Power and imperialism: The power of naming things

March 19, 2014 § 2 Comments

I was at a public talk being given by my wife, Margo Shea, at the Beverly Public Library on Monday.  She was talking about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and their aftermath, attempts to deal with the past, to heal, etc.  One of the great contestations of that greatly contested history is what to call it: was it a civil war? Was it a police action?  In the case of the former, she cited family members of young men, members of the IRA, killed by the British Army in the early 1970s.  They, their family members argued, felt they were fighting in a war.  On the other hand, Margo cited the families of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers, who argued this was most certainly NOT a civil war. 

Over 3,700 people died in the Troubles.  Another 50,000 were injured.  It is well nigh impossible to draw a line between civilians and combatants, given the Provisional IRA, much like the IRA it took inspiration from during the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) was a guerilla force and faded back into the civilian population after striking.  At least in theory.  The official dating of the Troubles is 1969-97, the years of the Provos campaign against the British.  But the violence began at least a year earlier and the last major bombing, in Omagh, happened in 1998. 

I am less interested in the history than terminology here.  Because as Margo was talking about this dispute as to whether the Troubles was a civil war or police action, I got to thinking about the term “Troubles.”  It is very British in origin.  I also thought about the 1857 “Sepoy Mutiny” in India.  And the 1837 “Rebellion” in Lower Canada.  In all three cases, the descriptive name came from the British, the colonial power the Irish, Indians, and Lower Canadians were rebelling against. 

In grad school, I read Alan Greer’s The Patriots and the People: The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada.  In it, Greer argues that the failed 1837 Rebellion would be better understood as a failed revolution, as the Parti patriote were directly inspired by ideas of liberalism and freedom that drove the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions.  The Patriotes, then, were products of their time. 

Twenty years later, in 1857, the sepoys, or the Indian soldiers in the employ of the East India Company, rebelled.  The rebellion began in Meerut and then spread.  It took 13 months to fully suppress.  The British termed it the “Sepoy Mutiny,” attempting to limit the damage to the military, dismissing it as the work of a few disaffected soldiers.  In India, however, the 1857 rebellion is more commonly known as the First War of Indpendence.  

Interesting. The distance between “Troubles”, “Rebellion,” and “Mutiny” from “civil war,” “revolution,” and “war of independence.”  The terminology and the fight over it, though, are not surprising.  For the British, minimising these revolts to minor occurrences makes sense in the name of justifying continued British imperialist presence.  This is especially the case for Lower Canada and India, perhaps much less so for 20th century Northern Ireland.  On the other hand, “civil war,” “revolution,” and “war of independence” also carry a lot more weight from the other, oppressed sides.  These words work to serve the rebels’ purposes.

It is worth noting, though, I have never heard anyone seriously refer to the 1837 Rebellion in Lower Canada as a revolution, even amongst nationalist/separatist circles.  Unlike the case of the Troubles and the Indian Rebellion, I have included the Lower Canadian conflagration here due to an argument made by an academic, as opposed to common usage. 

But.  I do think the battle over terminology for different circumstances in three very different corners of the British Empire (Ireland, it turns out, was both the first and is now the last of the English overseas colonies).  And which term one chooses says just as much about “which foot you kick with,” to use a Northern Irish turn of phrase, than anything else. 

I bring this up due to a series of conversations I have been involved with of late, both in real time and on social media, about power and privilege.  And, certainly, tied up with questions of power and privilege are the rights to name events and items.  A similar process can be seen in the naming of the landscape in any colony.  Take, for example, Lake Superior.  As Gordon Lightfoot reminds us in my favourite of his songs, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the Ojibwe called the lake gichigami,” which means, literally, “great sea.”  (It’s also worth noting that Lightfoot calls the Ojibwe the Chippewa, the name the Europeans gave them) But, when the French arrived, they re-named the body of water Lac Supérieure, due to both its size and the fact it is the head of the Great Lakes. Literally, Lac Supérieure means “upper lake,” as in it is above Lake Huron.  Lake Superior is simply an angicisation (though technically incorrect) of the French name.  

Such is how power and privilege work.  And when the formerly oppressed/subjugated/colonised people gain a modicum of power and/or independence, name changing abounds.  For example, in my hometown, take the case of Dorchester Boulevard.  It was renamed in honour of René Lévesque upon his death in the late 80s. Guy Carleton, first Baron Dorchester, was the Governor General of Canada following the Conquest (which is called La conquête in French, if you were wondering).  Lévesque was the first separatist premier of Quebec, from 1976-84.  Or, take the case of Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay.  I could go on. I won’t. I’ll stop here.


§ 2 Responses to Power and imperialism: The power of naming things

  • Today, those in power, using their privilege, are labelling certain citizens or groups as rogue or terrorists. We used to respectfully see them as viable opponents or those with whom we disagreed.

    I know this may be out of context with your article, but it does speak to power and privelege. Media though, buys into this labelling and in using these terms in their reporting, spreads the message.

    Great article, Matthew.

  • Brian Bixby says:

    An interesting twist on this is the attempt by some historians to look at the American Revolution and War of 1812 as a civil war between two parts of the British political sphere.

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