Susan Healy: Let’s acknowledge the gift of land that became Auckland

Susan Healy: Let’s acknowledge the gift of land that became Auckland

4:00AM Thursday Jun 11, 2009
By Susan Healy

It is right that Brian Rudman recently reminded us of the debt we owe the benefactors to our city and region. There was, however, one notable omission in the article, which recognised settlers of European descent.

The original, most substantial and ongoing benefactors to the city are the Ngati Whatua people of Orakei.

It was they who, in 1840, encouraged Governor William Hobson to establish his administration on the shores of the Waitemata and gave him an initial grant of 1416ha (3500 acres) on which to settle his people. This area effectively covers the central city of present-day Auckland.

It is important to recognise the magnanimity of Ngati Whatua in granting Governor Hobson and his people the opportunity to establish a settlement that would flourish socially and economically.

The background to Ngati Whatua’s grant to Hobson is given in the Hillary Lecture 2001, available on the Auckland Museum’s website.

The lecture, Land and Identity in Tamaki: A Ngati Whatua Perspective, was delivered by the late Sir Hugh Kawharu, former Professor of Anthropology and Maori Studies at the University of Auckland.


Although Maori were keen traders, they did not regard land as something to be bought and sold. Sir Hugh says: “Philosophically, at least, it was land that possessed the people. Land was a medium for building and maintaining relationships.”

He gives examples to illustrate this latter point. In the 1830s, Ngati Whatua gave land to neighbouring tribes to strengthen alliances with them.

These gifts were not alienations of land. They were the granting of a right to use the assigned land while the mana or authority of the land remained with the donor group. In Maori terms, it was a “tuku” of the land. In European terms, one could say that a “tuku” is more like a lease than a sale.

When the receiving group moved away, the land returned to the givers. Also, while the receiving group was in occupation they would express their appreciation for the gift by showing respect for and consulting with those who held the mana of the land. Commonly, they gave their benefactors some share in the benefits they gained from the use the land.

On the other hand, those with the mana of the land had a duty to see that all who resided on their land were protected. A relationship of mutual benefit was established.

The 1830 grants to Ngati Whatua’s neighbours, like the later ones to Hobson, were significant and were known as “tuku rangatira” – gifts between chiefs. Sir Hugh explains the chiefs in making these “tuku” were acting as representatives of their people.

He says “such transfer of use rights in land was an effective and proven mechanism for establishing alliances – a mechanism, however, in which the underlying title remained with the donor group”.

In relation to Ngati Whatua, who extended their initial grant to a further 3237ha (8000 acres), it is not surprising they assumed and have continued to expect they would be involved as partners in setting directions for the city.

Dr Merata Kawharu outlined in a Herald article how Ngati Whatua have continuously sought to be involved in the governing boards and councils of the city.

Surely it is time for those of us of settler background to acknowledge Ngati Whatua of Orakei as the original and substantial benefactors to central Auckland, and welcome their input into the governing of our city so their intention of establishing a mutually beneficial relationship is fulfilled.

* Susan Healy, a Pakeha New Zealander of Irish, English and Cornish heritage, has a doctorate in Maori Studies from the University of Auckland.


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