Te Morenga was the principal chief of the Urikapana hapu of the Ngapuhi tribe and had his pa at Tai-a-mai, which lay inland from Kerikeri. Very little is known of his life in pre-missionary times except that he was approaching the zenith of his power when Marsden arrived and ranked him with Hongi Hika and Pomare-nui among the Ngapuhi chiefs. Until about 1823 Te Morenga's attitude was deeply influenced by a feud which arose from the Venus incident in 1806. His niece, Tawaputa, had been abducted by the convict crew and was later killed and eaten by the Ngaiterangi tribe of Tauranga, while his sister suffered a similar fate shortly afterwards at the hands of the Ngati Porou at East Cape. According to Maori custom, and in conformity with his father's deathbed wish, it became Te Morenga's duty to exact utu for these killings. After the incident Te Morenga sent spies disguised as traders into the districts in question and these brought him back information about the women's fate; however, it was to be many years before he could put this to use. In 1807 he is said to have distinguished himself at the battle of Moremonui, and he also took part in the tribal feuds in the years following.
Marsden first met Te Morenga when he arrived in New Zealand in 1814 and the chief soon became his firmest Maori friend. In January 1815, when Marsden visited Te Haupa at Thames, Te Morenga accompanied him and acted as his interpreter. After this he and Te Pehi travelled to Parramatta, N.S.W., in the Active and stayed for some time as Marsden's guests. There the two chiefs became familiar with the “arts and institutions of the pakeha” and paid special attention to European methods of agriculture. Te Morenga later put what he learned on this journey to good use in New Zealand. The chief was deeply impressed by the benefits which might be obtained from European civilisation, but asked the missionaries only to teach these things to chiefs and chiefs' sons – because the lower caste people could not improve their position in any way and their education would be wasted. For some years Te Morenga pressed Marsden “for a man who could preach, teach little children to read and write, administer medicine to them when they were sick, and show them how to cultivate their land”. Accordingly, in 1820, Marsden sent James Shepherd to New Zealand to live with the Urikapana hapu at Tai-a-mai.
In the meantime Te Morenga had found time to prosecute his feud against the Ngaiterangi and Ngati Porou. In January 1818 he sailed for the East Cape district with 400 men. They landed at Motiti Island, but found that Te Waru, his principal enemy, was absent on the mainland. He then proceeded to East Cape, where he under-took a long campaign against the Ngati Porou. The party returned to the Bay of Islands some time in November 1818. In January 1820 Te Morenga led a further expedition against Te Waru. There was a brief skirmish near Tauranga in which the Ngapuhi killed two chiefs and put their enemies to flight. Te Morenga was satisfied that sufficient utu had been obtained, but his allies insisted that the enemy must be pursued. Te Waru's forces counter-attacked and there was a fierce engagement on the beach, where 400 of his men were killed. After this reverse Te Waru made peace. The victors remained on the field for three days longer – feasting on those slain – and then returned to the Bay of Islands with all Te Waru's canoes, 200 prisoners of war, and several chiefs' heads. On 22 July 1820, just three months after this campaign, Te Morenga accompanied Marsden to Tauranga where the latter acted as intermediary in making a more lasting peace between the two tribes. During this visit to New Zealand Marsden spent much of his time journeying about to make peace between various warring chiefs and, in all of this, Te Morenga acted as his companion, assistant, and interpreter.
Although Te Morenga and Hongi were exceedingly jealous of each other, and relations between them were seldom cordial, their tribal ties proved stronger than their differences. Late in 1820 Te Morenga attacked Mauinaina pa, but was repulsed. In the following year he accompanied Hongi's party, which reduced it. He was also present at the siege of Te Totara during the same campaign and was one of the party who negotiated the treacherous peace with its defenders. Te Morenga supported Hongi on his Rotorua expedition and, in the next year, joined Pomarenui on his second invasion of the Urewera. He did not accompany Pomare to Ruatahuna, but led a smaller raiding party up the Waiotehe and Waioeka Rivers instead. About this time a further dispute with Hongi, at the Bay of Islands, led to a fracas between their respective hapus in the streets of the mission settlement. Nevertheless, the two chiefs were able to compose their differences sufficiently for Te Morenga to take part in the campaign against the Ngati Whatua, which in 1825 culminated in the battle at Te Ika-a-ranga-nui.
After this battle Te Morenga appears to have held aloof from tribal quarrels for the next few years and confined his activities to promoting agriculture. In 1830 he was involved in the “Girls' War” because two of the girls were relatives of his and he was more or less bound to defend their “honour”. He signed the petition to William IV in 1831 begging for British protection. Apparently he joined Titore's expedition to attack Maungatapu pa, near Tauranga, in January 1833. By this time, however, his health was failing. Henry Williams, who visited him many times in the following year, reported the growing seriousness of his malady. On 3 December 1834 Te Morenga visited Waitangi for a change of air and Williams mentions that he “appeared obstinately intent on going to Waima”. This is the last reference in Williams's Journal to Te Morenga and, presumably, the chief died a few days afterwards.
Marsden once wrote, “Te Morenga's distinction is outstanding even among his great contemporaries”. S. Percy Smith characterised him as probably the greatest Maori chief in the early part of the nineteenth century. J. R. Elder described him as Marsden's “fidus Achates, his companion in many journeys”, and added that it was from Te Morenga's lips “he learned much that he wrote with regard to Maori traditions and customs and to whom, therefore, are due in great measure the comments of Marsden upon Ethnological matters that give his Journals their unique value”.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Marsden, Letters and Journals, Elder, J. R. (ed.) (1932)
- The Early Journals of Henry Williams, 1826–40, Rogers, L. M. (1961)
- Tuhoe, Best, E. (1925).