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BooksJanuary 31, 2022

Learning to look Tāmaki Makaurau in the face: a review of Shifting Grounds

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Image: supplied

Anna Rawhiti-Connell reviews the new illustrated history book by Lucy Mackintosh.

I stuck to the main road when I went to Ihumātao in 2019. I went to drop off food on behalf of my family and some friends, to those seeking to protect that place, and I gave a mate a ride out. My mate immersed himself while I did not look up or down, or even around. 

I knew enough to know I wanted to make a small gesture but not enough to meet the gaze of that place fully. Not enough to know the ground on which I stood. Not enough to know that the road I was sticking to was likely a pathway between flourishing and peaceful settlements that existed long before the so-called establishment of Auckland, as marked by Auckland Anniversary Day. Not enough to know that the existence of these settlements debunk a long perpetuated idea about Māori being “constitutionally incapable of remaining at peace with his brethren”, as A.W. Reed wrote in 1955.

Head and shoulders photograph of a Pākehā woman, dark haired, smiling to camera. The dark, gorgeous cover of her book, dominated by simple drawing of a landscape.
Lucy Mackintosh is Curator of History at Tāmaki Paenga Hira/Auckland War Memorial Museum (Photo: Supplied)

Reading Lucy Mackintosh’s Shifting Grounds is a confrontation of that ignorance, but a gentle one, supported by a guiding hand. Her beautifully laid-out book concentrates on three places in Tāmaki Makaurau: the Ōtuataua Stonefields at Ihumātao, Pukekawa/Auckland Domain and Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill as rich and eloquent examples of “landscapes as archive”. 

The book is hardbacked and deeply researched (there are nearly 40 pages of references). It initially sat on my shelf for a while as I contemplated both the intimidation of history writ new, and unjustifiably and incorrectly, a weighty tome. Just as Mackintosh maintains that history is not a dead, static thing, but an ongoing vibration, the book itself is lively.

Beautiful bucolic photo of verdant grass, mature trees in foreground.
Olive trees in Cornwall Park, from the grove planted by John Logan Campbell on Maungakiekie (Photograph: Haruhiko Sameshima)

Each of the three places has two chapters, six in total, that unfold somewhat chronologically. Somewhat in the sense that the stories have time stamps, but the observational and lyrical style of writing, and the vast number of photographs, maps and illustrations, are a mesh of the contemporary references and that which would be deemed historical. You leap from double page spreads of current photos of the Ōtuataua Stonefields, quiet, still and uninhabited, to pictorial representations of undefended settlements of the Puhinui Peninsula that further debunk statements from historians like Reed. There is peace in the contemporary photo, just as there was peace there in the past.

A photo from the Lantern Festival at Pukekawa/Auckland Domain in 2017 follows one of the Ah Chee Gardens being ploughed over to make way for Carlow Park in 1921. The Ah Chee gardens bordered the Domain and the family went on to establish Foodtown and Georgie Pie. Mackintosh and her collaborators on the book are inviting you to consider then and now, not as fixed points but as evolutions. There is not a past version of the Chinese immigrant community in Auckland, nor a current one, there is instead a lineage that might connect your culinary experience in the city now to one in 1882. 

Black and white photo (actually two joined together so it's a wide landscape shot) of a market garden half ploughed out of existence by horse teams. Houses in background.
The Ah Chee gardens being ploughed over in 1921 to make way for the Carlaw Park Rugby Club stadium and grounds (Photo: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 7-A13262; 7-A13263)

Each chapter is focused on a different “story” or way into Mackintosh’s central tenet: that the land speaks and makes room “for the presences and absences, as well as the voices and silences, that have helped shape the city”. Her first chapter on the Ōtuataua Stonefields at Ihumātao delivers immediately. It is a site formed after volcanic eruptions tens of thousands of years ago. Modifications to and use of the land since the 15th century are still evident. Stone structures again support the idea that Māori in the region were not in a constant state of war with each other, but living in undefended settlements.

As Mackintosh outlines in her introduction, ignorance of this history is not wholly the result of individual failure. She quotes historian Russell Stone who says “the city has not been well served by historians” and explains that long periods of Māori settlement and history have been relegated to “a short section on prehistory” in the past. I immediately wrote “Why?” in my notebook, recalling a sixth form history lesson on historiography, the study of approaches to historical method and the writing of history. 

Colour photo taken during autumn or winter, of a large open grassy area, leafless trees, a large building in background. At right foreground, a fence of upright sticks surrounds a mature tree, beneath which you can just see a monument.
Pukekawa/Auckland Domain. The memorial to Pōtatau Te Wherowhero in the foreground; Tāmaki Paenga Hira/Auckland War Memorial Museum behind (Photo: Haruhiko Sameshima)

The answer is also depressingly familiar – for a long time history has been considered to be history purely by way of its dominant form of documentation, writing. “Winners” write history and write others out and the documenting of Auckland’s history is no different to that of other places that were colonised. In urban centres in New Zealand, eurocentric narratives of economic progress and civic monuments have been the loudest drum we’ve marched to and therefore have become “the history” we know.  Mackintosh’s first chapter on Pukekawa/Auckland Domain illustrates that well. She introduces readers to the likely place where Governor Fitzroy built a house for Waikato chief, Pōtatau Te WheroWhero, decades before we came to know the Domain as the site of the city’s commemoration of those who died at war. Its existence, a possible strategic move to shore up support from Māori leaders, calls into question an idea long supported by historians: that the signing of Te Titiri o Waitangi was “the end of Māori Auckland”. This is also evident based on archeological maps from Ihumātao, which reveal it to be a site of ongoing convergence and movement.  

In a way, the entire book answers the question of why so many of us might not know our city’s deeper stories. It does so by centering that which has been revealed by the landscape, and in many cases, subsequently ignored and not deemed to be “history”. The story of the construction of Sir John Logan Campbell’s obelisk and new coach road at Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill perfectly demonstrates the way we’ve ignored landscape in favor of curated history and commemoration. The destination of the road was the summit of Maungakiekie, a hugely significant site for mana whenua. At its opening in 1907, Campbell recounted his first trip up the mountain in 1843. “Sixty-four years lies buried in the past,” he declared. 


Black and white photo taken from elevated point, looking down at a crater / mountain slopes. A bunch of men are playing golf, bystanders in attendance.
The Auckland Golf Club leased land on Maungakiekie for an 18-hole golf course from 1901 to 1909 (Photo: H. Winkelmann, 1903, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1-W1077)

Campbell meant for the obelisk to commemorate Māori. And yet, during the construction of the road, as Mackintosh writes, “they had removed the Māori terraces, taonga and human remains that lay in their path, destroying the very history they were seeking to commemorate”.

Shifting Grounds reveals a meaning in the land; it finally allows Tāmaki Makaurau to be less of a place forged through the eyes of Pākehā historians, or merely as we see it now. Instead, Mackintosh’s writing and the book’s educative and exciting use of photography creates a place “where long histories have been crafted into the physical environment, where different knowledge systems have evolved and co-existed, and where the past continues to reverberate across time”.

When travelling in cities overseas I’ve often been told to “look up” to truly appreciate a city. Mackintosh asks us to look down, at the ground, at the tracks in the grass and beneath the earth, and consider that what we see now not only whispers our history back to us, but directly influences our present-day understanding and experience of Tāmaki Makaurau.

Shifting Grounds: Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, by Lucy Mackintosh (Bridget Williams Books, $59.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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