What’s in a name – Wakatu or Whakatu?
Many Māori names of localities and landscape features are no longer known, and where they have been preserved, the reason for the name may have disappeared in the mists of time. In some cases, both the name and its origins have been preserved; names often commemorate an event or a person, or describe special resources. In rare cases there may be a plethora of traditions to account for the origins of a particular place name, and its alternative spellings; Wakatū a.k.a. Whakatū (Nelson) is one such place.
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Four traditions, and a fifth possibility stemming from dialectic differences, offer some insights into the alternative spellings – Wakatū or Whakatū.
Among the traditions of the thirteenth century migrations from Hawaiki is the journey of the chief Potoru, captain of the waka, Te Ririno. Potoru was the cousin of Turi, captain of the Aotea canoe. Together they travelled together across Te Moananui a Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean) as far south as Rangi-tahua, at the Kermadec Islands. On the final leg south to Aotearoa, Potoru and Turi disagreed about the correct interpretation of Kupe’s sailing directions. Turi continued on to safe landfall in southern Taranaki, while Potoru heading further south, was caught in a fierce storm and blown into eastern Tasman Bay. There the canoe was wrecked (thrown up – waka tu) on the Boulder Bank, with the loss of all hands.
A legend (possibly no more than a myth, which unfortunately lacks details of dates and iwi affiliation), also features the Boulder Bank of Nelson Haven, where a chief, Te Maia, was interred. As appropriate for a chief of high mana, his grave was marked by the erection of his waka; i.e. his waka was stood up (tu) to mark his final resting place.
One tradition, again short on details of participants, dates, and iwi affiliations, states that the longstanding residents of the district advised a group of newly arrived people to take up residence, and to build (whakatū) their homes near the nests (kohanga) of the seabirds (matangi awhio) – “Whakatu to kainga ki te kohanga o te matangi awhio”.
A sixteenth century tradition tells of a young warrior, Hikutawatawa (renamed Tuahuriri as the stories unfold), visiting from Hataitai to seek out his stepfather, Tumaro, and grandfather, Kahukura, at the Ngai Tara pa at Waimea (the site adjoins present-day Appleby School). After a series of dramatic and threatening exchanges, Tuahuriri eventually departs, leaving the inhabitants of Waimea Pa near death from starvation. Within days many of the inhabitants succumb, and some believe their deaths were due to leprosy, known, among other names, as whakatuwhenua.
A fifth theory attributes the different spelling to dialect. For locals of Taranaki tribal origins (Ngati Tama, Te Atiawa) the word is likely to be pronounced “w” as in “water”; for those of Tainui affiliations, pronunciation is closer to “wh” as in “where”, sometimes hardened to a sound like “f”.
Updated April 2020
Sources used in this story
- Mitchell, H & J (2004-) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough: Wellington, N.Z.: Huia Publishers in association with the Wakatu Incorporation.
Re Potoru: see Vol I, pp61-62
Re Hikutawatawa/Tuahuriri: see Vol I, pp74-76.
Re dialects: see Vol II, p207-208.
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Further sources - What’s in a name – Wakatu or Whakatu?
- Baldwin, O (1979) The story of New Zealand’s French Pass and D’Urville Island, 3 vols. Plimmerton, N.Z. : Fields Pub. House
- Hodder. E.(1862) Memories of New Zealand Life. London: Longman Green.
- Izett, J. & Grey, G. (1904) Maori lore; the traditions of the Maori people, with the more important of their legends. Wellington, N.Z., By authority: J. Mackay, Government Printer, p.154
- Peart, J.D.(1937) Old Tasman Bay. Nelson : R Lucas & Son, p.8-11
- Smith, S.P.(1910) History and traditions of the Maoris of the west coast, North Island of New Zealand, prior to 1840. New Plymouth, N.Z., Printed for the Society by T. Avery, p. 48
- Te Rangi Hiroa (Buck) (1950) (2nd ed). The coming of the Maori. Wellington : Whitcombe & Tombs, p. 46
- Tikao, T.T (1990) Tikao talks : ka taoka tapu o te ao kohatu : treasures from the ancient world of the Maori. Auckland : Penguin
- Best, E. Te Whanga-Nui- A-Tara : Wellington In Pre-Pakeha Days. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 10, 1901, p.141.
- Pakauwera, E.W. & Smith, J (translator) (1917) Notes of the Ngati Kuia tribe of New Zealand, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 26, pp.116-129
- Bell, F.D (1849) Draft Report of the Nelson Settlement, p.51 MS papers 0337 [Alexander Turnbull Library]