Story: Place names

Page 2. Early explorers

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The earliest European names were given by explorers. They follow the coast or places that could be seen from it, such as mountains.

Name changing

In December 1642 Abel Tasman’s two ships were anchored in Golden Bay. Following a misunderstanding, men in an open boat were attacked by Māori and four were killed. Tasman named the bay Moordenaers or Murderers Bay. Cook accepted that name, but in 1827 Dumont d’Urville preferred Massacre Bay. When coal was discovered at Tākaka in 1842, it became Coal Bay, and after gold was discovered at Aorere in 1857 the name changed to Golden Bay, which most people today imagine, incorrectly, refers to the colour of its sand.


Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who sailed along part of the west coast of New Zealand, named relatively few places: Murderers Bay because of a fracas where lives were lost (a name which did not last;); Cape Maria van Diemen, after the wife of the governor of the Dutch settlement at Batavia (Jakarta); and Three Kings Islands, reminder of the day in the religious calendar they were sighted. The names Tasman gave to Cape Foulwind, Kahurangi Point and Cape Egmont didn’t last.

Other names commemorate Tasman himself. Tasman is the name of a district, a street in many towns, the second highest mountain and its glacier, and the Tasman Sea. Tasman Bay was named by a later explorer, Dumont d’Urville.

From ship to shore

Names of early ships have also become place names. Coromandel takes its name from HMS Coromandel, which sailed into Coromandel Harbour around 1820, and the Chatham Islands from the Chatham, which visited in 1791. Pegasus Bay (Canterbury) and Port Pegasus (Stewart Island) recall the brig Pegasus, which charted them in 1809. Although an American sealer, Owen Folger Smith, first identified Stewart Island as an island in 1804, it was named after William Stewart, first officer on the Pegasus.

James Cook

James Cook circumnavigated New Zealand and named more widely than Tasman did. His naming varied from descriptive (Flat Island, Bay of Islands) to metaphorical (Bay of Plenty, Poverty Bay) to narrative (Bream Bay, Cape Runaway, Cape Turnagain, Cape Farewell, Cape Foulwind). He also acknowledged royalty (Queen Charlotte Sound), officers in the British admiralty (Cape Brett, Cape Colville, Edgecumbe, Hawke Bay, Cape Palliser, Mount and Cape Egmont), and the professional members of his ship’s complement (Banks Island which became Peninsula and Solander Island).

Cook lends his name to even more places than Tasman, being found in every city, atop mountains, bestriding bays and on countless streets and roads. Other names – Marton, Whitby – recall places associated with his early life.

Later explorers

Other explorers named places on similar lines to Tasman and Cook but not many names have survived. Dumont d’Urville named Passe des Français (French Pass), which he sailed through in 1827. The pass separates the mainland and D’Urville Island which subsequently took his name. Names given in Fiordland by Felipe Bauza (on the Spanish Malaspina expedition) were replaced when the Acheron surveyed the coast and harbours in 1848–51, but were later restored.

How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Place names - Early explorers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 24 Nov 2008