Daily Archives: December 1, 2009

Where Is Old Zealand?

This isn't the original Orleans.

The explorers certainly had a lot of courage.  What many of them seem to have lacked is imagination, especially when it came to naming their discoveries.  Oh, there were a few attempts at fanciful names for the land masses they found — calling a desolate, ice-covered rock pile “Greenland” shows some creativity.  In many instances, though, the explorers or early settlers just tacked “New” in front of the name of some other place with which they were already familiar.

Take New Zealand as a case in point.  There are a couple of old Zealands, neither of which bears much physical resemblance to the country in the Southern Hemisphere.  One is the Zealand — also known as Sjælland — that is the largest and most populous island of Denmark.  Copenhagen is located on that one, which, as it turns out, was not the inspiration for New Zealand.  The other Zealand is a province of the Netherlands and is known to the Dutch as Zeeland (literally, “sea land”).

The first European to encounter what we now call New Zealand was a Dutch explorer named Abel Tasman.  He put several of his men ashore in 1642, which got them killed by the locals.  The inhabitants were Maoris who had arrived there from Polynesia sometime in the first millennium.  It is not known if they referred to their territory as “New Polynesia”.

Abel Tasman didn’t name his discovery New Zealand because it reminded him of home, but as a sort of honorific to his patrons back in the Netherlands.  Tasman may not have been aware that there was already a New Zealand.  An earlier Dutch explorer had given the name Nieu Zelandt (New Zealand) to an island off the coast of New Guinea, which at least bears some resemblance to the original Guinea.

Tasman’s politically-motivated naming strategy was also employed by others:  New Orleans was given that name as a tribute to the Duke of Orléans, and New York was a blatant kiss-up move involving the Duke of York.  You’ll recall that before it came under British control in 1664, Manhattan had been a Dutch holding, when it was called New Amsterdam.

You can probably guess why New England is called that, and how much careful deliberation went into the naming of New Brunswick, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New Mexico.  Since the earth’s surface has now been exhaustively explored, opportunities to find a previously-undiscovered place and call it NEW someplace-else are not likely.  But outer space?  There must be billions of barren rocks floating around out there, and one of them is just waiting to be named New El Paso.