The violence in colonial naming

The Māori Party is asking us to sign a petition that our country’s official name be Aotearoa, and that there be a return to Māori place names throughout the land. Last year, I wrote an article on “Symbols of Injustice” which dealt with the naming of places in this country. It seems a good time to revisit some extracts.

When testifying to the Waitangi Tribunal about pre-1840 acts of violence to his people, Nuki Aldridge, Ngāpuhi kaumātua, noted the renaming of land as the first violence. Often the renaming was based in ignorance as when Cook gave the name Poverty Bay to a large, rich bay on the East Coast, quite simply because he had been unable to obtain food there. Cook reached this conclusion, said Aldridge, without making contact with the people who actually lived there. “By what right did Cook ignore the original names and overlay them with his own,” asked Aldridge. “And by what right did those who followed him make Cook’s names the official ones?” “This,” said Aldridge, “was the beginning of the process of separating us from our whenua [land]” (Affidavit to the Waitangi Tribunal, 28 May 2010).

That poignant phrase – “separating us from our whenua” – refers not only to the huge physical loss of land but also to the breaking of whole sets of relationships that bind communities to their lands and lands to their communities. In these relationships, names are vital … Every corner of the land has a story, a song or a saying connected with it. Thus, place names carry vital connections into a hapū’s history, literature, relationships and identity, as well as acknowledging special characteristics of the land itself. The connections are all diminished when colonial names are planted on top of the indigenous ones and then officially endorsed as the names by which these places are to be recognised (Listening to the People of the Land, pp. 28−29).

Another facet of this situation is the fact that many of our towns are named for people who have a very tenuous link, if any at all, with the places bearing their names. What is more, some of these people have shameful histories as colonisers. Simon Wilson pointed to, among others, (Thomas) Picton who was known as “the Tyrant of Trinidad,” (Warren) Hastings “another scoundrel of the empire", Clive of India who committed many atrocities while accumulating a large personal fortune, and (Lord) Auckland who sent “tens of thousands of people to their deaths in Afghanistan” (NZ Herald, 20 June 2020). As someone raised in Auckland, it has puzzled me that we were told nothing about Auckland and his career. Perhaps not surprising but disturbing, too! It suggests that colonisation in our country has involved the suppression of a great deal of history, both Māori and Settler.

From Susan Healy, “Symbols of Injustice”, Tui Motu InterIslands, Issue 251, August 2020

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