A popular 1950s book on the history of Auckland referred to the city as a “white man’s town”. A new book by Lucy Mackintosh, curator of history at Auckland War Memorial Museum/Tamaki Paenga Hira, puts the lie to that perception. By excavating less visible histories, she reveals a complex, fascinating and intimate picture of Auckland’s past, woven through the volcanic landscapes of Tāmaki Makaurau. Kennedy Warne reports.


A hundred pages in to Lucy Mackintosh’s book Shifting Grounds: Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, I come to a damning letter that stops me in my tracks. I am reading about the Ōtuataua Stonefields at Ihumātao. I am learning about the Ngāti Tamaoho chief Te Rangitāhua Ngāmuka, who took the baptismal name Jabez Bunting, Ēpiha Pūtini, when he converted to the Wesleyan faith. 

Ēpiha Pūtini and other rangatira had brought about the establishment of a mission station at Ihumātao and overseen the arrival of settlers into the area. They had welcomed these developments, which brought opportunities to participate in the growth of the new colonial capital. They were buoyant about the relationship and partnership with Pākehā that was emerging. They were riding the Treaty wave.

But by the late 1840s, that wave was turning into a treacherous breaker. Colonial policies privileging Pākehā and disadvantaging Māori were undermining everything the Treaty had promised. Traditional Māori levers of power were proving ineffective. Control was being lost.

Ēpiha was becoming disillusioned. The colonial government had bought land from him and not paid for it. He’d taken the surveyor-general to court, and lost the case. He wrote a letter to the newspaper to express his frustration. This is what he wrote:

“Now, my thoughts during these many years have been that there was one Law for both Natives and Europeans. Now, however, I fully understand that it is all deception, and that the Natives must still grovel in the mud. Now listen, friends, do not in future talk about the oneness (impartiality) of the Law for the European and the Native. It will not be correct in future to talk this oneness, because its falsity has now been publicly seen. Fathers, this is a great evil. Is there no Doctor that can give medicine for this disease?”

That is a question Māori are still asking today.

When I read history, I am struck not just by what was but also by what might have been. 

What might have been if Ēpiha Pūtini (and hundreds like him) had been paid for his land, if the courts had found in his favour, or if, in 1863, Governor George Grey had not forced a false choice on the people of Māngere, Ihumātao and Pūkaki: swear allegiance to the Queen or be held in contempt as rebels and be evicted from your land.

What might have been if the people of that place had not been made refugees, then seen their land confiscated, their ancestral mountains quarried to the ground, their coastline turned into sewerage ponds and their rivers polluted by industrial wastes?

These are some of the “what ifs” that bubble to the surface from a deep exploration of history such as the one undertaken by Lucy Mackintosh. What is revelatory about Shifting Grounds is that the stories she tells — about Ōtuataua, about Pukekawa/Auckland Domain and about Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill — are not just stories of what happened on the land, but with the land. 

These places are not passive backdrops to human action — they are agents, participants, characters in the dramas that unfold across their volcanic surfaces.

As we continue to learn from the Whanganui and Te Urewera legislation, land has personhood. So does water. They shape people even as they are shaped by people. Pākehā historians are coming to accept what Indigenous people have always known: that people and landscapes are inseparably intertwined. Whakapapa weaves them into a single fabric.

“Landscapes are increasingly viewed as active generators of identity, localness and community, rather than as empty and passive places,” writes Lucy Mackintosh. Her book pays attention to rocks, artefacts and structures as much as to human protagonists. 

Ōtuataua Stonefields, looking south. (Photo: Haru Sameshima)

In the Ōtuataua Stonefields, she notes: “For around six to seven hundred years, people have been picking up rocks, carrying them, turning them in their hands, arranging and rearranging them to make walls, garden structures, houses, pathways, roads and airport runways. 

“Narratives here have been crafted through stone, soil and water, as well as in voice and word. These reach back to some of the earliest human inhabitants of the place we now call Auckland, forming important but little-known histories that underpin the city. Walking through the stonefields today, it is difficult to see where the ground ends and the stone walls begin, where a volcano stops and a quarry starts, where one story finishes and another begins.”

Anyone who truly pays attention to a place like Ōtuataua can begin to sense this depth of connection, and respond to the land as a living entity. As Rāpata Te Rima Newson declares in the book’s opening karakia: “The maunga still breathe where generations have passed.”

This connectedness is seen not just at a macro geographical scale — to rivers, forests and mountains — but at a micro level as well. In the 1930s, Māngere kaumātua explained to amateur archaeologist Geoff Fairfield that the stone walls and gardens on nearby Puketūtū Island had specific and individual identities. 

“Each cultivation and sheltering wall was named after a particular ancestor or historical event, and these named walls gave family groups their rights to occupy certain parts of the gardens,” Lucy Mackintosh writes. 

“In the corners of each of these walls there were upright stones that were never moved and were considered tapu as they marked the limits of each family unit. The rights of each group to occupy these plots were maintained through tikanga. Fairfield also found piles of stone filled with sea shells across the fields, which were identified as pūranga (offerings) of crops to particular ancestral beings.”

It’s not just the living who are enmeshed in the land and its stories. The dead have presence and ongoing agency as well. 

“The community living at Ihumātao during this period knew the location of the burial sites and actively managed the networks of kinship and alliance that ordered the Māori world through ongoing burial practices,” Lucy Mackintosh writes. 

“They recorded, remembered and managed the specific relationships of individuals with particular places through the physical world, actively linking together the whakapapa of the dead and the living.”

Given all this weaving together of people and place, the catastrophe of eviction, confiscation and environmental ruin becomes all the more abominable. What the Māngere people experienced was a cutting severance from the core experience of relationship to place. Understanding that legacy of loss gives fresh appreciation to the intensity of the occupiers’ opposition to the conversion of part of that landscape into a housing development.

Te Wherowhero memorial Totara in the Domain, Auckland. (Photo: Haru Sameshima)

The centrality of relational networks — to people, to land — is the heartbeat of Shifting Grounds. Lucy Mackintosh’s talent is in teasing out connections that have either been forgotten or ignored. In her chapter on Auckland Domain, she considers the role in Auckland’s civic life played by Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, the future Māori king, who was gifted a house in the Domain grounds in 1845 by then Governor FitzRoy.

Te Wherowhero held several gatherings in his Domain residence with tribal leaders — including the aging Te Rauparaha, who was ensconced there under the equivalent of house arrest — to discuss the Treaty of Waitangi and relationships between Māori and the Crown. 

“At that moment,” Lucy Mackintosh writes, “the status and authority of the rangatira gathered at Te Wherowhero’s house was palpable, transforming the Government Domain from the ‘heart’ of the European community into a place of Māori authority and effect. Here, in the centre of early colonial Auckland in 1847, were two nodes of power co-existing in the same space, each with their own distinct realities and notions of identity and place. Both Te Wherowhero and the colonial government, operating under different assumptions but with partly convergent interests, were striving to maintain a fine balance at a critical moment in the formation of Auckland, and of New Zealand.”

Again, what might have been had Governor FitzRoy’s desire for Māori to participate in political governance been emulated by others, both settlers and governors? 

The opposite was the case. Settlers had no stomach for sharing power. Their vociferous discontent forced FitzRoy to be recalled. Colonial attitudes hardened. The path to war was set. No one knows today where Te Wherowhero’s house even stood.

At Maungakiekie, the third of Lucy Mackintosh’s landscapes of focus, she contrasts two monuments: the obelisk on the summit, spatially dominant but emotionally sterile, and an oblong stone embedded in stone and concrete near an out-of-the-way picnic area. 

The obelisk has no name — it is just a monument. But the stone does. In fact, it has two: Te Toka-Tū-Whenua, the stone that stands on the land, and Te Toka-i-Tawhio, the stone that travels. Originally from Te Arai, on the Northland coast, this toka had ceremonial importance, holding within it the spirits of the land. 

Mislabelled as a “rongo stone” and disconnected from the soil by a clumsily designed pedestal, Te Toka nonetheless maintains a powerful presence, writes Mackintosh. “Its connections with long histories, its embodiment as the spirit of the land, and its movement with the flows of people in and out of Tāmaki, give it a potency that eludes the bigger, more prominent obelisk on the summit of Maungakiekie.”

Once again, it is the overlooked story that has enduring resonance. “While the obelisk on Maungakiekie is a grand, authoritative and singular statement about the past, the places underneath, beside and surrounding it tell us different stories,” she writes. 

“The burial caves, Te Toka-Tū-Whenua, the destroyed places underneath the obelisk, and the mountain itself, show us everything about the past that the obelisk does not: the gaps in our knowledge, the silences of history, the interior nature of remembrance and the intimacy of lives lived.”

This is a fine and important book. It’s also an extremely handsome book, illustrated prolifically with contemporary images by master landscape photographer Haruhiko Sameshima and others, along with a plethora of engravings, sketches, paintings and photographs from historical archives.

It’s a book that any Aucklander with a desire to deepen their connection to the city’s landscape should read. It will enliven the past and enrich the present and perhaps even shape the future. 

For, as Lucy Mackintosh concludes: “The work of memory carries on, swirling beneath . . . constantly evolving, with no fixed beginning or end.”


Shifting Grounds: Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, written by Lucy Mackintosh and published by Bridget Williams Books, $59.99.

Kennedy Warne is the co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, published in 2013. Kennedy has written extensively about the connections between people and place, past and present, both in Aotearoa, the Pacific and elsewhere.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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