Since childhood, I have been fascinated by maps and placenames. But lately I have been wondering whether health warnings should be placed on maps and signs for streets, towns and landmarks just as parents are warned about the possible effects on children of violent movies and videogames.
They help to distort reality. And limit our understandings of where we are, why we are here, and our ability to imagine the world anew.
The naming, organisation and control of place and space has always been a key element in the construction and maintenance of colonial regimes and the subjugation of nature. Rather than an esoteric exercise for postmodernist professors, it is an important factor in constructing the psychic disconnect that must be sustained if we are to buy the versions of “reality” sold for daily consumption in countries built on colonization and genocide.
In October, I found myself walking down the Avenue De Christophe-Colomb in Montreal quite often in the days after the 510th anniversary of Columbus’s invasion of the Americas. Around Halloween time I was struck by the bitter irony of the skulls, skeletons and coffins decorating apartments on a street named after one of the worlds best-known colonizers, sitting on stolen land, stained with the blood, and built on the bones, of Indigenous Peoples.
Staying with friends in Montreal I regularly descended into the bowels of a Metro station named after one of New Frances early colonial intendants, Jean Talon. From shopping malls to street corners, parks to public monuments, the colonial elites have done pretty well at ensuring that their names are remembered in perpetuity.
Names serve as permanent and highly visible markers of domination and conquest, the “triumph of Western civilization” over savage lands and peoples, the taming of the frontier. They help to perpetuate myths of “discovery” and attempt to conceal and obliterate the histories and relationships that existed and still exist between peoples and the land. They are visible markers with which colonial settler societies define themselves and legitimate their relationship with the place and space that they occupy.
Of course, this is hardly a phenomenon limited to white settler societies. Following independence many countries moved to replace colonial names with their original or local names.
In her book “Colonial Narratives/Colonial Dialogues: “Discoveries” of India in the language of Colonialism” (Routledge, London, 1996), Jyotsna Singh wrote that the “discovery motif has frequently emerged in the language of colonization, enabling European travelers/writers to represent the newly discovered lands as an empty space, a tabula rasa on which they could inscribe linguistic, cultural, and later, territorial claims.”
There is British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, New Hampshire, New England, Newfoundland, New York, New South Wales, Nouvelle Caledonie (New Caledonia), New Zealand – and that’s just for starters.
Along with the disease-infected blankets, dispossession, genocide and plunder came names which bear absolutely no relationship to the places on which they were imposed, and which we continue to use.
How does the English, French, Spanish, Latin or other colonial renaming and reclassifications of places, plants, trees, and animals relate to the readiness of the culture of colonisation to commodify, and destroy biodiversity while denying, subverting and disrupting the much longer histories and Indigenous Peoples’ interconnectedness with their lands and environment?
For many years I have lived in a city in Aotearoa (New Zealand), “founded” by English settlers in the late nineteenth century, called Christchurch. Perhaps the name says it all. Until recently it used to bill itself as the most English city outside of England never mind the fact that it is on an island in the South Pacific.
The city and its suburbs the majority of them bearing English and Scottish names like Bromley, Beckenham, Riccarton and Sydenham – teem with English country gardens, and trees from other parts of the world reflecting an almost obsessive control of space and taming of “the wild”. Travelling through the farmland in the nearby Canterbury plains it is hard to conceive of a more colonized landscape. And we can see the same reshaping of the land in Australia, the USA, and Canada.
The vestiges of the forests that once covered much of Aotearoa are now frequently found in “reserves” ostensibly for their protection. But sometimes it seems as though they are being contained lest they threaten to spread once again after all the hard work put into taming the land. We are invited to reenact colonial pioneering moments, a sense of discovery and conquest of “the wild” when we go hiking in national parks, but can return again to the “reality” of our colonial theme parks of cities, towns, villages and farms. The remaining wild places have become yet more commodities to be consumed.
The level of attachment to colonial place names by many descendants of non-Indigenous settlers is testament to the power which the naming process bestows on colonial settler societies.
White hysteria, anxiety, fear and insecurity has often accompanied the reversion to Indigenous placenames. It seems to reflect the power and symbolism which they continue to hold. In her paper “Space, Memory and Power in Australia: The case for No Nation”, Bond University academic Elspeth Tilley talks of placenames as identity marker pegs, as important components in dominant Australian constructions of national identity. She writes that replacing European placenames with Indigenous ones seems to challenge the basis of collective and individual identities of non-Indigenous Australians, and that the white names given serve as powerful “symbolic markers of identity” for a people who have only a very recent relationship to the land and have a deep need to cling to the mythologies which have developed to legitimize their sense of belonging.
That such happenings are popularly referred to as “renaming” is an utter denial of history, as if white settlers were the original inhabitants and that somehow these place names are organic and “natural”. (The true motives behind government moves to re-adopt Indigenous names for some places can also be challenged while they continue to deny Indigenous Peoples sovereignty over their territories). Tilley recalls the backlash in letters to the editors pages and in sections of the media when Ayers Rock (named after a South Australian premier in 1873) in Anangu territory, Australia was “renamed” Uluru, with claims such as “Ayers Rock is no longer” being made, as if it had been wiped off the map by this symbolic move. I can recall similar outbursts when Aotearoa’s highest mountain, on Ngai Tahu land, Mount Cook (after James Cook) was “renamed” Aoraki a few years ago.
In the thought-provoking “Race, Space, and the Law”, (Between The Lines, Toronto, 2002) editor and University of Toronto academic Sherene Razack writes about “unmapping a white settler society”. “Just as mapping colonized lands enabled Europeans to imagine and legally claim that they had discovered and therefore owned the lands of the “New World”, unmapping is intended to undermine the idea of white settler innocence (the notion that European settlers merely settled and developed the land) and to uncover the ideologies and practices of conquest and domination,” she argues. While that involves a great deal more than a critical analysis of naming place and space, such unmapping is an important part of understanding the places in which we live, unmasking colonialism and critically questioning the nature of nation states and national identity in the 21st century.