The Dutch sailing expeditions led to many results, some of which were horrific, but also successful for finding new trade routes or discovering new lands. And of course, being the first Europeans to set foot somewhere, the Dutch gave it a name.
So, here are seven well-known places in the world whose names are actually Dutch, and their stories.
Tasmania and New Zealand: Searching for gold
Abel Tasman was a Dutch explorer and merchant, working for the VOC in the 17th century. His voyages took him to places much warmer than those of Barentsz and eventually led him to “discover” four of the lands we know today — Tasmania, New Zealand, Tonga, and Fiji.
In August of 1642, the Council of the Indies sent Abel Tasman and Franchoijs Visscher to explore the area known as Beach — a toponym appearing on maps as the northernmost part of Australia. Beach, which in fact is a mistranslation of Locach, was mentioned on many maps and by many travellers prior to Tasman, but what’s more — it was a land described by Marco Polo as one plentiful with gold.
As with many other journeys, travellers had to count on maps often based on mistaken or mistranslated texts and descriptions. This was also the case with the voyage of Tasman. Following Marco Polo’s descriptions and the subsequently made maps of the region, he travelled to seek the land of gold to the south of the Solomon Islands.
At the end of November in 1642, after a stop at Mauritius Island and a storm, which directed the ship to north-east, Tasman saw the coast of a new land. In the good old tradition of the time, he named it after his sponsor — Van Diemen’s Land, after Antony van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. On January 1, 1856, the land was renamed to Tasmania in honour of the first European who set foot there.
Just 13 days after “finding” Tasmania, Abel Tasman also saw the shores of New Zealand. Unfortunately, he was not aware of that — he thought this was a land connected to Isla de los Estadors in Argentina, hence he charted it as Staten Landt (both names given in honor of the States-General). A few years later, in 1645, Dutch cartographers corrected Tasman’s mistake and named the land Nova Zeelandia, after the Dutch province of Zeeland.
Upon his return voyage, Tasman and his ships passed through the Tongan archipelago, spotting the Fiji islands, which the explorer named Prince William’s Islands.
Easter Islands: A troubled journey
In August of 1721, the Dutch West India Company decided to commission a search for the mythical Terra Australis, also hoping to open a western trade route to the Spice Islands (The Maluku). Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was sent to complete the task. He sailed to the South Atlantic Ocean, entered the Pacific Ocean and continued further south.
Much like many before him, Roggeveen looked for one thing to find another. He, however, skipped the largely observed tradition of naming newly found lands after royalties or sponsors of the trip and decided to honor the day he saw the land — Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722. Perhaps, he followed the example of British captain William Mynors who saw an island in the Indian Ocean on Christmas Day of 1643, and named it… Christmas Island.
Jacob Roggeveen explored 12 islands but his trip was far from trouble-free. He lost his flagship and had a violent, deathly encounter with the inhabitants of some of the islands. Upon returning to the Netherlands, the Dutch East-India Company VOC had him arrested for violating their monopoly and confiscated the remaining two ships. Only after a long lawsuit was Jacob Roggeveen acquitted and compensated for his losses.
Robben Island: the political prison
Most people know about the Dutch colonial ties to South Africa, including Cape Town which was founded by the Dutch in 1652 as a trading post for the VOC. But less than seven kilometres west of Cape Town, the Dutch also found a small island and gave it a name which might not immediately strike you as Dutch. Robben Island was not named after a person or a bird, but after the many seals that the Dutch saw there, robben being Dutch for seals.
Robben Island is perhaps most famous for the political prisoners that were detained there during the nation’s era of Apartheid. Nelson Mandela, among others, was imprisoned on the island for 18 years before helping to dissolve the Apartheid state and going on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
But Robben Island has been holding political prisoners for much longer than most people realise. In the 16th and 17th century, the VOC used the island to incarcerate political leaders from other Dutch colonies, including Indonesian rebels and the leader of the mutiny on the slave ship Meermin.
Bluefields, Nicaragua: the Dutch pirate
Bluefields is a municipality in the Central American nation of Nicaragua, and was named after the notorious Dutch pirate, Abraham Blauvelt. The area is located at the mouth of the Escondido River, and it was here that Blauvelt hid during the 17th century.
But this thieving seaman began not as a pirate, but as a very respectable employee of the Dutch East India Company. He was the first European to explore what are now Honduras and Nicaragua and even travelled to England trying to gain support to establish a colony here. When these efforts failed, Blauvelt became a privateer and started raiding Spanish ships off the coast of Jamaica.
Blauvelt would then trade his spoils with the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now New York), but when the colony feared tainting their reputation by trading with pirates, they banished him from the area. Thus, Blauvelt fled to what is now Bluefields, and the rest is history.
Barents Sea: The unbearable cold
The sea, located in the northern coasts of Norway and Russia, was actually called Murmanskoye morye (Murman Sea) and appeared on maps for a first time in the 16th & 17th century under this name. Only in the 19th century was it renamed after the Dutch navigator, cartographer, and explorer, Willem Barentsz in honour of his heroic expeditions in the far North.
Barentsz took three expeditions in search of a Northeast Passage which, he believed, opened north of Siberia in June every year because of the sun melting the ice and snow. The passage would also mean a new trade route to the Indies.
During the voyages, Barentsz and his crew members were often victims of the local fauna (attacked by polar bears) and the extreme weather conditions — the first two expeditions ended due to large icebergs and frozen waters. Because of this failure, the States-General refused to subsidize any further trips of this sort.
Instead, they offered a generous reward to anyone who could successfully navigate the route to its end. The Town Council of Amsterdam provided two ships, captained by Jan Rijp and Jacob van Heemskerk, under the command of Barentsz.
The third expedition started rather well. Barentsz and company discovered the Bear Island, Spitsbergen and named a few fjords. Unfortunately, a disagreement led them to part — Heemskerk with Barentsz continued northeast, Rijp headed north. In July, Barentsz reached the icy Novaya Zemlya archipelago, but because of the many icebergs around, he and his crew remained trapped there for a whole year fighting the extreme cold. In June of the following year, those still alive decided to sail away. Barentsz died at sea only seven days after their journey back home began. After seven more weeks, the boats were finally rescued by a Russian ship.
In 2011, the Dutch director Reinout Oerlemans released “Nova Zembla”, a historical drama, based on the incredible story of Barentsz and his crew trapped on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.
Mauritius: The abandoned prince
Today’s independent state has a very long colonial history with the Dutch, the French, and the British. There is strong evidence that the island was known already to Arab sailors even before the European expeditions. In the 14th century, Portuguese sailors visited the then uninhabited land and their cartographers gave it a name — Mascarenes, but took no interest in it.
At the end of the 16th century (1598), bad weather whilst passing the Cape of Good Hope changed the route of five Dutch ships which wound up sailing to the shores of Mauritius. Under the command of Wybrand van Warwyck, they anchored and named the island Prins Maurits van Nassaueiland, after Prince Maurits of the House of Nassau.
The Dutch made a settlement on Mauritius for their ships passing through this sea route and had it for 20 years but eventually abandoned it. The island was taken over by the French who changed its name to Isle de France and used it, among other things, to raid on British commercial ships. That lasted up until 1810 when the British took control over the island and returned its Dutch name.
In and around New York
A fair amount of today’s American toponyms came from the Dutch language on the account of the first settlers there. The Dutch heritage is particularly visible in and around New York (previously known as New Amsterdam). Here are just a tiny fraction of examples:
One of the theories says that it was named by the Dutch trader Adriaen Block, who when passing by it, described it as “een rodlich Eylande” perhaps due to red clay.
Named after the States-General, Staaten Eylandt, from Staten-Generaal.
Named after the Dutch city, Haarlem.
Located in what was then known as Nieuw Amsterdam, a 17th-century Dutch settlement on the tip of Manhattan, the street was then known as de Waalstraat, on the account of a wooden palisade, that was protecting the settlement from the natives and the British.
Did you know about any of these places named by the Dutch? Let us know which (if any), in the comments!
Feature Image: Ricardo_Helass/Pixabay
Editor’s note: The article was originally published in July 2018 but was fully updated in November 2020 for your reading pleasure.