Story: Ngatai, Wiremu Nera

Page 1 - Biography

Ngatai, Wiremu Nera

fl. 1837–1860

Ngati Ruanui missionary, mediator

This biography was written by Ian Church and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Wiremu Nera (William Naylor) Ngatai introduced Christianity to South Taranaki in the late 1830s. Although probably born in Taranaki, his parents are not known. In the 1820s he was taken by Nga Puhi raiders to Hokianga, where he came under the influence of the Wesleyan Missionary Society missionary Nathaniel Turner. Towards the end of 1837 he was released and returned to Waipapa, near Ohangai on the Tangahoe River. According to the Reverend John Skevington, through Nera's teaching and preaching 'nearly all the tribes' along the South Taranaki coast adopted Christian forms of behaviour 'before a single English Missionary had been near them.' Initially there was considerable opposition to Christianity, but eventually Nera built a church named Mangungu at Maraeroa.

According to the CMS missionary Henry Williams, Nera could not read and like many early mission teachers his understanding of Christianity was rudimentary. He baptised his converts with warm water from an iron pot in a ceremony called Kokiro, which blended Christian with Maori custom. These converts took the message of Christianity to Nga Rauru of Waitotara, to Te Ati Haunui-a-Paparangi of Wanganui, and to Ngati Tuwharetoa of Taupo. At least four of his messengers were martyred, but eventually Nera's frequent visits to Te Ahituatini, a village on the Wanganui River, opposite Putiki Wharanui, led to the conversion of the chief Mare and the building of a chapel at the village. However, the killing of the four Ngati Ruanui Christian messengers was one of the grievances that led to the outbreak of fighting at Te Kuititanga pa, Waikanae, in October 1839. Nera led a war party, armed with muskets and copies of the New Testament, to support Ngati Ruanui. At Rangitikei they met Henry Williams, who condemned their plan and attempted to dissuade them. Nera cited Tamati Waka Nene of Nga Puhi taking his people armed with guns to the Bay of Islands, but nevertheless he agreed to return home.

In June 1840 Nera escorted visiting missionaries, Samuel Ironside, George Buttle and John Aldred, to Tangahoe where 42 converts, who had been meeting in class for 'more than two years', were baptised. The missionaries also visited his chapel at Patea. Nera's position and the cause of Christianity were strengthened in August 1840 in an intertribal engagement. Patoka pa at Waitotara was occupied by Ngati Pehi raiders from Ngati Tuwharetoa, who had swept down the Waitotara River taking many captives. After Nera had led Ngati Ruanui and Nga Rauru in a service prior to battle, they suffered no further casualties and took the pa. As the missionary John Whiteley wrote: 'The results…seem to operate wonderfully upon the minds of the people in favour of the Christian Atua & Pukapuka (God & Book)'.

Nera's work expanded. He conducted the Reverend Charles Creed on a journey through South Taranaki in February 1841. At Nera's pa at Tangahoe Creed preached to 140 'very attentive' people and married 42 couples. He thought the experience of the class members 'encouraging altho' they are only in an insipient [sic] state'. Nera's preparatory work nevertheless opened the way to European missionaries. In April 1842 Ngati Ruanui obtained their first resident missionary, Skevington, whom Nera escorted through the district. Nera was living at Manawapou, near Hawera, in July 1842 and in 1846 was listed as a Wesleyan teacher there.

Early in 1843 Nera's reputation suffered a sharp reverse when he married the sister of Te Herekiekie of Tokaanu, Rora Turori, who had been captured at Waitotara. She belonged to another man, also called Wiremu, but transferred her affections to Nera, who was said to be handsome and good-humoured. According to Edward Jerningham Wakefield she soon dominated Nera. A fierce quarrel ensued between the relatives of both men and Skevington reported that this 'entirely disorganised and almost destroyed some of the [Wesleyan] societies.'

In the next decade Nera was one of the leaders who tried to unite Ngati Ruanui, Nga Rauru and Taranaki in the goal of holding onto their land. After a great intertribal meeting at Manawapou in May 1854 he signed the letter which outlined their boundaries. Three years later he participated in the protest over the possible sale of the Whakangerengere block. When the Taranaki tribe fought at Waireka in March 1860 he arrived too late to stop them. He condemned their action and as his party returned home they plundered the tribe's villages.

Nera's life from the 1860s is unclear. There are no reliable records. An unconfirmed source says that he was later known as Wi Parirau. He may have been associated with the religious leader Te Ua Haumene who had a follower of this name. It is also likely that he accompanied the military leader Titokowaru into retreat in the upper Waitara country. In his latter years it is said that Nera suffered from 'religious mania' and that he died in the Porirua asylum in the late nineteenth century.