New Zealand’s sesquicentennial year is as good a time as any to think about the origin of our name. We could wonder why a group of Polynesian islands, occupied by the Maori, rediscovered by the Dutch, coveted by the French and colonised by the British should be called after a minor Dutch maritime province.
We could also wonder why it was that 17th and 18th century navigators and cartographers placed no importance on what the inhabitants called their own land.
The short answer is possibly that until the European invaders came, the Maori had no real reason to think about their homeland in general terms. As far as they were concerned the rest of the world existed only in the colour of their folklore and legend.
When Abel Janszoon Tasman made landfall off Okarito in 1642 he believed he had stumbled upon the much-hypothesised Unknown Continent. A few years earlier his countryman, Jacob le Maire, thought he had done the same thing when he discovered land off the tip of South America and named it Staten Landt.
Tasman mistakenly thought the two must be separate parts of the unknown continent, and, in deference to “their high and mightinesses the States General” back home in Holland, wrote “Staten Landt” on his map.
It wasn’t long before le Maire’s theory was disproved, and “their high and mightinesses” weren’t convinced that Tasman’s discovery was a continent either. The place became Nieuw Zeeland, Nova Zeelandia or New Zealand. This satisfied the Dutch, who weren’t all that interested in a place that offered no obvious trade prospects. It also prevented confusion with Australia, which they had already agreed should be called New Holland.
A century or so later, when Captain James Cook came on the scene, the name New Zealand was already well established as an indefinite scratch on the global map, and no one challenged it, even if the form varied from Dutch Nieuw Zeeland to the Latin Zeelandia Nova and the anglicised version most of us now accept without much question. Cook, who didn’t place much store on spelling, called it Newzeland, but at least he attempted to discover what the locals called the place, though without much success.
The best he managed was in conversation with an old Maori in Queen Charlotte Sound, who told him that there were two lands. To the north and east was “Aeheino Mouwe”, or possibly “He hi no Maui” (a thing fished up by Maui), or even “Ahi no Maui” (the fires of Maui). To the south was “Tovy-poenammu” or “Te Wai Pounamu” (the water of greenstone).
Cook’s famous 1770 map is titled, “A chart of Newzeland or the islands of Aeheinomouwe and Tovypoenammu lying in the South Sea.” There is no reference to Aotearoa.
Nor is there any reference to Aotearoa in the Treaty of Waitangi, or for that matter in the political manoeuvring that preceded the treaty. James Busby’s attempt to bring law and order to the north brought about the formation of “The United Tribes of New Zealand,” not the United Tribes of Aotearoa.
Yet, in 1990, the name Aotearoa is very much a live issue. As the year began, Maori activists were in Holland imploring the Dutch to take their name back, so the maps could be redrawn with Aotearoa replacing New Zealand.
The issue isn’t as simple as some Maori would have us believe. While Aotearoa is now indisputably the Maori name for New Zealand, there is some evidence that it originally applied only to the North Island.
The most popular interpretation of the word is “long white cloud”. One version tells how the first voyagers to the new land were guided across empty oceans by day by a long white cloud and by night by a long bright cloud (the Clouds of Magellan near the star Canopus). The more popular belief is that a strange white cloud was the first indication of land for Kupe’s weary crew after their long journey from Hawaiki. Kupe’s wife, Hinete-aparangi, cried out “He ao! He ao!” (“A cloud! A cloud!”) This first greeting, to which was added the word “roa”, meaning “long”, became the name of the land we now know as the North Island.
Not all authorities agree. Hochstetter interprets Aotearoa as “big glaring light”, Stowell as “land of abiding day”, Wilson as “long white world” and Cowan as “long bright land.” Missionary Henry Williams didn’t know what to believe. He commented that the name Aotearoa was incomprehensible to some 19th century Maori, and that the original meaning had been lost.
Just when Aotearoa came into Maori acceptance as a general name for New Zealand isn’t clear, but the campaign for its use isn’t new. Back in 1863, when the land wars were at their height, a red silk flag captured in the Hunua ranges showed the depth of Maori feeling. It carried a star and a cross, and was emblazoned with the word “Aotearoa”.
Though we are likely to remain New Zealanders, with the origins of our country’s name reminding us that the Dutch were navigators of the first order, we are also the people of Aotearoa, with all the history and traditions that that name embodies.