Tuia – Encounters 250: Cook’s place names around New Zealand - Motukokako Island (Piercy Island) and Cape Brett

Photo of Piercey Island
Photo credit: Uwe Brodrecht – CC-BY-SA 2.0

A surprisingly small amount is known about Cook as a person but we can probably say that he was fond of puns.

On 27 November 1769, when the HMB Endeavour sailed past the headland, Cook recorded that the local Māori called ‘This Cape or at least some part of it’ by the name ‘Motugogogo’. Despite knowing they already had names, he called the point ‘Cape Brett’ and the island ‘Piercy Island’, choosing to honour Rear Admiral Piercy Brett. He noted that Motukokako was ‘a small high Island or Rock with a hole perced [i.e. pierced] quite thro' it like the Arch of a Bridge and this was one reason why I gave the Cape the above name because Piercy seem'd very proper for that of the Island’.

In 1987, the secretary of the Motukokako Trust wrote to the New Zealand Geographic Board (NZGB), politely asking for Piercy Island ‘to be changed to its correct Maori name of Motukokako’. He explained the name was given ‘because the birds the kokako were placed there so that the chiefs could go to get their feathers for their own personal use’.

The NZGB then followed the established procedure for place name changes. Checking the maps held with the Survey Office and other sources, it found Motukokako was indeed used frequently on maps. It consulted with the Hydrographic Office and the Department of Conservation, both of which thought the change was fine, but would like to have ‘Piercy’ maintained in brackets to avoid confusion. Having conducted its research the NZGB decided to change the name to a dual name, Motukokako Island (Piercy Island).

The NZGB notified the public via the government gazette and received a few strongly worded objections, mostly stating that any name associated with James Cook should be kept – and this one in particular as it showed Cook’s sense of humour and thus his more personable side.

Due to these objections received to its proposal, the NZGB referred the matter to the Minister of Lands, who approved the name change. A brief survey of the tourism options today shows Motukokako Island without Piercy is commonly used. That said, the island is more often referred to simply as the ‘Hole in the Rock’.


Last Updated: 8 February 2019