What’s in a Name?

As the campaign against the preservation of statues and street names named after persons associated with slavery gathers momentum in the United Kingdom, if we pause to look around the countries of the old empire, we can see its imprint everywhere: in place names, monuments, streets, parks, gardens, festivals and so on. This is particularly evident in New Zealand / Aotearoa, this most English of colonies, where the footprint of empire is everywhere, caught in the names that reflected Victorian Britain, its writers and political leaders, its general and battles, its imperial servants and its geographical reach. 

English war heroes, inevitably, dominate:  Wellington, named after the Duke of Wellington, and Nelson, named after Admiral Nelson, are the two great heroes of the wars against Napoleon. Auckland was named after Lord Auckland, former Governor-General of India and Lord of the Admiralty, the man who launched the disastrous Afghan Wars; Christchurch was named after the Oxford University College (and not the town on the Dorset coast); Blenheim was named after the Battle of Blenheim (and not Blenheim Palace, home of the Dukes of Marlborough and birthplace of Winston Churchill); Cromwell was named after Oliver Cromwell; Oxford and Cambridge after the two historic universities;  Marton after James Cook’s birthplace; Thames after the river and Hastings after the battle; Palmerston and Palmerston North were named after the Victorian Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston; and New Plymouth and New Brighton after their seaside namesakes back in Britain. And so on.

As the 19th century unfolded and settlements were springing up throughout New Zealand, tensions in India were coming to a head with the Indian War of Independence breaking out in 1857 (still known in some quarters as the Indian Mutiny). Not surprisingly, a number of towns settled at the time were given names related to India, before and during the early years of the Raj.  We don’t need to look far to see settlements and streets that commemorate battles or that celebrate British soldiers and administrators, victories or places.  

Looking at my home province, Hawkes Bay with the settlements of Napier, Meeanee, Clive and Havelock, a number of streets and parks of Napier and surrounding towns also date from the Indian occupation of India : (Plassey, Clive, Simla, Lucknow). My home town of Wairoa also has a surfeit of both Indian street names (Delhi, Clive, Lucknow, Lahore and Kabul) as well as a number of British leaders from the time of the Indian War of Independence (Outram, Sturdee) and the World Wars: (Kitchener, Churchill, Haig,  Jellicoe, Chamberlain and Freyberg).

When we start picking away at the history to be found in street names, there are numerous other links we can find to Victorian England. Napier town planners had a penchant for naming streets after writers (men only, mind you) including Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Thackery, Dickens, Tennyson, Emerson, Browning and Byron.  While many of these authors were popular in Victorian times, it is doubtful many young readers will recognise all of them today.

Of course, the old names may seem anomalous now, a slice of history, a hangover from an Empire that has long gone, their names largely anonymous now with their original meanings lost in the passage of time.  And yet while most names are harmless enough, others that commemorate British victories or unsavoury characters like Clive of India, or those that celebrate soldiers and leaders whose policies and actions we would eschew, may give cause for reflection as we unravel whether what these links with England really mean in 21st Century New Zealand / Aotearoa. Today, in new subdivisions we are resurrecting some of the traditional Maori names or continuing with the popular use of Te Maori for trees and birds; or to acknowledge scientists (like Rutherford) and writers (like Mansfield), or the names public figures and community workers, who have served their local communities well (and I suspect a Bloomfield Street would be a popular choice). Of the older British names, those that resonate empire and the home country, we have a choice, whether to leave well alone, seeing them as signposts on our country’s journey, or to use them as a reminder to only use names that reflect and commemorate who we are today.

By Peter Tait

A retired teacher and head for 17 years, now focusing on writing, both on education and further fiction and non-fiction (previously having published two novels and a non-fiction book on Thomas Hardy's wives and other women, a biography, poetry and numerous articles on education).


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