The people of Marton have reason enough to be proud of the name of their pleasant tree-lined town. It reflects the name of Captain James Cook’s birthplace, Marton-in-Cleveland, in the North riding of Yorkshire. But back in the 1860s, when Marton was being established, things were different.
The Maori name was Tutaenui, and when the settlers discovered what it meant, they campaigned for change. That was understandable—no one wanted to live in a place in which the name translated to “big faeces”!
This coming-to-grips with the Maori language happened in 1869, just a century after Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand. That was worth celebrating, and the name Cooktown was bandied about. But, to the delight of local Yorkshiremen, the residents settled for Marton. Cook’s voyage was commemorated, and public sensitivity was appeased.
This name and change was but one of a whole list of place name changes in the founding days, and some of the arguments that arose haven’t satisfactorily been settled yet.
For as long as there has been a Pakeha New Zealand, Egmont has been the name of the mountain Cook described as a “peaked mountain above the clouds… of progididgeous height and its top covered with everlasting snow”.
Cook named it after the second Earl of Egmont, First Lord of the Admiralty, who had long held dreams of control of the Pacific, not only through the Magellan Strait but also through an undiscovered northwestern passage. Cook knew the value of top-level patronage.
A few years later,Marion du Fresne, flying the flag of France, was no less impressed with the mountain Sir Joseph Banks had described as “a great hill.” He named it after his ship, the Mascarin. Fortunately, the name “le Pic de Mascarin” never survived.
It was nearly two centuries later before any real attempt was made to restore the Maori name “Taranaki” to the mountain. It could be another century before everyone agrees. Egmont and Taranaki have become synonymous, and the argument persists. (According to the NZ Geographic Board, which decides these things, the name should be presented as “Mt Taranaki or Mt Egmont”, in its entirety, with Mt Taranaki first.)
There was no real conflict when Wanganui got its name. The Maori had named it long before the Pakeha arrived. But the directors of the New Zealand Company were no less aware than was Cook of the advantages of winning favour in high places. They named their settlement “Petre” to honour Baron Petre, Colonial Treasurer in far‑off England.
The people of Petre weren’t impressed. By 1884, the township’s residents petitioned the provincial superintendent, submitting that “the name Petre is so universally disliked that we believe there is no one in the whole ‘4, community who uses, or acknowledges the designation”.
They went on to say that personalities weren’t involved, but they couldn’t find any reason for naming their town after a noble lord who hadn’t any real claim to such honour. The name Petre wasn’t appropriate “either in sound or sense”; they asked for a return to “the now well-known name, Wanganui”.
If the provincial superintendent was impressed, he didn’t rush into a decision. It took another ten years before the settlers got the name they wanted, and Petre disappeared from the map. But the baron wasn’t forgotten. Wanganui city’s coat of arms still bears the Petre crest.
Even though the residents rescued Wanganui from relegation, not everyone was satisfied. The correct spelling, according to local Maori, is Whanganui, “river of great waiting”. Wanganui in its present spelling means nothing—see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 3. In a recent ruling the NZ Geographic Board approved the original spelling, Whanganui, for the river and the national park that flanks it, but the city remains Wanganui.
Place names in the South weren’t faring any better. The Maori name Waitohi for what is now Picton was ignored, and what was then no more than a mark on the map was named Homes Bay by Captain Steinel of the barque William IV.
Within a few years, that name had fallen from favour and the place was called Newton Bay. Meantime, the surveyors were busily laying out a town and the politicians got into the act. Dillon Bell wanted to call it Raleigh, and Fox opted for Wakefield. Cromwell was tried, but the settlers would have none of it. They used Beaconsfield.
By 1859, everyone was confused, and it took Governor Gore-Brown to sort the matter out. He settled on “Picton” to commemorate Sir Thomas Picton, British hero of the battle of Badajoz in the Peninsular War.
Looking back from the vantage point of the 20th century, there are growing regrets that in the scramble for names the music, the magic and the history of Maori nomenclature received scant attention. Stewart Island perpetuates the name of William Stewart, first officer of the Pegasus, who charted the island in 1809.
The Maori had a greater feeling. They called it Rakiura, “land of the glowing skies”. Those privileged to have witnessed the power and the drama of sunsets from that favoured place can understand why.
In Maori legend, the island was Te Punga-aMaui, the anchor-stone of the waka of Maui when he hauled the North Island from the boiling sea. Against this imagery of Maori lore, the names Stewart Island, or New Leinster as it was briefly known, pale into insignificance.
Marking the map of a new country was a serious business, but there was the rare spark of humour. Cook acknowledged his problems when he was unable to explore what we now know as the Vancouver Arm of Dusky Sound in 1773. He called it “Nobody Knows What!” Eighteen years later, Captain George Vancouver, in command of Discovery, had better fortune. He sailed the elusive waters and gleefully marked his chart “Somebody Knows What!” Unfortunately for us all, both names proved to be too frivolous to survive.
Greymouth, which followed the sweeping curve of the Grey River, was once Crescent City, and Spring Creek, between Blenheim and Picton, was once Marlboroughtown. Reefton was once, aptly, Quartzopolis, while Auckland’s Sandringham was once Edendale, and later Cabbage Tree Swamp. Glen Eden was Waikumete,”the mingling of the waters”.
The names were changed for better or for worse, and sometimes we were losers. No one is now going to change the name of The Snares, that cluster of seven rocky islands at the south of New Zealand, back to the gripping Te Taniwha, the water monster, or the name of Shelly Beach back to Tauranga-mango, the landing place of the shark. The name Mount Cook remains unchallenged, but who can forget that to the Maori our highest peak is Aorangi, the cloud-piercer?
Sadly, when North met South in the South Pacific a century and a half ago, some of the poetry of place names of the past disappeared in an emerging culture gap.