Until this week, New Zealand’s North and South islands didn’t have official names. Not even ‘North’ and ‘South’, though that’s what they were always called. Hmmn… ‘North’. Sounds like a celebrity baby name to me. Not sure about ‘South’.
This week the New Zealand Geographic Board has given New Zealand’s two largest islands formal monikers following request for public comment. Some 2608 submissions were received, from which the Board decided to call the North Island ‘Te Ika-a-Maui’ (‘The Fish of Maui’) – supported by 64 percent – and the South Island ‘Te Wai Pounamu’ (‘The Waters of Greenstone’), supported by 65 percent.
Doubtless there will be nay-sayers who insist the island names are political correctness gone mad, they can’t pronounce Maori, and so on. Well, tough. Fact is that these Maori names draw deeply into legend and heritage, they are important, they are reasonable, and they have been in use for decades, alongside the English ones. Really, it’s formalising what’s already in place. The decision has to be approved at ministerial level and gazetted – but it’ll happen.
In point of fact, the South Island has had a raft of names, I listed them in the book I wrote on the rise and fall of colonial socio-economic idealism in that island, Old South (Penguin 2009) – now out of print, alas.
To the first settlers from Polynesia it was Te Waka o Maui – the canoe of Maui – and Te Waka o Aoraki. Eventually it became Te Wai Pounamu. Maui’s anchor, Te Puka o Te Waka a Maui, became the island of Rakiura, known also as Stewart Island. Such names underscored the vibrancy of Maori culture, contrasting sharply with the uninspiring ‘middle island’ adopted by dour Victorian-age colonists from Britain. Later, in cheerful defiance of northern dominance, it became ‘the mainland’. That stuck, colloqually, though purists may be offended by the fact that ‘Mainland’ cheese – a brand founded in Dunedin in 1955 and long advertised on iconic South Island subculture, is made in the North Island these days.
The place eventually gained the equally utilitarian epithet ‘South Island’.
Locations in the south were more imaginatively served. We find the earthy imprint of settler thought from the sunny beaches and bays of Taitapu to the wide plains of Canterbury and the misty peaks and sounds of Fijordland. Christ’s Church, Erewhon, Mounts Sodom and Gomorrah, even the Bowels of the Earth – a locale just south of Lake Wakitipu – reveal much of the hopes, aims and culture of nineteenth century pakeha.
Personally I think the new island names are fitting. And interesting. The fact that places have more than one name in different languages, gives them human depth. A point well known by J R R Tolkien, whose Middle Earth has become inextricably linked, these days, with New Zealand’s soaring peaks and golden grasslands.
As for the North Island – well, now it’s got its proper name, there’s no danger of the place being confused with a Kardashian. I hope.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013