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Ngā tāone nui – Māori and the city

by Aroha Harris

As soon as they got the chance, many Māori travelled by sailing ships and explored European life and technologies in Sydney and England. Chiefs who reached London in the early 19th century often got a royal reception. But back in New Zealand, settlers in the new towns displaced Māori.

Māori visit overseas cities

Māori explore Sydney and London

New Zealand did not have a city until 1856, when Christchurch achieved city status. (Its population was only a few thousand.) By then, however, London and Sydney were well established as important cities for New Zealand.

Sydney – known by Māori as Poihākena (Port Jackson) – was a major trading centre and the port of call through which New Zealand accessed British goods and services, government and missionaries. London – Rānana – was the home of the British royal family and the political and cultural centre of the British Empire. Sydney and London were the two cities Māori travellers visited most frequently from the late 1700s. Both cities now have long histories of Māori visiting and relocating to them.

Māori visitors to Sydney

From the late 18th century Māori travelled the world, often as crew on board ships. From the 1800s Māori sought opportunities to trade with Sydney, and acquire new technologies and skills such as carpentry and gardening. Sydney was also a place where individual Māori met with British officials and missionaries. For instance in 1804 Te Pahi, a chief of Rangihoua, sent his son Maatara to Sydney to observe the British. The governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, looked after him, and sent him home with tools and other gifts. In 1805 Te Pahi himself went to Sydney, where he stayed with Governor King for several months. With his companions he learnt carpentry, gardening, weaving and spinning.

In 1805 another northern chief, Ruatara, set out. Working on whaling and sealing ships, he visited Sydney twice but he did not get to London until 1809, where he was not allowed ashore. In 1810 he reached Sydney again and stayed with Samuel Marsden at Parramatta for eight months. He did not return home to the Bay of Islands until 1812. His travels as a crew member were more fortunate than those of a Māori sailor on board the Atlantic, who was killed by lightning in Sydney Harbour in 1806.

In Sydney, Ruatara acquired eight muskets and borrowed a couple of pistols. Though significant at the time, his small armoury would soon be outdone by Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika, who traded gifts he received in London for muskets, which were selling cheaply after being dumped on the Sydney market.

By the 1810s the Māori language could be heard on Sydney’s docks. By the 1840s an estimated 1,000 Māori had travelled overseas, with the majority going to Sydney. The presence of Māori there had become so common it was no longer recorded. Sydney has remained an important city in Māori lives. By the early 2000s many Māori had migrated there, and Māori cultural activities and media thrived.

Fourth estate


In 1859 two Waikato Māori, Wiremu Toetoe and Hemara Te Rerehau, travelled to Austria on the frigate Novara, and were trained in printing techniques at the state printing house in Vienna. As a parting gift, in May 1860 Archduke Maximilian gave them a printing press, which was shipped to Ngāruawāhia. Late in 1861 the press was used to print a newspaper, Te Hokioi e Rere Atu Na, which was a mouthpiece for the Kingitanga, the Māori King movement. The young chiefs’ plans to import a lion were unsuccessful. During the Waikato war the press was broken up by troops.


Māori in London

One of the first Māori to visit London was Moehanga of Ngāpuhi in 1806. He was presented to King George III. Hongi Hika visited London in 1820 with another chief named Waikato and missionary Thomas Kendall. They helped with the compilation of a Māori alphabet and grammar, and Hongi met King George IV.

In 1846–47 Hoani Wiremu Hīpango helped protect the new town of Whanganui from attack by another iwi. Partly because of this, he accompanied missionary Richard Taylor on a visit to England in 1855. When he arrived in London, Hīpango had an audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Other Māori reported in London included Māui, or Tommy Drummond, who taught Sunday school in London in 1816, and Tuai and Titeri, who visited in 1818. In 1863 there were two Māori performing groups in London.

For Māori London was the cultural centre of the British Empire, and also the home of the queen, their partner in the Treaty of Waitangi. Māori visiting London hoped to, and often did, meet royalty.

London and Māori culture

When members of the British royal family have visited Rotorua they have participated in a Māori cultural experience. In 1959 Māori in London set up the cultural group Ngāti Rānana, a name which loosely translates as the London tribe. In the 2000s Ngāti Rānana was a thriving kapa haka group.

Cities and Māori land

Unfulfilled promise of trade

Land purchases were often justified to Māori on the basis that tribes would benefit from Pākehā settlement. Māori were eager to have access to the markets, new goods and technology that would result. Many were early entrepreneurs, feeding towns by trading produce. Generally, the sale of land meant that Māori were quickly displaced from towns, and when they lost their agricultural land they were replaced as suppliers of food to the cities. The four major centres became city corporations around the same time: Dunedin in 1865, Christchurch in 1868, Wellington in 1870 and Auckland in 1871.

Dunedin Māori

In 1844 Ngāi Tahu chiefs Taiaroa and Karetai agreed to the sale of the Otago block, opening the way for Pākehā settlement in Otago. During negotiations reserves for boat landings in the proposed town of Dunedin were agreed to. Additionally, 'tenths' (one tenth of the land to be sold) were discussed as part of the negotiations, but they were never recorded on the deed, and were subsequently not given to Māori. Whalers and local Māori intermarried, but it was not long before the Māori population was severely affected by introduced diseases. Ngāi Tahu had hoped that settlement would see a continuation and development of commerce, but in the late 1840s the loss of land and diminishment of the population meant the tribe was a bit player in Dunedin.

Christchurch Māori

Most of the Canterbury region was purchased from Ngāi Tahu by the government in 1848. A number of Ngāi Tahu chiefs signed a deed prepared by Commissioner Henry Tacy Kemp at Akaroa. Under the deed Ngāi Tahu were allowed to retain their settlements, and certain areas were reserved for them. However, when the land was surveyed many of the reserves were ignored or lessened. The failure to ensure that Ngāi Tahu received its reserves was an important aspect of the Ngāi Tahu claim to the Waitangi Tribunal in 1986. As in Dunedin, the loss of land undermined Ngāi Tahu's ability to take advantage of the commercial opportunities of settlement.

Fox with the hounds


Early resident Walter Buller used to walk Wellington’s streets with his law clerk conversing in Māori. Ngatau Omahuru was abducted from Taranaki as a little boy and adopted by Premier William Fox, who renamed him after himself. He was educated at Wellington College, took a world tour and then studied law. When Buller took his clerk north for land court hearings he was reunited with his family. He later supported the pacifist prophet Te Whiti at his community at Parihaka.


Wellington Māori

William Wakefield was the principal agent in New Zealand for the New Zealand Company and purchased land from Wellington chiefs. An investigation into the transactions by Land Claims Commissioner William Spain found that there were significant problems with the land purchases. The chiefs of Te Aro, Pipitea and Kumutoto had taken little or no part in land purchases. Spain was guided by the fact that the European population of 3,500 significantly outnumbered the Māori population of 500–600, and he felt compensation should go to those whose land had been sold without permission. Compensation was paid, and Māori retained some land, particularly through tenths – the New Zealand Company allocated reserves which were to make up one-tenth of the company’s lands and were to be allotted on the same random basis as the settlers’ lands. In the early 2000s these lands were managed by the Wellington Tenths Trust.

Despite the retention of land, by 1881 only 28 Māori still lived at Te Aro and nine at Pipitea. By the 1890s both Te Aro and Pipitea were unoccupied. The pā at Ngāūranga did not survive into the 20th century.

Auckland Māori

In 1840 a number of Ngāti Whātua chiefs, including Apihai Te Kawau, signed the Treaty of Waitangi, and Te Kawau invited Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson to locate his government on the Waitematā Harbour. Ngāti Whātua then sold land for the township of Auckland, hoping that Pākehā settlement would protect them from incursions from other tribes. However by 1855 Ngāti Whātua had lost title to all except a 700-acre (280-hectare) Ōrākei block. The Native Land Court declared this land to be inalienable in 1869, but by the 1890s the land was split up. In 1951 the government compulsorily took the last 12.5 acres (5 hectares) of Ngāti Whātua land. In 1986 Ngāti Whātua took a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal about the Ōrākei block.

The city and education

In the 19th century, by the time towns turned into cities, Māori had shifted off what, in many cases, had been their traditional lands. Up until the early 20th century it was relatively unusual for Māori to travel to, or live in, the city. In 1900 more than 95% of Māori lived in rural communities. Often Māori living in the city were those with some European blood known as ‘hawhe kaihe’ (half-castes).

In the North Island, Māori lived in separate regions in rural kāinga with a hapū base. In the South Island Māori lived in kāika or ‘kaiks’ (villages) on the margins of European settlements. By the 1930s, 90% of Māori still lived rurally. Up until then education and government were often the only things that brought Māori to the city.


Education of Māori in the city was often church-based and catered to both girls and boys. Theological training for Māori men was also an important component. From the late 19th century a vanguard of Māori began training at universities, although few schools prepared Māori students for academic study.

Māori boys’ schools

St Stephen’s began as a Māori girls’ primary school in Parnell, Auckland but changed to a boys’ school in 1860. Boys went on to Te Aute College until the 1920s, when St Stephen’s developed its own secondary schooling. At this time the school came under pressure from the Auckland Education Board, Auckland City Council and local residents to give up its site for a state primary school. In 1931 it moved to Bombay, south of Auckland. It closed in 2000.

Hato Petera College was founded by the Mill Hill Fathers. It opened as St Peter’s Catechist School with 13 students in 1928. Marist Brothers took over the school in 1946, when it was registered as a secondary school. It was renamed Hato Petera (St Peter in Māori).

Māori girls’ schools

Queen Victoria School in Parnell, Auckland, was opened by the Duke of York (later King George V) in 1901. One reason behind the establishment of the school was the education of Māori women to marry educated Māori men who had attended the Māori boys’ schools.

Te Wai Pounamu College was founded at Tuahiwi, Canterbury, and then moved into Christchurch. It was the only Māori girls’ college in the South Island.

Māori and universities

Some of the pioneering Māori professionals came into the cities for education. Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) and Tūtere Wī Repa studied medicine at the University of Otago. Apirana Ngata was the first Māori lawyer, and graduated from Canterbury University College in 1895. Edward Ellison trained to be a doctor at the University of Otago in the early 1900s. His brother Tom Ellison became a lawyer.

Theological training

Māori were trained for the ministry in the city. Two important theological colleges were St John’s College and Wesley College in Auckland. Wesley College originally opened to train Māori in theology in 1848. It closed during the New Zealand wars and reopened in 1876.

Māori nurses

Some of the first Māori nurses also made their way into the city for training. Ākenehi Hei of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Te Whakatōhea was the first nurse to graduate. Mabel Mangākahia went to Auckland Girls’ Grammar School and then Queen Victoria School, where she gained a nursing bursary. She trained at Auckland Hospital, completing her training in 1923.

Government and MPs

Politics and the legal system often drew Māori to Wellington. The Māori members of Parliament in the lower house and the Legislative Council had to live and work in Wellington. Māori also travelled to Wellington to support petitions, attend meetings of the  Native Affairs select committee, and support or oppose bills going through Parliament. A number of Māori politicians started their careers as interpreters at Parliament or in the Native Department. Carvers were employed by the Dominion Museum in Wellington in the early 1900s.

Māori migrate to the cities

Second World War

According to the 1936 census only 10% of the Maori population was urban. Within a few decades the number would rise to over 80%. This massive shift was sparked by the Second World War. The Manpower Act was used to direct young Māori men who were ineligible for the military to work in essential industries, often located in cities. Young Māori women were directed to work in factories in town. The Māori Affairs Department appointed six Māori welfare officers to assist young women away from home.

Migration following the war

By 1945, just over 25% of the Māori population was now urban. However the number of Māori living in cities was still very low relative to total city populations. The Māori population of Wellington was less than 1% of the total population, and in Auckland it was 2%.

Following the war Māori migration to cities increased. Returned Māori servicemen migrated to urban areas to utilise skills acquired during the war. Some entered teacher training, joining those who had entered under a Māori quota before the war. By the mid-1950s the urban Māori population had grown to 35%. By the end of the decade over half of the Māori population was urban.

Relocation continues

In 1960 the Department of Maori Affairs encouraged this demographic shift with an urban relocation programme. Māori welfare officers exhorted rural families to leave the subsistence economy of gardening and fishing, finding them employment and accommodation in urban centres.

Over a five-year period the department relocated 399 families. It also assisted 485 families who moved of their own accord. By 1966 the urban Māori population had increased to 62% and by 1990 it had reached over 80%.

Māori housing

It was often difficult for Māori to find housing in the cities. Māori hostels were run in the cities to cater for young Māori coming to work. At first Māori tended to live in inner-city locations because they were close to where unskilled work was found – on the wharves, in factories and in the transport industry.

In Auckland the Māori Women’s Welfare League worked with Māori Affairs welfare officers to ensure Māori had access to adequate housing. The government approach to Māori housing was called ‘pepper-potting’, dotting Māori families in predominantly Pākehā communities.

The number of Māori moving to cities meant housing needed to be addressed on a larger scale. Housing subdivisions built in the 1960s at Ōtara, Māngere and Te Atatū in Auckland, and Porirua, the Hutt Valley and Wainuiomata in Wellington had many Māori residents.

Māori adapt to city life

Adapting to cities

As Māori moved into the cities they had to meet the challenges of an urban environment, including finding employment and housing, and access to education. They encountered a significantly different cultural environment, where European customs were predominant and English was the main language. One way of countering this was relocating Māori culture to the city. Cultural clubs, Māori churches and Māori sports teams were set up.

For issues relating to housing and welfare, tribal councils, the Māori Women’s Welfare League, churches and the Māori Affairs Department played important roles.

Māori cultural groups

During the 1930s a number of young Māori moved to Wellington to work. The Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club was established in 1937 for Māori to socialise and participate in their culture. It was a pan-tribal group. Apirana Ngata coined the name Ngāti Pōneke – Pōneke was the Māori name for Port Nicolson. Throughout the Second World War Ngāti Pōneke performed concerts to entertain visitors and raise funds for troops overseas. Over time a number of other cultural groups followed Ngāti Pōneke's lead, including Ngāti Akarana in Auckland and Ngāti Rānana in London.

Māori and churches

Māori in the cities would often attend churches which, while not local, would have a significant Māori attendance, or would conduct services in the Māori language. Some organised services in their homes, including Anglican, Catholic and Methodist services, as well as services of Māori-based churches like Rātana and Ringatū.

Urban marae

Urban marae were established where Māori could conduct occasions according to their own cultural norms. Some of the pan-tribal urban marae included Pipitea marae in Wellington, Ngā Hau e Whā in Christchurch, Araiteuru in Dunedin and Hoani Waititi in Auckland.

The Presbyterian, Anglican and Catholic churches all established church-based marae in the cities. Tātai Hono Marae (Anglican) and Te Ūnga Waka Marae (Catholic) in Auckland are examples.

Some marae were tribally based, such as Te Tira Hōu in Aucklan, which is affiliated to the Tūhoe tribe and the wider Mataatua confederation.

There have also been a number of education-based marae. Māori-language preschools (kōhanga reo), and kura kaupapa Māori (Māori immersion schooling), both began in the city.

Taura here

Tribal members in the city join taura here (which means binding ropes) to help to retain their identity and links back to tribal homelands. These link back to iwi organisations and often taura here representatives have a place on iwi boards. Te Runanga nui o Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Upoko o Te Ika is the Wellington taura here group for Ngāti Kahungunu. There are two taura here groups in Auckland for Ngāpuhi – Te Taura Here ki Manurewa (South Auckland) and Te Taura Here o Ngāpuhi ki Waitākere (North and West Auckland).

Urban authorities

In the late 20th century a number of urban Māori authorities developed to assist Māori. These included Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust (West Auckland), the Manukau Urban Māori Authority (South Auckland), Te Rūnanga o Kirikiriroa Trust (Hamilton), Te Rūnanganui o te Ūpoko o Te Ika (Wellington) and Te Rūnanga o Ngā Maata Waka (Christchurch).

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Aroha Harris, 'Ngā tāone nui – Māori and the city', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Aroha Harris, published 11 March 2010