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What’s New About New Zealand?

Many people may know that places like New York and New London are named after areas of England, but what about New Zealand? Just where is the original Zealand? For the answer we have to look to an early era of European exploration, and the original name for New York—New Amsterdam—gives us a clue.

Dutch explorers were among the first Europeans to set sail for lands unknown, and today’s globe still bears traces of that legacy. In 1642, Dutch explorer and navigator Abel Tasman (namesake of Tasmania) set out on a mission to explore the southern Pacific Ocean as an agent of the Dutch East India Company, and encountered the territories we now know as New Zealand, Tonga and Fiji. When he returned with news of his discoveries, the lands were incorporated into the charts of the day.

The mapmakers at the Dutch East India Company already called a nearby landmass New Holland—modern day Australia—and decided to call Tasman’s new find “Nieuw Zeeland” after a province of the Netherlands. Zeeland is a low-lying coastal area in the southwestern region of the Dutch homeland whose name translates as “sea land.”

While Tasman gets the credit for being the first European to spot New Zealand, his expedition didn’t land there and the Dutch never established a permanent colony. In 1768, British sailor Captain Cook journeyed to the Pacific to further investigate Tasman’s earlier accounts. Cook circumnavigated both the north and south islands, and made detailed reports of the coastline. Over the next decade, Cook made three separate voyages to New Zealand, establishing a relationship between Britain and the indigenous Maori people, and paving the way for colonization. Cook and subsequent British arrivals didn’t rename the islands, but instead used an Anglicized version of the Dutch name, and so “Nieuw Zeeland” became New Zealand.

Categories: Exploration, New Zealand