Who Do You Think We Are?
September 04th, 2012
BC BookWorld editor and author of numerous books, try Alan Twigg published the following essay in the Autumn 2007 issue of BCBW. In it, vialis 40mg he asserts the irrelevance of the name British Columbia to the modern society that now lives west of the Rockies. Twigg enlightens the reader on the origins and meaning of the provincial name, more about while offering insight into similarly nonsensical names in North American geography. Ultimately, he questions whether or not the colonial name fits an increasingly diverse population, and what should be done about it.
The name of British Columbia is no longer relevant – if it ever was – so why don’t we have a conversation about changing it? It’s a literary issue that a mature society ought to be able to consider.
If you’re a Chinese British Columbian, or someone from one of our First Nations, or, let’s say, someone who has Japanese or German or Dutch or Bengali ancestors, does the name British Columbia sit well with you? As Peter Newman has observed, roast beef is now an ethnic dish.
I have five generations of ancestors who have approved of the name British Columbia—but increasingly I ask myself why other places on the planet have seen fit to jettison that adjective British, rejecting their colonial names and redefining themselves, whereas we haven’t even talked about it.
The archaic name of British Columbia is not a burning issue. It doesn’t haunt anyone’s dreams.
Of course it would be costly to change it. And we’d have difficulty deciding on a new name.
But it’s a literary issue that has intrigued me for decades. Anyone interested in onomastics—the study of names and naming practices—might be entertained by a brief enquiry into the origins of our province’s name.
Before we consider getting a new name, it’s a good idea to understand how we got the old one.
To understand the genesis of the name British Columbia, you can consult Jean Barman’s The West Beyond The West or perhaps the Akriggs’ British Columbia Chronicle 1847-1871.
Or you can contact the experts on naming things, the folks who are members of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names or the American Name sSociety founded in 1951.
But it’s a lot quicker to Google the answer from Wikipedia.
You’ll discover that the Columbia in British Columbia is NOT derived from Christopher Columbus.
Yes, Queen Victoria reputedly chose the name British Columbia by joining the adjective British to the northerly portion of the Columbia fur trading district.
Yes, the Columbia fur trading district, in turn, derived its name from the Columbia River.
Yes, the river was named on May 12, 1792 after the ship Columbia Rediviva, that belonged to the American sea captain Robert Gray, who was allegedly the first ‘white’ man to navigate up the mouth of that river on May 11, 1792 (a Spaniard got there before him, but that’s usually overlooked).
But Gray’s ship was not named in honour of Columbus, the explorer, as most people would guess.
According to Wikipedia: “Columbia Rediviva was a privately owned sloop under Captain Robert Gray. The ship is usually known in history simply as the Columbia, which was sent to the Pacific Northwest to trade for fur.
“The ship is named for one of the three patron saints of Ireland, St. Columb, or St. Columba, a great Irish sailor who had the gumption to found a monastery on the island of Iona in Scotland in the sixth century A.D.”
Most British Columbians don’t know, and they couldn’t care less, that a British monarch combined an adjective that connotes imperialism with a noun derived from an Irish saint to define where and who we are.
America, after all, is named for the Italian merchant Amerigo Vespucci simply because a German cartographer named Martin Waldseemuller produced a world map in 1507 that named the newly discovered continent after Vespucci’s first name.
The name of the Pacific Ocean is similarly ludicrous. After Magellan successfully navigated those straits near the bottom of the Americas, he happened to reach the new ocean on a day when it was unusually calm, or ‘passive,’ hence the name Pacific was born—an absurdity if you’ve ever ventured very far from this coast in any kind of boat.
So names are often nonsensical. But in 2007, can we at least have some discussion about the name of our province? The very idea of possibly changing the name of British Columbia is cultural heresy in some people’s minds but surely it’s about time for some sober reflection on this issue.
“I think it is unlikely Queen Victoria (who was 39 in 1858 and given to strong opinions on such issues as naming and protocol) wanted to name the new colony after an American ship or an Irish saint,” writes Howard White, publisher of the Encyclopedia of British Columbia. “I think she had in mind that Columbia was appropriate because it was the name used by geographers for all of the new lands discovered by Columbus, (it was commonly used as a rhetorical name for the US).
“Sticking ‘British’ in front was consistent with the naming method used all over the empire, as in ‘British East Africa,’ ‘British Guiana,’ ‘British Honduras,’ etc. As the Akriggs wrote, ‘It preserved the name of the empire lost to the Americans and at the same time it served as a reminder that a portion of it had been saved, to grow and mature in another tradition.’
“I am sure this is closer to the Queen’s thinking and that of her advisors than the idea she was naming it after the Columbia River or the Columbia District, which by this time had been formally ceded to the US. So I think it is a bit of a short circuit to say B.C. was named after an American ship and an Irish saint. There is a connection, but it is not the main one.”
The name of British Columbia is acceptable if we want to respect the wishes of a British queen who never saw the place.
But is that good enough?
Do the majority of British Columbians want to be defined as a British post-colonialists?
Let’s have a vote.
Essay Date: 2007