Story: Puhirake, Rawiri

Page 1 - Biography

Puhirake, Rawiri

?–1864

Ngai Te Rangi leader, war leader

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

Rawiri Puhirake, also known as Rawiri Tuaia and Whakatauhoe, was one of the leaders of Ngai Te Rangi of Tauranga from the 1850s until his death in 1864. He was the son of Te Muna, and grandson of Whakapa and Hinerangi of Ngai Tukairangi, a hapu of Ngai Te Rangi from Matapihi, on the eastern side of Tauranga Harbour. The year of his birth is not known. He came under the influence of the Christian missionaries who arrived in the Tauranga area in the 1830s, from whom he learned to read and write in Maori. Rawiri (David) was probably taken as a baptismal name.

As a young man Puhirake doubtless took part in the warfare against invading Nga Puhi in the 1820s and 1830s, and in the war with Te Arawa from 1835 to 1845. He led Ngai Tukairangi against Ngati He in the Ohuki land dispute at Tauranga from 1856 to 1859. During the war in Waikato in 1863–64 Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi of Ngati Haua requested his help, but he is said to have refused because he wanted to avoid bloodshed in Tauranga. He might have maintained this neutral position, had it not been for the arrival of British troops in Tauranga in January 1864. The official interpreter is said to have goaded him into rebellion by calling him a spy. There is no doubt, however, that he saw the arrival of Colonel G. J. Carey with about 700 men as a direct threat to Maori ownership of Tauranga lands. Once he had made up his mind to fight, he determined to do his best to win.

Several pa were established by Ngai Te Rangi leaders. Puhirake rebuilt and occupied an old pa named Te Waoku close to the Waimapu river. He sent formal messages to Lieutenant Colonel H. H. Greer inviting him to bring his soldiers to fight at Te Waoku, and constructed a road to the pa to assist Greer to take up the challenge. No reply was received, and a further challenge was sent from combined Ngai Te Rangi leaders gathered at Poteriwhi, Pene Taka Tuaia's pa on the lower Wairoa River. At Poteriwhi a code of chivalry for the conduct of the war was drawn up with the assistance and approval of Henare Taratoa and other leaders.

Finding that the British troops still chose not to engage in battle, Puhirake decided to move closer, and fortified a position at Pukehinahina, at the gate of the property purchased by Archdeacon A. N. Brown on behalf of the Church Missionary Society in 1839. The trenches at what was afterwards called the Gate Pa, constructed by Pene Taka, were proof against the bombardment they received on 29 April 1864. Puhirake proved a strong and capable leader and a good tactician. When 300 British infantry finally stormed the pa, Puhirake's force of some 230 warriors opened fire on them from a maze of underground defences. The British retreated, suffering a crushing defeat. The code of chivalry promulgated at Poteriwhi was acted upon by those remaining in the pa after the battle.

Peace discussions with Ngai Te Rangi followed in May, although Puhirake did not take part. Some British troops were withdrawn to Auckland, but on 21 June a reconnaissance force of 600 troops under Lieutenant Colonel Greer came upon Puhirake and 500 men building a new fortification at Te Ranga, a few miles from the Gate Pa. In the ensuing battle Puhirake was killed and his force defeated. When he was buried next day on the battlefield where he had fallen, British officers gathered to pay him their last respects. He was thought to have been about 50 years of age.

Despite this defeat, in the peace negotiations which followed Ngai Te Rangi were able to bargain for a compromise agreement, which allowed them to make a symbolic submission to the government and to retain most of their lands. Governor George Grey sought to explain the terms of settlement as recognition of the chivalry of Ngai Te Rangi warriors and the compassion with which Puhirake had directed his people to act towards wounded British troops after the battle at Pukehinahina.

On 13 August 1874 Puhirake's remains were exhumed from Te Ranga, and taken to Matapihi, where he was mourned by his people. He was reburied in the mission cemetery at Otamataha pa by some of Tauranga's foremost Pakeha settlers, who had known and respected him. In 1914, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Puhirake's death, an imposing red granite monument was erected on his grave. The memorial was unveiled before about 1,000 people. Among those present were Maori leaders of the district, and European veterans of the wars.