What’s in a name?

KEN ADAM is an architect and fourth generation Fremantlian. His convict great grandfather Henry Atwell became a successful Fremantle merchant, with the Atwell Buildings and Atwell House part of his legacy to the city. Atwell’s son-in-law, James Hunter Adam, was a headmaster of Fremantle Boys’ School. He reckons with a background like that, he’s got some skin in Fremantle and deserves a say in the naming of its town square.

WHAT’s in a Name?

The question put by Shakespeare, and thousands of others over the years, remains of paramount importance.

The answer is: plenty, indeed everything.

The names we give things, or beings, are the most potent signifiers of their intrinsic meaning, and what they mean to us. 

Names tell stories. Names, therefore, should never be carelessly, or falsely, or accidentally, or maliciously attributed. 

And because names endure, for hundreds if not thousands of years, they should never be given, or changed, out of short-term ideological or political advantage.

Inevitably, the question arises as a serious one when a prominent place, like Kings Square, that has played such a significant part in the history of its city, becomes the subject of suggestions that its name be changed, a change that would nullify its history, and perhaps  supplant it by another.

Like many people I’m more than happy with the principle of renaming distinctive features and places of Aboriginal significance – those that have been part of the Aboriginal environment, natural or man-made, for thousands of years – with their traditional Aboriginal names.

In fact I would strongly argue for that principle to apply universally as public policy, especially in the case of features that are held, by the elders, to be sacred to Aboriginal culture. Uluru is a prime case in point. 

The same principle should apply to places that are or were of importance to the traditional cultural life of Aborigines – middens, waterholes and the like, and of course to ceremonial places. 

Respect for the cultural relationships and stories attached to a place is paramount to naming them.

However, in the case of non-Aboriginal, post-settlement, development the application of the same principle, of respect for the relevant cultural relationships and stories, demands the opposite outcome. 

In these cases the identical principle demands the retention of British  or European-inspired names that properly reflect the historical/cultural origins and life of that place.

Importantly, we should not be making these name-change decisions on an ad-hoc basis.

They need to be informed by a clear policy based on deep consideration of the principles and sensibilities involved and broad consultation with all parts of our community.

Place names for man-made places should, in my opinion, always be reflective of the socio-historical-cultural values that relate to that time and place. 

Names should continue to respect that principle, even when the associated underlying values may have changed, unless they were badly misrepresented in the first place. 

For example to rename the Leopold Ranges was obviously appropriate on two counts: first, they represent an age-old landscape with deep significance for Aboriginal people and, second, there was never an appropriate connection between the tyrant Leopold of the Belgians and those ancient ranges. 

The permanent attribution of the names of explorers and navigators, and sometimes their vessels – even their emotional responses – to natural features of our Western land and coastline may be more complicated. 

After all, the names given are reflective of those stories of exploration, which have become part of our collective history, and often recognise significant achievements. 

Over time, no doubt it will be appropriate to consider whether some such features might best be renamed, or given dual names, in recognition of their meaning to Aboriginal people. 

However, it must be said that to give an Aboriginal name a place whose history is overwhelmingly one of development in accordance with European/British cultural traditions is deeply disrespectful to both traditional Aboriginal culture and to Western culture. 

The name Kings Square is appropriately reflective of the time and the associated cultural values. 

Even if we no longer subscribe to those values they are still part of our collective story. 

Aboriginal culture had no place in the origins of Kings Square, nor should Aboriginal people be burdened by giving it an Aboriginal name. 

Some might say that Aborigines should not have to bear any guilt by association for the travesties of the past few decades.

To rename Kings Square may simply be seen as a totally misguided and unnecessary attempt to negate the heritage value and principles of one group of citizens in favour of creating an impression that council cares about another group of citizens. 

That, I would suggest, is just virtue-signalling. 

It has even been suggested by some, out of a genuine but misplaced respect for the Italian migrants who have contributed so much to the city, that this fragmented place be relabelled as a “piazza”. 

An unintended but laughable insult to Italian civic values if ever there was one.

The name of Kings Square is an intrinsic part of the heritage value of historic Fremantle as designed, drawn and surveyed in 1833 by John Septimus Roe. 

The recently butchered Kings Square is immediately adjacent to the state heritage-listed West End and forms an inherent part of the Fremantle’s urban architecture and street layout, designed to become the heart of the city of which West End forms an inherent part. 

The suggested change of the historic name would be in contravention of and an insult to this significance as defined by the state heritage listing.

Ultimately, to give Kings Square an Aboriginal name is in fact an insult, a patronising insult at that, to Aboriginal people.

In this case the traditional, and culturally appropriate, name for the place has always been Kings Square. Kings Square it must remain.

One response to “What’s in a name?

  1. It’s so disappointing that the Fremantle Herald gives such space to Mr Ken Adam’s ‘thinking allowed’. It is not for him to say what is a patronising insult to Aboriginal people. It’s for Aboriginal people to say that.

    Or for Mr Adam to deign that it is appropriate for renaming distinctive features and placed of Aboriginal significance… I.e. Leopold Ranges and Ayers Rock. However, it is in no way appropriate to do so for Kings Square, a small ‘man made’ place in the heart of Fremantle.

    He concludes that ‘Aboriginal culture has no place in the origins of King Square’ – because it’s history is overwhelmingly one of development in accordance with European/British cultural traditions (I.e. for the last 188 years). How incredulous it is that he is able to completely dismiss the estimated 50,000 + years of intrinsic connection and custodianship Aboriginal people have to the region of Fremantle and yes specifically inclusive of Kings Square.

    Mr Adam your ‘thinking allowed’ was the only thing that was patronising and offensive, not the appropriate considerations of renaming of Kings Square to an Aboriginal name.

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