Of all the fake history which New Zealand is swamped with today under this government, nothing is more blatant than the claim that “Aotearoa” is, or was, the Maori name for our country.

No mention of it in the Treaty of Waitangi

By Bruce Moon

If “Aotearoa” was the old Maori name for the country, the Williams, father and son, would certainly have used it in their translation of Busby’s and Hobson’s final draft of 4 February 1840 into that much-scrutinized document, the “Treaty of Waitangi”.  After all, they had been in New Zealand for seventeen years, son Edward Marsh Williams since the age of four and spoke the Ngapuhi dialect as fluently as anybody.  

But no! The Williams chose “Nu Tirani”, a reasonable, if not perfect, transliteration using the limited sounds of that speech. And when their text was presented to the great assembly of chiefs and others the following day, not one word was spoken to challenge the Williams’ choice.  Not once does “Aotearoa” appear in Colenso’s recording of the speeches of the day, carefully checked by Busby at the time.

In no way does the Treaty of Waitangi, claimed by many to be our founding document, support any claim to the use of “Aotearoa”!

No use of Aotearoa in the decades that followed

And then at the great meeting of chiefs at Kohimarama in July and August 1860 at the invitation of Governor Gore Browne when they unanimously affirmed the sovereignty of the Queen, not once, so far as I can discover, did anybody use “Aotearoa” for the name of our country.

And so it continued for many more decades, albeit government departments chose in due course the somewhat more accurate rendition “Niu Tireni”.  I recall, in 1945, seeing just such spelling on a document in Maori displayed on the wall of the post office at Karitane.  “Aotearoa” was just nowhere in sight.  That was a hundred years after the Treaty was signed.

Europeans named most Pacific Island groups

While Polynesians gave names to individual islands of course, it was not their practice to name island groups, the exception being when islands were clustered sufficiently together to be under a single hegemony – Samoa and Tonga for example.  Indeed the word “Polynesia”, meaning “many islands”, is derived from the Greek.

Naming island groups was left to Europeans, mostly the British.  Thus we have the Cook Islands, the Gilbert Islands (now transliterated to “Kiribati”), the Ellis Islands, the Line Islands, the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii, and others.

And our country?  We have one of the oldest names in the Pacific, bestowed on us in 1643 by the Dutch States-General who corrected Tasman’s mistaken belief that our country was part of a great southern continent that had been called “Staten Landt”.

Where does Aotearoa come from?

And so “Aotearoa”?  Well, renowned writer Barry Brailsford told me in person that he was absolutely certain that it was a Maori name for the South Island.  Indeed it appears as such in his book “Song of Waitaha”.  

Other names cited for the South Island are “Te Waka-a-Aoraki”, “Te Wahi Pounamu” and “Kaikaldu” (the “l” and “d’ sounds being present in some Southern dialects if not in the North).  The North Island was variously called “Te Ika a Maui”, “Whai Repo”, “Aotearoa”, “Aotea” and “Orokeroke”.  Maori scholar Jean Jackson told me personally that “Aotearoa” was used for the long thin line of cloud and volcanic ash which sometimes appears around the three central peaks. (Incidentally, as A.P. Harper reported, southern Maoris insisted that “Aoraki” was never the name of the mountain but only of the large, fleecy clouds which would surround the southern ranges.)

As historian Michael King observed: “In the Maori world all these names would persist in simultaneous usage until around the middle of the nineteenth century, after which Maoris began to favour Nu Tirani and its variants … few Maoris opted for Aotearoa.”

And so who actually started “Aotearoa” on the way to the dizzy heights it has now reached in the minds of some racist extremists in our country?  Well, it was actually a couple of white men.  One was William Pember Reeves who used it as a subtitle in his 1898 book “The Long White Cloud”, though it appears only once in the text in a footnote on page 25.  The other was Stephenson Percy Smith, who used it in some stories he was writing, also in the eighteen-nineties.  In other words, it was the work of a couple of colonials!

Need to have pride in our name

In no way do such dubious credentials – if we may so call them – justify its use as our country’s name.  In no way is “Aotearoa” given any authenticity, either by the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori tradition or usage.  Our country, New Zealand, bears one of the oldest names in the wide Pacific.

Let us be proud of it.

(Postscript:  Full references are available to the material in this article and will be provided on enquiry to interested persons.  A somewhat longer treatment appears in New Zealand; the fair colony, 2nd edition, available from charlton@farmside.co.nz.  BM)