Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

TE WHEROWHERO, Potatau, or Potatau I

(c. 1800–60).

Paramount chief of the Waikato tribes and first Maori King.

A new biography of Te Wherowhero, Potatau appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Te Wherowhero was born about 1800 and was the son of Te Rauangaanga, who at this time had just become the principal war chief of the Waikato tribes. His mother was Te Parengaope, a high chieftainess of the Ngati Koura. At the time of his son's birth Te Rauangaanga was famous as a fighting chief. In the summer of 1790 he had led combined Waikato and Maniapoto forces against the Ngati Toa chief Pikauterangi whom he defeated at the Battle of Hingakaka (near Ohaupo). This battle was said to have been the greatest ever fought on New Zealand soil. Some 20 years later Te Rauangaanga commanded 1,600 picked Waikato warriors who captured Te Rauparaha's pa at Hikuparea.

Te Wherowhero belonged to the Ngati Mahuta hapu of the Waikato tribe and was a descendant, in the senior chiefly line, from the semi-legendary Hoturoa. His home was at Kaitotehe pa, which was situated on the Waikato River bank opposite to Taupiri.

From 1820 onwards the Waikato tribes suffered in raids launched by the musket-bearing Ngapuhi under their fighting chief Hongi Hika. This caused them to retreat upon tribes living further to the south and led to a further outbreak in the war between the Waikato and Ngati Toa tribes. Te Rauangaanga captured Te Totara pa on Kawhia Harbour in 1819. In the following year Te Wherowhero led a force of 3,000 Waikatos and Maniapotos overland against the Ngati Toa positions on the south side of Kawhia Harbour. This force was augmented by 1,500 warriors who came by sea from Whaingaroa (Raglan) and who captured Ngati Toa's strongpoints on Kawhia. Meanwhile Te Wherowhero's force systematically reduced Ngati Toa's landward defences. Finally the Waikatos besieged Te Arawai pa and, after several days heavy fighting, Ngati Toa survivors – a mere remnant of the tribe and their fighting chief Te Rauparaha – withdrew by sea towards Taranaki.

Te Wherowhero pursued the fleeing Ngati Toa overland to Taranaki and in this way involved himself in war with the Ngati Awa. Although Te Wherowhero was never forced to retreat, his sieges in Taranaki were sometimes unsuccessful and were costly in human life. At Te Motunui he lost several hundred men and after the three months siege of Pukerangiora the defenders retreated, leaving 1,200 dead upon the field. Maori tradition credits Te Wherowhero with killing no less than 180 of these with his own mere. In 1832 he returned to Taranaki at the head of 4,000 warriors and besieged the Ngati Awa on an island just outside New Plymouth. Barrett, Love, and eight whalers fought in the defence, manning four carronades which did deadly execution. Te Wherowhero withdrew after losing 350 of his best warriors against the defenders' casualties of 50. In 1833 he unsuccessfully attacked Te Namu, Matakatea's stronghold near Cape Egmont. During 1834 he forayed to Tangahoe and Waimate (South Taranaki) and began a long siege of Te Namu. By this time the Ngati Awa had also acquired muskets and were able to meet the Waikatos with more advantage. At Te Namu, where Matakatea made a most determined defence, Te Wherowhero was obliged to make peace and so end his campaigns. By this time, too, missionary influence was extending among the Waikatos, and the tribes were more inclined to peace. Te Wherowhero, himself, attended church services regularly, although he never submitted to baptism.

In 1840 Governor Hobson sent emissaries to the Waikato, hoping to obtain the signatures of the leading chiefs to the Treaty of Waitangi. But, in spite of the many blandishments that were offered, neither Te Wherowhero nor the other principal chiefs would sign. Although he refused to cede sovereignty to the British Government, Te Wherowhero was not hostile to the presence of Europeans in his district.

Sir George Grey, who always made it his policy to cultivate influential native chiefs, took great pains to cultivate Te Wherowhero. The Governor built him a cottage at Mangere and for some years the Waikato chief was consulted upon many questions of Maori affairs. In 1848, when Grey was knighted, he appointed Te Wherowhero and Waka Nene to be his squires. When Te Rauparaha was released these same chiefs stood surety for his good behaviour and, later in the year, accompanied the Governor to Kapiti to satisfy themselves that the Ngati Toa chief had indeed been freed. The Government often negotiated with Te Wherowhero at Mangere. In cases of grave offences committed against Europeans by Waikato natives Te Wherowhero was invariably prepared to support authority.

After 1848, when the land question began to press upon the Maoris, Te Wherowhero gradually turned against the Government and in his old age reluctantly accepted the position of Maori “King”. In 1857, at Pukawa, on the south-eastern shores of Taupo, he was “erected” as “King”. He was installed in this office, amid great ceremonies, at Ngaruawahia in April 1858. As events proceeded and as his supporters grew increasingly hostile to the incursions of Europeans, Te Wherowhero inevitably lost the Governor's confidence. He died on 25 June 1860, and was succeeded by his son Matutaera Tawhiao.

Potatau Te Wherowhero stood over 6ft tall and was one of the most famous warriors of his day. He was an eloquent orator and, as high priest of Tainui, was well versed in the traditions of his own race. Gorst records that the name “Te Wherowhero” means “redman” and that the great Waikato chief got this title from being the first among his people to obtain and wear a scarlet blanket. “Potatau”, meaning “he that counts by night”, was given to him at the death of his wife, for whom his love was so great that he sat sleepless for many nights while she lay dying – “counting”, as the Maoris put it, “her last hours”.

by Walter Hugh Ross, Journalist, Taupo.

  • The Maori King, Gorst, J. E. (1959)
  • King Potatau – an Account of the Life of Potatau Te Wherowhero, Jones, P. te H. (1959)
  • History and Traditions of the Maori, Gudgeon (1885)
  • Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century, Smith, S. P. (1910).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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