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Royal Visit of 1953-54

Page 4 – The Queen and Māori

The Queen and the Māori people

For many Māori the royal visit raised important issues about their place in New Zealand.

  • One reception or many?: Pākehā New Zealanders wished to show off to the Queen and to the world the fact that New Zealand had ‘the best race relations in the world’. By this they meant that Māori participated fully in New Zealand’s British way of life. Māori culture provided no more than some exotic colour to the country’s landscape. Pākehā administrators were not interested in drawing attention to tribal differences. So initial plans for the tour proposed one Māori reception at Rotorua under the control of Te Arawa. This differed from the cancelled 1949 tour, for which five provincial Māori gatherings had been planned. As E.B. Corbett, the Pākehā Minister of Maori Affairs, noted, ‘So far as the Queen herself is concerned they will just be the Maori people. She will not be concerned to know from what tribes they have come.’ Māori concern at this blurring of tribal difference led to a concession that token Māori representatives (usually one or two) could be present at all local receptions, but there was still widespread Māori criticism of the plans.
  • Waitangi: Māori were very critical of the omission of Waitangi from the itinerary. Faced with ‘difficulties from a racial angle’, it was agreed to add a visit to Waitangi – not a full Māori welcome, but a visit to a historic place with both Māori and Pākehā involvement in a brief ceremony.
  • Rotorua: Māori objected to the brief time allowed for the main welcome at Rotorua and the fact that only 200 official visitors from other tribes would be invited. In the end the time was extended and accommodation provided for 3500 members of other iwi.
  • Tūrangawaewae: Tūrangawaewae was the marae of the Māori King at Ngāruawāhia. The King Movement had been at the centre of opposition to Pākehā authority during the New Zealand Wars. But under the leadership of Te Puea Hērangi the Waikato people had affirmed their loyalty to the Empire, and their soldiers had fought in the Second World War. Te Puea had long hoped that royalty might visit Tūrangawaewae to signal this reconciliation, and a visit had been included in the plans for the 1949 tour. But Ngāruawāhia was not included in the 1953 itinerary; and even though the Queen and Duke were scheduled to drive past the gateway to the marae, the government resisted all appeals for a visit. Despite the rebuffs, the Kīngitanga practised their waiata and printed a programme. Not until the morning of 30 December was it decided that the monarch would visit Tūrangawaewae that afternoon. She was to stay for three minutes and do no more than get out of the car. But the sight of a pathway of mats edged with red, white and blue flowers proved irresistible. The Queen and Duke walked past the black-robed kuia, garlands of fern in their hair, and entered Māhinārangi, the carved meeting house. There was singing, chanting and haka, and 100 warriors in two war canoes dipped their paddles in the Waikato River. The visit lasted 17 minutes.

Tangiwai - weeping waters

Tangiwai memorial service at Karori cemetery

The day before the Queen’s arrival, two of the air force pilots chosen to fly over the Gothic as it approached Auckland were killed in separate crashes. Then came a terrible disaster at Tangiwai in the central North Island on Christmas Eve. Six carriages of the Wellington-Auckland express train plunged into the Whangaehu River and 151 people were eventually confirmed dead. A lahar – a torrent of ice, volcanic ash and boulders – had swept away the bridge. The event cast a pall over New Zealand’s royal Christmas. The Queen mentioned the event in her Christmas message, and visited a couple who had survived the disaster. The Duke later flew to Wellington to attend a memorial service for the victims. Some Māori who had felt uneasy about many details of the Queen’s visit pointed to the fact that ‘Tangiwai’ was the linguistic inverse of ‘Waitangi’ - ‘weeping waters’. The gods were showing their displeasure at the monarch’s presence in Aotearoa.

[See our feature on the Tangiwai disaster for more information]

How to cite this page

The Queen and Māori, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated