Although Hongi Hika’s name and reputation may have become blurred over time, writes Shane Jones, there was no one quite like “the venerated and inspiring” Ngāpuhi chief.
As the Waitangi Tribunal research in Ngāpuhi has gathered steam, the name of Hongi Hika has been eclipsed as claimants present history with post-Treaty lenses.
Tamati Waka Nene, Hone Heke, Kawiti, Tirarau, Parore, to name a few, feature prominently in the narratives of the claimants seeking redress from the Crown.
But, although his name and reputation have become blurred over time, for those of us who know the history of the north — and the history of our leaders who stood and defended our lands from the triple-threat of Europeans, muskets and religion — there is no one quite like Hongi Hika.
Hongi was known for his cunning and his intellect, and most of all, for his prowess in battle.
As Europeans started settling here, Hongi realised very early that access to foreign wares would advance his personal position and that of his tribe. He was an active trader and paid close attention to the doings of not only his own people but also the whalers, missionaries, and other chancers.
You can’t speak about someone like Hongi without first acknowledging his genealogy.
Hongi, on his mother’s side, came from Ngāti Kahu, but the abundance of Hongi’s martial mana came down from his ancestor Te Wairua.
The pillar of Ngāpuhi is Rāhiri. From Rāhiri came Kaharau, from Kaharau came Taura, from Taura came Te Mahia, from Mahia came Ngahue, from Ngahue came Te Wairua. From Te Wairua came Te Auha, from Te Auha came Te Hotete, from Te Hotete came Hongi. From Hongi came Hare, from Hare came Toetoe.
The descendants today are based in Whangaroa.
Hongi was a chieftain among his tribes. He was also a priest and well-versed in spiritual matters.
He learned from the tohunga Nuku of Muriwhenua, whose powers derived from our time in Hawaiki, and who possessed karakia and incantations that would subdue, or would instil doubt in a person’s mind. He knew chants to enrage the oceans or cause havoc from the skies.
Ruatara, another of our ancestors, brought Reverend Samuel Marsden of the Anglican Church Missionary Society, here to Aotearoa. Marsden was determined to introduce Christianity to the Māori. He arrived in 1814 and preached the Gospel on Christmas day in the Bay of Islands. Ruatara and Hongi settled Marsden’s people in Ōhīhī in the Kerikeri area.
But Hongi never converted to Christianity — although he found a way to build a relationship with Marsden and the religious emigrants because he saw that working with him could pave the way to trade and to ships.
Indeed, one of the mission members, Thomas Kendall, became very close to Hongi, and, in 1820, these two sailed to England. It was during this trip that Hongi achieved his objective of securing firepower. Other rangatira had ventured overseas, but none had the shrewdness and acuity of Hongi.
In England, Hongi worked with the famous Cambridge academic Professor Samuel Lee to break down our Māori language and figure out how to set it on paper. Hongi was the first to elucidate our reo so it could be committed to writing. With Hongi’s instructions, Professor Lee shaped the alphabet we use today. That was Hongi’s doing, and it’s one of his greatest achievements.
During his trip to England, Hongi met King George and found out about the military might of this nation. He was astonished at the number of soldiers he had, the size of his naval fleet, and the unforgivable nature of the gun.
But he wasn’t intimidated. He understood what he was seeing, and he thought hard about the best way to use his newfound knowledge to his advantage, so that he could empower his people.
Hongi returned from England with guns in tow: 500 muskets, plus powder and ball that he picked up in Australia. Once these weapons were distributed to the various hapū, the name Ngāpuhi came to the fore as they plundered south and created mayhem seeking utu for various earlier injuries.
Hongi named his guns after the battles Ngāpuhi had lost. For instance, Waiwhaariki, which was when Ngāti Maru came here. Teketanumia, which was named for the death of Hongi’s sister. And Te Kai a Te Karoro, which marked the death of Pokaia and a number of Ngāpuhi chiefs at the hands of Te Roroa of Ngāti Whātua and Taoho.
The first battle was at Mokoia in Panmure. Many people lost their lives simply because they didn’t know how to counter the might of the guns.
From there, Hongi made many forays south. At Mātakitaki, there was an epic battle with the two legendary chiefs from Waikato, Te Kanawa and Te Wherowhero.
Later, Hongi made peace with Te Wherowhero after hostilities had ceased in Waikato. This was sealed through the marriage of his niece Matire Toha to Kati Takiwaru, the younger brother of the first Māori King.
Like all great leaders, Hongi was ably supported by Te Ururoa, Kira, Whareumu, Tawhai, Taonui and Kawiti. But several other northern rangatira bridled against him — in particular, Pomare and Te Wera Hauraki. Pomare perished in Waikato after he refused to accept the peace between Te Wherowhero and Ngāpuhi. And Te Wera headed south and became the defender of Ngāti Kahungunu.
Hongi was also well supported by his wife Te Turikatuku, who was blind but a matakite. On many occasions, her warnings saved the day.
Hongi had a suit of armour that King George had given him on his trip to England. It covered him from his chest to his stomach, and he wore it in every battle he fought in. In a fight at Ninety Mile beach, Te Houtaewa, the champion of Te Aupōuri, managed to strike a blow at Hongi’s head, whacking his helmet off. It wasn’t enough to kill Hongi, and so Te Houtaewa ended up being the one to perish that day.
Over the years, we’ve given the name Ngāpuhi many meanings. Ngāpuhi of a hundred beasts. Ngāpuhi of long legs. Ngāpuhi, the wanderer. Ngāpuhi and its many trenches.
But what truly made Ngāpuhi famous was Hongi. He was the type of person who would turn up and say: “Tomorrow, we will gather and leave to battle the south.”
Someone might reply: “No, you will go alone.”
But Hongi would say: “Tomorrow, I will return.”
And on his return, if no one was ready to leave, he would cut the Achilles of an able-bodied man, and soon he’d have over a thousand men ready.
No other Ngāpuhi leader outshone him during this time. Some sought to dislodge him, such as Te Morenga of Taiamai, but Hongi’s clear-sightedness and nous always won the day.
Early missionaries even encouraged Hongi to create a kingdom. He replied: “Ahakoa kii whainga, taka pu ki te kapu o te ringa, te whakananati, te whakananati ee.”
Meaning: They will follow me to battle. However, each have their own fist, their own strength.
Hongi died in Whangaroa. He was shot by Maratea from Ngāti Pou, a hapū that had originally migrated from Tainui — some say in the time of the ancestress Reitu. They were displaced eventually by Hongi’s grandfathers, Te Auha and Tahapango.
Hongi pursued the remnants to Mangamuka. During that encounter, he removed his armour because of the heat and was shot in the chest. The perpetrator himself was killed by Parore, Hongi’s cousin who also belonged to Te Roroa and the Ngāpuhi.
When Hongi died, the entire north trembled with fear. Missionaries quailed. However, his old war companion Patuone, protector of the Wesleyans, intervened. He calmed the people, and no utu was sought for his death.
This tupuna is buried in Devonport where he passed away, living with his Ngāti Paoa wife. His presence there was a deterrence to Kawiti and Hone Heke from fulfilling their designs to attack Auckland in the 1840s.
On his deathbed, Hongi Hika spoke these last, prophetic words to his people: “Hei muri i ahau, atawhaitia te mihinaere, tauawhitia te parakimete, te kamura, te kaihokohoko. Paatau ko te kotiwhero, tauria, kahore ona hokohoko, he patupatu, kia mokaitia ai te whenua, kia morehutia ai a Ngāpuhi.”
(After I am gone, be kind and care for the missionaries, encourage and care for the blacksmiths, the carpenters and the traders. But beware of the red coats. They do not trade, they will kill and enslave our lands until we of Ngāpuhi are nothing but a memory.)
At his funeral, the kaingarahu, Poroa, from Te Rarawa arrived, and laid these words upon Hongi’s body:
“Your palisades were strong, your trenches were deep. Let it be known that Hongi the Mighty has passed. Hongi the Great, Hongi the Sizeable, Hongi who will be mourned throughout the land. The conch shell broadcasts your stories, the wind carries your name over the pipi shells while they shiver on the coast where we mourn your name.”
These last words of a former enemy are a fitting tribute for the venerated and inspiring Hongi Hika.
Shane Jones was born in Awanui, Northland. He has Te Aupōuri and Ngāti Takoto whakapapa as well as Welsh and Dalmatian heritage. He has a master’s in Public Administration from Harvard, and is a former Labour MP and NZ First MP. Shane held the porfolios for infrastructure, forestry and regional economic development from 2017–2020.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.