Eruini Te Tupe-o-Tū
Studio portrait by Edward Smallwood Richards of Wellington
E. S. Richards’s studio portrait of the Māori chief Eruini Te Tupe presents Eruini posed seated facing front-on to the camera arrested in time, comfortably dressed in European clothing with a kaitaka cloak arranged across his upper torso, probably by Richards. The portrait was probably taken between 1862 and 1873, the period that Richards operated his photographic business in Wellington and later in the Wairarapa.
Eruini appears composed and nonplussed by the process; a powerfully built man probably in his 60s or 70s, the veteran of numerous battles, near death encounters and high adventure; and someone not easily ruffled – even by the modern intrusion of photography. A careful study of the photograph reveals that Eruini’s face, and quite possibly much of his entire body, was completely and very expertly tattooed. At the time of his death his obituary noted that,
“The tattooing on the body was alone worth seeing, it having been asserted that no living chief can boast of the same artistic and high caste decorations.”
Eruini was a noted warrior who was described as a man of ‘passionate temperament’. He was active during the early contact-colonial period of the 1820s to 1850s. A time in our history that has been likened to the ‘Wild West’ of New Zealand; a transitional period awash with sealers and whalers, traders and missionaries, settlers, farmers, government officials and colonial troops.
Eruini’s father was the celebrated fighting chief Te Tupe-o-Tū, a champion of the Ōtaraua tribe from Taranaki and one of their principal tribal leaders. Te Tupe-o-Tū was one of the leaders in the migratory relocation of several Taranaki tribes to Waikanae between the years 1831-1833. This series of large inter-tribal migrations created tensions that erupted in conflict as tribes manoeuvred to establish themselves in new lands competing against each other and the peoples they displaced. This resulted in two large inter-tribal battles between the migrating groups, the battle of Haowhenua  and Kuititanga . Both events took place between Te Āti Awa tribal groups living at Waikanae and Ngāti Raukawa tribal groups from Ōtaki, and were observed by resident Europeans.
Te Tupe-o-Tū and Te Hau-Te-Horo, another noted Taranaki fighting champion, had already acquired recent notoriety duelling the famous Waikato leader Te Wherowhero in single combat with customary weapons. Both men survived scarred with the wounds received as their boast to fighting the man considered one of the greatest champions of his generation. And in the pre-battle excitement of Haowhenua young men seeking to make their name marked out these two elder battle hardened champions. Te Tupe and Te Horo both fell in the ensuing battle, although it’s worth noting neither fell in single combat. Today the warrior champions Tupe-o-Tū and Te Hau-Te-Horo are recalled in the heartfelt lament composed by the warrior-priest Mananui Te Heuheu of Ngāti Tūwharetoa (Taupō) whose young brother Pāpaka was shot and killed in the same event; and in local place names that mark where the two warriors fell. Eruini also distinguished himself at Haowhenua, and may have also participated in the battle of Kuititanga in 1839.
In the aftermath of Kuititanga Eruini was arranged in marriage to Te Uira Matenga, the daughter of Te Matenga Te Matia and principal Ngāti Raukawa leader coordinating the hostilities at Kuititanga. This was an important political alliance between two very prominent and respected families and their union helped ensure a lasting peace between these tribal groups. Highly significant political alliances between different tribal entities such as this are known as Tatau Pounamu (literally the Greenstone Door, a metaphor for an enduring peace) and are symbolically concluded with the exchange of precious pounamu (New Zealand Jade) and the agreed matrimonial union between two young people of high social status that embody the identity and body politic.
Throughout the 1830s Eruini and his brother Tauru Matioro periodically engaged in whaling operations working between Kapiti, Cloudy Bay and the Chatham Islands; and even visited Sydney during his adventures. In 1835 Eruini and Matioro were among the principal Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama men who led a group of about 470 men, women and children that commandeered the brig Rodney, forcing the captain to take them to the Chatham Islands, which they colonised enslaving the indigenous Moriori people and taking possession of the islands. Later Tauru Matioro, and almost certainly Eruini, were also associated with the Jean Bart affair; a tragic misunderstanding which resulted in the deaths of a number of Māori and the presumed deaths of the entire ships company of the French whaling brig Jean Bart at the Chatham Islands in 1839.
Eruini returned to Waikanae later that year and probably participated in the 1839 battle of Kuititanga fought on Waikanae beach. He also signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Queen Charlotte Sound on 4th May 1840. In 1842 Eruini and Matioro led a group of Māori and Moriori to settle the Auckland Islands, which Māori called Maungahuka. The islands were remote and difficult, and crops continually failed. They eventually abandoned the settlement sometime between 1854-1856 for Ruapuke Island. Eruini eventually returned to Waikanae where he remained in the Ōtaraua village of Kaiwarehou. Eruini even became a ship owner, operating his boat from Waikanae with a hired Pākehā crew, although unfortunately for Eruini the crew sailed off never to be seen again. It was supposed that they either perished at sea or fled with the ship never to return.
Throughout the course of his life Eruini had achieved celebrity as a courageous and skilled warrior, a capable tribal leader, a seafarer and whaler, intrepid adventurer, ship owner, farmer – a rigid, fair and principled man. He spent his remaining years living a quiet and domestic life living in a European style home and practising agriculture and farming in his village Kaiwarehou in Waikanae. Eruini died at Kaiwarehou , at 12 noon on Sunday 6th September 1874. His funeral was well attended by Maori and Pākehā alike, who held him in high esteem. Eruini instructed that his coffin was to be constructed from of the wood of his bedstead, and was carried by both Māori and Pākehā pallbearers to his grave where he was laid to rest with his two brothers, “ancient warriors whose names were once a terror to their enemies, and whose deeds of valour are yet celebrated in song“. Eruini Te Tupe-o-Tū was survived by several children and his legacy continues to live on today in his many descendants.