New Zealand’s namesake: how the Dutch named NZ

Most people know that New York was originally named New Amsterdam, but what about New Zealand? Was it originally Zealand before the Dutch arrived? Where does the name come from? 

Many of the answers to these questions can be found if we look back on the 17th century — the time of the Dutch East India Company, violent colonisation and Abel Tasman (you may know this as the Dutch Golden Age, but that’s a little misleading.

Dutch explorers: the first foreigners to reach New Zealand

Explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to discover the land in the South Pacific which later became known as New Zealand and Tasmania.

Abel Tasman “discovered” (in the way that colonizers like to discover) New Zealand in 1642. Although when he first sighted the land, he named it Staten Landt, believing it to be part of the land of that name off the coast of Argentina that is now known as Isla de los Estados.

When it was realised that New Zealand was not part of South America, the Dutch renamed it Nova Zeelandia in Latin and Nieuw Zeeland in Dutch.

Whalers, missionaries, and traders soon followed but it wasn’t until 1840 that Britain claimed the islands as their own and established New Zealand’s first permanent European settlement at Wellington.

New Zealand's namesake
Abel Tasman National Park. Image: Oren Rozen/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

Abel Tasman — who was he?

Abel Tasman was a Dutch seafarer, merchant and explorer who travelled as part of his services to the Dutch East India Company (VOC.) He originally hailed from a small village called Lutjegast located in the province of Groningen, however, he later moved to Amsterdam to start his career at sea.

Tasman was born in 1603, but the first we ever hear of him is in 1631 when his name is mentioned in an Amsterdam newspaper announcing his engagement to his wife. He and his wife would then move to from Amsterdam to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) in 1637 after he signed on for a further 10 years of service to the VOC.

Tasman set off on his first major voyage in 1642 and would go on to explore Mauritius and Tasmania (yes, the island’s current name would later be derived from Tasman’s.) From Tasmania, the expedition would eventually find itself off the coast of modern-day New Zealand.

The first meeting between the Dutch and the Maori

Tasman’s ship docked about seven kilometres off the coast of what is believed to have been Golden Bay. Four boats were sent to gather water for the crew, which led to the expedition’s first encounter with the Māori.

One of the four boats was met with a double-tulled waka (Māori canoe) and they were attacked. Four crew members were beaten to death using clubs. The small boats quickly returned to the main ship, which was then approached by two wakas.

A historical depiction of the Dutch arrival at Golden Bay. Image: Isaack Gilsemans/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

Tasman wrote of the exchange in his diary.

“After our people had been on board about one glass, people in the two canoes began to call out to us in gruff, hollow voices,” Tasman recalled in his diary. “We could not in the least understand any of it; however, when they called out again several times we called back to them as a token answer. But they did not come nearer than a stone’s shot.”

“They also blew many times on an instrument, which produced a sound like the moors’ trumpets. We had one of our sailors (who could play somewhat on the trumpet) play some tunes to them in answer.”

Shots fired

The trumpet didn’t work. Tasman’s ship began to retreat out of the bay and Tasman noted 22 wakas now on the shore. Soon, 11 of the wakas set out for the ship. The Dutchmen fired on the Māori, shooting one man holding a small white flag. The ship then left the bay.

Archaeological research later discovered that the Dutch had likely tried to land in a rich agricultural area, which would have, understandably, alarmed the Māori and triggered a defensive attack. The history of the Golden Age is not as golden as the name would have you believe, with the Dutch committing many atrocities against native peoples during this time.

Other Zeeland namesakes

The two major seafaring provinces of the Netherlands in its Golden Age were Holland and Zeeland, and originally the Dutch explorers named the largest landmass of Oceania and the two islands to the southeast respectively Nieuw-Holland and Nieuw-Zeeland.

The former was eventually replaced by the name Australia and Captain James Cook of Britain later Anglicised the latter name to New Zealand. After British settlers arrived in New Zealand, English became the main language.

New Zealand may have had a violent christening, but the name certainly stuck. In fact, it can be found all around the world.

Namesakes in the US

The city of Zeeland in the US state of Michigan was settled in 1847 by Dutchman Jannes van de Luyster and was incorporated in 1907. The city still maintains a distinctive Dutch flavour.

new york netherlands
New York was once New Amsterdam. Image:GLady/Pixabay

Flushing, a neighborhood within the borough of Queens, New York, is named after the city Flushing (Vlissingen in Dutch) in Zeeland. This dates from the period of the colony of New Netherland, when New York was still known as New Amsterdam.

READ MORE | 8 carbon-copies of the Netherlands across the world

Zeeland, North Dakota is another town named for this province and whose earliest settlers were of Dutch heritage.

Other corners of the world

The Dutch colonies of Nieuw Walcheren and Nieuw Vlissingen, both on the Antillian island of Tobago, were both named after parts of Zeeland. The Canadian town of Zealand, New Brunswick, was named for the Zeeland birthplace of Dutchman Philip Crouse who settled in the area in 1789.

Paramaribo, the capital and largest city of Suriname, has a Fort Zeelandia, the former Fort Willoughby during the British colonization.

Fort Zeelandia was a fortress built over ten years from 1624–1634 by the Dutch East India Company, in the town of Anping (Tainan) on the island of Formosa, present-day Taiwan, during their 38-year rule over the western part of it.

A violent history, a lasting legacy

The history of New Zealand shows us that the Dutch Golden Age has certainly left its mark on the world, whether we like it or not. Perhaps the least malignant of these legacies are place names. In fact, the Dutch are responsible for naming many areas of the world!

READ MORE | 7 places named by the Dutch (that you might not know about)

Did you know about New Zealand’s Dutch history? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below! 

Feature Image: Aneta Foubikova/Unsplash
This article was co-written by Freya Sawbridge and Sarah O’Leary.

Freya Sawbridge
Freya was born in Edinburgh but raised in New Zealand (cue every person she meets saying “oh I have always wanted to go there but it’s so far away!”). A restless and curious nature has led her to move countries 5 times in the last 3 years in attempt to find a place she can call home. She contacted DutchReview on a whim and arrived in the Netherlands in summer 2019 to start her internship.


  1. “The history of New Zealand shows us that the Dutch Golden Age has certainly left its mark on the world, whether we like it or not. Perhaps the least malignant of these legacies are place names.”
    So I guess you don’t like freedom of religion, capitalism, mullticulturalism, equality and social mobility then?
    Maybe the linguistically challenged should shut up about Dutch history until they can read Dutch so they don’t have to regurgitate British propaganda in which the Dutch that got rich from doing more than half of all Europe’s trade and ran a global trading empire with a bit of real colonization on the side are the violent ones, and the British that didn’t stand a chance in fair trade and conquered half the world with bloody violence because that and robbery the only thing they were good at is somehow naturally entitled to not only it’s riches but also to judging others. Even when an expedition to see if there was any trade to do was met with immediate deadly violence by some needlessly aggressive people who colonized the island a couple of centuries before.

    Did it ever occur to you that history has mostly been propaganda until the 20th century and only the Brits still take those for a fact because they can’t read foreign sources?


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