The Kīngitanga or Māori King movement is one of the most enduring Māori institutions that emerged in colonial times, and is one of the longest-running political institutions in New Zealand. Originating in 1858, it has continued into the 2000s. Kīngi Tūheitia is the seventh successive sovereign since the inception of the Kīngitanga.
There was no single Māori sovereign when Europeans first came to New Zealand. Instead, Māori tribes functioned independently under the leadership of their own chiefs. However, by the 1850s Māori were faced with increasing numbers of British settlers, political marginalisation and growing demand from the Crown to purchase their lands. Māori were divided between those who were prepared to sell and those who were not.
Some Māori attributed the power of the British to their one sovereign. This idea was particularly common among men who had travelled to England and had seen British institutions, industry and law and order in operation, such as Piri Kawau (Te Āti Awa), who met Queen Victoria in 1843, and Tāmihana Te Rauparaha (Ngāti Toa), who met her in 1852. They believed that a pan-tribal movement, unifying the Māori people under one sovereign equal to the Queen of England, could bring an end to intertribal conflict, keep Māori land in Māori hands and provide a separate governing body for Māori.
Both Kawau and Tāmihana initially thought they might become king. However, Kawau had admitted to Queen Victoria that Pōtatau Te Wherowhero of Waikato was the most powerful chief in New Zealand, while Tāmihana was reminded by his father, the famous chief Te Rauparaha, that his people had been forced to leave Kāwhia by the powerful Waikato.
Te Kani-ā-Takirau from the East Coast famously refused the kingship, saying:
Ko taku maunga ko Hikurangi,
He maunga tū tonu
Ehara i te maunga haere.
Ko tōku Kīngitanga
Nō tua whakarere,
Nō aku tīpuna o te Pō!
My mountain is Hikurangi,
It is an enduring mountain,
It is not a mountain that travels.
My kingship is from time immemorial,
Handed down from my ancestors.
From 1853 Mātene Te Whiwhi of Ngāti Raukawa, assisted by Tāmihana Te Rauparaha, travelled around the central North Island to promote the idea of a Māori king for the Māori people.
Te Whiwhi looked to the ariki or aristocracy, first approaching Tōpia Tūroa, paramount chief of Whanganui. Tūroa replied, "I must decline. My mountain is Matemate-a-onga. My sea is Whanganui, the fish in it are the toitoi and white-bait."
Tūroa suggested Iwikau Te Heuheu, the paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa of the Taupō region. Te Heuheu responded, "Tongariro is the mountain, Taupō is the sea and Te Heuheu is the man. He stands in the middle of the island and toward him flow the rivers from all sides. Look, the fish of those waters are kokopu, koura and koaro." Te Heuheu in turn suggested Te Amohau of Te Arawa, who also declined, saying, "My mountain is Ngongotaha, Rotorua is the sea, and the fish in it are koura, kakahi and inanga."
Te Amohau suggested Te Hāpuku of Ngāti Kahungunu, who in turn suggested Te Kani-ā-Takirau of Ngāti Porou. He replied, 'Certainly I am of the lines of your noble ancestors, but I am situated on one side of the Island. Furthermore my mountain Hikurangi is not one that easily moves from its own resting place."
Like true rangatira, these chiefs acknowledged that they were primarily tribal leaders and were not well positioned to take on the burden of a kingship, and suggested others for the honour.
Karauria of Ngāti Kahungunu, Tūpaea of Ngāi Te Rangi and Pāora Kīngi of Mataatua were also approached before the request was sent back to Te Heuheu.
In 1856 Iwikau Te Heuheu of Tūwharetoa convened a famous meeting known as Hīnana ki uta, Hīnana ki tai (search the land, search the sea) at Pūkawa, on the western shores of Lake Taupō. All the major tribes were represented. Here Te Heuheu proposed the famed Waikato chief Pōtatau Te Wherowhero for the kingship.
In 1841 Governor William Hobson had reported to London that Pōtatau was the most powerful chief in New Zealand. Mātene Te Whiwhi of Ngāti Raukawa had canvassed the genealogical experts Te Hūkiki Te Ahukaramū and Te Whīoi of Ngāti Raukawa, who believed that Pōtatau was the most suitable candidate. He had extensive genealogical connections with many iwi and his kingship could be well supported by the fertile lands and resources of the then wealthy Waikato. The wealth of Pōtatau was important, as his people would host many gatherings.
Like the others, Pōtatau stubbornly refused the kingship. Several meetings were held to discuss the proposal, including an 1857 meeting known as Te Puna o te Roimata (the wellspring of tears) at Haurua among Ngāti Maniapoto. Here Ngāti Maniapoto leader Tanirau announced his tribe's decision to support Pōtatau as king. Pōtatau replied, 'E Ta, kua tō te rā' (o sir, the sun is about to set), meaning that he had not much longer to live. Tanirau replied, 'E tō ana i te ahiahi, e ara ana i te ata, e tū koe he Kīngi' (it sets in the evening to rise again in the morning: thou art raised up a king). He was suggesting that on Pōtatau's passing his son, Tāwhiao, could carry on the kingship, which might then become hereditary. Pōtatau replied, 'E pai ana' (it is good).1 With this he accepted the kingship, and Waikato the role of kaitiaki (guardians) of the Kīngitanga.
From 'Kīngitanga – the Māori King movement - Origins of the Kīngitanga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, www.TeAra.govt.nz, written by Rahui Papa and Paul Meredith.