On the afternoon of Wednesday, December 30, 1953, New Zealand’s reigning monarch and head of state stepped out of a car into bright sunshine at Ngāruawāhia, the headquarters of the Kīngitanga/Māori King movement. The young Queen Elizabeth II and her husband shook hands with King Korokī and his daughter Princess Piki, the future Māori Queen, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu. They had three minutes, according to the schedule, before Elizabeth was meant to be back in the car and on to the next stop. They were meant to stay right beside the vehicle.
Instead, the British royals stayed for 17. Walking up a pathway richly decorated with mats, greenery and flowers, they were welcomed with haka and karakia from a crowd numbering in the thousands. Apparently at Prince Philip’s request, they entered the famous meeting house Māhinārangi.
It was to be the first of many British royal visits to Tūrangawaewae marae, but the stop had been far from certain to take place at all. When Elizabeth’s father, George VI, had been scheduled to visit New Zealand in 1949, Tūrangawaewae had been on the itinerary; however, his illness caused the tour to be cancelled. Five years on, the National government of Sid Holland declined to include the marae on the Queen’s planned six-week royal trip throughout New Zealand.
For many Pākehā at this time, the Kīngitanga was regarded as a relic from another era. Many Māori, on the other hand, felt they had a special bond with Queen Victoria’s descendants, having signed the Treaty of Waitangi with her representatives in 1840. They expected her descendants to ensure the Treaty was honoured, since failure to do so would reflect badly on them.
Over the years, many efforts had been made to appeal directly to the British monarch. In 1884, Korokī’s great-grandfather, King Tāwhiao, travelled to England in the hopes of personally asking Queen Victoria to help restore the confiscated Waikato lands and redress the many other Treaty breaches. Intervention by New Zealand’s agent in London scuppered any prospect of a meeting between the two monarchs.
Thirty years later, King Te Rata travelled to England with another petition. This time, he and his principal adviser, Tupu Taingākawa, were granted an audience with King George V and Queen Mary, but only on the condition that their grievances were not to be raised before the British royal couple.
When the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) visited New Zealand in 1920, a request to stop at Ngāruawāhia, where Te Puea Hērangi (King Tāwhiao’s granddaughter) had recently purchased 10 acres of confiscated land on which to build Tūrangawaewae, was flatly rejected. As the Māori King and his supporters stood on the railway platform, ready to perform a welcome, the prince’s train passed through towards its next destination.
In 1953, things were shaping up to have a similarly unhappy outcome. But at a welcome at Waitangi on December 28, Māori speakers pleaded with the Queen to travel to Ngāruawāhia. Some reports suggest Elizabeth personally overruled continuing objections from the New Zealand government to insist on visiting Tūrangawaewae.
The visit was not confirmed until the day itself and was a rare victory for the Kīngitanga in the face of ongoing hostility towards the movement on the part of some officials. Little wonder, then, that the British royal couple received a rapturous welcome.
Queen Elizabeth developed a warm relationship with Te Atairangikaahu, and in November 1995 personally signed into law the Waikato Raupatu Claims Settlement Act in the presence of the Māori Queen. It’s a bond continued by their successors, as reflected in the presence of King Tūheitia at Westminster Abbey for the coronation of King Charles III.