The Economist, April 24, 2021
You cannot go far in Australia without stumbling on a spot named after an act of colonial violence. The continent is dotted with Massacre Bays, Deadman’s Creeks and Murdering Gullies. Suicide Bay, in Tasmania, commemorates an especially grizzly slaughter. In 1828, a party of white shepherd-convicts cornered an indigenous clan on a clifftop and murdered 30 men as punishment for slaughtering the settlers’ sheep. They threw the bodies into the water.
Aboriginals have long said that the bay’s name was upsetting. This month it was wiped from the map. It is now called Taneneryouer, meaning “trauma” in a native tongue. More than a dozen other places in Tasmania have new or second names drawn from indigenous history.
Renaming has happened haltingly across Australia for decades. Ayers Rock, a monolith in the continent’s red centre, was given a dual name, Uluru, in 1993. Few Australians now call it by its European moniker. A Mount Nigger and seven Nigger’s Creeks stained maps in Queensland until 2017. But recent protests against racial discrimination have invigorated calls to blot out offensive names. Some politicians are sympathetic.
The legacies of various colonial baddies are under scrutiny. The King Leopold Ranges in Western Australia, named after a Belgian ruler, have become the Wunaamin-Miliwundi mountains. The name of John Batman, a founder of Melbourne who hunted and shot Aboriginals, has been removed from a park (now Gumbri, meaning “white dove”).
Benjamin Boyd, a Scottish settler who trafficked slaves from Pacific islands, is next in line for a reckoning. An Aboriginal group in New South Wales wants to scratch out Boydtown as well as a national park named after him.
Some Australians see all this as woke nonsense aimed at erasing the past. Many threw up their hands in horror when the company that owns a popular cheese called Coon announced in January that it would rebrand the product as Cheer. It was named after Edward William Coon, a pioneering American cheesemaker, and so is not racist, they asserted.
That kerfuffle has prompted another at Coon Island, near Sydney. It is named after the site’s first white settler, a miner who earned a nickname for his sooty appearance. The local council is looking for an alternative. The name is “just not appropriate in this day and age”, Kevin Baker, a conservative councillor, told an Australian news website. Some of his constituents disagree. The debate, says Kentan Proctor of the local Aboriginal land council, “has brought out prolific racism in the community”. A new name seems unlikely to change that, alas.