Monday, May 20, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I recently wrote for Metro magazine a review of William Dalrymple’s The Return of a King. It’s a history of Britain’s disastrous war in Afghanistan in 1839-42, in which the author goes out of his way to point up parallels with coalition forces’ current tribulations in the same country. The war ended in humiliating defeat for Britain.

The foolish and ill-advised man who set this disaster in motion was the British Governor-General of India (this was in the days before they had a Viceroy), Lord Auckland. I noted that New Zealand’s largest city is named after this dubious character, who was also responsible for the war that imposed opium on China; and that his statue – no longer wanted in India where it originally stood – now stands outside the Auckland city administration building.

I made the flippant, and deliberately provocative, suggestion that, given the man’s appalling record, it might be a good thing to get rid of it.

My comments drew a dissenting, but courteous, response from one reader and we had a polite exchange of e-mails about the matter. His point was that to remove the statue would be to deprive people of information about their city’s history and the person after whom it was named. I readily concur with this objection, but I must admit that it leads me to consider a related matter.

I am sometimes annoyed by the thought that so many of our post-colonial cities and towns are named after people who reflect only a defunct imperial version of history. Here is New Zealand’s largest city named after an imperialist nincompoop. Glaring at each other across the Cook Strait are cities named after an Anglo-Irish general and an English admiral (Wellington and Nelson). Further inland you have a province named after another English general and a city named after one of his victories (Marlborough and Blenheim). I suppose it’s okay that some parts of the country are named after their European “discoverers” (Tasman, Cook, Hawkes Bay, Young Nick’s Head, Taylor’s Mistake, the Mackenzie Country etc etc.). But it really does irk me that nomenclature swamps our identity in an English view of the world, dating from the days when red on the map meant the British Empire.

Or does it? If you’re blissfully ignorant of history, then it doesn’t matter. And probably not one Aucklander in a thousand would know who their city was named after and how dismal his record was.

If, like me, you find these Anglo-imperialist names demeaning, there’s also the matter of what we would replace them, with should we choose to do so.

The re-naming of cities and other geographical features is a fraught matter. Often the name that is chosen to replace a seemingly inappropriate one later, in itself, becomes embarrassing. So Leningrad goes back to being St Petersburg and there’s no longer a Stalingrad on the map and Americans decided that maybe it was better to call Cape Kennedy Cape Canaveral once again. Personally I think it’s only a matter of time before Ho Chi Minh City reverts to being Saigon – which is what, apparently, most of its inhabitants still call it. There are name changes that have become permanent. Byzantium becomes Constantinople becomes Istanbul. New Amsterdam becomes New York. But if a name comes to seem inappropriate, it is usually hard to find a replacement that will satisfy everyone. And will your replacement outlast passing fashion?

In New Zealand, there’s always the siren call of those who would like every town and city and geographical feature to given a Maori name – the logical extension of the impulse that obliterated Mt Egmont from the map. Presumably such people would like Auckland to be called exclusively Tamaki Makaurau. But I would object to this for a variety of reasons. Not only would this traditional name be in the ancestral language of only 11% of the population (and the functional everyday language of much fewer than that); but it would also fail to recognize the nature of the city that simply wasn’t there when the area was last universally called Tamaki Makaurau. Auckland is overwhelmingly an English-speaking city even if it includes far more ethnicities than any other New Zealand centre. There never was a city that was called Tamaki Makaurau, and to create one would be to suggest that it was predominantly a Maori city.

So how would we re-name Auckland? Would we name it after some illustrious New Zealander? No. I couldn’t bear it if somebody wanted to call it Hillary City or some such. Indeed, though there are a Greytown and a Seddon on the map, the notion of calling a city after a national figure of renown really goes against the kiwi grain.

So, with a wistful sigh, I have to conclude it’s probably best to leave Auckland as Auckland. I console myself with the thought that the city is now more illustrious than the foolish, incompetent man after whom it happens to be named. And so long as people like me don’t go around mentioning the fact, it’s not too likely that many people will remember the man anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo on the suggestion of getting rid of Lord A's statue, given his less than perfect character.
    We have a badly-rendered King George statue in Matakana, (why, I don't know - it seems there was no Lord Matakana) with an odd almond-shaped head which is regularly knocked off and presumably kept by the decapitator as a trophy. It takes the authorities some time to order, re-fashion or pay for a replacement.
    At the moment he is headless.
    Also, why was a statue of Ronald Reagan unveiled recently in London, given his catalogue of crimes in the Americas?