A new biography of Titokowaru, Riwha appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
A chief of Ngati Ruahine tribe of South Taranaki, Titokowaru was prominent as a prophet and priest. He was responsible for organising a campaign against Government forces by gathering picked fighting men around him from neighbouring tribes. A most skilful warrior, he was second only to Te Kooti in guerilla warfare and trained his men in bush fighting, surprise attacks on small military posts, ambushing, and enticing untrained white troops into unfamiliar terrain. He revived cannibalism and boasted in a letter: “I have begun to eat the flesh of the white man, I have eaten him like the flesh of the cow, cooked in a pot”. Titokowaru's boast was metaphorical, for he himself never ate human flesh as it impaired his personal sanctity, but in his “great, gruff voice” he encouraged his warriors to do so. The younger men, however, were “filled with wonder and fear” seeing elders eating human flesh. This custom, together with cutting out the heart of the first enemy slain in battle, was meant to make the white troops afraid, and it undoubtedly gave added ferocity to the campaign.
Titokowaru's pa was Te Ngutu o te Manu, deep in the rata forest near Hawera. In his large assembly hall and temple he selected his war party by curious methods of divination, using his sacred staff. During the attack on his pa in 1868, when Von Tempsky was killed, Titokowaru walked up and down the clearing inside the stockade, disregarding bullets, and, spear in hand, recited prayers to ancient Maori gods. After the battle–a victory–he stood with his hands resting on his spear and in a croaking voice ordered the 20 white bodies to be burned. Then he farewelled Von Tempsky's corpse before lighting the funeral pyre.
His most famous victories were at Te Ngutu o te Manu and Moturoa where Government forces were heavily defeated. Maoris attribute his decline of power to an illicit liaison with another chief's wife at Tauranga-ika pa. This circumstance was fatal to his own prestige and sanctity so that he was no longer “the invincible war priest and war captain of his people”. After stands at Otautu and Whakamara, Titokowaru was harried by Wanganui Maoris until he finally abandoned the district, with his power broken, never to fight again. He settled at Kawau pa in the upper Waitara Valley until 1875, and died in 1888.
Remembered for his outstanding military leadership, he was a master tactician in guerilla warfare; as an engineer he modified the fortified pa and made it virtually indestructible, even to artillery and mortar fire. In later years he came under the influence of Te Whiti and led the ploughing parties at Parihaka.
by John Bruce Palmer, B.A., Curator, Fiji Museum, Suva.