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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Maori Names

It is doubtful whether in prehistoric times the New Zealand Maori had a general name for the North Island, South Island, and contiguous coastal islands of New Zealand. An old Maori of Queen Charlotte Sound at the time of Cook's first visit in 1770 used a name rendered phonetically by Cook as “Aeheino mouwe” while pointing to the North Island, and a name rendered by Cook as “Tovy-poenammu” for two lands south of Cook Strait, probably derived from “te wai pounamu”, meaning literally “the water greenstone”, the greenstone of the South Island being valued and sought by the Maoris of the North as well as of the South Island. Indirect evidence that some Maoris of Cook's time used the name Aotea for a substantial portion of the North Island is given by J. Andia y Varela, the captain of one of the ships of a Spanish expedition which visited Tahiti at about the time of Cook's second voyage in the Pacific. In the years 1773–74 Cook, accompanied by two Tahitians, made a round trip in the course of which he visited Tongatabu, in the Tonga Group, New Zealand, and Vaitahu, in the Marquesas Group. Shortly after Cook's departure from Tahiti, where he left one of the Tahitians who had accompanied him on this round trip, Andia gathered the names of a number of islands known to the Tahitians, including “Tonetapu”, “Guaytaho”, “Ponamu”, and “Iaotea”. The first three of these names echo Tongatabu, Vaitahu, and “Tovy-poenammu”. The fourth is evidently the name Aotea. In 1773–74 Cook had followed the south-east coast of the North Island and had visited Queen Charlotte Sound. The name Aotea may have been obtained either at that time or on Cook's first voyage, when his expedition had contacts with numbers of Maoris on the east coast of the North Island and at Queen Charlotte Sound. The fact that both Ponamu, echoing Cook's “Tovy-poenammu” as a name for part or all of the South Island, and Iaotea appear in Andia's list creates the presumption that the name Aotea had been obtained in the North Island. In the mid-nineteenth century Sir George Grey collected Maori traditions in which Aotea is given as the destination of Maori traditional canoes in terms implying that the name embraced at least a considerable portion of the North Island. The name Aotearoa also appears in Grey's collection. In a version of the tradition of Kupe's discovery of New Zealand given late in the nineteenth century by the Maori priest Te Matorohanga, Kupe was described as naming his discovery “Aotearoa” (q.v.). This name was translated by S. Percy Smith as “long white cloud”. Henry Williams, however, commented that the name “Aotearoa” was incomprehensible to some nineteenth-century Maoris to whom it was given by Te Matorohanga, and that the words “long white cloud” were not an equivalent. It is possible that the components of “Aotea”, whatever their original meaning, had lost this meaning when “roa”, signifying “long”, was tacked on, in which case Aotearoa would mean simply “Long Aotea”. A general Maori name for the main islands of New Zealand was no doubt essential in later times, and continues so today. Aotearoa fills the need.


Charles Andrew Sharp, B.A.(OXON.), M.A.(N.Z.), Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

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