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Te Kooti
Te Kooti's War was one of the New Zealand Wars, the series of conflicts fought between 1845 and 1872 between the Māori and the colonizing British settlers, often referred to as Pākehā. This particular conflict covered most of the East Cape region and the centre of the North Islandmarker of New Zealandmarker from July 1868 until mid 1872. It was the longest and in some ways the ugliest and most savage of all the New Zealand Wars.

Te Kooti

Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki was born circa 1832 into the Ngati Maru sub-tribe of the Māori people in Poverty Baymarker on the south shore of East Cape. In his early youth he was very wild, causing a great deal of trouble within the tribe and the area. He then became a successful trader, sailing Māori-owned ships up to Aucklandmarker and competing successfully with the Pākehā traders.

Unlike most of the Ngati Manu he did not convert to Pai Marire or Hau Hauism when that new religion swept through the district in 1865. In fact he opposed it actively during the subsequent civil wars (see East Cape War).

Te Kooti fought on the government's side during the siege of Waerenga a Hika in 1865. However he was accused by one of the Māori chiefs of supplying gunpowder to the besieged Hau Hau, his brother being among them, and was arrested. The charge was dismissed and he was released. He was later arrested in March 1866 and charged with spying. There is a suspicion that one of his accusers coveted some land that Te Kooti had refused to sell him. Another suggestion is that the Pākehā traders resented his success as a competitor. It is also clear that many of the kupapa or loyalist Māori wanted him out of the area, seeing him as a dangerous trouble-maker. Before his case was heard he was shipped off to the Chatham Islandsmarker along with sundry Hau Hau prisoners of war.

During his time of exile Te Kooti underwent various spiritual revelations which formed the basis of a new faith, the Ringa Tu, in English, crudely, the Hand Upheld. He began holding religious services for his fellow prisoners and soon acquired a large following. Initially he preached acceptance but by mid 1868 it became clear that the government had reneged upon its promise to release the prisoners after two years and return them home. This broken promise ignited an anger in Te Kooti that the government soon had cause to regret.

Escape and Pursuit

On 4 July 1868 Te Kooti led a revolt that took over the entire prison complex, capturing the guards and the armoury. At the same time another party of prisoners captured the supply ship Rifleman, which had just arrived in port. There was only one casualty - a particularly disliked guard was killed against Te Kooti's orders. The next day the Rifleman sailed for the mainland carrying virtually all the prisoners: 163 men, 64 women and 71 children.

The ship landed at Whareongaonga, about 25 km south-west of Gisborne, on 10 July. The prisoners unloaded the ship and Te Kooti paid off the Pākehā crew of the Rifleman. He also gave them a letter exonerating them for any responsibility for his escape. The ex-prisoners then gave thanks to God for their safe return, not on their knees as had hitherto been the custom but by raising their hand at the end of their prayers, from which comes their name Ringa Tu.

Two days later, on 12 July 1868, Reginald Biggs, the resident magistrate of Gisborne, sent Te Kooti a message demanding that they surrender their weapons. He promised no more than an investigation into their complaints. On the other hand the prisoners wanted only to make their way peacefully inland to the King Country, the southern Waikato. Te Kooti intended to replace King Tawhiao as the spiritual leader of the Māori people.

The colonial militia led by Biggs tried unsuccessfully to stop this march inland on 20 July at Paparatu near Lake Waikaremoanamarker. This engagement was a complete success for Te Kooti. The militia were routed, losing most of their supplies, weapons and ammunition, and all their horses. At Te Koneke and Ruakituri there were two further battles attempting to stop Te Kooti, but they were unsuccessful and he was able to establish a base at Puketapu Pa north-west of Lake Waikaremoana.

It was here that things began to go wrong.

The New Zealand Government made its only serious attempt to negotiate with Te Kooti. A missionary, Father Reignier, was sent to tell the Ringatu that if they would only surrender their arms every thing could be sorted out, they would not be prosecuted and they would be given land to settle on. He did not deliver the message, and it reached Te Kooti in a garbled form second or third hand.

Then on 29 October came a further blow. Unsurprisingly King Tawhiao rejected the offer to replace him and the Ringatu were told that if they entered the Waikato they would be treated as invaders.

The final blow was rejection by the Tuhoe Tribe. "The People of the Mist" could have offered them sanctuary in the Urewera Ranges but they were at best only half-hearted about it. They would not allow him to enter their territory, but they would also not allow the government forces to cross their territory to attack Te Kooti.

Te Kooti was gaining recruits, and by mid October he probably had as many as 250 warriors under his command, many of them disgruntled by the increasing rate of land confiscation. Perhaps because of this his attention turned away from the Waikatomarker and King Movement and focused on local issues. He was to strike savagely at some of the men implicated in the confiscations, both Pākehā and Māori.

Te Kooti Strikes Back

Early in November Te Kooti led his men back down to Poverty Bay, easily avoiding the government forces based in the area. On the night of 10 November, Te Kooti's men attacked the settlement of Matawhero in Poverty Bay. That night some 54 people were killed. Almost the first to die were the magistrate, Reginald Biggs, and his family. It was not random killing - the men who died had all been active in the process of alienating Māori land. Although now repugnant, it was seen then as appropriate that their families should die with them. Among those who died were also 20 Māori, again specifically targeted. Some of them at least had signed over or sold land that Te Kooti owned.

This devastating attack on a Pākehā settlement gave Te Kooti effective control of the Poverty Bay area. In the days that followed other Māori were captured and then executed. On 12 November he went to Oweta Pā. Its chief, Paratene Pototi, appears to have been largely responsible for Te Kooti's arrest and exile. He had apparently kicked and abused Te Kooti while he was waiting, bound, for transportation. Paratene and six of his chiefs were killed.

Few historians attempt to explain the change in Te Kooti. His escape from the Chatham Islandsmarker was accomplished with only two deaths, one a hated guard and the other a collaborator. He not only released the crew of the Rifleman but he paid them and gave them a letter exonerating them. He had taken prisoners during his earlier march inland and released them unharmed. Up until the raid on Matawhero the only execution he had ordered had been of five Māori caught carrying dispatches for the colonial troops, one of them a relative by marriage of his brother. Some of these were revenge (utu) for betrayal. Others were inspired by God: Te Kooti was becoming increasingly guided, or misguided, by his religious visions.

Whatever the reason, the killings immediately created a large number of enemies, both Pākehā and Māori. There was now no chance of any settlement or peace. But they also brought him numerous recruits. Many of whom believed that Te Kooti wielded divine power along Old Testament lines; enemies were for smiting and he was a good smiter. Quite often the executions that he ordered were accompanied by the singing of hymns and psalms.

Retreat and Defeat

Although Te Kooti was in control of the Poverty Bay area, strong forces were being assembled against him. Both Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu had mobilized as had the Colonial Militia. He made a tactical withdrawal, first to Makaretu and then back to Ngatapa, where they were soon besieged.

Ngatapa was very strong but Te Kooti had taken as many as 800 people there, of whom only about 200 were warriors. Everything was in short supply - food, water and ammunition. On 5 January 1869 they began to evacuate the pa, clambering down the cliffs on the north face and escaping into the bush. Some 270 were captured by the besiegers - of these 120 males were killed immediately. This was not done in the heat of battle, but later, after they had been questioned. The actual killing was done mainly by Ropata Wahawaha and the Ngati Porou, but it was sanctioned by the leaders of the Militia, Colonels Whitmore and Richmond, who were present. They did at least try to prevent the killing of the women and children. Many of the men killed were probably present only because they had been Te Kooti's prisoners, captured during his raid on Poverty Bay. To modern minds this massacre seems abhorrent as it would have been to many people of those days. But the laws of utu, the Māori concept of revenge and/or payment are very complex, and often substitute victims were acceptable. Utu was often necessary to bring closure to a conflict.

The defeat at Ngatapa crippled Te Kooti. It did not end the conflict or the threat of conflict, but hindsight suggests that afterwards Te Kooti was never more than the leader of a dangerous guerilla band. Despite this, he would have one more chance to rekindle the flames of war over the North Island.

For the New Zealand Government it was a major victory for two reasons. First, it was their first success against Te Kooti, always important psychologically. But even more importantly, the Government had another war on its hands over on the west coast, in Taranaki. Here Titokowaru was fighting a separate but very dangerous war against the Government. The defeat of Te Kooti provided a respite which enabled the troops to be transferred from one theatre of war to another - see Titokowaru's War.

The First Retreat to the Urewera Mountains

Te Kooti and his remaining followers retreated into the Urewera Mountains, the territory of the Tuhoe, where he had a mixed reception. While some of the Tuhoe welcomed him, others anticipated correctly the trouble he would bring to the region and its people.

On 9 March 1869 he launched a raid into the Whakatanemarker region, the northern side of East Cape, hoping to gain supplies and recruits. Although initially successful he was forced to retreat again by the end of March, when the militia and kupapa forces under Captain Gilbert Mair got themselves mobilized.

Then early in April Te Kooti struck southwards. Ngati Kahungunu were searching for his base beyond Lake Waikaremoana, leaving their Pā at Mohaka vulnerable. Te Kooti attacked on 10 April and overwhelmed the defenders. Some 64 people were then slaughtered, women and children, Māori and Pākehā, and great deal of loot was seized. Then, on the retreat, they successfully ambushed the returning Ngati Kahungunu warriors.

Meanwhile Colonel Whitmore and his troops had returned from Taranakimarker. He quickly realized that to deal with Te Kooti he needed to occupy the Urewera Mountains, a truly formidable task. Until then few Pākehā had even penetrated the range, which consists of steep valleys and thick bush-clad hills frequently hidden by mist. Furthermore the local Māori, the Tuhoe, were already hostile to the government and fiercely protective of their land.

The invasion of the Ureweras began in early May. Three columns were involved, coming from the north, the west and the south-west. The latter column got bogged down around Lake Waikaremoana and made no further progress. However the other two columns were more successful and reached their objective, Ruatahunamarker, on 8 May, where they remained for a few days systematically destroying crops and houses.

Meanwhile Te Kooti was camped on the north shore of Lake Waikaremoana waiting for the south-western column. When it became apparent that it was going nowhere, the Ringatu forces began moving towards Ruatahuna, hoping to persuade the other columns to advance and attack them. However the Government forces were in trouble. Their Māori allies had refused to advance beyond Ruatahuna, with good reason. Food supplies were running out and dysentery was spreading through the troops. They also knew that Te Kooti would have chosen a very strong position to wait for them.

Te Kooti and King Tawhio

All the Government forces had withdrawn from the Ureweras by 18 May. Despite this the invasion was partially successful, the Tuhoe having had enough of their troublesome guest. In early June Te Kooti and about 150 of his supporters left the area moving towards Lake Taupomarker in the center of the North Island.

At Opepe, just short of Taupo, they ran into a small party of Militia, who mistook them for their Māori allies: a costly mistake as nine of them were killed with no loss to Te Kooti. The Ringatu then continued on to Taupo and as far as Te Kuitimarker, where King Tawhio was based.

For various reasons there was very little military activity between June and September 1869. The Government was still very keen to capture Te Kooti, but not at the cost of renewing the war with the King Movement and the Waikato Tribes and this was where he was heading. Over the next few weeks Te Kooti tried very hard to persuade the King Movement to become involved in his war, but King Tawhio refused to see him. They did not meet at this time and it is not clear what his position was. Some of the Kingite leaders were for involvement, either active or passive. Others were strongly against it, feeling that the tribes had already suffered enough. Te Kooti's mana was high but his record was spotty. Rewi Maniapoto, the hero of Orakau, was in favour of supporting Te Kooti, but even he stopped short of becoming involved in any actual hostilities.

Te Porere

Disgruntled by this lukewarm response, Te Kooti and his people, maybe by now as many as 800, returned to Tokaanu on the southern shore of Lake Taupomarker on 18 August, and then a few kilometres further south to Te Porere at Lake Rotoairamarker, where he began to build himself a Pā.

Meanwhile the enemy forces were gathering - both Pākehā and Māori armies were moving towards Lake Taupo from all directions.

McDonnell had been appointed by the government to lead the forces against Te Kooti. With a force of Armed Constabulary from Wanganui, he rode north to the Rangipo Desert where he met up with a contingent of Tuwharetoa warriors who were opposed to Te Kooti. Here he learnt that two mounted columns were coming up from Hawkes Bay, a Māori one and Militia column, and third force was coming by a more roundabout route. Meanwhile yet another force, of Armed Constabulary and Arawa, was already on the eastern shore of Lake Taupo. Finally two more groups were being organized in Wanganuimarker to arrive later, including Kepa te Rangihiwinui, Major Kepa.

The Kahungunu led by Henare Tomoana were the first to meet the Ringatu forces. They were moving south down the lake shore when a sudden storm forced them to make camp. Here the Ringatu attacked them: they made off with their horses but that was all they achieved. After a desultory siege lasting two days Te Kooti's forces withdrew. They retreated away from the lake and all the way back to Te Porere. This allowed the government forces to advance right down the lake and establish a base at Tokaanu.

On 25 September there was another skirmish at Pouto where a forward base had been established, just east of Te Kooti's base. The Ringatu attacked and the Arawa attacked right back at them and drove them from the field. Since the Ringatu had the advantage of rifle pits and numbers while Te Arawa were attacking up hill it was not an impressive performance. Possibly because of this a decision was made that may have changed the history of New Zealand.

Rewi Maniapoto had accompanied Te Kooti as an observer on behalf of the King Movement. Of all King Tawhio's advisers he had been the one most inclined to support the Ringatu. He had now seen them in action twice and he was not impressed; he turned his back on them and returned to the Waikato. This finally closed the door on any possibility of an alliance between the King Movement and the Ringatu, It has since been suggested that this was the last moment when there was any possibility of the King Countrymarker remaining as an independent state.

At Te Porere, Te Kooti had constructed a defensive position, one built more in the style of a European redoubt than a Māori . He moved his people into it in late September.

And he waited for the attack to come. The Colonial forces were gathering in strength and could probably have attacked at any time except that one important component was missing: Kepa and the Wanganui had not arrived, and Colonel McDonnell was not about to start a battle without his friend Kepa.

They waited, possibly in some of the worst conditions an army ever did have to wait for battle. For several days it snowed heavily. Furthermore the campaign was being fought on the slopes of an active volcanic field and one of them, Ngauruhoemarker, was in full eruption, spewing out vast quantities of volcanic ash to mix with the snow. Then the snow turned to freezing rain.

Eventually Kepa turned up and the day of the attack was appointed, 4 October 1869. The battle plan was very basic - to advance en masse and overwhelm the defences, the preliminary rifle pits, a small redoubt, more rifle pits and then the main fortress. One contingent was told that if they could they should work their way around to back to cut off any possibility of escape.

It should have been a disaster. Time and time again attacking colonial troops had been decimated by well-placed Māori forces fighting on the defensive. Obviously the commander, McDonnell, knew more about the situation than we can now understand because his plan worked. Within a few minutes they had taken all the external defences and were up against the main walls of the redoubt, hacking at it with whatever came to hand. Then two of the commanders found the back door to the fort and began to attack it, but both were promptly shot dead. This appeared to drive the Wanganui warriors into a berserk rage. They simply swarmed over the wall and descended and began killing the Ringatu.

The battle was soon over. Te Kooti and a few of his men escaped but many were killed and many more made prisoner. The allied militia casualties were amazingly light, four killed and four wounded. Considering they had attacked a walled fort occupied by some 250 men, all firing at them from a very close range.

This is because instead of digging the earthworks from the outside to make the ditch deeper, Te Kooti built it from the inside, which meant that his men had to expose themselves to be able to fire on the approaching troops. Also, the pa was built on a hill that had sloping ground angled in such a way that his enemies could crawl up the hill and not be able to be hit by rifle fire.


Te Kooti and his men fled west and north into the King Country where the Armed Constabulary could not follow them - this would have been seen as a declaration of war. However, Kepa and the Wanganui Māori could do so and were just acceptable to the King and his advisors. They continued the pursuit, officially sanctioned by the Government to do so. Gradually Te Kooti was forced north, reaching Taumarunui on 7 January 1870. At some stage he was joined by Kereopa Te Rau, the infamous eyeball-eater from the Volkner Incident, and between them they mustered about 110 supporters.

North was the only direction open to them: they crossed the Waikato River and reached the vicinity of Matamatamarker by 15 January. Here a wealthy settler, Josiah Firth, attempted to negotiate with the Government on Te Kooti's behalf, but they demanded his unconditional surrender and this was not acceptable to him. From here the refugees moved south and east, back towards the Rotorua area. His enemies were close behind and occasionally he turned and snapped at his pursuers, causing a few deaths, but always he kept retreating.

On 7 February he approached Ohinemutu, now a part of Rotorua but then a major Arawa settlement. Based at Ohinemutu there was normally a force of about 200 Arawa fighters commanded by Gilbert Mair. But they had been posted many kilometres away to the west to assist in the search for the men now approaching their home. In fact they had been very unhappy about this and once it became obvious that Te Kooti had slipped through the net they had insisted on returning to their home base. They traveled in haste through most of the night of 6 February. As dawn rose over the Rotorua area they encountered the trail of Te Kooti and his band. Their forced march then became a desperate race.

Meanwhile Te Kooti was approaching Ohinemutu. It is unclear what his intentions were - despite the white flag they were assumed to be hostile. Mair and about 30 of his warriors arrived at a run at the last and most dramatic moment. They discarded the white flag being held by an Arawa elder and began shooting at the approaching Ringatu. This was the beginning of a running battle that lasted 24 hours and ended only when Te Kooti fled the area, retreating once again into the Urewera Mountains. He had lost many, including two of his senior lieutenants and quantities of supplies, food, bedding and ammunition.

Te Kooti was now quite definitely a refugee. In reality he had been a hunted man since Te Porere four months previously, but following Ohinemutu his movements were dictated far more by his pursuing enemies than by his own wishes or plans.


A few days later Colonel McDonnell was relieved of his command. Headquarters were very upset over the paucity of his communications, and the Minister of Defence had seldom known where he was or what was happening. Instead the job of catching Te Kooti was contracted to the various Māori war chiefs who would be paid by results, according to the number of Ringatu heads or prisoners they brought in. Both Kepa, now Major Kepa Rangihiwinui, with his Wanganui Warriors, and Major Ropata Wahawaha and Ngati Porou accepted the task. Later Arawa also joined the chase but only after they had negotiated better terms, i.e. more cash for the job.

The task of catching Te Kooti was entrusted to the Māori allies of the Government. Only one Pākehā was allowed to continue the hunt: Ropata had requested Colonel Tom Porter as his second in command. Apparently they had already soldiered together for quite a long time.

Ropata and his men left Gisbornemarker on 28 February 1870. On the same day two Ringatu war parties struck a Māori settlement, Opape, on the other coast of East Cape, near present-day Opotikimarker. In addition to capturing arms and ammunition they took 170 prisoners, mostly female. They were possibly seen as hostages, because when Kepa descended on the village looking for the raiders the men were uncooperative and the village suffered all over again.

Early in March Kepa began moving south into the Ureweras. The people of the area, the unfortunate Tuhoe, were given a simple choice - cooperate or suffer a great misfortune. Since Kepa was backed up by about 400 armed warriors the nature of the misfortune was fairly obvious and, grudgingly, information about Te Kooti and his whereabouts began to emerge. Later Ropata reinforced the grudging treaty even more forcefully.

The two war parties rampaged through the Urewera Mountains for about a month. Meanwhile Te Kooti was resting in the Maraetahi region. Life in the Ringatu camp was not happy: food was short and discipline fierce, the slightest infractions being punished by instant death. The captives and the rank-and-file Ringatu feared To Kooti and his lieutenants almost as much as the approaching war parties.

For they were approaching, Kepa from the south and Ropata from the north in a well-coordinated pincer movement. They reached Maraetahi on 25 March 1870. Ropata arriving first, immediately made a successful surprise attack. As the Ringatu fled upstream they ran right into Kepa and his men. Te Kooti escaped with four women and about 20 men, but the rest of the band were killed or captured, about 300 people altogether. The majority of these were the unfortunate captives Te Kooti had taken at Opape in February but it also included the bulk of the Ringatu. Nineteen of the most senior of these were executed immediately, the rest were taken back for Pākehā trial and imprisonment.

This was the end of Kepa's war. He and his men had pursued Te Kooti right across the North Island for seven months. They were operating far from their own territory, fighting on behalf of the Government against an enemy who had never threatened his own people. They felt they had done enough. The New Zealand Wars were over and it was time to go home.

But the pursuit of Te Kooti was not over, for it was to continue for another two years. Ropata, Porter and Ngati Porou were joined by another force, Gilbert Mair and George Preece leading a taua (war party) of Arawa. Together they ranged through the Urewera Mountains, subjugating the Tuhoe and forcing them to hand over any fugitives they were sheltering. One welcome catch who fell into Ropata's hands was Kereopa, Volkner's murderer - he was worth 1000 pounds to his captors.

Te Kooti had many narrow escapes, but he managed to stay ahead of his pursuers until mid August 1871 when the Arawa forces unexpectedly came upon his camp, which was taken after a brief skirmish. When in camp Te Kooti usually slept some distance away from his followers. This habit had saved him at Maraetahi and it did so again. He was almost killed but another man intercepted the bullet. He fired one shot and fled, naked, into the bush, and the hunt continued.

Early in February 1872, Preece received good information about the whereabouts of Te Kooti, at the junction of the Waiau and Mangaone Streams. On 13 February they found a camp that had been occupied only a few days previously. The next day they found a camp with a fire still burning and then spotted a group of people climbing the cliff on the opposite side of the flooded stream. One of them was Te Kooti. Shots were exchanged and the chase was on. Later the same day Nikora te Tuhi spotted Te Kooti in the distance and fired two shots at him. They both missed but they were the last shots fired in the New Zealand Wars.

Te Kooti continued to elude the pursuers. On 15 May 1872 he crossed the Waikato River and once again entered the territory of the Māori King, Tawhiao. This time he approached the King as supplicant and was granted asylum.

And that was the end of Te Kooti's War, the longest, most bad-tempered and last of all the New Zealand Wars. Since then Pākehā and Māori have not fought each other, neither has any Māori tribe fought against another tribe. If peace is merely the absence of war then that is what has prevailed in New Zealand since then.

In fiction


  1. Binney 1995, p. 16

Literature and references

  • Belich, James (1988). The New Zealand Wars. Penguin.
  • Belich, James (1996) Making Peoples. Penguin.
  • Binney, Judith (1995). Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki. Auckland: Auckland University Press.
  • Cowan, J., & Hasselberg, P. D. (1983) The New Zealand Wars. New Zealand Government Printer. (Originally published 1922)
  • Maxwell, Peter (2000). Frontier, the Battle for the North Island of New Zealand. Celebrity Books.
  • Simpson, Tony (1979). Te Riri Pakeha. Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Sinclair, Keith (ed.) (1996). The Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand (2nd ed.) Wellington: Oxford University Press.
  • Stowers, Richard (1996). Forest Rangers. Richard Stowers.
  • "The people of many peaks: The Māori biographies". (1990). From The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Vol. 1, 1769-1869. Bridget Williams Books and Department of Internal Affairs.

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