Major Ropata Wahawaha, N.Z.C.,
as pictured in The Story of a Maori Chief
|Birth name||Rāpata Wahawaha (childhood)|
Te Puia Springs or Akuaku,
Waiapu, New Zealand
|Died||1 July 1897
Gisborne, New Zealand
|Buried at||Rock fortress of Pupaka in the Waiomatatini Valley|
|Allegiance||Ngāti Porou, Kūpapa (British Empire)|
|Years of service||1865–71|
|Relations||Sir Āpirana Ngata (great-nephew)|
|Other work||Rangatira, politician, chairman of Waiomatatini School Committee|
Childhood and names
Rapata Wahawaha was born about 1820 into the Te Aowera sub-tribe of the Ngati Porou, one of the major Maori tribes in the eastern regions of the North Island of New Zealand. While still a child he was captured and became the slave of Rapata Whakapuhia whose name he perforce adopted.
However, in later years when he rose to prominence he worked closely with Donald McLean who, having a broad Scottish accent, habitually pronounced his name as "Ropata" and it became the name by which he is generally known.
During the Invasion of the Waikato a large party of Ngati Porou tried to join the King Movement but were prevented by Te Arawa in the Battle of the Lake. It is not clear where Ropata's sympathies lay at that time.
However, when in 1865 the Pai Mārire or Hauhau Movement came to the East Cape, Ropata was firmly on the Government's side. One influence in his decision might have been his Christianity; he was a leading member of the Anglican diocese of Waiapu. When the Hauhau tried to take over the Waiapu Valley, Ropata led a war party against them. Shortly afterwards the war chief of the Te Aowera was killed in battle and Ropata succeeded him as the War leader of his hapū.
This was the beginning of the Ngati Porou civil war. The Hauhau had all the advantages; numbers, arms and ammunition. The loyal Ngati Porou appealed to the government for support. Donald McLean, the superintendent for Hawkes Bay sent up the need supplies along with one hundred militia. Ropata played a leading role in the fighting that followed establishing himself as a leading warrior and a dangerous enemy. At one point he found eleven men from his own hapu, Te Aowera, among a group of Hauhau prisoners and he personally shot each one.
As the fighting in his own area died down Ropata and his Ngati Porou war band were called upon by the government to fight in other areas, most notably to assist the Ngāti Kahungunu.
There followed a brief interval of peace until spring of 1868 when Ropata was called upon once again by the New Zealand Government. This time the enemy was Te Kooti, recently escaped from prison in the Chatham Islands. Te Kooti had retreated to a strong defensive Pa at Ngatapa. The first assault, led by Ropata, Porourangi, and Lt Preece, was unsuccessful, despite which Ropata was awarded the New Zealand Cross for bravery and promoted to the rank of Major in the militia.
Returning to the scene three weeks later Major Ropata and Captain Tom Porter succeeded in separating the defenders from their water supply. An assault on 4 January 1869 forced Te Kooti to evacuate the Pa. In the ensuing flight several hundred Hauhau prisoners were captured and, largely at Ropata's insistence, one hundred and twenty of them—all male combatants—were shot and thrown over a cliff. This would not have been inappropriate according to the customary rules of Maori warfare. However, it was most inappropriate for soldiers of the Crown.
Te Kooti fled into the Urewera Mountains; he was driven from there by the Government forces including Ropata and the Ngati Porou. From there he trekked into the central regions of the North Island, mainly around Lake Taupo. However the government pursuit kept him always on the move and some months later he returned to the Ureweras. There were numerous actions, skirmishes, and battles during this time, and Ropata played an important part in many of them.
At this stage, early 1870, the government decided to withdraw all Pakeha militia from the pursuit. The hunt for Te Kooti was entrusted to two tribes, Ropata with the Ngati Porou and Kepa with the Whanganui Maori. Only one Pakeha was allowed to accompany the Maori war parties; Ropata asked for and got Tom Porter, now a Colonel, as his second in command. After about two months campaigning Kepa and Ropata managed to catch Te Kooti between their two forces at Maraetahi. In the ensuing battle the Ringatū force was destroyed. Te Kooti escaped, he always did, but most of his men were either captured or killed.
The hunt for Te Kooti was to continue for another two years with Ropata being actively involved for most of the time. He also completed the pacification of the Urewera Mountains and the tribe who occupied them, Ngāi Tūhoe.
By the end of Te Kooti's War Ropata was recognised as one of the leading men of the Ngati Porou. He used his influence to strengthen the tribe's position both with the Government and with their traditional enemies. The tribe lost very little land by confiscation partly because Ropata helped to persuade many of them to let out their land on long-term leases.
In 1875 he stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in the Eastern Maori electorate. In 1878 he was awarded The Sword of Honour from Queen Victoria and appointed commander for the regional militia together with a pension from the Government, originally 200 pounds a year, although later it was halved. He was also a sheep farmer, sometimes successful and sometimes not.
By a curious twist of fate he eventually got the chance to arrest Te Kooti. Te Kooti had been pardoned in 1883 and since then had built up a quite large religious following. This was tolerated until 1889 when he decided to return to Poverty Bay, the scene of his earlier exploits. Ropata and Porter, still working together, were appointed by the Prime Minister to make sure Te Kooti did not enter the East Cape or Urewera region. The Ngati Porou were mobilised once again. They arrived on the scene just as Te Kooti was arrested by a police inspector, in time to prevent Te Kooti's followers from making a violent issue of it. Unfortunately Ropata missed the actual arrest because of ill health.
Ropata died in Gisborne on 1 July 1897. His last words were, apparently, "Where's Porter?"
He accomplished a great deal in his life; rising from slavery to be a leader of his people and an important man on the national scene. It is said that there was only one goal he didn't accomplish—he never learned to speak English.
- Oliver, Steven (1 September 2010). "Wahawaha, Rapata – Biography". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
- Sorrenson, M. P. K. (1 September 2010). "Ngata, Apirana Turupa – Biography". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
- A. H. McLintock, ed. (23 April 2009) . "ROPATA, Wahawaha, Major". An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Ministry for Culture and Heritage / Te Manatū Taonga. Retrieved 10 September 2010.
- Oliver, Steven. "Paratene Ngata". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 15 October 2014.
- "CHAPTER 41: ARAWA DEFEAT OF EAST COAST TRIBES", James Cowan, 1955, "THE NEW ZEALAND WARS: A HISTORY OF THE MAORI CAMPAIGNS AND THE PIONEERING PERIOD: VOLUME I"
- "Ropata Wahawaha: The story of his life", 5 July 1897, Poverty Bay Herald
- Wilson, J.O. (1985) . New Zealand Parliamentary Record 1840–1984 (4th ed.). Wellington: V.R. Ward, Government Printer. p. 166.