New Zealand has worn many nametags, so to speak, including the Land of the Long White Cloud or even (to film buffs) Middle Earth, among others. But have you ever stopped to wonder about its original name?
If you’re wondering what it is, read one. Spoiler alert: if you’ve talked to a lot of Kiwis or Māori before, you’ve probably already heard people call the country by this name.
What was the original name of New Zealand?
The original name of New Zealand is Aotearoa, which is the Māori name for the country. The name was originally used by Māori to refer to the North Island, but it is now used to refer to the entire country.
Origin of the Name Aotearoa
According to a group of University of Waikato academics writing in The Conversation, the precise origin of the name is not known. There are a number of proposals for its meaning and source, though.
Let’s explore a couple of theories about this intriguing name’s genesis.
The Long White Cloud Theory
One idea suggests that Aotearoa comes from three Māori words: “ao” meaning cloud, “tea” meaning white, and “roa” meaning long.
When combined, Aotearoa beautifully translates to “land of the long white cloud.” This theory gains credibility from the awe-inspiring cloud formations that grace New Zealand’s skies, creating a captivating visual spectacle.
The Aotea Canoe Theory
In the Aotea Canoe Theory, the name Aotearoa is intertwined with the Māori seafaring history.
According to this belief, Aotearoa finds its origins in the Māori canoe named Aotea, which holds the distinction of being among the earliest canoes to touch the shores of New Zealand.
Adding a layer of geographical significance, the name Aotea is not only linked to the canoe but also to a peninsula located on the North Island of New Zealand.
This connection reinforces the theory, suggesting a deep historical tie between the Māori people, their voyages, and the naming of their homeland, Aotearoa.
In ancient stories, Aotearoa’s name has a magical tale. Long ago, a brave explorer named Kupe set out in his canoe (waka) to discover new lands.
Kupe’s wife, Kuramārōtini (in some versions, his daughter), spotted a cloud on the horizon and exclaimed, “He ao! He ao!” The words “he ao” translate to “a cloud”.
However, in other versions of the story, the canoe was guided by a long white cloud during the day and a bright cloud at night.
In any case, when Kupe and his crew finally reached land, they saw another long cloud hanging over it. Kupe, noticing the cloud, realised they had found a new place. He named this land Aotearoa, inspired by the special cloud that welcomed them.
From Aotearoa to New Zealand
The transition from the original name “Aotearoa” to “New Zealand” was due to the influence of European explorers and settlers.
The name New Zealand comes from the Dutch province of Zeeland. In 1645, Dutch navigator Abel Tasman and his crew renamed the country Nova Zeelandia after Zeeland because they believed that the two places were similar in terms of their geography and climate.
The name New Zealand was later anglicised by English explorers, and it became the official name of the country in 1840 when New Zealand signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown.
The name Aotearoa continued to be used by Māori people after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, but it was not widely used in English until the late 19th century.
Over time, as British influence grew stronger in the region, “New Zealand” became the commonly used name for the country.