What's in a name? New Zealand becomes Aotearoa again

Considering the heritage of the name, this shouldn't even be a discussion.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

This William Shakespeare quote is even more pertinent when assessing the very real possibility that my home country of New Zealand could be changing its name, even as soon as next year. Fittingly during te wiki o te reo Māori, te pāti Māori (the Māori party) has initiated a country wide poll asking for people to show their support for officially changing the name of the country: from New Zealand to Aotearoa.

You can find the petition here.

Just quickly off the bat before I forget, the “Zealand” in “New Zealand” was adopted in 1642, from a province in the Netherlands called Zeeland

From 1732 to 1807, nearly 32 000 African slaves were bought by the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC) situated in Zeeland, and sold on to America and the Caribbean.

What a heritage? 

A bit of a back story here, I was born in Sweden to a German father and a kiwi mother. I have been visiting family in Aotearoa since I was a little child and eventually in 2004, I moved here permanently. First to Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) on Te Ika-a-Māui (North Island) and then on to Mohua (Golden Bay) on Te Wai Pounamu.

A place that was very formative in the first Dutch coloniser’s (who unsuccessfully tried to land here,) attempts in naming this country. Something I was wholly unaware of before moving to Mohua.

I have always felt a very close, spiritual connection to Māori and this was further strengthened when I was fortunate enough to do a Te Ataarangi (Māori language) course on  Onetahua Marae in Pōhara a few years back. As I have shared in previous articles on here, when I went through a psychotic break last year and ended up in hospital, it was Māori staff predominantly who helped put me together again both spiritually and emotionally. I also shared this intimate experience vocally in a podcast.

Hence I share a very close kinship with Māori. Having not had done a genetic test, I would not be surprised if there was a genetic connection there too, to further explain my close spiritual inter-relatedness with these amazing people. 

What indeed is in a name?

My father was born in 1945 in a city in Germany called Chemnitz. Under the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany) this city’s name was changed to Karl-Marx-Stadt, when he was 7 years old in 1952 (named after the famous German philosopher of the same name,) and the name was then subsequently changed back in 1990, after the german reunification brought both West and East Germany back together again as one country.

New York used to be called New Amsterdam. Paris used to be called Lutetia. Mumbai used to be called Bombay.

What about countries?

Sri Lanka used to be called Ceylon. Myanmar used to be called Burma. Vanuatu used to be called New Hebrides. Tuvalu used to be called Ellice Islands. Burkina Faso used to be called Upper Volta. Zimbabwe used to be called Rhodesia.

So you see, changing city or even country names is nothing new or even controversial. It usually happens when a country emancipates from underneath the colonialist shackles imposed on them by their former “ruler/colonialists” (England, France, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal to name the main culprits here). It is a much needed step in the right direction for a country to heal and move on into independent maturity. Often these name changes are much needed because their original name was culturally insensitive or even flat out racist. 

So how does New Zealand fare in this environment? Well, not that much better than say Rhodesia (named after the well known British racist, purveyor of slaves, Cecil Rhodes.)

But let’s investigate further.    

Aotearoa is a beautiful name and translated into English means “land of the long white cloud.” Before going into its history, let’s take a look at the history of why the current name was given to these three isles.


New Zealand

New Zealand got its name in 1643 would you believe it?! It was named by Dutch cartographers after Abel Tasman had discovered the islands (for Europeans mind you, Māori had been here for nearly half a millennium already) - these cartographers initially named the country in latin as Nova Zeelandia which was later anglicised.

Two things we need to look at more closely: 

What was Nova Zeelandia named after and what was going on in the world in 1643?

The world in 1643 was a mess quite frankly (especially Great Britain, more below.)

In 1643, Isaac Newton hadn’t even discovered gravity yet as he was only 1 year old. Across the Atlantic in Virginia, the English passed a law that made African women’s work “tithable,” essentially paving the way for more draconian legislation that made freedom of movement and advancements of African immigrants in this new country, illegal. In the early years of slavery, there was no real legal difference between servants and slaves until that 1643 law.

This law paved the way to making slavery not only legal, but heritable. Slavery was rampant in most of Europe but no more so than in the Netherlands who were particularly adamant that it was their privilege and birthright as white human beings, to enslave black human beings from Africa. In fact, the Netherlands was one of the last countries on Earth to abolish slavery, in 1863. 

“You are NOT welcome here”

Let’s get back to Abel Tasman “discovering” Aotearoa for himself (and white people) in 1642. Apparently his two Dutch East India Company ships actually sighted parts of Te Ika-a-Māui (North Island) briefly on the 13th of December and then a couple of days later on the 18th of December (incidentally, one week before Isaac Newton was born,) the ships sailed to Te Wai Pounamu (South Island) and laid anchor just inland from Farewell Spit in an area known as Mohua. 

This was the first time in history that any Europeans encountered Māori. 

So, how did that go?

Well, how do you think it went? 

Pompous, overzealous white supremacists in their frocks and big ships, landing on the shores of a very proud, confident, cultured and tough group of human beings? 

You figure it out. 

Yes, it did not exactly go well.  

The main iwi of Mohua back then were Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri. After spotting the two large ships, the rangatira fearlessly sent out two waka to paddle out and investigate these strange floating villages. As could be expected, the occupants of the waka challenged these bizarre white intruders with loud trumpet sounds from their pūkāea and pūtātara, elaborate ritual incantations to scare away dark spirits followed and Abel Tasman’s crew were notably freaked and without knowing what else to do, started blowing their own horns and trumpets as loud as they possibly could.

Foolishly, Abel Tasman gave the order to fire a cannon and several musket shots at the waka and nearby beach. This insensitive action obviously had the result of provoking the people on the shore. That night the two Dutch boats played songs and were quite loud and raucous. The loud music coupled to the cannon and musket fire was quite possibly interpreted as a challenge by the Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri. 

As the story goes, the next morning several waka filled with almost 200 toa warriors were sent out to the ships. In return, some of the Dutch sailors came at them in rowing boats, provoking the toa even more. One of these rowing boats was rammed by a waka and then the intense break out of a subsequent struggle resulted in four of the Dutch sailors being killed. 

To this day there are many speculations as to why the Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri attacked, but it was possibly a combination of them feeling provoked, the Dutch crews breaking scared tapu (holy ground,) and generally being viewed as evil spirits. It was recorded in the captain’s log that when the ships sailed into Mohua, the Dutch sailors noted several fires being lit around the area - this was a common “call to action” for Māori tribes to warn other villages of immediate threat. This was how they managed to have so many men to face the Dutch ships when they eventually landed at Tata.

After this powerful encounter, Abel Tasman and his ships quickly weighed anchor and sailed west, as far away as they could from Aotearoa. When he got back to the Netherlands eventually in 1643, he named the bay Moordenaers’ (Murderers’) Bay and got the cartographers to name Aotearoa, New Zealand. Murderer’s Bay has since been renamed Golden Bay, and the locals now increasingly refer to it by its original Māori name, Mohua.

This encounter was so frightening to this Dutch crew, that the stories of this powerful group of humans called Māori quickly spread in Europe, the stories were so intimidating and off-putting, that the next encounter between Māori and Euopeans wouldn’t take place for another 127 years! 

So New Zealand is called New Zealand because of that chance encounter?

That can’t be?

But yes, it is true. 

In 1643, all of the British Isles were steeped in a vicious civil war between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, loosely referred to by historians as the First British Civil War, the War of the Three Kingdoms and the Irish Confederate wars. Savagery ruled supreme. Safe to say, the British Isles were a mess and they were more than eager to transfer this mess on to the rest of the world. But that’s for another story. 

And yes, this was the time that our country was named. After a slave colony no less!

Again, for good measure in case you missed it the first time, the “Zealand” in “New Zealand” was adopted in 1642, from a province in the Netherlands called Zeeland

From 1732 to 1807, nearly 32 000 African slaves were bought and sold on to America and the Caribbean from this exact location.

Just on an aside, if you are in anyway interested into how convoluted and brazen the British involvement in modern history has been, please watch the genius Adam Curtis BBC Documentary, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” it’s an absolutely stellar 6 part series that documents the last 150 years of world politics, including the involvement of China, Britain and the rest of Europe, Kenya, Brazil, Russia and the USA. The first part “Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain” deals with China under Mao Zedong and how influential his wife was in brainwashing the unassuming public with films and television. The series is 9 hours long in total and goes all the way until Biden gets elected, going into Google, Facebook, artificial intelligence and why things are the way they are. It’s not for the faint hearted (history hardly ever is) and as such Youtube has put an age restriction on the series, but it is well worth the trauma of watching and understanding why our world is the way it is. Brazen reality from one of the greatest historians of all time, Adam Curtis. Don’t despair, if you manage to sit through the whole 9 hours of desperation and despair of our species, there is a message of hope at the end, but you first you have to endure the heartache - a true reflection on life and how it imparts wisdom on our souls through the experience of strife.     

Bee to the blossom, moth to the flame; each to their passion; what's in a name?

We had a flag referendum a couple of years back (incidentally around the same time when we decided to rename a place historically called Niggerhead - more later - under the watchful eyes of our racist apologist prime minister, the right honourable Sir John Key.) That $26 million dollar fiasco (if it means anything, I voted for Aaron Dustin’s Red Peak option - see above) failed to bring about any meaningful change, so maybe we have a real chance to do things right this time? With even more meaningful change than just a flag.

Words are important.

Words matter because they have the power to change consciousness.

To finish off this sermon, as many of you realise, the “white contingent” of this country has a lot to answer for itself in terms of racism still being alive and well. I have lived in Ireland, England, Germany and the USA, and I have to sadly admit, that this country is the most racist country I have ever lived in. It’s the truth as much as it pains me to say. It is not the overt racism that matters, the real racism lies in the subtle racism, the cloaked humour, the little digs, the stereotypical sayings and phrases that seem harmless at first but are actually rather malicious and sinister.

And this racism is not reserved solely for Māori, but I have observed it against Chinese, Thai, Koreans, Indians and Japanese people who have had to suffer from it too. In fact, anyone who isn’t white (and of British heritage) will have felt these dark arrows of prejudice flung at them from time to time.

One could argue that these are the birth pangs of a new world that is coming about in this country, the last vestiges of prejudice being purged in order to make way for a new way of life. One that not only includes but embraces all ethnicities. And I do hope this to be the case from the bottom of my heart. That racism is slowly dying out. But one need not look further than the incredibly racist talking point used to appease British colonialism in this country, the well debunked story of Māori massacring the Moriori into extinction historically. For starters there still are Moriori people in existence and the actual historical event has been so skewered and blown out of proportion that its use as evidence that “oh but Māori are violent and did it too” is not only factually incorrect, it is also a blatant racist talking point. So for those of you who still use this, stop. You are making a fool of yourself. Educate yourself here.    

If all of the above was not enough to convince you that we need to change our name as a country to Aotearoa, please take a moment to think about this little rock in our shoe: 

Canterbury has a lot to answer for

Only as late as 2016 (!!) were the super insensitive Nigger Hill, Nigger Stream and Niggerhead in the Caterbury plains changed to Kānuka Hills, Pūkio Stream and Tawhai Hill, respectively.

I know, what. the. fuck?


Can you imagine? We have had these despicable place names sitting unchanged for years. Then 5 years ago we decided enough is enough

Can you see how relevant those names are in the context of Zeeland being a major historical hub for the distribution of black slaves from Africa across the Atlantic? Our country currently bears the name of an industrial scale racist attempt to exploit one type of human being based on the colour of their skin.

This cannot stand. We need to rename our country and start afresh. Whilst this change in name will never erase all of the atrocities committed on these isles by colonisers, it will go a long way in recognising these atrocities as facts and something we want to start to heal. The first step to recovery is recognising that something is wrong. Let’s collectively start this process of recovery and stamping out racism once and for all. 

It’s been Aotearoa for over 700 years

So how and when did the name Aotearoa originate? Well, there are a couple of versions of this story, all of them involve Kupe, the original discoverer of Aotearoa. One version of the story was that the name of the waka that Kupe traveled in was Aotearoa, and he subsequently named the land after it.

Another was that a long white cloud had guided their waka for some time before they saw the land.

And another has Hine-te-aparangi, Kupe’s wife, looking out over the horizon when they first encountered land, shouting out at the top of her lungs "He ao! He ao!" - “A cloud! A cloud!” at a long low hanging cloud ahead of them.

Which of these stories was the actual one we’ll never know, but one thing we’ll know for sure is that the origin story of Aotearoa is a lot (I repeat,) a LOT better than the one of the Dutch slave roots of the name “New Zealand.”

You simply can’t argue with that!

So, without further adieu…

Aotearoa it is. Again.

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Please visit te pāti Māori’s petition and pledge your support   

Ka pai and ngā mihi for reading. Happy te wiki o te reo Māori.

Bless you all. Arohanui.

Waiho i te toipoto, kaua i te toiroa

Let us keep close together, not far apart