Post-colonial names

Post-colonial societies face many complex issues– but like many countries facing complex issues – it is sometimes productive for them to focus on some significant symbolic ones, such as changing the names of places and things, to identify new priorities and new realities.

In India the names of cities and places have changed a number of times since independence – in some cases to remove British names and in others to erase memories of earlier colonial masters such as the Mughals. In lower Manhattan, some streets still bear their pre-revolutionary names and throughout the country from Charleston to Boston old English names survive, just as they do in Australia, demonstrating that change doesn’t require rejection of all the colonial past.

Where the blog lives, in Port Melbourne, we have an interesting example of a post-colonial name which many locals, including the Whittaker Memorial Committee of which the blog is a member, are campaigning to change for powerful symbolic reasons. Between 1912 and 1915 a new Port Melbourne pier was built and called, with great originality, New Railway Pier. However, shades of Tony Abbott, after the 1920 visit of the Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII and later still the Duke of Windsor – the pier was re-named Princes Pier. There has always been some ambivalence about whether there should be an apostrophe somewhere there just as nowadays there is quite a lot of ambivalence about the Prince himself.

One of the committee members, Paddy Garrity, in his research on the pier and the 1928 dock strike the Committee seeks to commemorate, produced some information which the Committee included in a leaflet it distributed at the annual Multicultural  Arts Victoria Australia Day Piers Festival held on the pier.

Our leaflet said: “The annual Piers Festival celebrates the best about Melbourne, one of the world’s greatest multicultural cities. Yet, ironically, it takes place on a pier named after a man whose beliefs were the opposite of everything which multicultural Melbourne represents – the notorious Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII who abdicated in 1936.

“After the abdication the former king the Duke visited Nazi Germany where he met Adolf Hitler, inspected an SS Guard and even gave the full Nazi salute. Hitler said, as the Nazi Albert Speer recalled, ‘If he had stayed everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.’

“The Duke’s racism and bigotry was demonstrated time and time again in his own words. Banished by the British Government to the Bahamas to quarantine his pro-German and defeatist views he said of the Editor of the Nassau Tribune, Etienne Dupach; ‘It must be remembered that Dupach is more than half Negro, and due to the peculiar mentality of this Race they seem unable to rise to prominence without losing their equilibrium.’

Of Italy he said: ‘…they are indeed a repulsive nation these dagoes, both then men and women and I’m just longing to quit them for good and all.’ Of a Canadian First Nations community: ‘I’ve told you what a foul decadent lazy crowd they are and what I think of them. But this camp is pitched right inside an Indian reserve… and we have hundreds of the mouldy local tribe camped around us.’ Of Jamaicans workers: ‘smell too revolting for words.’ Of Panamanians: ‘..a very queer people, all dagoes of course, though very pompous and dirty.’

And of Australians Aborigines: ‘…they showed us some of the native aborigines at a wayside plain yesterday afternoon thought they are the most revolting form of living creatures I have ever seen!! They are the lowest known form of human beings and are the nearest thing to monkeys I’ve ever seen.’”

No wonder the Duke felt so at home with Hitler and the Nazis. Indeed, compared to this the views of Australia’s gaffe-prone newly-created knight, Prince Phillip, seem positively benign.

But just as we ought to change the name of Princes Pier to something which reflects Australian heritage – and the contrasting significance of its maritime industrial history compared to a fleeting visit by a problematic royal – perhaps Tony Abbott needs to move from a colonial mentality to a post-colonial one which includes the reality of a multicultural Australia rather than an idealised view of his British homeland.

The blog spoke at the Piers Festival during a walk around Port Melbourne maritime historical sites organised by the Maritime Union of Australia and the Whittaker Memorial Committee. That talk will be posted on the site speeches section late.