Dave Veart knows a bit about the rich history of Ihumātao and how, around seven centuries ago, the Polynesian voyagers from Hawaiki set about adapting to their new world on the shores of the Manukau Harbour, not far from what’s now the Auckland airport. But adapting to the demands of the migrants pouring in from elsewhere for nearly 200 years has been even tougher — especially when Pākehā decision–makers have their own history of ignoring Māori interests. As you can see from this kōrero with Dale, Dave doesn’t share that damaging ignorance.
Kia ora, Dave. Your training and work as an archaeologist and historian has meant that you’ve been able, through the years, to provide a well–informed voice on heritage sites. We’ll get on to Ihumātao shortly, but I’m hoping that first you might tell us about your background and what led you to this line of work.
Well, my full name is David Geoffrey Veart. The surname comes from Yorkshire where it’s pronounced Vart, I think. It was brought here by my great-grandfather, George Veart, who came to Nelson on a merchant ship in the 1860s. But he and a couple of mates decided that they’d had enough of being sailors, so they hopped over the side and headed into the hills with the idea of becoming goldminers.
George eventually married the granddaughter of one of the Fencible soldiers who came to Howick in the 1840s. But we no longer have any connection with our English whānau. Those links are too distant now.
My mother, Jean Pynor, was an Australian who met my father, Albert, when he came back from World War II. I got my middle name, Geoff, from Mum’s favourite cousin who died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. And David comes from my godfather who was an officer in the New Zealand navy.
Dad’s family were working class. In fact, his father shovelled coal in the Devonport gasworks. My father’s life, of course, was changed by the war. He’d been a very good sportsman in the 1930s, as a rugby league hooker for Auckland and as a champion swimmer and surf lifesaver. But, in 1940, he put his age up and went overseas to Australia and trained in what was called the “independent companies”, which were like the beginning of the commandos.
Then he came back to New Zealand and ended up in North Africa where he spent a lot of time with army units that operated outside normal operations, a bit like the Long Range Desert Group. Then he was the engineer officer attached to the 28th Māori Battalion in Italy, and his experience there had a lasting influence on him, as well as on me and my sisters.
It was something he didn’t often talk about. But, after he died, I found the citation and the recommendation for his Military Cross, written and signed by Colonel Awatere who was the commanding officer of the 28th at that stage.
He spoke te reo Māori in some fashion. I don’t know how good it was, but he seemed to be able to make himself understood. And what I got from him as I grew up was an incredibly positive idea of Māori and things Māori. He’d left school at 14 and was really a self-taught man reading lots of books of history and about the wars in New Zealand.
Another Māori connection I have, although not one I’m quite as proud of, is that my great-grandfather, George Veart, was one of Von Tempsky’s Forest Rangers during the Taranaki campaign — although, luckily, he missed that last battle where Von Tempsky was killed.
There are military links through my mother as well. She was an Australian army sergeant and she served in Lae, in Papua New Guinea. She worked in the big military hospital there, nurse-aiding and stuff, but then largely running this enormous hospital laundry. Years later, she still spoke pidgin well enough to impress us kids.
So I grew up in this ordinary sort of Onehunga household but with parents who had a very different experience of life from that of my friends’ families. And I just absorbed the view that not being white, not being Pākehā, was a natural and positive thing.
I can remember that, in my extreme youth, my old man worked at the Auckland gasworks and there were occasions when he’d lend trucks to guys to go to tangihanga. They’d disappear for a few days and then come back with a sack of crayfish or a couple of ducks. And all this sort of stuff was quite normal.
How about your school years and your interaction with Māori people there?
In the 1960s, I went to Onehunga High School which was one of those big secondary schools in working-class suburbs set up in the 1950s. From memory, it had more than 1,000 pupils. But almost everybody left school at 15 and, by the time I got to the seventh form, I was only one of two boys left in that class — and I ended up as head boy largely because there wasn’t much of a choice.
It’s a very Māori-Pasifika school these days, but it wasn’t in my time. Just a few Māori, mostly from Māngere Bridge. I’m reminded of how few when I look at the old photos. But, in many ways, it was a good school. Nothing whatsoever, though, relating to Māori. Not even a token of a token as far as I can recall. And, in our history classes, we never examined what had happened just over the harbour from us.
My association with Māori was closer at university. The first flat I lived in had two Māori, one Sāmoan and two Pākehā students. The Māori students were activists and Ngā Tamatoa held its first meetings in the flat living room.
I understand that, carrying on from school, you studied anthropology and history, but then you became intrigued, as perhaps we all should be, by archaeology — and that, in the course of focusing on Auckland’s pre-European history, it became clear that Māori were very sophisticated agri-scientists.
Most of my research over the years and my post-graduate thesis was on Māori garden systems in the volcanic parts of Auckland. And what fascinates me about this history is that we can do research in this country that you can’t do almost anywhere else in the world.
Here we can see the response of a group of people who had a very sophisticated food production system but who then arrive in a world that’s totally different from where they’d been. The wildlife is different, life is different, and it’s much, much colder. So the gardeners had to immediately plant seed crops or they weren’t going to have any food crops to plant the following year.
And they had to quickly work out the best place to grow their crops. But, for starters, the staples of the Pacific — breadfruit and coconuts — don’t grow at all. It’s just too cold. Taro, which is sort of the fuel of most of the western Pacific, does grow, but it grows really slowly. People now grow it in glasshouses but that wasn’t an option at the time.
So people had to figure out which crops they were going to grow — and they found out that kūmara was best of all. And it was the best because it wasn’t a tropical crop. It was a temperate crop that Polynesian voyagers had picked up in South America and brought back into the South Pacific. We can tell that now from the DNA. Being carried by voyagers was the only way it could get into the South Pacific. So kūmara arrived and became a big thing here.
But kūmara need the best soil, the best conditions. And those early Māori gardeners knew soil. If you look at a Māori dictionary for words for soil, there are pages of those words. For all sorts of soil types. These people could identify the qualities of a piece of dirt as well as any soil scientist. And they soon saw the value of the volcanic soils, big areas up around the Bay of Islands and here in Tāmaki.
Volcanic soil is especially productive because it’s much warmer than clay soil and that’s because it doesn’t hold water. The water passes straight through volcanic soil and leaves it nice and warm. The other thing is that, of course, it has large amounts of stone in it and stone absorbs the heat of the sun during the day and then radiates it back into the soil.
Māori gardeners took advantage of this by constructing paddocks of stone and soil mounds in the Ōtuataua Stonefields with little mounds made up, 50-50, of stone and soil. If you were to take the temperature of those mounds, you’d find, as archaeologists have done, that they’re significantly warmer than the soil a metre away. What the gardeners were doing, centuries ago, was getting their kūmara off to an early start, up to six weeks early, by using this system.
And, if you visit the big volcanic pā around Tāmaki, you’ll see, by the number and size of the rua, the storage pits, how much these people were growing. My favourite is a rua on Māngere Mountain that’s so huge that you could stick a decent-sized car in it. It’s a bit like a statement of the pā’s wealth: “Just look at how much kūmara we’ve got.” God knows how much you could fit in there, and there’s more and more of them, so the amount of food coming out of these volcanic fields was enormous.
Of course, the other advantage that the local people had was the two harbours. And, pre-European, the Manukau was an amazingly wealthy harbour. Even in my time as a kid, when the tide went out, you could get out on to the flats without a waka and gather food. No need for nets. All you needed was your hands and a strong back and a good idea of when the tide was coming in.
I remember going out with my father to get scallops and there used to be big mānuka poles stuck in the sandbanks to guide you home when the tide came in. Once the tide was even just a couple of inches above the sandbank, you were lost if it wasn’t for the poles you could follow back to shore.
So this is an incredibly wealthy place, which is why Governor Grey and his settlers wanted it so much.
And in there lies the central story, because we know that, in 1863, Grey proclaimed that all Māori in that South Auckland and northern Waikato area had to abandon everything and join their Waikato whanaunga, or they’d have to link up with his British troops in his war against the Waikato.
And, in the midst of all this now, is the Ihumātao peninsula and its people trying to hold on to almost the last of their land. It’s easy to understand the push for more roads and residential developments, but that can disconnect a people from their history, can’t it?
Absolutely. And that’s what I feel when I look at that peninsula. What’s interesting about it is that we have very good photographic records of it from the 1930s, while it was still pretty much intact. That record comes from an amateur archaeologist, Geoff Fairfield, who had a mate with an aeroplane, and they flew out from what was just then the Māngere aerodrome and he photographed all this land.
So we can see the extent of the gardens — amazing photographs of field after field with these low stone walls marking off the gardens. The most tragic are the photographs of Maungataketake, which was the biggest mountain and the biggest pā in the area. It was pretty much still intact in my teens but now it’s just an enormous hole in the ground.
There were people at the time saying you can’t do this because it’s the last and the most amazing volcanic pā site that we’ve got. But the whole concept of Pākehā private ownership meant that the family who owned the mountain had the “right” to turn it into a hole in the ground.
The argument at the time was that it was in the way of the aircraft coming into Māngere airport, although that didn’t sound convincing. But, anyway, it was destroyed, and there’s also been the destruction of much of the peninsula which was an absolute gem. When I started going out there in the early ‘80s as an archaeologist, there were parts that have subsequently being quarried. And places where there were a number of small houses. All gone now.
What those early scenes told us was that there are times in the Māori history of Tāmaki when people were confident enough not to have to live in their pā with their defences. They could just live out in the open. It was a world where warfare wasn’t a problem — or, rather, you were part of a confederation that was so large that the boundary of the rohe was far enough away that you didn’t have to worry about it.
But, because almost everywhere else in the city the gardens have been destroyed, you get a one-sided idea of Māori society being nothing but pā sites and defences and warfare. Whereas, in fact, largely it was about gardening and fishing and eating. And that’s the story which is still told by these parts at Ihumātao that are under threat.
They’re telling us the story of how Māori used this land and how there was this transfer from the time of the ancient gardeners, who were growing kūmara and the traditional crops for themselves, to a new stage where the gardeners grew crops, notably potatoes and sweetcorn, to feed a growing Auckland from the 1840s onwards.
The potatoes that they were getting off the passing ships are what archaeologists have referred to as white potatoes, although most of them aren’t white. They’re sort of yellow or purple or some other colour. But they suddenly meant that, whereas you were getting one crop of kūmara a year, you were now getting two crops of spuds. So, suddenly, huge amounts of food were available.
Strangely enough, this was noted by the Onehunga harbourmaster who recorded the waka-loads of food being brought across from the south of the Manukau to be sold on the beach at Onehunga. The quantities were huge. We’re talking tonnes. Then there was wheat which was grown on the Ōruarangi (or Wallace) block, the area that’s under contention at the moment.
That’s where the Māori gardeners learned to grow wheat. The staple of the Pacific is largely root vegetables of some sort or another. But, for Europeans, the staple is bread, and the problem with flour is that, if you’re bringing it from Europe, it’s pretty rancid by the time it gets here.
So local flour production was important. There was a Methodist mission station right out on the peninsula at Ihumātao, where the gardeners learned how to grow wheat. And they built a flour mill there, milled flour, and they sold that as well. They were wealthy people and, as Vincent O’Malley has pointed out, essentially the people of Auckland, the Pākehā settlers, were their market.
So why on earth would you bloody attack and destroy the people who were buying your produce and making you wealthy? Grey’s argument that these people were a danger and had to swear allegiance to the Queen or be moved on was complete nonsense.
Thanks, Dave. How is it then that we’ve arrived at a situation here in 2019 when, after all the loss of land and after all the concessions that the local people have made, they’re on the verge of losing more. Would a Māori environmental authority have allowed such inroads?
I’ve been amazed, throughout this entire process, by the extreme ignorance of the powers that be. I would’ve thought that senior officials in council and government would’ve had decent briefings all along the way.
But what’s happened has been a complete failure of the system that protected the Ōtuataua Stonefields but hasn’t protected this Ōruarangi block.
I think there are two main reasons for that.
One is the change from the system that operated when the protection of the stonefields was being organised in the 1990s. We had a joint management committee for the stonefields with a significant representation from the Makaurau marae. There was also the Auckland Regional Council and DOC (the Department of Conservation).
But, with the arrival of the Supercity, that’s all gone, along with the Manukau Parks staff who knew this place as well as I do, as well as anybody did — and they would never have allowed the Fletchers housing project to proceed. So that’s been one problem.
The second part is that the heritage protection legislation in New Zealand is appallingly bad at protecting Māori sites. All you’ve got to do is look at the number of sites that have had protection. The majority of them are Pākehā sites — and most of those are buildings. Archaeological sites sort of fall through the gaps. They just don’t get the same level of protection. And what’s also happened is that the protection that was offered by the legislation has been watered down by the way the courts have chosen to interpret the legislation.
I stood up as the archaeological expert witness for the SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape) group and I found myself having to argue how important this piece of land was, without being able to make any reference at all to the land next to it — the Ōtuataua Stonefields — because the court had decided that you can only argue the heritage importance of a piece of land within the boundaries of that piece of land.
That might work okay for Pākehā heritage because the boundaries might actually reflect the way Pākehā ownership goes. But, in terms of Māori sites, it’s completely irrelevant where the line on the map is. It may have nothing to do with the way Māori have used the land.
The other thing that used to protect sites was that you had a number of government agencies involved. For instance, DOC took on a lead role in trying to get the stonefields into public ownership. But, ever since then, it has walked away from any responsibility it has to heritage. It’s decided that it will leave everything up to Heritage New Zealand.
So we lost them and we lost the Auckland Regional Council, which had archaeologists who had a regional approach to heritage issues. They knew that there were very few of these stone garden sites like Ōtuataua left, and they could give their overview. Well, they’ve gone.
I’m a member of the Auckland Council’s heritage advisory panel. I’ve talked to heritage staff there and they tell me that, in the course of this piece of land being declared an SHA (Special Housing Area), they were never consulted. The only people within the system who actually knew anything about it were not even asked about it. This was either because the people making the decision didn’t realise they needed to be consulted, or they decided just not to bother asking.
So, the whole system is set up to fail Māori and to force people into a circumstance where they have to do deals where they may not, in fact, be 100 percent behind it. But it may seem that it’s the only option they have, seeing that all the cards are held by the other Treaty partner.
What’s your view of the moves that Pania Newton and her fellow protesters and protectors have been making?
Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge the long connection I’ve had with people from this area, especially Joe and Maurice Wilson, kaumātua from Makaurau Marae who I worked with in the early 1980s and later on during the creation of the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve. They taught me a great deal, something I’m very grateful for.
I’d say that Pania and the SOUL group have scrupulously attempted to follow the letter of the law from the very beginning. They’ve tried every avenue — the Environment Court, council planning hearings, petitions. I mean 20,000 people is a significantly sized petition for something which is, in effect, a local issue.
I don’t think they were left with any option, really. There is a history for occupation as a way of resisting when you see the state doing things that you think are morally or legally wrong. And I think, within that framework, that what they’re doing is admirable — and especially admirable in that, when they were taking their petition to parliament, they stopped at Parihaka on the way.
They are staunch followers of the non-violence principles set out by Te Whiti. And I’m confident that, if anything goes wrong, it will be very much against their wishes and beliefs.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and non-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going. If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider contributing $5 or $10 a month.