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Book Review: SHIFTING GROUNDS — Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau

by Lucy Mackintosh, Bridget Williams Books, 300pp, $59.99

Book Review: SHIFTING GROUNDS — Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau

Feb 17, 2022 Books

History, even recounted in its most sincere articulation, can only be partial. This is the paradox that faces the historian. By its very making, history is disruptive, contingent, errant. Though efforts to tame, order and categorise into coherence remain the imperative for the historian, history is made by both material and immaterial properties, bound by negation and contingency, so resists such sovereignty. History is authored by its master; it is articulated and made into being and propagated by the dominant voice, the dominant group; the aim is to seize, condense and script what cannot be reconciled into a grand or unified narrative into exactly that.

Such a comprehension of history and its variegated expressions and functions is an operation- al premise of Lucy Mackintosh’s Shifting Grounds, which applies an archival methodology to three sites in Tāmaki Makaurau: the Ōtuataua Stonefields at Ihumātao, Pukekawa (the Domain) and Maungakiek- ie (One Tree Hill). These are all volcanic sites and thus noted for their quality soil and related topographical properties; those foundational elements that bind place to people. And indeed this is a central concern of the book: the connection of people with place and the surfacing of submerged histories.

Unlike many cities in the world, there are few overtly declared expressions of patriotism here in Tāmaki Makaurau. There are a good many reasons for this, but I think about it from time to time as I walk the streets of this city, in which I was born, and pass people wearing caps stitched with LA or NY insignia. What do these emblems convey? What is the intention of the wearer? Why such an apparent sense of pride in or affinity for a city abroad and no equal sentiment for what is inarguably a city one can feel proud of and might ennoble with a similar gesture? One reason may be that, as this book argues, the histories that might engender such expressions of care, respect and affection remain largely unknown.

I was raised in West Auckland: swampy Glen Eden, the winding artery of Scenic Drive in Swanson, the low quiet of Bethells Valley. I went to high school in Avondale, spent my teens skulking around Henderson, Rānui, New Lynn, Oratia, Te Henga, Lincoln Road — itself an exemplary model for living, multifarious history. When pressed for allegiance I acknowledge myself a West Aucklander before any other geographic identity, and the affection I have for this place is pronounced and deep.

Having recently returned after some years abroad to a city I thought I knew, there was an initial sense of estrangement. The rapid growth of the city and its continual building upon its own histories, the tearing down and hasty replacements that too often show no respect or knowledge of what lies beneath — these were and are unsettling. So too are the narratives the city and its monuments choose to devise, express and eulogise, borne out in both the built environment and the city’s psychic life.

Tāmaki is sometimes compared to the city I left, Los Angeles, for reasons that are a mystery to me beyond the similarly clogged motorways and the fact that Tāmaki is also a collection of vaguely connected suburbs strewn across the land that are, like LA, and increasingly, divided by race and class. Over some weeks my estrangement subsided into a more generalised and permanent state, which was troubling: if you do not know what you stand on, you cannot care for that which surrounds you, and you will remain a mystery to yourself and to the world to which you owe a civic duty. While localised histories are very evident in smaller towns, Tāmaki is so disparate and layered in its histories that the foundations upon which we walk can seem elusive. There are austere colonial monuments and grey statues, axiomatic British surnames emblazoned on street signs, grand structures and manicured parks — each and all sublimated into our consciousness and experience of the city. The bedrock upon which these records rest is less distinct, if not invisibilised or erased, but the land remains as a living witness.

We must know our histories. If we do not, then we both self-delude and refuse to mature — refuse to forgo the fantasy and accept our responsibilities. We lie to others by omission or otherwise, and to those children who come after us. We manipulate history for our own means, have no sense of social obligation, absolve ourselves of consequences, remain unable to imagine a future or accept the present in its fullest and most uncomfortable expression. Getting past this involves a reckoning with discomfort, which we must sit with, be with and continually examine, fashioned as we are by knowledge of our personal and shared histories.

Entwined truths like these are what Shifting Grounds unearths. Entering into a co-authorship with the land and the voices of the past and present, Mackintosh masterfully critiques the notion of a singular truth, deftly and lyrically weaving stories of relation and integration into over- looked and erased histories across the isthmus. Over six chapters in this substantial opus, Mackintosh examines what lies beneath and considers the ways in which sites, materiality, objects, rocks, memorials and gardens construct and describe both human and geographic narratives. Approaching the ground and the land as a living archive, Mackintosh recounts the varied workings of history in Tāmaki with an interdisciplinary approach, taking up mātauranga Māori, empire, colonialism and settler identity, geography, horticulture, religious history, archeology and material objects.

As Mackintosh asserts, written histories of Tāmaki Makaurau are not in excess and in Shifting Grounds we are given an assuredly remarkable and immediately essential volume that exceeds its own geographic boundaries. It will become an indispensable text for seeking out and illuminating the deep and the buried within Aotearoa, and critically examining those dominant narratives and acts that have colonised not only tangata whenua but the stories, monuments, places and names contiguous with the city and the nation.

Mackintosh notes that the city’s historical fabric has been decimated by development and expansion with little regard to the significance of rich Māori history. “Books that have been written about Auckland have often overlooked its Māori history, or relegated it to a short section on ‘pre-history’, in which Tāmaki is portrayed as a highway for armies who were constantly at war with each other,” she writes.

In her work Mackintosh challenges such assertions. ‘Pre-history’ is an imperial term that centres settler-colonial narratives within the realm of historical truth and attempts to eradicate from mind and place the first inhabitants of this land, their sovereignty and histories, by partitioning time into discrete moments bound by Western frameworks, rather than history being relational and continuously dynamic. This correction functions as an organising and operational principle for the book, which thoughtfully contemplates long and braided histories as much as it exhumes these narratives. ‘Deep time’ is often referred to within geologic history, however its use here within the book’s comprehensive and rigorous research shows a more poetic dynamic at work. Above all, Mackintosh is excavating stories. Focusing on just three sites, each with distinct identities, the author is able to dig up interwoven histories with profound insight. This approach offers history expanded beyond convention- ally written accounts; and the act of expansion throws light on how historical narratives are constituted, felt, heard, performed, made visible. Mackintosh is probing in her questioning of how histories are articulated, and through a heterogenous approach to recounting narrative moments she shows how the past remains within the present.

Shifting Grounds

The Ōtuataua Stonefields at Ihumātao, or Te Ihu a Mataoho (The Nose of Mataoho), are repositories of the earliest papakāinga settlements in Tāmaki, with local iwi tracing their whakapapa to the voyaging canoe Tainui in the 14th century. The 100-hectare site is a vestige of Māori gardens that once encompassed 8000 hectares. The fields are covered in volcanic rock, formed into mounds and walls, and through the freighted tension between presence and absence these rocks and what they envelop, hold or cleave convey stories of early Māori settlement and gardening, and later settler- colonial arrangements.

Ihumātao is now known in the national consciousness as a powerful site of protest and protection against planned development by a private company on sacred land. Certain sites hold within them an especially potent wairua or spirit which carries across generations and Ihumātao is one such place. With compelling detail Mackintosh elucidates the early Māori history of Ihumātao and, later, the arrival of the missionaries who erected stations, the European settlers and the colonial government. The stonefields are one of few sites wherein “the wider context of Māori agriculture and settlement in Tāmaki can still be seen, making them crucial for understanding Auckland’s deeper history”.

It is a site that enjoins the living with the dead: “Place names, oral histories and archaeology reveal a continuity of occupation in this area by the same broad group of people for hundreds of years up to the present day […] these histories open up a longer, more heterogeneous history of Auckland, and depict it as a place that was not only a ‘highway’ for tribal groups, which constantly came and went, but also a place with a richer, more complicated past.”

From this ground Mackintosh traces the establishment of Auckland in 1840, returning again to Ihumātao at the outbreak of the Waikato War in 1863. Challenging historical claims that the war began in Waikato, Mackintosh instead shifts the origin to Ihumātao where Māori were forced from their lands by the government. Sir George Grey makes his inevitable appearance as a particularly nefarious character. His edict, Mackintosh writes, marked the beginning of the war and led to the confiscation of the stonefields from Māori. Given the events at Ihumātao over recent years, this episode is particularly germane and occasions judicious reflection on the fact that history, or for that matter the repressed, if expressly ignored or erased will return in one form or another.

This and many other of the stories in Shifting Grounds are admirably illuminating and reconfigure one’s conceptions of Tāmaki Makaurau’s history as previously told. As Mackintosh maintains, the forcible eviction and confiscation of land at Ihumātao has seldom been recognised in the history of Tāmaki Makaurau and the Waikato War. To learn these histories is to reinscribe contemporary realities with a deeper and more reflective ontological and material understanding of history that demands an ethical commitment to pre- serving the land and the his- tory it embodies.

Winding its way through the 18th and 19th centuries, Shifting Grounds tells and complicates a number of compelling stories of Pukekawa/Auckland Domain from 1840 through 1860. Tāmaki Paenga Hira/ Auckland War Memorial Museum looms large over the grounds; a grandiose neoclassical construction commemorating those who died in World War I. While this and other leaden monuments and commemorations may govern our initial impression of Pukekawa, its forgotten histories are equally if not more compelling. Its remains are no longer in existence, but within the grounds there was a cottage built for the first Māori king, appointed in 1858, a leader of the Waikato iwi and founder of the Te Wherowhero Kiingitanga dynasty, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero.

Knowing the story of this remarkable man’s life and and legacy expands our knowledge of not only Pukekawa but Māori relations and coexistence with Pākehā settlers in early colonial Auckland. Te Wherowhero, for example, assigned the name ‘hill of bitter memories’ to Pukekawa, for the Māori who died during the intertribal wars of the early 1800s.

The impulse is to write with great detail about many such stories here, such is the breadth and scope of this book, however the lives of those who populate Shifting Grounds demand to be discovered within its pages. Mackintosh is committed to repositioning what have been relegated as minor histories to the forefront of historical record. She suggests that while the authority of colonial sites, structures and artefacts may prevail through their size and heft they are considered principal not by their superiority but for their insistence on domination.

The title of Chapter Three, ‘The Crooked Place’, leads to one of Mackintosh’s most eloquent observations.

Recounting the life of an exceptional and prominent Ngāti Tamaoho chief, Te Rangitāhua Ngāmuka, who later adopted the name Jabez Bunting, or Ēpiha Pūtini, Mackintosh excavates early missionary encounters at Āwhitu and Ihumātao. Pūtini was an influential figure, and one whose story betrays the specious relationship between Māori, Pākehā settlers and missionaries, and the British government. Early church history was proficient in documenting and archiving history by virtue of correspondence and ephemeral documentation such as testimony, which extends beyond its own remit into broader histories of Tāmaki Makaurau in the 19th century. A respected and honorable man, Pūtini in 1850 attempted to take the Surveyor General to court on account of his having not paid Pūtini for land sold. Having previously turned to the press to express rightful grievance with the colonial government, he penned a striking letter of condemnation and lament:

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.

Mackintosh continues the account: “Eventually, Pūtini came to the conclusion that the law, which he had counted on to make ‘crooked’ things ‘straight’, could neither protect him nor de- liver the justice he sought.” Again, history is nothing if not instructive in its recurrence.

The stories that emerge from Ihumātao during this period ricochet across time. Mackintosh interrogates the prevailing view of Aotearoa’s towns as ‘neo-Europe’ when these were in fact places far more complicated than such a descriptor submits. Here, she counters this assumption: “Māori were central protagonists well after the establishment of the town of Auckland, and early European settlers and missionaries were regularly defeated by their physical environment.”

It is worth noting this observation because the power of language is such that it makes things material. If, in our history books, we read and thus announce that Māori were not active agents in historical processes and events, the logical inference is a subjugation allowing for erasure; a justification for erasure. How we position actors in history through utterance matters deeply. Māori were not passive extras in a cast and it is dangerous to project such assertions. What is spoken, after all, comes into being, be it truth or otherwise.

Te Wherowhero memorial, Auckland Domain

In 1878, John Logan Campbell — an early settler, prominent businessman and ‘founding father’ of the city of Auckland, as he was later acclaimed — planted a substantial olive grove in Cornwall Park, on the flanks of Maungakiekie. Inspired by his sojourns throughout the Mediterranean, Campbell set about crafting another expression of settler identity in Tāmaki, albeit one deviating slightly from the usual dominions of the British Empire. Campbell managed the cultivation of around 2500 trees, harvesting the olives, producing oil and establishing international networks for trade. In line with his gaze beyond the motu, Campbell also replaced the pōhutukawa atop Maungakiekie with specimen of an exotic species, the Monterey pine.

Mackintosh borrows from American historian Jean O’Brien in describing such acts as “firsting and lasting”. O’Brien, she writes, “has demonstrated how European settlers in New England constructed origin stories that cast those of Native Americans as preludes to their own arrival, and subsequently built their own monuments and adopted place names that erased indigenous people from New England’s histories and landscapes”. Elaborating on the work of other historians in Aotearoa, Mackintosh describes how Pākehā “inserted themselves into the land through non-fiction literature [and] how surveying practices inscribed new meanings onto the land”.

The chronicle of Campbell’s olive grove is fascinating. As I understand it, it warrants selection for several reasons: one being the intention to counter the hegemonic narrative that British settlers unequivocally desired to replicate Britain, and another to demonstrate the collaborative spirit of the enterprise. The grove’s success, Mackintosh writes, was contingent upon the soil crafted by Māori over hundreds of years, the grafting techniques of an American, the skill of an Italian immigrant, and the techniques of a Chinese market gardener. Here, Mackintosh is asserting the intrinsically collaborative nature of making history. Furthermore, she uses this example to articulate history as embodied through taste and smell — by virtue of bottled olive oil, which functions as its own, animated archive. As Derrida contends, the archive is no fixed thing but takes place as an event, shifting and living.

Another history related by Mackintosh is about the Chinese market gardens around Pukekawa, specifically through the Ah Chee family, whose gardens, established in 1882, adjoined the Domain for almost 40 years. Artefacts from the grounds were unearthed in 2007 as the Carlaw Park sports stadium, which had replaced the gardens in 1920, was itself demolished. Through excavations archeologists uncovered gardening and cooking items alongside remnants of the Ah Chee family house.

Mackintosh notes that Chinese histories, like those of Māori, have also been erased in Tāmaki. In an absorbing chapter Mackintosh draws upon archeological findings and historical sources to illustrate a rich portrait of thriving Chinese market gardens. This history is woven through an overview of the Auckland Industrial, Agricultural and Mining Exhibition, which took place in 1913–14 in Pukekawa/the Domain. What remains from that affair is the tea house and bandstand, two structures familiar to many Aucklanders.

In 1882 Chan Ah Chee built a home and garden at the foot of the Domain; he was, at the time, one of only a handful of Chinese settlers. Ah Chee’s marriage to Lian See in 1886 is thought to have been the first Chinese wedding in Tāmaki, and their property eschewed European distinctions between domestic and commercial space. Bringing sophisticated gardening techniques to Aotearoa, the gardens thrived and business increased. Mackintosh notes the prevailing racism these migrants faced: “The abuse experienced by Ah Chee and others reflected a wider antagonism towards the Chinese community.” In 1881 the infamous poll tax was introduced for Chinese immigrants, while other legislation grew increasingly penal. One argument holds that Ah Chee, and other Chinese business owners, worked long hours for low pay, which threatened Pākehā settler practices.

Sir George Grey was openly hostile toward Chinese market gardeners and his sublimated envy and fear expressed as xenophobic racism finds similar expression else- where today. Describing Chinese as “cunning”, he feared their arrival would foment change in the practices of European labour. Mackintosh writes, “Grey had fixed ideas about who the ideal immigrants to New Zealand were, stating: ‘I wish to see a great and purely European national with no cross but that of the Māori in it.’”

In 1920, following on from the Auckland Exhibition and its aggressive assertion of Pukekawa as a site created for the express purpose of propagating British culture, the Domain board cancelled Ah Chee’s land lease, offering it instead to the Auckland Rugby League Association to construct sports grounds and a stadium. Ah Chee returned to China, leaving two sons to run the business. In 1958 Ah Chee’s grandson, Thomas Ah Chee, founded Foodtown in Ōtāhuhu; this expanded nationwide and in 1977 he established the ultimate expression of national identity; the fast-food chain Georgie Pie.

Excavating the coaxial layers of histories at Pukekawa thus reveals the nexus of relations between dominant and marginalised communities, and the project of nation-building and national identity that occurred there. There is a tension between the idea of collective identity — the impulse that moves one to don a cap emblazoned with the letters of one’s city — and the recognition that perhaps no such collective identity exists, not least in the Pākehā world. Rather, there is a complex web of interrelations. In the first instance, the monuments at Pukekawa eclipse those minor histories contained within the folds of the muse- um; artefacts of the Chinese gardens, objects exhibiting Māori stories and histories. And yet these seemingly modest objects convey unmistakably rich, deep, and significant histories.

Te Wherowhero memorial, Auckland Museum

The book’s closing chapter is entitled “If You Need a Monument, Look Around You”, the epitaph inscribed on John Logan Campbell’s grave atop Maungakiekie, which reads with no small irony given his construction of the prodigious obelisk that surely negates the stated directive. Here Mackintosh focuses on Campbell’s conception of the monument within the broader context of the mountain. It is in keeping with the tradition of empire, Mackintosh writes, to erect such markers of name, time and place. There is a nostalgic instinct within this act; and Mackintosh remarks that the obelisk, constructed in 1940, is an “imported and generic aesthetic […] a thing of memory but out of time and place”. Nostalgia being a longing for a past that does not exist.

Maungakiekie is of course customarily noted for the attack and irreversible damage to the pine tree on its peak in the 1990s; an act of protest in response to the government’s policy of resolving Treaty cases with Māori within a predetermined dollar figure. In this sense, the act towards absence destabilises an understanding of what constitutes a commemorative monument. To my mind, it is the act of protest that forms the monument; a contingent history premised on absence. The lack of the pine tree and memory of the original tōtara now comes to mind before the tower- ing obelisk. In other words, the act of protest is a living and powerful history that reverberates.

In 2016 a grove of native trees replaced the site of the pine, but the action of the man and the dearth of the pine holds fast. There is, I think, something instructive here pertaining to the intention of commemoration, and how memory creates its own monuments.

In her account, Mackintosh dethrones the obelisk and instead positions it alongside other surround- ing historical contexts and artefacts, notably the burial cave on the lower slopes of the mountain. Noting that the prominent Pākehā men who embarked upon an expedition into this sacred site were entirely aware of the cave’s significance and status as tapu, Mackintosh describes the cave as articulating “the fullness of the past in a way that could never be explained in words or material form”.

Kōiwi, human remains, were taken from the cave, and other sites, and mounted within museums. This, Mackintosh writes, was “one aspect of the broader processes of imperialism and colonial domination. Human remains, along with pre-colonial relics, were deployed by European settlers to reinforce their view that colonised places had progressed from a nameless and inferior past to the civilised present.”

As this book maintains, in te ao Māori ancestral stories and histories are maintained in ways that extend far beyond conventionally understood expressions and signifiers. For colonial settlers, who largely believed in forging an individual self, agency and legacy, this was a foreign concept that countered their notions of identity. For such peoples, remembrance was articulated through the might and awe commanded by the monument; the monument that demonstrates the power of spectacle. The Pākehā worldview generally did not perceive the land as embodying ancestors nor history; land was to be cultivated and wielded and it was manmade structures that conveyed immortality.

As Campbell erected his obelisk atop the maunga, underneath was living history at once reaching back into the past and to- ward the future. Mackin- tosh notes, “That the burial sites were hidden and not entered did not mean they were not known and valued by the descendents of those interred there”, and that in “building the road to the maunga [the One Tree Hill Board] removed Māori ter- races, taonga, and human remains […] destroying the very history they were seek- ing to commemorate”.

It is instructive, then, to read the land as an embodiment of ancestral continuity and an ancestor in its own right. Comparatively, the monuments of colonial national identity trans- late as erroneous, discordant and opaque. For some, these function as openings into discovering rich histories, whereas for others they serve as damning reminders of colonisation and imperialism. History is coterminous and operates on several timelines at once. While reading this extraordinary book I was reminded of the extent to which I need to learn further, the prospect of which is both humbling and stirring.

James Baldwin construes history as inscribed within oneself and responsive to the world: “History is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are un- consciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

In its dialectical approach through interwoven stories Shifting Grounds ultimately, and beautifully, illustrates that history is not fixed, nor linear nor a singular truth, but forged by intersections of the unseen and the seen, the human and the land. Shifting Grounds is attentive to the ways in which history converses across time. And what is history if not an enduring conversation? Sometimes spoken, sometimes felt, sometimes seen, sometimes unseen; heard, read, experienced and performed.

Shifting Grounds is available from Time Out Books, here.
This story was published in Metro 433.
Available here in print and pdf.



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In the Autumn 2024 issue of Metro we celebrate the best of Tāmaki Makaurau — 100 great things about life in Auckland, including our favourite florist, furniture store, cocktail, basketball court, tree, make-out spot, influencer, and psychic. The issue also includes the Metro Wine Awards, the battle over music technology company Serato, the end of The Pantograph Punch, the Billy Apple archives, a visit to Armenia, viral indie musician Lontalius, the state of fine dining, and the time we bombed West Auckland to kill a moth. Plus restaurants, movies, politics, astrology, and more.

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