The first urban Māori were probably eighteenth century Sydneysiders. Until 1912, a laneway near the Australian Heritage Hotel, a whalers’ pub in The Rocks, was known by locals as “Māori Lane” – a nod to the 700 or so Māori who were living, working, or passing through Sydney in the half-century before the Treaty signing. Māori were the country’s first expatriates, and a good number were more familiar with metropolitan life than many of the early settlers in New Zealand’s tiny outposts.
It’s a useful reminder that nearly everything we know about urban Māori is probably wrong. The first urban Māori weren’t post-war. They were pre-Treaty. Even Ngāti Rānana, the old London Māori Club, predates similar clubs in Auckland and Christchurch. And in the usual telling, urban Māori are people who are out of work. No-hopers and abusers like Jake the Muss. In fact they were 19th century whalers and sealers in Sydney, and 20th century professionals in London.
Governments officials are usually as guilty as media and other narrative-makers. In reports “urban Māori” is sometimes a stand-in for disconnection and deficits. In the 1960s Jack Hunn, the ex-chief of the Māori Affairs Department, would link urban migration with rising crime, and in the 1990s the seemingly impartial New Zealand Official Yearbook would link urban Māori with “gangs”. If you read enough, “urban Māori” begins to look indistinguishable from “the Heke family”.
Tomorrow’s news edition examines Waitangi week.