When the venerable Dame Whina Cooper died earlier this year, much was made of her status as "te whaea o te motu," the mother of the nation. But perhaps another personage could lay claim to this august title-someone who has played an even greater part in our quest for national identity.
Her name is Zealandia, and she has enjoyed a long and often distinguished career. A direct link to both Mother Britain and the ancient world, she brought a sense of history and classical respectability to the young colony during its formative years. But she was a woman of those times, and during the 20th century her star has declined. After more than a century of service, she may be heading for retirement.
During the 1993 Women's Suffrage Centennial Zealandia was ignored. This was hardly surprising since, although unmistakably female, Zealandia was scarcely an advocate for women's causes. Rather, she tended to be a pliant instrument in the hands of a male-dominated society. Many of her duties were blindly patriotic-and eminently forgettable. Yet despite the fact that her legacy may be no more than a few official symbols and statues, her connections ran much deeper. She reflected the subconscious yearnings of a young nation for credibility and status, and therefore provides a different perspective on our social history.
So who was she? A goddess figure? A classical heroine? A puppet of the patriarchy? Or just an ephemeral cartoon? Her origins, and at least one of her parents, are reasonably well known: she is a curious mixture of ancient Britain, Greek mythology and a few other influences besides.
Etymologically speaking, she is Dutch, a product of Abel Tasman's rediscovery of Aotearoa in 1642. The land was called Nieuw Zeeland after a maritime province in the Netherlands, but by the time Captain James Cook claimed it for King George III of Great Britain in 1769 it was known as New Zealand. However, it would be almost another century before European colonisation provided the conditions necessary for the emergence of its allegorical namesake.
The derivative "Zealandia" had its solo debut in an 1857 book title, New Zealand or Zealandia, The Britain of the South Seas-a guide for emigrants written by an enthusiastic advocate for colonial life. The concept of Zealandia as a scenic southern land more beauteous than Britain herself was born, resulting in an outpouring of patriotic verse.
Antipodean poet Mary Sinclair marked the Queen's birthday in 1879 with a description of her adopted land as "Excelsior Zealandia," the "Brighter Britain of the South."
In 1889, a collection of verse with the Boys' Own-sounding title of The Pirate Chief and the Mummy's Complaint with Various Zealandian Poems included "Zea-landia Our Home" and "Hail, Zealandia! Hail!" William Skey, the poet responsible, threatened a further collection which would include "Zealandia; Or Paradise Regained" and "Rule, Zealandia," but, mercifully perhaps, it never materialised.