In 1858 the Waikato leader Pōtatau Te Wherowhero was selected as the first Māori King. A primary aim of the Māori King movement (or Kīngitanga) was to unite tribes against selling land.
Many settlers and politicians were concerned about this development and believed this challenge to the British Crown should be met. An opportunity to do so occurred when a minor Te Āti Awa chief Te Teira Mānuka offered land at Waitara in north Taranaki to the Governor Thomas Gore Browne. Resistance to this sale from another, more senior Te Āti Awa chief, Wiremu Kīngi, led to the outbreak of the Taranaki War in 1860.
New Plymouth was besieged, but British troops failed to lure Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Ruanui and their Waikato allies into a decisive battle. The involvement of warriors from Waikato was of particular concern to the authorities. A truce was agreed in 1861 but the situation remained unresolved. Hostilities recommenced in 1863 on the eve of the Government’s invasion of the Waikato.
George Grey was brought back in 1861 for a second term as Governor. Having been credited with ending the Northern War in 1846, he was seen as the ideal man to help sort out the colony's problems. In a classic case of ‘carrot and stick’ he promised Māori local autonomy while at the same time building a military road from Auckland to the Waikato River, the main artery of the Kīngitanga heartland.
After giving Māori an ultimatum to pledge allegiance to Queen Victoria, Grey invaded the Waikato in July 1863. Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron's 12,000 imperial troops faced fewer than 5000 part-time warriors, who had to provide much of their own food and supplies.
Cameron's army took seven months to reach the Kīngitanga agricultural base at Rangiaowhia, near Te Awamutu. On the way they outflanked formidable modern pā at Meremere and Pāterangi, and captured an undermanned pā at Rangiriri.
In April 1864 Kīngites under Rewi Maniapoto were heavily defeated at Ōrākau, a pā built on a poorly chosen site. Cameron then tried to crush Kīngites holding Pukehinahina, ‘the Gate Pā’ at Tauranga, but failed disastrously. Two months later the British got their revenge at nearby Te Ranga.