The Naming Nightmare

Norm Gibbons

Feature image above by Christian Gronau


In Passage to Juneau, Jonathan Raban comments on why Captain George Vancouver – one of Britain’s greatest explorers, navigators and map makers – fabricated such a colossal misrepresentation of a renowned inland sea considered today the most beautiful marine park in all of creation: “The turbulence and disorder of this place brought him to an intolerable vision of chaos, in nature as in his own storm-ridden character. He named the water Desolation Sound.”

George Vancouver’s blunder is rooted in a notion that upon looking out his tiny porthole in the year of Our Lord, 1792, on a chilly, Vitamin-D-less day, he saw no finned or winged creature, and therefore abruptly concluded that the sloop HMS Discovery had sailed into a wasteland (50.07’N 124.51’W), a place devoid of hope and creativity; in fact, a void entirely.

250px-Probably_George_Vancouver_from_NPGWe now sense that the poor Captain may have felt depressed and likely suffered from SAD (seasonal affective disorder), a form of the doldrums occurring at certain seasons of the year, especially when the individual has less exposure to sunlight. We might assume that his melatonin levels had hit rock bottom without daily, full-spectrum light, which is available to us, 222 years later, during long dark Pacific Northwest winters through the technological manifestation of “Happy Lights.” And if we don’t have a full-spectrum happy light, we can always buy a ticket to Mexico.

Evidence  suggests that the captain’s grey mood had given way to relentless homesickness. That particular malady also explains why the entrance to Desolation Sound on the east side became, Sarah Point, and on the west, Mary Point – Sarah and Mary, his pretty sisters with pink ribbons wound in their blond springy ringlets, living halfway around the globe in England, probably unable to remember they even had a brother, yet trying desperately to walk in the shadows of their biblical namesakes. As good Christians, please forgive George’s prescriptions of interior melancholia, which to this day hover upon our waters, conspiratorially camouflaging as veiled mists, viscous fog banks and other ether-like illusions cast upon our sad sea.

However, Captain Vancouver was not alone in his misnaming. Although two centuries have passed, many islands, points and waterways in our neighborhood still bear incongruous names. The Spaniards left behind a naming blitz and nullified whatever the indigenous people had accomplished over millennia: Cortes Island (the Sun God, conqueror of the New World), Hernando (the conqueror’s first name), Marina (the Sun God’s beautiful mistress cradled in his lap if you look carefully at a local map), Quadra Island, (Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, the commander of the Spanish expedition and good friend of the Captain), Malaspina Inlet (meaning bad thorn), Theodosia Inlet (a genus of beetle), Senora (Mrs.), Raza (a character from Marvel Comics) and Toba Inlet. For clarification purposes, I should mention that the place name, Toba Inlet, is a mistake in transcription, a bastardization of the Spanish word, Tabla. In actual fact, for the Klahoose people, Toba and Tabla are both bastardizations. They call Toba Inlet, Tl’emtl’ems, meaning “many houses.”

The Coast Salish practice in learning a name had been (and still is) to listen to the conversations in the universe until they heard the sound of the place they looked at. History will judge the better approach.

Incidentally, unimportant also, I have tried their method of hearing a name, but sadly, never has a voice called out to me, nor have I ever heard the background conversations in the universe, unless these original people simply referred to the songs of the wind filtering through the leaves of the trees, waves sculpting a sandstone beach, thunder following a brilliant lightning flash, the screech of an eagle, the hoot of an owl, the thrum of a grouse or the wail of a lone wolf.

One must not blame the Spanish explorers entirely for stripping the indigenous Nations of their names. As stated above, Captain George Vancouver (also known as Destroyer of Myth) got in more than his fair share of christening the coast of British Columbia. He edited out the Straits of Anian and squelched for all time a mystic belief in a shortcut between the Old and New Worlds, coming close to quashing the very nature of fiction with his fiendish fancy for detail. Had only the Captain anticipated the advent of global warming, then he would have realized that sooner or later transit via the ice-free Arctic Ocean would become reality.

vanislandIf one looks very closely at the Carta Esferica de America (click image), you can see that Vancouver Island was originally called Isla de Quadra y Vancouver. When the British Admiralty got hold of the explorer’s charts, they changed this joint name to “Vancouver Island,” callously dismissing the notion that the longest island on the coastline of North America might celebrate a friendship between England and Spain.