Remove place names dedicated to racists. *

Jun 15, 2020

* This article uses the names of some deceased persons.

The removal of the visual reminders of perpetrators of racism is a good move towards helping Indigenous peoples feel as though they belong in their own land.

We should extend this discussion to include verbal signs recognising the agents of genocide. Names such as Brisbane, Macquarie and Mitchell do not belong in modern Australian society.

As debate rages about the desirability of removing statues of James Cook and other agents of Indigenous dispossession from public view, the sides probably settled their views long ago. Something the opponents of removal should consider is whether they really want the visual reminders of dispossession and genocide to remain on view. Indigenous peoples have long been trying to have the dominant society acknowledge and address the country’s forlorn history since the English invasion. Those who want to continue sweeping the truth under the carpet might actually think that removal of thee reminders of genocide is advisable.

At first sight, it might seem less urgent to think about place names. There are millions of cities, towns, electorates, precincts, suburbs, streets, mountains and rivers with dubious names around Australia. We can start with most of the early governors for example. Brisbane must go, given his handling of the Indigenous resistance led by Windradyne. He declared martial law and sent James Morisset to conduct frontier war against the Wiradjuri. Morisset too has a street named after him in Bathurst and a district on the New South Wales central coast.

Although Lachlan Macquarie has a soft spot in my heart, his prolific name really must go. One of my ancestors was condemned to death for sheep stealing in 1813 and fellow Scot Macquarie commuted the sentence to life exile at Coal River, where my ancestor became harbour pilot. Macquarie also deserves some sympathy because the establishment knives were out for him, but this is not enough to excuse his connivance in various massacres including the infamous cliff murders in Appin. And of course, anything named after James Wallis who commanded that punitive expedition must be erased as must that of Nathaniel Lowe ‘cleared’ of the murder 1826 of Jacky Jacky –in custody – at East Maitland (formerly Wallis Plains). The governors were in difficult situations. Really they were acting for English kings, particularly the Georges. Yep, the royal should all go from the various streets littering the country.

These are of course, obvious examples. It might be that Indigenous peoples will identify other villains. I would include any landowners who deliberately destroyed significant sites. If their names made it into local public recognition, they should be erased. Cultural genocide is unforgivable.

We have seen statues being destroyed in Russia and Iraq following bloody revolutions. Our revolution should be peaceful. Violence will not heal the wounds of the past for anyone. The logical approach is to replace the names of the agents of genocide with Indigenous terms. In some cases there are ready substitutes. Sydney becoming Gadigal would be an appropriate reminder that we live on Aboriginal land. In Bathurst, it is partly recognised that Mount Panorama is rightfully Wahloo and that the Macquarie River was Wambool before invasion. If immediate change seems too shocking, the names could co-exist for a time.

It is not unknown for place names to be used for political purposes. Protesters have changed the names of streets around embassies in Canberra to make their campaigns visible. Particularly memorable were the naming of streets around the Indonesian and South African embassies after East Timor heroes and Nelson Mandela. The sensitivity of the embassies expressed to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade suggests that the signs had more than symbolic impact. There is ample evidence too that place names are used to express admiration for achievements.

Changes would have to be made sensitively. The permission of Indigenous people would be required before the names of family members who died in custody could be used. It would always be preferable as well to use Indigenous names – Oodgeroo Noonuccal rather than Kath Walker for instance – rather than Anglicised ones where possible.

Of course, the sins of fathers must not be visited on the children. No persons should feel under pressure to change their names. Having eight ancestors who were transported here for various crimes, I have no reason to feel any guilt about their actions. But there is a vast difference between feeling guilt and allowing injustice to continue. That would be a reason to feel shame.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics. He is privileged to live in Wiradjuri country.

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