SENSE OF HISTORY: Wooli is an indigenous name.
SENSE OF HISTORY: Wooli is an indigenous name. Robert Burley

OUR SAY: What's in a name?

WHAT'S the name of the place where you live? Grafton? Maybe you live at Gilletts Ridge. Or Blaxlands Flat. If you were listening at school, you might know why those places got their names.

Grafton was named after the governor's grandfather, the third Duke of Grafton, for, well, existing. Blaxland was an explorer. He did most of his exploring in the Blue Mountains. Henry Gillett was the first white person to come up the Big River in his boat, the Susan. Susan Island was named after the boat, which was named after a relative of Henry's business partner.

Melbourne was named after Lord Melbourne, a British politician. Goulburn was named after Henry Goulburn, Under-Secretary for War and the Colonies. Having a town in the colonies named after you was quite something, but you had to be already famous, or even better, rich.

If you're from an "old" family, (migrated to Australia in the last 230 years or so) you might live in a place named after your forbears.

Australian maps are a trove of history and attitude. It's fascinating to pore over a map and look at the names of towns, rivers, islands and deserts, thinking about why those names were given.

It's true, even a non-indigenous person like me can't help noticing that an awful lot of the towns, rivers and ranges are named after early explorers, pastoralists or governors. Well, they had to come up with something so they could get on with making their maps. It was a big land needing a big map. As we've seen, colonial governors liked naming places after important people. Or sometimes a place was named after a land feature, like Oaky Creek, or by its use, like Pilot Hill or Mount Warning. Or sometimes it was about a surveyor's experience, like Mount Despair. As a non-indigenous person, I feel sorry and sad to see some of the names on a map. Poison Waterholes Creek. Red Rock. Or Coutts Crossing, a village named after a murderer.

Yes, it was a big country needing a lot of names. A big empty country.

That's what the colonial powers thought. But those places already had names.

When Captain Cook sailed up the east coast of Australia, he renamed places as he went, quite oblivious to the existing Aboriginal names, histories and culture. Cooktown, Botany Bay, Cape Byron and the Solitary Islands were some of the names given by Cook. Naming a place denotes possession. The Aboriginal people on the shore who watched Cook's ship sailing past had no inkling that this was the first step in the renaming - and invasion - of their places.

I've read that there are quite a few places which retained their names, roughly, from Aboriginal languages. Locally, there's Angourie, Yamba, Wooli, the Nymboida River and Ulgundahi Island. But maybe there are old names for other places, still known.

In recent years, some places have had their Aboriginal names restored as dual names. Most people have got used to saying Uluru. Katharine Gorge is Nitmiluk. The Olgas are Kata Tjuta. Mount Warning is Wollumbin. As a non-indigenous person, I find the traditional names imbue these places with a sense of cultural richness that makes them even more fascinating.

Seeking out Bundjalung, Gumbayggirr or Yaegl place names could be healing. Restoring place names which existed for thousands of years might help culture and language to continue. Those names shouldn't be forgotten. The Geographical Names Board encourages dual naming of land features. That's how Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Wollumbin had their names restored. Under that process, Aboriginal land councils consult people to see if a name can be suggested. Following this, the local council (eg Clarence Valley) is consulted. The next step is that the proposed names are sent to the Geographical Names Board.

There are lots of islands in the Clarence River. The islands must have been well-known to Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl people over many thousands of years. I wonder if the traditional names are still known. I feel it might enrich us all if a dual naming process began for the river islands, as part of the 53 Islands Festival this year.

Then there's the matter of Coutts Crossing.

Hello G'day (non-indigenous words meaning 'Giinagay Jinggiwahla') is a one-off column covering the non-indigenous communities of the Clarence Valley, exploring a variety of topics, opinions and events.

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