Aotearoa and New Zealand: history, politics and place names

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From the title page of James Cowan, New Zealand, or Ao-teä-roa (the Long Bright World): Its Wealth and Resources, Scenery, Travel-Routes, Spas, and Sport (Wellington: Government Printer, 1907)

A petition calling for a referendum on whether the official name of New Zealand should include the Māori name Aotearoa is currently seeking signatures and has been receiving some publicity lately. It joins another petition on the same topic, which has already been presented to Parliament. I don’t like the chances of either petition succeeding, given that a select committee report in 2010 on the last petition to seek recognition of the name Aotearoa made no recommendations. However, the current petitions have revived an interesting and useful debate about what this country should be called.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, people often turn to history to support their arguments in debates about place names. (Unfortunately, the article in History Australia is subscription only, but a limited number of copies can be accessed by non-subscribers here.)  However, while history can certainly inform debates about place names, it can’t tell us what the name of a place should be. Decisions about place names are ultimately a question of politics and power, not history.

Aotearoa is commonly described by its supporters as the original Māori name for New Zealand. In response, those who oppose official recognition of the name Aotearoa (often the same people who complain about increasing recognition of Māori language, culture and Treaty of Waitangi rights) point to a discussion of the name in Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand (2003). ‘Look!’, they say gleefully. ‘Even Michael King [subtext: a respected historian generally considered sympathetic to Māori] says the name Aotearoa for New Zealand is a nineteenth century invention. The Dutch named the country New Zealand in the seventeenth century, so that name is actually older!’

Michael King set out how a particular version of the story of the discovery of New Zealand by the navigator Kupe was compiled by the Pākehā amateur ethnologist S. Percy Smith and popularised through texts like the School Journal. In this story, Kupe’s wife was the first to see signs of land ahead as their waka (canoe) neared the North Island, calling out ‘He ao! He ao!’ (‘A cloud! A cloud!’) A romanticised version of this incident is portrayed in William Trethewey’s 1940 sculpture, now on the Wellington waterfront.

16.01.11 025From that event, the story goes, came the name Aotearoa, commonly translated as ‘long white cloud’.

King argues that, while Aotearoa was one traditional name for the North Island, it was not used to describe the whole New Zealand archipelago – it didn’t acquire this wider meaning until the late nineteenth century. Early written documents, including the 1835 Declaration of Independence and the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, refer to New Zealand using transliterations such as ‘Nu Tireni’. It was also common to refer to New Zealand’s two main islands as ‘Aotearoa me Te Waipounamu’ (Te Waipounamu being a name for the South Island). Over time, however, Aotearoa came to be used as a Māori name for New Zealand as a whole.

Of course, Michael King’s view is not the definitive word on the traditional meaning of ‘Aotearoa’. But his central point is undoubtedly correct: Māori in pre-colonial times could not have used Aotearoa to mean the arbitrary collection of islands we now call New Zealand, because the boundaries of New Zealand were a colonial creation. While Pākehā who are grumpy about New Zealand being called Aotearoa like to cite Michael King’s conclusion that ‘New Zealand was certainly not known to Maori as Aotearoa in the pre-European times’, however, they ignore the sentence that follows: ‘Just as certainly, it is called that now by most Maori of the modern era.’ And that, to me, is the point.

Rather than a sterile debate about which name came first, I suggest we should be asking: what is the name that best represents the kind of country we want this to be? For me, that question leads to another: which name recognises the indigenous language and culture of this country, and our geographic location in the Pacific? What Aotearoa meant before the arrival of Pākehā is of limited relevance, in my view: what is important is that it is the most commonly-used name for New Zealand in modern Māori. Māori is a living, evolving language, in which the meaning of names and words can change, but it is still identifiably the language of the original inhabitants of most of what we now call New Zealand. Referring to New Zealand as Aotearoa recognises and respects the status of Māori as a language unique to this land.

From socialist and republican perspective, the blogger Scott Hamilton has expressed some qualms about official recognition of the name Aotearoa New Zealand, even though he sympathises with the spirit of the proposal. Hamilton notes that Queen Elizabeth is Queen of New Zealand and suggests that under the change proposed in the petition she would become Queen of Aotearoa New Zealand. Is this appropriate, he asks, given the use of Aotearoa by anti-imperialists like the second Māori King, Tāwhiao? Moreover, there is also a Realm of New Zealand that includes Tokelau, Niue, the Cook Islands and part of Antarctica. Would this Realm be any more represenative of its Pacific inhabitants if it became the Realm of Aotearoa New Zealand? Better, he suggests, to change the name after constitutional reform that abolishes the monarchy and establishes a new relationship with Pacific Island countries.

There are a few points to make in response to the questions raised by Hamilton. For a start, the name Aotearoa hasn’t only been used by anti-imperialists. Here it is, for example, on a Christmas greeting card for New Zealand soldiers in the First World War to send home from Europe.

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William Frederick Bell, Aotearoa greeting card, 1917. Eph-A-CARDS-Christmas-WWI-1917-01, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Likewise, the New Zealand writer and politician William Pember Reeves called his 1898 popular history of New Zealand The Long White Cloud – Ao Tea Roa. Reeves was a social reformer and Fabian socialist, but also an imperialist. As Beryl Woolford Roa discussesThe Long White Cloud was imbued with the dominant racial ideology of Reeves’s time and ignored the role of the Native Land Court in the loss of Māori land.

It’s also not clear that giving official status to the name Aotearoa New Zealand would necessarily have the consequences Hamilton is concerned about. The New Zealand Geographic Board’s jurisdiction does not allow it to ‘assign a name to, or alter the name of, New Zealand’, and there is no other established process for changing the name of the country. Specific legislation would be needed, so the scope of the name change would depend on the provisions of the legislation.  It doesn’t automatically follow that a change to Aotearoa New Zealand would mean a change the royal title or the name of the Realm, which would require amendments to the Royal Titles Act 1974 and the Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor-General. It’s worth noting, too, that the Interpretation Act 1999 provides that ‘New Zealand’, when used as a territorial description in legislation, does not include the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau or the Ross Dependency. In short, it seems possible to me that Aotearoa New Zealand might be used only for what we could call the ‘core’ State of New Zealand, without affecting the royal title or the wider Realm.

Such technicalities aside, there is a more significant reason why I don’t share Hamilton’s concerns even though I do share his interest in seeing more far-reaching change than simply a new name for the country. There is a fairly widespread view in left and liberal circles that changes to symbols should happen after fundamental change to political structures: they are the icing on the cake of reform or revolution. This view was commonly articulated during the flag debate a few years ago, and I think it underlies Hamilton’s concerns about a new name for an unreconstructed state. I suggest, however, that symbolic changes – and perhaps even more importantly, debate about proposed symbolic changes – can prepare the ground for political and social change, and give expression to social change that is already under way. We can only imagine a collectivity as large as a nation through its symbols, so changing the nation’s symbols can help us to reimagine the nation itself (ideally in a more progressive way). Of course, a change to symbols is not enough on its own, but neither should we wait until we get everything else right before thinking about symbols. (For a view that a change to Aotearoa New Zealand would be worthwhile but should be accompanied by better constitutional provision for Treaty partnership, see Carwyn Jones here.)

I do, however, have one reservation about recognising the name Aotearoa at this point in our journey towards giving appropriate status to Māori language and culture. With many people still struggling to pronounce Māori words, there would inevitably be quite a lot of mispronunciation of the newly-recognised name as ‘Ay-oh-tay-ah-roe-ah’ (à la Split Enz in ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’) or something similar. Perhaps te reo Māori should become compulsory in schools first…

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