Waitangi Day: Time to consider the name of the country

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Seti Afoa

I have a beef, and it has been voiced before. New Zealand - the name of the country is distinctly un-Kiwi. There is no connection between the name New Zealand and the history of the land and her people. It is neither Maori nor Pakeha. 

At the 177th anniversary of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi between British Pakeha and tangata whenua at Waitangi on 6th February, 1840, that special treaty between the British Crown and the Maori people, is the foundation of the modern nation. The culmination of that partnership is what gives the country its very special wairua or soul. Everything in that partnership is reflected in the way we are as a people. In a very big way, the country is a fusion of that history, connection and partnership.

This is also reflected in our laws, culture at large, the arts, and ecumenical heritage. The current flag is the neat summary of that partnership and is idealised in the special setting under the stars of the Southern Cross. What is missing from the current flag for me is the representation of that partnership, Maori and Pakeha. The NZ Coat of Arms gives a much clearer image of that special relationship. But this piece is something much more important than the dead flag debate. 

The spoken languages of the country are English and Te Reo Maori. Our songs, arts, heritage, culture, laws and education is a combination of that partnership. Even with new people now arriving to share this special place our leanings from the start have always been to that Maori and British heritage. Everything seems so, except the name of this very special country – New Zealand.

It is a meaningless name. 

There is no meaningful connection between the rich heritage and history of the country and the name. It is neither Maori nor British. And it is not an easy name to say out loud. It sounds distinctly non-Kiwi. It is almost foreign, it is foreign to the kiwi tongue. 

In our history, Maori and Pakeha have agitated alongside each other over the first 150 years through co-existence. Our identity is therefore Maori and British at large. So why do we still have a foreign name for the country? The name is Dutch. 

The Dutch were the great seafarers of the time, the first to sail the southern seas in search of the southern continent. In their journeys they named everything in sight but did not settle or colonise any of the territories. Apart of course from the Dutch East Indies in present day Indonesia where the Dutch capital Batavia was the centre of the Spice trade of the time.  

There is certainly nothing against the work of Dutch sailors who named the land when they saw it almost 400 years ago. The name Nova Zealandia was given to the two islands situated at 42.0000° S, 174.0000° E at the bottom of the world by Dutch cartographers in 1645, so long ago. Nova Zealandia became Neuww Zeeland after the province of Zeeland in the North Sea. Capt. James Cook later anglicised the name to New Zealand and the name has remained to this day without change – or relevance. 

The Dutch also named the landmass to the west New Holland, and the island to the south of that, Van Diemen’s Land along with many more discoveries. 

The strange thing about naming landmass in the European colonial times is that those landmasses had existing names prior to being “discovered”. When Captain Cook “discovered” Hawaii and named it Sandwich Islands after Lord Sandwich of the Royal Navy, the place was already known as Hawaiki. Kiwiland was no different, there was a Maori name associated with the place long before Dutch sailors saw it. 

Almost two centuries after the naming of New Holland, the landmass was appropriately renamed Australia in 1824 – Terra Australis, southern landmass. That was at the recommendation of then New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Macquarie’s recommendation followed that of Matthew Flinders, the English seafarer who was the first to map the entire coastline of Australia a few years earlier.   

Other places and countries changed names too. Van Diemen’s Land became Tasmania, New Hebrides became Vanuatu, the Sandwich Islands returned to its original name of Hawaii. Western Samoa became Samoa, removing the European pre-fix “Western”. All these changes took place to reflect identity and connection between the people of those lands and the places themselves.

Meanwhile the country to the east of Australia is keeping its Dutch name that has no significant connection to the cultural and spiritual history of it. The Dutch as a nation to my knowledge did not greatly contribute to the rich cultural and spiritual history of the country as we know it, although Dutch settlements came later and settled around the country in pockets, much like the Croats, Greeks or even Samoans. Still, the predominant culture is and has been Maori and British Pakeha - yet the current name for the country is oddly other.

This anomaly reflects the very lack of imagination that may at worst be a part of the national psyche, or is it just a pure oversight?

Perhaps not, after all, our two most prominent landscapes are called the “North” and “South” Islands. Every other island around the country is appropriately named but the two significant pieces of geography. I cringe, every time I hear those three names, New Zealand, “North ” and “South” islands. The wince is in agitation at the short cultural change we have blindly accepted. 

Perhaps too, Kiwis are shown up here lacking imagination, or at least the will to change the big things, like the name of the country. 

It is not that New Zealand or the South and the North islands do not have meaningful original names. Aotearoa is the accepted Maori name for the country. It means the Land of the Long White Cloud, dating back to the first words uttered by ancient Maori voyager Kupe on first sighting the place, long before the Dutch got anywhere near these southern waters.

The two islands also have beautiful and meaningful Maori names. The North Island is known as Te Ika a Maui – the Fish of Maui – and the South Island is Te Wai Pounamu meaning Waters of Greenstone. The names reflect the role of Maori folklore and history in the spiritual heritage of the top island, and indeed the abundance of greenstones in the island to the south, just north of Stewart Island.

In my view, the country needs a name that reflects the significant contribution of Maori heritage and British Pakeha ingenuity together to the rich legacy that it is today. New Zealand is not it. It has no meaning for the people and the place. And while we are at it, please give the two islands meaningful names – the two Maori names is a great starting point.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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