Chris Trotter: The place I 'own'

19:06, Aug 30 2012
Trotter's Creek tumbles to the sea near the cliffs of Moeraki.

Trotter's Creek tumbles out of the Horse Range, chuckles through Trotter's Gorge, and empties itself into the Pacific Ocean under the looming cliffs of the Moeraki peninsula at Katiki Beach. Along the way the little river runs (in the remarkably poetic language of an Otago Regional Council pamphlet) "with large slow, deep pools combined with shallow riffles".

I would be lying if I said that on the rare occasions I drive over and alongside Trotter's Creek I do not feel a proprietary tug. The coast of North Otago is and will always be my turangawaewae - my place to stand - and the geographical features that bear my family's name only reinforce this sense of belonging. It's where I was born. It's where I hope to be buried.

But is Trotter's Creek really Trotter's creek? Can a family - or an individual - really lay claim to the water that falls from the sky, or the riverbeds over which it flows back to the sea? My family took possession of the land through which Trotter's Creek flows in 1851. As the year's passed, the name it bore before their arrival, Te Awakakokomuka, gradually fell into disuse. What cannot be disputed, however, is that the people who lived along the North Otago coast before the Magnet dropped anchor at Waikouaiti in 1840, also knew those "slow, deep pools" and "shallow riffles". Wading between the Koromiko bushes, bearing home the river's bounty, they, too, would have felt a proprietary tug.

A thousand miles to the north and thirty-eight days before my great-great-great-grandfather, William Sinclair Trotter, was rowed ashore from the Magnet, Captain William Hobson of the Royal Navy, acting on behalf of England's Queen, Victoria, had promised the Maori tribes of New Zealand: "the full, exclusive and undisturbed possession of the Lands and Estates, Forests, Fisheries, and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess, so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession".

I doubt if William cared very much what promises Captain Hobson had made in the Bay of Islands. Waitangi was a long way from Waikouaiti, where the population of the local tribes had been thinned by war and disease, death and dispossession. In Caithness, in Scotland's far north, he had helped the local squire, Sir John Sinclair, instruct his tenants in the husbandry of the hardy Cheviot sheep his father, Alexander, had driven up from the Scottish borders. He planned to turn these shepherding skills to his own advantage in this new country. Here he would carve out lands and estates, forests and fisheries of his own.

We call it "property" and fence it 'round, not only with No.8 wire, but also with laws, covenants, easements and abstraction rights. This is "ours" we say, and all those things that we cannot fence-in or pin-down - like the sunlight and the wind, the rivers and the waves - we declare to be common property. But the products we make from these commonly held things: grass, milk, electrical energy; they remain ours to buy and sell.


We have forgotten that Trotter's Creek was once Te Awakakokomuka. Our laws, covenants, easements and abstractions have little to say about what rights attached to its waters in the years before it ran through the "property" of my hardy forebears. Before the Magnet's anchor dropped, Te Awakakokomuka was something else, not "property" exactly, but something very close. The tangata whenua who paddled canoes along its banks; who had names for each of its "slow, deep pools" and "shallow riffles"; who snared the birds that flitted among the koromiko bushes lining its banks and trapped the eels which lurked beneath them; they had a stake in Te Awakakokomuka.

The difference between a little creek in North Otago and Waikato's mighty river is really only a matter of scale. The Waitangi Tribunal recommends these long-neglected questions concerning water be answered - definitively. Proprietary "tugs" are transitory. Proprietary "interests" may prove to be much more enduring.


The Dominion Post