No one can be quite sure what Jim Brown and Jack Wells were thinking when they looked up at four rocky granite outcrops in Victoria’s high country in 1851 and named them the Niggerheads.
With the colony of Victoria only 15 years old and still largely unexplored, the two drovers, the first Europeans to set foot in this part of the world, managed a pretty solid day’s work. They named the peaks and features they could see from their vantage point not far from present day Falls Creek: Mt Baldy (later renamed Hotham), Mt Fainter, Mt Feathertop and The Razorback, and Rocky Valley.
In these early days there was no boring officialdom to deal with in naming places. Whoever saw them first got the honour and the naming conventions followed a fairly predictable pattern.
If places weren’t being named after obscure English aristocrats or officials who had never set foot in this new country, they were named according to their physical resemblances or the circumstances in which they were first seen.
So it would be pretty safe to assume that being practical men, the two drovers saw a resemblance to the heads of Aboriginal people when they named The Niggerheads, as much of a stretch as it might seem if you look at the four peaks today.
Offensive and derogatory? Today, absolutely so, but this was 1851 and standards were, well, different. The name stuck for the next 150 years.
It stuck, that is, until the late 1990s when local tourism operator Kath Baird began a long and rather tortuous campaign to change it. All this culminated in a gathering of politicians and Indigenous leaders in Falls Creek in 2008 to mark the re-naming of the Niggerheads to the Jaithmathangs — the name of an Indigenous clan that once inhabited this part of the high plains.
But not everyone was happy. The white locals, including the mountain cattlemen were perplexed. The name had been around for 150 years without any objections. Why change it now?
And a local Indigenous group was also upset over the name despite the long consultations. An Elder of the Dhudhuroa clan, Gary Murray told the media at the time that Jaithmathang was as foreign a word to him as Niggerheads was. Murray said this was not Jaithmathang country — that clan came from further north east between Corryong and Omeo. And he vowed to fight the name change.
It’s too bad Brown and Wells didn’t think to ask their Aboriginal guide — a man called Larnie — what he called the rocky outcrops.
After all, most natural features had been named by Indigenous people long before Europeans arrived. If Larnie had been consulted the Niggerheads debate might have been avoided altogether.
Welcome to the world of toponymy, the relatively obscure and esoteric field of scholarship that deals with how places came to be named as they are. And while it sounds as exciting as train spotting, as the Niggerheads debate shows, toponymy can be the arena in which ideas about national identity, culture and heritage collide, along with nostalgia and romanticism.
These are what toponymists must negotiate as they complete the Australian National Placenames Survey (ANPS) which will document the meaning, history and culture attached to Australia’s estimated four million place names.
A single authoritative toponymic reference is a task as ambitious as compiling the Macquarie Dictionary or the Australian Dictionary of Biography. And it is Indigenous names that present the biggest challenges to the toponymists. It is estimated that up to 75 per cent of Australia’s four million place names are of Indigenous origin, surprising, perhaps, given early colonial attitudes to Indigenous people and cultures.
Today, our understanding of the etymology of Indigenous languages — the origins, meanings, spelling and pronunciation of words — is sadly lacking. What early place-namers like Brown and Wells ignored was the fact that Aboriginal Australia was far from homogenous — and that there were almost 400 distinct language groups.
According to toponymist Flavia Hodges (pdf), in most cases, Indigenous place names were first recorded by people with little knowledge of the language and were often altered to conform more closely to English speech or typical name-shapes.
It gets more complicated because similar sounding words in one Indigenous language might mean something else in another. Even in the same language, similar names became confused. And as the Europeans attempted to record Indigenous place names the spellings and meanings often became hopelessly muddled. Clarity now is impossible because so many of these languages have been lost forever.
Aboriginal place names whose origins were unclear even 150 years ago have had several other layers of obfuscation added to them by sloppy local historians.
When trying to find the meaning of names, local historians often relied on dubious texts and references, repeating errors which then became fact, according to toponymist Laura Kostanski. Sometimes they even just made things up — and now toponymists are taxed with unpicking all this work.
Take Nimbin in northern NSW, for example. Toponymists have argued the name has two different meanings: one being camp hut or house from the Bundjalung word ngumbiyn and the other being small man or pygmy who lives in mountains or rocks from another Bundjalung word nyiimbuyn. Toponymist Jim Wafer wrote a detailed explanation (pdf) in the ANPS newsletter as to both, but finally favours the pygmy or small man meaning.
Sometimes the explanations are banal. The common claim that the name Bandiana, in Victoria, derives from a bandy-legged Aboriginal woman named Anny, is most likely a fabrication dating back to 1907, being rather too obviously literal. Unfortunately, however, there is no further information about its origins.
Likewise Echuca, Victoria, is shrouded in mystery despite the conventional wisdom it means the meeting of the waters. In fact, Echuca is not even an Indigenous word but the worst kind of Anglo-Indigenous mangle, according to Kostanski.
The location was originally known as Whungulingia by the local Yorta Yorta people and for some unknown reason was dubbed Echuca by the district surveyor — who believed it to mean the meeting of the waters.
Jan Tent, the director of the ANPS hopes one day there will be a definitive Dictionary of Australian Placenames, despite the confusion that surrounds the origins of so many Indigenous ones. "We can’t even be sure the Aboriginal names that exist now are spelt correctly or even in fact relate to local Aboriginal culture or language. Some of course may never be known because the original meanings have been lost forever with the obliteration of so many Aboriginal nations’ language and cultures," he told newmatilda.com.
Disentangling all this confusion is a huge project. Single place names can take months of painstaking research. With limited funding and only a handful of experienced toponymists to draw on, Tent says he is unlikely to see the dictionary complete in his lifetime.
But it is a goal certainly worth pursuing. Even if a completely accurate etymology of every Aboriginal place name is impossible, there is enough robust knowledge to reach some sort of consensus about the meanings of many of them.
Thankfully the list of offensive place names such as The Niggerheads is small, so arguments about their renaming won’t add too much to the toponymists’ huge workload.
But whether a new name will mean that their offensive predecessors will never be uttered again is a moot point. When the explanation for the Jaithmathangs is finally written in the Dictionary of Australian Place Names, will the time when they were known as The Niggerheads get a mention?
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