Destructive fires, including one that took a little girl's life, have branded themselves into the history of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, marking out historical waypoints of despair as they struggled to retain their land.

But fires have also marked turning points for the Auckland hapū which, with the city and the nation, tomorrow remembers the end of the divisive - yet ultimately successful - occupation of Takaparawhau/Bastion Point at Ōrākei 40 years ago, on May 25, 1978.

The occupation had begun on January 5, 1977, when protesters moved onto the land after dark, put up tents and waited for the bulldozers which were to subdivide the area.

That was known as the day New Zealand cried ... I thought it was the day that I was going to die

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The place that was occupied is the elevated area behind the Michael Joseph Savage Memorial Park and above the Ōrākei Domain and Ōkahu Bay, near the present Ōrākei marae. It offers commanding views over the entrance to the Waitematā Harbour with Rangitoto Island as the backdrop.

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Some Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei people and their supporters occupied the site for 506 days, until forced out by about 500 police.

Led by Joe Hawke, they were protesting against the Government's plan for high-cost housing on the land. Takaparawhau had been Ngāti Whātua land.

Police encircle protesters ahead of the mass arrests to end the occupation of the disputed land at Bastion Point on May 25, 1978. Photo / NZ Herald archive
Police encircle protesters ahead of the mass arrests to end the occupation of the disputed land at Bastion Point on May 25, 1978. Photo / NZ Herald archive
Ngāti Whātua protesters, Bastion Point, March 1977. Photo / NZ Herald archive
Ngāti Whātua protesters, Bastion Point, March 1977. Photo / NZ Herald archive

In 1840, Apihai Te Kawau and other Ngāti Whātua chiefs invited Lieutenant Governor William Hobson to shift his infant colonial government from the Bay of Islands to the Waitematā.

The crown paid £341 for about 1200ha of land that would become the Auckland settlement, the Waitangi Tribunal says, although Ngāti Whātua notes the transaction was intended as sharing the land rather than its alienation. The tribunal says that just six months later, 18ha was resold by the Government to settlers for £24,275. The income was used to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

"The early development of Auckland was paid for by profits made from the sale of tribal land of Ngāti Whātua of Ōrākei."

By the 1860s, the hapū's last remaining land in the area was the 283ha at Ōrākei. This was confirmed by the Native Land Court, but the court also made things worse by naming individuals, rather than the hapū, as the owners.

Over following decades, individual owners sold some blocks and other sites were purchased compulsorily under the Public Works Act, and authorities imposed a disruptive, contaminating sewerage system on Ōrākei.

The sewer, under construction, across the foreshore at Ōkahu Bay in the early 1900s. Photo / Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
The sewer, under construction, across the foreshore at Ōkahu Bay in the early 1900s. Photo / Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

In a 1978 court hearing in which the Government was setting the legal groundwork for the removal of the protesters, a Department of Lands and Survey official said Ōrākei block owners came and offered to sell and were eventually paid.

But he also agreed with his questioner Joe Hawke, a defendant in the court case, that some owners would not sell. There had been several compulsory acquisitions by the crown, the official said, but only three blocks were affected where owners were opposed to sale.

In 1910-11, over the objections of Ngāti Whātua, a large sewer and concrete retaining wall were built across the Ōkahu Bay foreshore, leading to flooding and cutting off the hapū's normal access to the sea from their village at the bay. Auckland began discharging raw sewage at the harbour entrance from 1914, polluting the hapū's shellfish beds.

"There could have been no greater insult to a Māori tribe even if one were intended," the tribunal said in its landmark report on the Ōrākei claim in 1987.

Many people left the village and the hapū began to break up. By the early 1950s, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei was landless, apart from the cemetery in Ōkahu Bay.

Some left willingly for state houses up the hill towards the Bastion Pt land. Others didn't want to go. The tribunal was told by one woman of how she had forced her aunt to leave, only to have her die hours later in her new home. And just months later her own mother died "and then all our old people started dying one after another and left us".

Joe Hawke (standing) reads the Treaty of Waitangi during the Bastion Point protest in May 1977. Photo / NZ Herald archive
Joe Hawke (standing) reads the Treaty of Waitangi during the Bastion Point protest in May 1977. Photo / NZ Herald archive

During the occupation in 1977, Hawke, according to a Herald report of a speech he gave to a church meeting, recalled the fiery end of the Ōkahu Bay settlement.

"As I look back," he said, "I can see my mother and father on their knees crying because the Government had burned their house and taken away their dignity and lifestyle."

He also said the Government had burned down the marae meeting house.

At the tribunal hearings in 1986, John Broadbent, of Mt Wellington, gave a vivid description of having witnessed the fire from his vantage point on a boat in the bay, where he lived at the time.

"It is 35 long years ago but it is still a wound in my side when I remember the smoke drifting across Tamaki Drive … I remember vividly the wailing of the wāhine and confused shouts of the rangatahi … I have never forgotten that infamy."

The burning of the meeting house remained mysterious until during the 1977 occupation, when Prince Rewiti confirmed to the Herald that his late great-uncle Hemi Poara had struck the match.

Citing the Herald report, the tribunal later explained that the building had been partly deconstructed. The crown had proposed its re-erection at Helensville, "but the people knew where the ancestral house belonged and there is a custom of burning such houses when threatened with desecration by a foe".

Then in 1990, the Ōrākei marae that had been built further up the hill from the state houses in Kitemoana St was gutted by fire. It was later restored.

Sharon Hawke was 15 when she joined the 1977-78 Bastion Point protest, led by her father Joe, who is now 78. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Sharon Hawke was 15 when she joined the 1977-78 Bastion Point protest, led by her father Joe, who is now 78. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"Fire seems to be in our history quite a bit," says Sharon Hawke, daughter of Joe and an elected member of the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust Board.

Fire can be laced with tragedy and regret, but Sharon also finds new beginnings and "another chance to get it right".

"We used fire to maintain ourselves through the winter [of the occupation] to have heat. We needed it to cook. And yet it took a life away.

The death of Joannee Manumea Cooper-Hawke, 5, in an accidental fire at the Bastion Point occupation nearly ended the protest aciton.
The death of Joannee Manumea Cooper-Hawke, 5, in an accidental fire at the Bastion Point occupation nearly ended the protest aciton.

Her cousin Joannee Manumea Cooper-Hawke, a happy and colourful child who loved singing, died aged 5 during the occupation. Hawke says Joannee had gone to bed in a tent and it caught fire. Her death nearly ended the protest.

"We were very close. Her and her mother and our uncle lived with us prior to the land occupation," says Hawke, who was 16 at the end of the occupation in May 1978.

"The discussions were around should we still be here. Should we just go home. And it was the parents that said, 'Don't let our daughter's death be in vain, we have to carry on,' so that became the decision.

"Her loss will always be huge and it is to this day. Symbolic. A modern day hero. She gave her life."

Joannee is commemorated by a plaque and garden at the site of her death.

Sharon Hawke at the memorial of her cousin Joannee Cooper-Hawke who died aged 5 near the same spot in 1977 in an accidental fire at the Bastion Point occupation. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Sharon Hawke at the memorial of her cousin Joannee Cooper-Hawke who died aged 5 near the same spot in 1977 in an accidental fire at the Bastion Point occupation. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Herald report on the death of Joannee Cooper-Hawke in an accidental at the Bastion Point occupation. Scant details were available at the time and she was 5, not 9 as reported. Source / Herald archives
Herald report on the death of Joannee Cooper-Hawke in an accidental at the Bastion Point occupation. Scant details were available at the time and she was 5, not 9 as reported. Source / Herald archives

Hawke recalls joining Whina Cooper's 1975 Land March in which the call was for not one more acre of Māori land to be alienated, but it was only as the Bastion Pt occupation progressed, and as she learned her people's history and that the Prime Minister Rob Muldoon "didn't like us", that she became politicised.

Her family had been living in Hastings after Joe had finished his carpentry apprenticeship. Then his mother arrived.

"She made the long bus trip to Hastings and pleaded with Dad to uproot his family - we had grown to three kids by then - and leave the brand new state house that they had and come back to Auckland to help her fight to keep the land."

The occupation began with a sense of the fun of summertime camping for Sharon Hawke.

"We were living as a village of people with a common interest, mainly through whakapapa and our supporters came because they could see that there was a just cause that needed support."

"The menu for the day was dependent on what people dropped in and what we were able to fundraise for. There was a sense of cultural understanding about our tikanga. Every visitor got a mihi from my grandfather no matter who they were. They were given a cup of tea and something to eat."

"Life on Bastion Point was pretty much a dream come true - living on our land, living marae style - and I felt, as a young kid, that this was what it was meant to be like.

But as winter approached the occupiers realised they would need more protection from the weather. A disused warehouse was dismantled, trucked to Bastion Pt and re-erected as the Arohanui meeting house. People lived in tents, caravans and makeshift houses. Even the trig point, a structure used for surveying, a practice as the heart of the hapū's land troubles, was reclaimed for a house, with cladding attached to its framework.

During the nearly 17 months of the occupation, the Government variously backed down, drew new plans, negotiated and made threats as it struggled to catch up with the changing times.

But by April 1978 it had had enough when it sought - and won - a court injunction to end the occupation.

As May 25 approached, Herald reporters discovered the police were moving "to spring a massive, military-like operation, involving army trucks, helicopters and hundreds of men, to clear protesters from Bastion Pt".

Herald report on the police removal of the protesters from Bastion Point on May 25, 1978. Source / NZ Herald archives
Herald report on the police removal of the protesters from Bastion Point on May 25, 1978. Source / NZ Herald archives

They were right. Police, among about 500 at "Operation Bastion" - a later estimate is 600 - encircled the protesters. The commissioner of crown lands in Auckland, George McMillan, approached the camp in the rear of an open-top army Land Rover, flanked by senior police.

"This is crown land," he said through a loudhailer, going on to issue three warnings that the protesters were trespassing and could be removed.

His threats were met with a storm of chants, shouts and songs proclaiming the land as Maori land. No-one moved.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Bill Overton said: "This area will be cleared and we hope to accomplish this without force." The arrests began.

"Peace prevails," the Herald wrote the next morning, noting the protesters' commitment to non-violence.

The Bastion Point occupation site following the removal of the protesters and the demolition of their buildings. Photo / NZ Herald archive
The Bastion Point occupation site following the removal of the protesters and the demolition of their buildings. Photo / NZ Herald archive

"That was known as the day New Zealand cried," says Sharon Hawke. "People couldn't believe the force from the Crown. I couldn't believe it was actually happening. I thought it was the day that I was going to die."

"They had to carry a lot of us off," she recalls. "The way they did that was to drag us. But there was no retaliation by the protesters. The whole tactic was to keep them busy. If they were going to take us off, make their job hard by going limp."

After the protesters were removed and 222 were arrested, an army bulldozer and demolition teams knocked down the meeting house and other structures.

Hawke said she, her grandparents, brothers and many others were charged with wilful trespass, but court action was formally stayed against nearly all of them.

But no sooner had the protesters been removed than they vowed to return, which they did.

Historian Dr Vincent O'Malley says the occupation built on the Land March but was different and influential, especially because of the TV images.

"It came as a profound shock for many Pākehā and that smug view of New Zealand having the best race relations in the world. Historical amnesia about what had gone before us was blown away.

"[The Land March] was in some ways a non-threatening, non-confrontational event whereas to see on the nightly news 600 police and army dragging people out of their makeshift camp was a shock."

Although the occupation had caused division within Ngāti Whātua - between some elders who agreed to a Government proposal and the protesters prepared to break the law because the old methods of diplomacy had failed - it proved to be an example worth following, O'Sullivan says.

"The Raglan golf course occupation began at the start of the following year led by Eva Rickard."

In 1987, nine and a half years after the mass arrests at Bastion Pt, the tribunal issued its Ōrākei report, its first inquiry into historical claims after it was permitted in 1985 to look back to 1840.

The 308-page document reports in wretched detail how, despite Ngāti Whātua's support for British settlement, "it was this group of Māori people who suffered at the hands of the crown one of the worst cases of cultural genocide this country has known".

The Government accepted the tribunal's findings. It paid $3 million to the hapū, returned land, and set aside Takaparawhau/Bastion Point and Okahu Bay Reserve to be managed by representatives of the hapū and the Auckland Council.

The hapū has prospered since the settlement of its historic claims. In the 2016/17 financial year it reported total net assets of $854.9 million and total revenue of $50.9 million.

Joe Hawke, who served two terms as a Labour MP, is now 78 and lives just 150m from the site of the occupation's meeting house, says the protest was the right thing to do.

"I went onto the point, not to invite an arrest, but to arrest a wrong and, 40 years on, all of Ngāti Whātua are benefiting from that stand."

He will join tomorrow's events at Takaparawhau which the hapū says will commemorate the struggle, foster reconciliation and re-affirm their footprint in Auckland.

Sharon says the outcome of the occupation is that the hapū has remained resilient; she points to the group's plans in tourism and its links to iwi and other organisations.

"We've got some 70-odd hectares back on the Ōrākei block that are reserve. We have purchased land in the CBD and over on the North Shore. We're rebuilding our economic power through land, through being owners of land.

"We do have economic strength that can be relied upon to make our community of Auckland a better place."

What's on

• 6am tomorrow - Dawn ceremony at Joannee Cooper-Hawke Memorial, Takaparawhau/Bastion Point

• 10am tomorrow - Commemoration event at Ōrākei Marae

• 6pm tomorrow - 40th anniversary concert - Tuning Fork, Spark Arena

Not one more acre! photographic exhibition of Takaparawhau protesters - Auckland War Memorial Museum

• Films about the protest - Auckland Central Library