Motutapu has a spectacular cultural landscape, spanning the entire period of human occupation in New Zealand. It consists of an intact archaeological landscape with evidence of a Maori village where dog and human footprints are pressed into the fresh ash from a Rangitoto eruption. This provides the only record of Maori witnessing an Auckland volcanic eruption.
Maori did not just leave footprints – more than 300 archaeological sites have been recorded, which include undefended settlements, terraced house sites, storage pits, cooking areas, middens, quarry and stone-working sites, and paa.
Overlying this pre-European Maori landscape are the effects of 160 years of European activity, principally farming and the military occupation during World War II. The island is currently an operating farm, working closely with the Motutapu Restoration Trust.
Motutapu’s history represents a richly layered tapestry of change – the preservation and interpretation of its many heritage sites is an important focus of the Trust.
Early 1300’s is the probable date of initial Maori settlement – with occupation of west coast of island at Sunde site, Sandy Bay and Pig Bay. ‘Archaic’ Maori material culture has been found at the Sunde site on southern west coast.
Activities included adze making from greywacke, hunting of a wide range of forest birds, little clearance of bush. Dog and rat (Kiore) provide protein.
There are 12 Pa sites on the island, located on most of the easily defended coastal headlands. Their position suggests that most threats were from outside the island.
After the ash fall from Rangitoto, the island inhabitants lived on fishing (mostly snapper), shellfish and horticulture. Their settlements were dispersed over the landscape with people moving from place to place and gathering on occasion into the larger settlements and pa.
The gun battery commanders were confident they could defend themselves against ships but were concerned with the threat of a direct enemy infantry attack on the island via landing craft. To combat this, the army created infantry defences using a short range howitzer battery to defend the big guns. The small three gun battery was intended to defend the island against direct assault. The howitzers were light enough to move around on the back of a couple of old Bren carriers. They could fire a 9kg shell about 6km.
In 1941 when Japan entered the war, a decision was made to build 16 pillboxes to guard the battery and adjacent gullies up which the enemy might approach. They had wooden sleeping benches, softboard linings and were in telephone communication with the battery. Two men slept while the third kept watch.
Motutapu defences included heavy and light machine guns, rifles and 3 inch mortars at the ready.
In 1942 the United States decided that Auckland Harbour would become the US Southern Pacific fleet operating base. This resulted in a massive military build up of troops, ships and aircraft into the area. A huge base was to be built at Yankee wharf on Rangitoto and Motutapu was to become the main storage bunker location for munitions.
The entire defence structure of the area had to be upgraded to protect The US Pacific Fleet which was going to anchor between Tiri and Rangitoto within the gun and mine defences of the port.
The entire complex cost $13.6million (2008 dollars) – the US Navy Fleet never came and the magazines were never used. The war had moved quickly north in 1943.
The US Navy handed them over to the New Zealand Army who blew a few up for demolition practise.
Strategically located at the entrance to the Hauraki Gulf, Motutapu was the home of New Zealand’s most important gun battery during World War II. Advanced for its time, the battery had radar overlooking underwater minefields stretching from Motutapu to the island of Tiritiri Matangi.
During the Japanese advances of early 1942, the threat of invasion was very real. At that time Motutapu’s three 6” MK 21 guns comprised the only long-range counter bombardment battery capable of repelling an invasion fleet attacking Auckland Harbour. Installed in 1938, the guns continued in service until being scrapped in 1960. Today the gun emplacements, just 30 minutes walk from Home Bay, are open to the public but require further restoration for which the Trust is seeking support.
In recognition of the battery’s historic importance, the Trust partnered with Devonport film company 4D Canvas to bring the story of the guns back to life. The result is a short educational movie “The Guns of Motutapu”. Created to encourage interest and support for Trust projects, the film tells the layers of history from early Maori occupations to WWII fortress to farm. It includes narration from Major Derek Thorburn, who in 1942 at the age of 20 was posted to the battery. Derek later rose to become Commander of the Guns and has clear memories of what military life was like on the island as they waited for an invasion that never came.
Creating “The Guns of Motutapu” required building 3D computer models of the guns, emplacements and topographical features as they existed in 1942. The finished 3D animated film is a benchmark for historic visualisations. This is free and available to see at Reid Homestead – the Trust’s visitor centre which is open on the weekends (10.30am – 3.30pm).\
Farming has been carried out on Motutapu since 1840 and is thus an important Heritage activity.