A name carries a powerful resonance and when you think of it, just by naming something we give it life, bring it into being. When we change a name , the previous one loses its power and place in the scheme of things. As I travel around Australia, I have become fascinated by the process of naming. How, when and why a place is named can reveal not only the mental, emotional and cultural state of the pioneers,the founding fathers and mothers, but also begs the question what was the earlier Indigenous name for the area and what would that name tell us about the land and its inhabitants?
When I was staying in an area south of Perth, I cycled around streets carrying a maritime title. Compass, Mainsail and Cutter, were the three I remembered most because the area was so monotonously suburban, I would get lost were it not for the distinctive names.
Moving further north into this suburban realm,I found myself in Barbados; that is Jamaican drive, St Lucia St, Caribbean Avenue. When I compared the sixties brick architecture,its banal sandy colours, I wondered if this nomenclature was the result of the feverish imagination of a local councillor. While the coastline nearby is beautiful, homes, gardens, streets and park lack that colour and music the West Indies is famous for. The area is exotic in name only.
Turning west in the suburbs of the south, famous ships of history, Investigator, Resolution, Cumberland, Defiance are remembered by name. It makes sense to celebrate the sea when so close to the coastline where the explorers of old still plot their course and marvel at this strange new land. And yet we are in the heart of suburbia; well-kept lawns, empty streets save for the occasional car driving at slow speed. Look up and you’ll see ubiquitous palm trees, look left or right and you’ll see boats in every second driveway. These accoutrements define the modern landscape more than the street names of history.
You can’t help but wonder what story the Indigenous name for the area told.
Joondalup, Barragup, Yangebup, Nowergup, Kalamunda, Kardinya. Many Perth suburbs bear a Noongar (a major Western Australian Indigenous clan) name and those with the “up” ending reflect the contours of the landscape which are “by water”. Its the incongruity of the monotone suburban and the timelessness of the land which always surprises me about this continent.
When house sitting in Queensland, I once drove along Murdering Creek Rd, a title that reflects the savage events in which many Indigenous were slaughtered by European settlers. The names of many such places are rarely reflected in the modern day.
We are in the process of learning and unlearning about the dynamic culture original inhabitants who occupied Australia for over sixty thousand years before European settlement. When Captain Cook sailed down the east coast of Australia, he spied a Mountain on the South Coast which he named “Pigeon-house” for its shape. A superb cartographer, Cook drew the contours of the mountain on his map of the east coast.
To the Indigenous people of the area (Yuin) it is known as Didhol” or “Didthul” meaning a woman’s breast which makes perfect sense when you look at the outline.
Is that the full story? The only meaning? Some years ago I read a transcript of a talk by a local elder who stated that the name of the mountain had a different meaning and had emerged from a story to do with an eagle and eel.
It seems as though we are in the process of discovering the other names and meanings for this ancient continent, and with that discovery an increased appreciation for the original inhabitants and their management of the land.
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