was not as bloodthirsty as Titokowaru, for he refused to allow his people to indulge in cannibalism or to practise the traditional mutilations of their dead enemies. Modern research tends to support Te Kooti's assertion that his wars arose out of his claim for justice.
by Walter Hugh Ross, Journalist, Taupo and Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- MA. 23/8–9 MSS, National Archives
- The New Zealand Wars, Cowan, J. (1955–56)
- Early Days of Poverty Bay, Porter, T. W. R. (1923).