“Sam: why don’t you come over to my place this Christmas – and tell your story?”
That, more or less, is how New Zealand got started.
Well, we’ll admit that we made that quote up.
And it’s undeniably true that much went horribly wrong in the relationship between Maori and Pakeha in the decades that followed.
But this much is also true:
The New Zealand story began not with a conquest or invasion – but with an invitation from one friend to another, perhaps like the invite above, and with mutual respect and partnership that had developed over five years between Ruatara, the Ngapuhi chief, and Samuel Marsden, the CMS Missionary.
The two had first met in Sydney in 1805. In 1809, they’d shared a voyage on the Ann from London to Sydney, and that in turn led to Samuel Marsden and the first missionary group being accompanied across the Tasman by Ruatara, Hongi Hika and other Maori.
That trust culminated in Samuel Marsden preaching that 1814 Christmas Day sermon – Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy – just above Oihi beach, beneath the sheltering gaze of Rangihoua Pa, and to the missionary settlement at Oihi, which entirely depended on the local people for protection and, at times, for provision.
And on Tuesday afternoon this week about 75 folk – including descendants of the CMS missionaries, and of the Maori who gathered on the beach that Christmas Day – gathered on the ridge high above that beach to seal a new accord, and to turn the first sod of an ambitious heritage project.
The only markers on the land now that hint at the story of those first encounters are the Marsden Cross itself, and two other stones that pay tribute to the first European families.
But Tuesday’s ceremony marks the fact that something much more striking and revelatory will now appear on that landscape.
Architect Pip Cheshire has designed a dramatic “Interpretive Centre” for a site near the road. This open-sided but roofed structure will be oriented down the Oihi Valley directly towards the Marsden Cross, about a kilometre in the distance.
That’ll be the place where arriving visitors pause and orient themselves – and learn the essential outline of the Ruatara-Marsden relationship, and of the lives of the missionary families within a Maori community.
Those visitors will then be able to stroll along a pathway to “The Gathering Place” – a larger, but no less spectacular enclosed structure with a swooping roof, and wide vistas over the Bay of Islands. That space will host open days such as Waitangi Day and New Year’s Day, and special events such as descendants’ days, and there’ll also be a small chapel within.
The Marsden Cross Trust Board hopes that, in time, The Gathering Place will become a place of personal memorial and celebration, just as the Angel of the North sculpture at Gateshead, in the north of England, has become in the United Kingdom.
The pathway will then continue to wend from The Gathering Place down across the contours of the hills to the Marsden Cross on Oihi Beach.
That path will be easily graded and well-formed so older pilgrims can tackle the walk with some assurance – and there’ll be a number of way stations en route, where walkers can sit and pause to consider bi-lingual interpretive panels that tell the stories of the area.
One such station, for example, will give a snapshot of Rangihoua as a thriving Maori community, with intensive horticulture plots on the slopes around – and when visitors reach the Marsden Cross itself, that’s where they’ll learn of Marsden’s service and of the lives of the missionary families.
All this building work is scheduled to be completed in time for December 25, 2014 – the 200th anniversary of that Christmas morning sermon.
Honouring their tipuna
Tuesday afternoon’s groundbreaking event was the fruit of an eight-year relationship that has grown between Ngati Torehina and the Marsden Cross Trust Board and with other stakeholders such as the Ngapuhi runanga, the Department of Conservation and the Historic Places Trust.
The neighbouring smallholders at Mountain Landing and the Mataka estate have also been involved, and on Tuesday their representatives were on hand to show their support.
In particular, though, the project is the fruit of a personal relationship that has flourished between Hugh Rihari, a Ngati Torehina kaumatua, and John King, who is the chair of the Marsden Cross Trust Board.
John’s great great grandfather, and namesake, John King, was a CMS missionary who, with Marsden, had befriended Ruatara, and who – unlike Marsden – brought his wife and children out to the new land, and died in New Zealand.
Hugh’s Ngati Torehina whanau, meanwhile, is closely related to Ruatara.
Ngati Torehina have identified four pou whenua – ‘bottom lines’ – for their involvement in the project. They are: the recognition of their mana whenua status over the land; “the mana of our tipuna; the mana of our tipuna’s interaction between Maori and the first settlers – this was guided by balanced exchange and reciprocity on both sides…” and “the mana of the Anglican Church’s Constitution provisions… which sets out two pathways, and the principles of partnership and bicultural development…”
The Marsden Cross Trust Board itself came into being when the surrounding Mataka Station was being prepared for subdivision, and there was a risk that a critical part of the Rangihoua historic area could be sold off for housing.
So in 2005 the Trust Board bought, for $1.6 million, a 20.4hectare site that stretches from the road down to the Rangihoua pa site, and to the DOC land around the cross.
It’s on this newly-acquired land that the two Pip Cheshire-designed structures will be built.
Thanks to the generosity of donors, all but $160,000 of the purchase price of the land has now been raised, and the trust board is seeking further donations this year from churches and parishioners to complete its freeholding.
Money is also on hand to allow the Trust Board to begin the work on The Interpretive Centre, the pilgrim path and the way stations. These are expected to be completed by February 2014, with The Gathering Place expected to be ready for the bicentennial celebrations on Christmas Day, 2014.
Mending the gap
John King believes the land at Oihi and Rangihoua is “arguably, New Zealand’s most historic site – the cradle of our nation.”
He also thinks that too few Kiwis have a sound grasp of their country’s history before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
“How can you understand New Zealand post 1840,” he asks, “if you don’t understand New Zealand between 1814 and 1840?”
The folk who gathered at Oihi on Tuesday are hoping that their joint project will help fill that gap in people’s knowledge.
And fill it in a moving and significant way, too.
We quote from the document Marsden Cross at Oihi Accord: a Bicentennial Partnership Project for 2014.
“If there exists a parallel (to this project), it is to be found on the far side of the world.
“(It is) ANZAC Cove at Gallipoli, a place where, each year, tens of thousands of New Zealanders and Australians, young and old, visit to pay homage to their tipuna/ancestors and reinforce their personal and group identity.”