In 2009, two place-name debates hit the headlines on opposite sides of the world. In New Zealand, residents of Wanganui, on the west coast of New Zealand’s lower North Island, debated whether the town’s name should be spelled with an ‘h’ after the initial ‘W’. Meanwhile, a long-running debate over the name of Northern Ireland’s second-largest city flared up again, with a proposal to change its official name from Londonderry to Derry. In both places, and on both sides of the debate, people appealed to history in making the case for change, or for the status quo.

W(h)anganui’s[1] name derives from the Māori name of the river at whose mouth the town sits. As such, there is no question that it is a name of Māori origin, and in standard Māori spelling it would be written with a ‘Wh’. However, New Zealanders of European settler origin came to spell it without the ‘h’, and it was spelled that way for most official purposes until recent times. In 1991, local Māori tribes succeeded in having the spelling of the river changed, and in 2009 they applied to change the name of the town as well. This application was made to the New Zealand Geographic Board, which has the authority to assign official names. After considering public submissions on the matter, the Board agreed that the town’s name should be spelled with an ‘h’. However, under the Board’s governing Act, the final decision rests with the Minister for Land Information, who in this case decided that both spellings would be allowed (although government departments were instructed to move towards the ‘Wh’ spelling over time).

Derry is an Anglicisation of the Irish ‘Doire’ (‘oak wood’), and was originally the site of a monastic settlement. After the Plantation of Ulster with British settlers in the seventeenth century, a new royal charter named the city ‘Londonderry’. The city’s name emerged as political issue in the 1970s, and in 1984 the city council (with a majority of members representing Irish nationalist parties) changed the name of the council district to Derry City. To change the name of the city itself, however, the council would have to petition the Privy Council to alter the royal charter. Having resolved to proceed with such a petition, in 2009 the council undertook an Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA), a legal requirement to determine whether the proposed name change would adversely affect any section of the community. The EQIA found that the change would indeed adversely affect the city’s Protestant and unionist minority. The council was unable to agree on how to proceed, and the name-change proposal has since remained stalled.

Different though these two cases are, people in both debates made very similar uses of history to support their arguments. The past was used in these debates in three distinct ways.

First, the past was used as a source of evidence that one name has a stronger claim than the other to be the authentic, original or proper name of the place in question. For example, those favouring the name ‘Whanganui’ pointed out that Māori named the river long before the creation of the European township, while opponents noted that the township of ‘Wanganui’ was established by Europeans, who therefore were entitled to spell it as they pleased.

Second, the past was used to explain the meanings and associations the names have acquired over time. People argued that their own preferred name for their city was integrally linked to their sense of personal and communal heritage and identity. Heritage, identity and naming preferences were all connected to family and community history.

Third, the past was used to explain the underlying grievances and antagonisms that may come to the surface in place-name debates. These grievances are the result of ongoing tensions over history and struggles for power. Many Protestants saw the proposal to change the official name from Londonderry as the latest in a series of attacks on their community, while many Catholics saw it as helping to right the wrongs of a past in which their community had suffered discrimination and marginalisation.

Naming of places is inherently political and inevitably involves questions of power. In particular, it raises the questions: who has the power to name now, and who exercised that power in the past, when names that have become established by official decree or by usage were originally bestowed? History can shed light on those questions, but because naming is fundamentally about politics and power, history cannot tell us what a place’s correct name is, or what it should be.

Historians can, however, still make a useful contribution to place-name debates. They can bring to the discussion of place names a focus on complexity and nuance, and on continuity and change in power relations. Changes in naming policies and practices, and in the terms of debate about names, can be useful barometers of shifts in political power and cultural authority. In addition, historians can show that the ideas of heritage and identity with which names are so intimately connected are not givens, but are historical constructs that evolve over time. Instead of providing a source of evidence in support of one name or another, historical analysis can complicate simple narratives about place, name and identity, and help us to understand what lies behind people’s attachment to particular names.

Ewan Morris (summarising his talk at Galashiels)

Further reading: Ewan Morris, ‘“H” is for History: Uses of the Past in Place-Name Debates in New Zealand and Northern Ireland’, History Australia (forthcoming).

[1] At the conference the speaker confirmed that the presence or absence of the additional letter would usually make no difference to the pronunciation by non-Māori New Zealanders, unlike that of ‘Wales’ vis à vis ‘whales’ in Scotland.