WHEN PRIME Minister Sir Joseph Ward stood on top of Maungakiekie, One Tree Hill, on Auckland Anniversary Day in 1907, he suggested the place could be improved by “a modest tower … with a revolving turret furnished with a powerful telescope”.

Sir John Logan Campbell had other ideas. The “father of Auckland” had farmed that land for 50 years and then gifted it to the city, and he was guest of honour that day, for the opening of the road to the summit.

Nearly blind, going deaf, aged 90, Campbell wanted a monument. But not to himself.

“Maungakiekie’s highest summit,” he told the crowd, “must be held sacred and tabooed, for here there must arise, towering heavenward, the mighty obelisk, a landmark from either shore, a Māori memorial for all time.”

But as Campbell knew, that same landscape already contained “a Māori memorial for all time”: burial caves had been discovered during the construction of the road, containing what the Auckland Star later described as “immense deposits” of human bones, or kōiwi.

“For Māori,” writes Lucy Mackintosh in her luminous new book Shifting Grounds, “Maungakiekie had a power of its own. It did not need an obelisk to declare it was a commemorative site.”

Still, an obelisk it would get, paid for with a £5000 bequest in Campbell’s will. It was erected, finally, in honour of Māori as Campbell wanted, in 1940.

There’s a lot in that. To Campbell, a monument had to be, well, monumental. To Māori, that wasn’t the point. He’d been astonished to learn of the burial caves: “To think,” he wrote, “that in all these years I never heard of the existence of these caves.”

A secret commemorative site? He found it incomprehensible.

Campbell’s respect for tangata whenua was ahead of its time, in one sense, but as Mackintosh notes, he “had little to do with Māori, and benefited much, if not more than many colonial settlers, from their loss of land and autonomy”.

Obelisks were popular and were often used, she writes, “to mark a mystical relationship with the land underneath”. But, she points out, they were “an imported, generic aesthetic form that bore no relationship to the people Campbell was trying to commemorate, their ongoing life in Auckland, or the place he considered sacred”.

It was his idea, not theirs. Nobody asked him for it. Sacred sites and other important historical remains were trampled to make it happen.

The “one tree hill” bit, though, does predate the Pākehā: before their arrival, the hill was known as Te Tōtara-i-āhua, on account of a lone tōtara growing near the top. Later, the tōtara was replaced with a pōhutukawa, which prompted the English-language name, and later again a pine tree assumed the role. Today, a grove of tōtara and pōhutukawa is being nurtured, with a view to one of them perhaps becoming the new “one tree”.

And something unrecorded happened in relation to those burial caves. There was a single exploratory visit and great excitement in the papers, but just one week later the One Tree Hill Board resolved to close the caves and do no further exploration. The minutes of the meeting do not say why.

LUCY MACKINTOSH’S book is a tremendous read. It’s a history of the city focused on what we can learn by studying “place”. Landscapes, locations and the secrets and counter-narratives they reveal. Not history as we learn it from the written word, she says, so much as history that comes out of the ground.

“Start with what’s under our feet,” she says, and inform it with “mātauranga Māori, archaeology, geography, botany and material culture”. And, I would add, the arts of storytelling.

The book is full of stories at the edge of stories, stories buried by the heavier tales of prevailing cultural understanding, stories that make you think again. And the burial caves are not the only place in which those other narratives are literally discovered underground.

In 2007, archaeologists dug up the old rugby league field at Carlaw Park, formerly part of the Domain and then a market garden run by Chan Ah Chee and his family. They found “rakes, knives, ginger jars, rice bowls and Chinese brownware containers”. No Chinese teaware, which they thought was unusual. But there was a set of Doulton and Co. (later Royal Doulton), with a Chinese-style blue willow pattern.

Mackintosh surmises it may have been used on the afternoon in 1894 when Lady Glasgow, the Governor’s wife, “paid a social visit” with her daughters to Mrs Ah Chee. As reported in The Observer, the visitors “played and sang, partook of afternoon tea, fruit, etc. and the whole party (yellow and white) had a good time”. Afterwards, Ah Chee sent a present to Lord Glasgow of “half-a-dozen silk handkerchiefs from the Flowery Land”.

As Mackintosh notes, the willow pattern was a standard of almost all British pottery manufacturers at the time. It was derived from 18th-century Chinese designs showing “scenes from a fabricated love story set in a Chinese landscape with a willow tree, pergolas, a bridge and Chinese figures”.

During the same period, Ah Chee and his workers were regularly attacked and beaten by white citizens of the city, their fences broken, their crops destroyed. Friend of the Governor notwithstanding, Ah Chee was also prosecuted for having his men work on a Sunday, although nobody seemed to complain about the fresh produce in the shops on Monday morning.

MACKINTOSH FOCUSES on just three sites: Maungakiekie, Pukekawa (the Domain) and the Ōtuataua Stonefields at Ihumātao. Each gets two chapters, for stories told about different times. All three are volcanic sites, giving them good soil and prominence in the landscape, both of which have helped generate a rich history in each place.

Campbell planted olives at Maungakiekie and even put them into commercial production. He was well travelled and he grasped that the crops of southern Europe might do better in Auckland than the British crops most immigrants were used to. Some of his olive trees, gnarled and enormous, are still there.

The father of Auckland was more interested in Italy than Britain. He was so fond of things Italian he even wanted, in the days before he conceived the obelisk, to build a campanile on the summit: a bell tower complete with bell. His wife nixed that idea.

Kūmara grew exceptionally well in the centuries before the olives and later, when recreational interests usurped commerce, the terraces and craters of the volcanic cone and its old pā site were converted into a golf course.

Ihumātao is less obviously fertile. You can look at it now, its three volcanic peaks largely quarried away, and see only a desolate place of broken, windswept stones. But in 1863, the year Governor George Grey ordered iwi off the land, there were “eight cornfields, potato fields, kūmara, 200 pigs, three cows, six horses, a plough and cart and a canoe capable of carrying 12 tons”. Kaimoana was in abundance. Ihumātao was a food bowl with established patterns of trade.

It’s a place of the earliest settlement: iwi trace their whakapapa back to the voyaging canoe Tainui in the 14th century. Over time, unique garden systems on the ancient lava flows were developed throughout the region. Only 200ha of stonefields gardens remain, half of them at Ihumātao.

Some of them are “undefended”, which Mackintosh says “tell the stories of long, peaceful periods in Tāmaki that have largely disappeared from the written sources and the physical landscape”. The stockaded pā sites we’re more used to hearing about are not the only ones with stories to tell.

The remains of “mound gardens” are still visible: rings of rock, filled with soil, stones and shell to create warm, moist garden beds for subtropical crops. Today, it’s the spaces between the mounds where grass grows more lushly, revealing the history in the manner of a photographic negative.

IN 1840, Apihai Te Kawau, the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei chief, who was born at Ihumātao, offered Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson 1200ha of land in Tāmaki Makaurau for the new country’s new capital.

It’s often been said Tāmaki was largely “abandoned” at the time, the result of the musket wars between various iwi. But that’s not so. Iwi that fled south and were given protection by Waikato-Tainui had returned in 1835, escorted by Waikato’s paramount chief, Te Wherowhero, and replanted their lands.

Thus began a complicated relationship that played out across two of Mackintosh’s chosen sites.

When Hobson’s officers visited in 1840, they described “widespread Māori occupation” of the Auckland isthmus. And despite some attempts at marginalisation, writes Mackintosh, “Te Wherowhero, along with other rangatira, demonstrated an ongoing engagement with the colonial town”.

Governor Robert FitzRoy understood this and in 1845 he built Te Wherowhero a house in the Domain, near his own home at Government House, just across the valley.

FitzRoy was cultivating Te Wherowhero’s support in case of attack by Ngāpuhi from the north. Te Wherowhero saw the arrangement as part of a larger plan: the two leaders, living within sight of each other, with the slopes of the new town and harbour set before them.

Although he never signed the Treaty of Waitangi, Te Wherowhero seems to have been keen on the idea that the two peoples could live together in partnership.

His house became a kind of headquarters for debate. Mackintosh tells us that while the gardens were being cultivated and “calves and lambs were being born on the surrounding Domain pasture”, Te Wherowhero and his house guest Te Rauparaha frequently hosted discussions about the treaty, land regulations and the development of the town.

“At that moment,” she 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.”

The Domain today retains almost no evidence of this. The house has gone, even its location is unknown. But in the grove of trees in the middle of the park, overlooking the playing fields, there’s a tōtara with a carved fence around it commemorating the Waikato chief. It was planted in 1940 by Te Puea Hērangi, his great-granddaughter.

BY THE 1860s, the tenuously woven relationships of Māori and Pākehā were unravelling fast. Māori formed the Kīngitanga movement and Te Wherowhero, who took the name Pōtatau, became its first king.

And then on July 10, 1863, soldiers arrived in Ihumātao to deliver an ultimatum to the people Te Wherowhero had brought back to Tāmaki to live in peace.

In Ihumātao, Māngere and other settlements nearby, they were required to take an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria or depart immediately for the Waikato. Mackintosh writes that these were people who had enjoyed “long and generally positive relationships with their Pākehā neighbours, the missionaries and the Crown”. They had an allegiance to the Queen.

But they had been protected by Te Wherowhero and were loyal to Kīngitanga. Many doubted Grey’s intentions and suspected they would be treated as enemies even if they swore their allegiance. So they entrusted their churches to the care of missionaries, abandoned their homes and fields and left, “travelling along the Great South Road among the hundreds of British troops who were moving to the front”.

The land was confiscated and not returned. The churches were desecrated. A letter in the New Zealander declared, “The Ihumata [sic] natives … were good neighbours and very much respected by the settlers around; nearly all their houses and fences have been destroyed, their church gutted, the bell, sashes, door, and communion table stolen, and the floor even torn up and taken away.”

Mackintosh suggests that what happened at Ihumātao undoes the conventional view that the Land Wars never reached Auckland, “nor even lapped its shores”, as A.W. Reed put it in 1955. On the contrary, she says, they started in Tāmaki, on July 10, two days before Grey’s troops crossed into the Waikato.

The village, the papakāinga, is still there. So is the dispute over the land and all its meanings, as we know now but as Mackintosh did not foresee when she began her research 10 years ago.

She quotes the historian Simon Schama: “In every city there are places where the boundaries between the past and the present, wild and domestic, nature and culture collapse.”

And she adds her own coda: “Entanglements between people and their material worlds are crucial to understanding experiences not only in wilderness and rural areas, but also in urban areas – including in New Zealand’s most human of landscapes, Auckland.”

There aren’t many written histories of Tāmaki Makaurau. This one’s a beauty. It began life as a PhD thesis and has been thoughtfully reconceived into a book for all of us, developed with care and with the support of a wide range of Māori advisers, beautifully designed and illustrated and written with great storytelling flair. It’s a seduction: an invitation to see the city afresh, and enjoy.

And along the way, it gives us John Logan Campbell’s epitaph, visible today on his grave on the summit of Maungakiekie: “Si monumentum requiris circumspice.”

“If you need a monument, look around you.”

The value of that was not lost on Lucy Mackintosh, although it’s hard to think that Campbell realised just how true it was.

Shifting Grounds: Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Lucy Mackintosh (Bridget Williams Books), $59.99

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