Tuesday, January 24, 12023 Human Era (HE)
- Big Bill and the Rose
- Implicit Associations
- Christian Anthropology
- Modern Mythology
- The Acidity of a Rose
- Place Names and Paddleboarding
- To (Re)Name or Not to (Re)Name?
- An Interesting Irony of Intermutual Influence
- Is There a Difference?
- Modern Myths Revisited
- When in Rome
- Gold, God, and Glory
- Merchant’s Monikers
- Household Names and Subconscious Subjugation
- Addendum: Other Animal Issues
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”Spoken by Juliet, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2
Big Bill and the Rose
What’s in a name? On this one, I have to go against Big Bill. The famous Shakespearean line spoken by Juliet is taken to mean that a rose is still a rose regardless of what you call it. The intrinsic qualities of the rose are independent of its arbitrarily assigned label. Perhaps Big Bill didn’t share these sentiments and this view was solely that of his character creation, Ms. Capulet? I suppose we’ll never know. While I agree with the base premise, that the name we give to an object or even an idea in our material world doesn’t change the nature or quality of the thing, I’ll add a caveat. My cautionary clause is that human culture adds a layer of complexity to lexicology. Differences arise when we move into what meaning accompanies a noun at the individual and collective levels of anthropology. It’s not that the properties of the rose objectively change in the external world. But, experience is not perceived in the external world. Experience is perceived in our own subjective internal world and thus is subject to the whims of neurobiology. The sweetness of a rose is a subjective experience elicited by the rose’s physical properties but influenced by contextual factors.
For example, recall the photograph of a dress that became an internet sensation in 12015 HE. The viral internet hype arose because some individuals saw the dress as gold and white, while others saw it as blue and black. How could the same dress be interpreted so differently? It turned out that the colour observed depended on how the brain interpreted the lighting in the photograph. If the image of the dress was interpreted to be washed out, then the brain (correctly) interpreted the colours to be blue and black. If not, the lighting was interpreted differently by the brain and it (incorrectly) assumed the dress to be white and gold. The same sensory stimuli, specific wavelengths of light, could be perceived completely differently.
Experience is not universal. My objective perception of the redness or sweetness of a rose is likely not the same as what you experience due to subtle differences in our neurobiochemistry. For example, it is well-documented that different populations have different scent receptors based on genetic differences. A subset of the population will never smell “asparagus pee” no matter how much sparrow grass they consume. Certain aromas in wine have been documented to depend on only a single nucleotide polymorphism. If you don’t have the correct base pair (i.e., allele), no scent for you.
Visual examples of this phenomenon abound too. Let’s try a few. Take a look at the image below…
What colour is the bar in the centre? Grey, you say? I agree. Though some may say it is gray. Let’s put the transatlantic transgressions aside and agree that those are the same. We can settle on the Old English grǣg.
Did you perceive that the grey bar is darker on the right side? So did I. We’re still in agreement. It looks like the grey bar in the image is graded from light to dark left to right. And we’re both right and wrong in this observation. While the bar looks like it is graded, it is actually the same shade of grey throughout. It is the background that is graded from black to white, giving the grey bar its apparent graded shades. Context matters. See what happens to the bar below when we remove the background. Out of context, the bar appears very different.
The brain not only relies on context for colour determination, but the brain also uses context to ascribe meaning. For example, read the following symbols:
You’re on track if you read the symbols as A B C. And perhaps an alien if you saw something else.
Now read these symbols:
Twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Easy enough. Hopefully, you also noticed that the “13” and “B” are identical symbols in each example. In the alphabetical example, your brain interprets the symbolic lines as the letter “B” since it is associated with other letters. When the context shifts to a numerical association with other numbers your brain interprets the same symbolic lines as the number “13.” It is also worth highlighting that in this paragraph you’ve already encountered two different symbolic representations of a number, the numeral “13” and the word “thirteen.” Two sets of different symbols that carry essentially the same meaning. Context matters.
The image below highlights how we can hold these two symbolic interpretations simultaneously. The lines in the centre of the cross are both the letter “B” and the number “13.”
Revisiting the rose relation reveals human experience is state dependent. The experience of a rose can potentially change independently of the rose based on the state of the subject. For example, my perception of the scent of the sweetness of two identically smelling roses is apt to be different if one is given to me by my lover in a romantic setting and the other by a stranger on the street. Context matters. And that is the case regardless of any conflicting aromas or odours (e.g., the subjectively sweet aroma of my lover versus the sour sewer odour of the street). The medical phenomenon of sensory-perceptual alteration encompasses this concept, but I’m suggesting it in a non-pathological context. In normality, our sensory perceptions are apt to alter according to the context in which we experience them.
We can be nearly certain that the subjective response to a specific sensory stimulus shan’t be the same in separate or sequential states.
Our senses are neurologically connected to our past experiences. For example, our sense of scent is highly connected to our emotions and memory. The olfactory system has a direct connection to the limbic system rather than being rerouted to the cortex via the thalamus, like other sensory systems. The evolutionary basis for this deep connection between olfactory experiences and strong emotions and memories is survival-based, linking essential actions like feeding, reproduction, child-rearing, and fight or flight responses. These implicit associations between scents, memories, and emotions operate at a subconscious level. As is the case for all our sensations and their implicit associations. And my contention is that similar associations exist in the fields of linguistics and grammatology that add ancillary meaning to words. Work from Havard University has highlighted how some of these associations work both at the conscious and subconscious level in our attitudes and beliefs in a tool referred to as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The test is available online along with resources explaining what results can and cannot tell you.
For me, growing up as a child of two first-generation immigrants the difference in my cultural background made me aware of my otherness. I think this also contributed to a questioning of cultural practices and traditions since the difference between me and my peers was more evident. Though the questioning was not always completely conscious. In addition, I was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith but all of my closest friends were not. I think the difference between how we celebrated the same Christian-based holidays (Christmas, Easter, Halloween or All Saints’ Day), religiously versus secularly, also highlighted the arbitrariness of culture and tradition. How could my Christmas be based on the birth of Jesus Christ, yet the same Christmas for many others was a celebration of a magical old man in a red suit travelling the globe and dropping down chimneys to deliver gifts to deserving boys and girls? Or Easter, where as Roman Catholics, we supposedly spent 40 days mournfully commemorating the execution of our saviour by giving up select excesses or dutifully praying while the secular tradition happily worshipped a giant bunny hiding chocolate eggs for boys and girls to scavenge.
To be fair, judging which account is more fanciful is a tall order. The bias of my Catholic childhood upbringing makes me muse that the magical story of Santa Claus is too mystical to be a matter of fact. But when I reflect on Catholic teachings critically, I realize the culture of Catholicism is just as crazy. A virgin woman gives birth to a human who is one-third of a supernatural trinity and destined to right the wrongs of the costal progeny of his father’s effigial experimentation. That’s just Christianity. Catholics add in some extra crazy bits like membership registry water dowsings, make-believe cannibalistic bread eating, and military-level manually enacted leadership ritualism. Maybe a giant cacao-laden bunny isn’t that strange after all?
The Road to Rome is Paved with Paganism
Since having kids I have become more curious about our collective cultural practices. Questions about cultural practices that before went unquestioned started to pop up. Like why do we celebrate Christmas with a Christmas tree? Or where did the Easter Bunny come from? I suppose my Catholic upbringing and commonplace curiosity to uncover the cause and connection of our cultural customs have culminated in a conception that Christianity is at the core of many current practices. But researching the origin of many common Christian-based holidays I found that they had origins elsewhere. Often appropriated from past Pagan practices. So when a friend and colleague passed on the video below that traced the origins of a few other pertinent practices to Paganism I was particularly pleased. I specifically found the origins of the word Pagan, the origins of Valentine’s Day, and the practice of covering your mouth while yawning most interesting. I was not familiar with the Roman festival of Lupercalia explained in the video. I was loosely familiar with the origin of the practice of saying “God bless you,” after sneezing to prevent a loss of the soul so it seems plausible that the practice of covering one’s mouth while yawning may have similar origins. Apparently, Paganism is much more pervasive. A case of heathen hypocrisy.
Somewhere between high school and my first year of university, I recall the concept of cultural myths becoming consciously salient to me. To me, cultural myths were these unquestioned truths that many or all of us believe in. Often, they are so fundamental to the collective cultural narrative that we fail to realize that they can even be questioned. The chilling, yet amusing parable of the fish in water comes to mind:
In 12016 HE, the idea of human mythology was resurrected in my mind when I read Yuval Noah Harari‘s Sapiens. Harari does an amazing job of pointing out some of the most fundamental myths that we believe as humans and their importance in allowing us to work cooperatively, flexibly, and in large numbers, something no other species we know of does. My summary of Harari’s litmus test for myths is whether they continue to exist without believers. From this perspective, it is easy to see that one of our greatest collective myths is money. Without a network of people believing in the underlying trust that makes money possible, what we know as money becomes generally useless pieces of paper, plastic, and metal, or zeros and ones in computer code. The myth of money requires that we all believe that its representations (paper, plastic, metal, and zeros and ones) all have greater intrinsic value. Trust in that value can then be exchanged for goods and services.
At the risk of offending believers, religions too are myths. To me, it is implicit in the language that surrounds religion. Why else would you need “faith” or to be a “believer” if religion was not supernatural? The fact that there are so many conflicting variations on the same basic theme (think of the denominations and sects in Christianity and Islam) to me suggests there is no observable objective reality to religions. It is a facile argument, but to me, if there is no agreement at this point in the evolution of these institutions with the amount of thought and devotion that has been put towards them over the millennia, it seems more likely that we are dealing with imagined phenomena rather than reality. There are many miraculous things in this universe but the majority existed before humans did. As far as we can tell religion did not. Without believers, religions cease to exist.
Conversely, take something like a virus. Whether you believe in them is irrelevant, a virus can infect you regardless of your belief system. Infection is dependent on physical exposure, viral load, and your immune system. The coronavirus pandemic demonstrated swathes of people who chose not to believe in ill-effects of coronavirus disease (Covid-19), many of whom died. And at the risk of coming across as pedantic, another example is gravity. You can choose to not believe in gravity, but non-believers will have their beliefs grounded the moment they stand, walk, jump, or fall. Gravity does not care about your beliefs and will continue to exert its effects on you independent of your credence.
Harari discusses other topics like politics and ideologies, such us liberty and freedom, demonstrating how they too are myths. Though that is not to say that they are not virtuous ideals, only to say that they are not objective truths of the cosmos.
The Acidity of a Rose
In the case of a rose, it continues to have the same properties and exist whether you choose to believe in the rose or not. Our chosen lexicon for the rose doesn’t change its properties, but our choice can have an influence on our experience. For example, if the name for a rose was different, let’s say pallidity or getdown, then there would be a whole host of new associations perhaps related to paleness or lowness, rather than our current associations, like love, strength, beauty, resilience, and courage. While the rose itself passes the mythological litmus test, its associated qualities could cease to exist if we do not collectively believe in them.
Place Names and Paddleboarding
Let’s bring this back to stand up paddleboarding (SUP). Paddleboarding and creating this plog (paddle blog log) have resulted in me exploring many more geographical places and their names. Prior knowledge that the local lands were inhabited by indigenous people for much longer than European colonizers and the parallels of paddleboarding to many ancient peoples’ transportation modes often left me wondering about those historic times and people when out on the water. Growing up in Squamish, my exposure to indigenous culture and mythology gave me an early insight into the notion of a people’s connection to the land. Today, the concept of this connection is much more prevalent in mainstream (Canadian) culture. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission along with the broader sociopolitical woke movement (here I am referring to woke‘s original meaning of awareness of racial injustice, not the currently popular coopted meaning which I find to be more reflective of cancel culture than anything else) highlight these viewpoints and leave us trying to come to grips with the reality of past injustices of history and their effect on the present.
For myself, I have tried to find where I stand on the topic of geographical renaming. Names have meaning, that I’m sure of. Why else would we name, or rename, places without that base fact? The name of a place signals to the subconscious. To be crass, would you rather travel to “Happyville” or “Shitsville”? Outside of a rubbernecking-like phenomenon (i.e., our difficulty to avoid starring at a roadside tragedy) of wanting to know what makes Shitsville shitty, my guess is that most people would select Happyville not knowing anything other than the place name. Words have meaning and the names we give to places matter.
What is the place? Is it sacred or unconsecrated? Who is the place for and who is welcome? What is the history or tradition behind this place? These subtleties and more are suggested in place names. This brings up the current controversial topic around the renaming of place names. I highlight the “current” here as it is by no means a new phenomenon or controversy. We have been naming and renaming places for millennia. But it seems that in the present there is a renewed fervour around names and renaming. Much of it stems from the philosophical ideals of progressives who seem to be keen on renaming and conservatives who are not.
To (Re)Name or Not to (Re)Name?
I have been considering writing a post on place names for some time. But my ambition had waivered since it is a daunting topic and one where I don’t feel I have expertise. I still don’t feel that I have the expertise, but my desire to organize my thoughts through writing prevailed.
In addition, I was reinspired after listening to historian Timothy Snyder‘s lecture “As Ukraine Goes, So Goes the World” which highlighted that the topic is very much current. The lecture covers fascism, genocide, and colonialism, and culminates in a call towards a reinvigorated ethic around democracy. What I found particularly profound was his idea of resetting history by claiming something to be “new.” It is a tactic that we’ve seen throughout history and was/is particularly evident in imperial renaming practices. Just think of all the “new” places in the world, they generally are only new to the colonizers and not the previous inhabitants (e.g., the New World, New Westminister, New York, New Holland (aka. Australia, etc.,).
Snyder’s view that Russia is engaging in a new form of Russian Christian Fascism is arresting and alarming. Snyder argues that the unexplainable rationale behind the invasion of Ukraine is a truth-bending foundational unification story against a sinful traitor. His argument is too complex to be distilled here, so you’ll have to listen to his lecture for the details.
Scarier still than his depiction of a Russian Christian Fascist alternate reality is his discussion on genocide. Snyder argues that Vladimir Putin‘s retelling of history where Ukraine or Kievan Rus’ doesn’t exist outside of Russia is told to facilitate genocide. By denying the existence of a people, no one will miss them if they’re gone, so it’s okay to exterminate them. Essentially Putin is setting up a genocidal propaganda narrative by arguing his false take on history.
And along similar lines, Snyder highlights how colonial renaming practices serve to deny a people’s history. Snyder gives the example of Catherine the Great‘s renaming of Kherson in 11778 HE. This was part of Russia’s “Greek Project,” an attempt to solve the Eastern Question. Simply stated the Eastern Question was the political machinations by the European powers to compete in the geopolitical arena created by the political and economic instability of the Ottoman Empire in the late 118th to early 120th centuries HE (18th to 20th centuries CE). The powers were all vying to get their biggest slice of the Ottoman Empire cake. As Snyder highlights, the Russian renaming of Ukrainian cities to Hellenistic variations was a deliberate attempt to erase Ukrainian history while simultaneously signalling a straight Russian lineage to Ancient Greece. Snyder continues, pointing out that the colonial playbook, past and present, uses renaming to erase history citing the current example of Crimea and classic examples from the colonial era.
For a great summary that connects colonialism to language check out this episode of Crash Course, “Colonialism,” from their Geography series. The whole series is great, but also particularly relevant to this discussion is the subsequent episode, “What is a “Developed” Country.”
Listening to Snyder’s lecture solidified my intention to do a post on naming. It highlighted to me that renaming is both historically and presently relevant. And while it can be a benign practice, it is also used by past and present imperialists malignantly.
Many of the true intentions of “american” geographic renaming practices are lost to history. Whether deliberately done to disenfranchise or inadvertently to create colloquial convenience for colonizers throughout the 115th to 119th centuries HE (15th to 19th centuries CE) is open to debate. My suspicion is that both practices were at play. But given that we know the powerful associations that accompany names and that renaming practices past and present prove pernicious I side with pro renaming camp.
Already I had adopted the convention of trying to utilize the indigenous place names for water bodies or geographical locations on my plog. My rationale was to pay homage to a more holistic history while (in my mind at least) balancing the social power dynamic. Before writing this post I wanted to better understand the topic so I tried to read and research the arguments for and against while acknowledging my propensity for a confirmation bias (easier said than done as eloquently evidenced by Mark Manson‘s post and video).
An Interesting Irony of Intermutual Influence
What I found somewhat ironic in my research, was that history is invoked for both the for and against arguments of renaming practices. As an example, read this good old Canadian conversation on the topic in this op-ed dialogue “Should We Rename Institutions?” from the Alberta Views publication. The article presents a pro and con argument for the practice of renaming and then a rebuttal response by each author. Though the context of this conversation is directed toward institutional renaming, I think there is an overlap in place names. My concession is that often institutions are more recent inventions. A justification that institutions carry the colonizers’ names that coincided with their creations could be contended. Whereas places (predominately) predate people and have held indigenous names for millennia. So, in my mind, the many place names that bear colonial cognomen create a conundrum sans justification, particularly in cases where places carried a cognomen contrived pre-colonial contact. Again I’ll concede the caveat that indigenous naming practices were by no means a static process nor reflective of a monolithic culture.
The nay-namers’ central argument is that a renaming would result in an erosion of our (my emphasis not theirs) culture and history. Which I think is a fair and valid point. But in my mind leads to a first-come-first-served sort of scenario centred around who is entitled to naming supremacy. I would guess the original first peoples to many places are no longer the authors of the authentic area. Too much time has passed in most places cases for the original christ-en-er… no wait, the designator’s title to persist. Though there would have been some dominant first-people presence previously, particularly at the appearance of European pioneers. That primary presence needed to be eroded for the ways of Western words which is where this argument becomes tautological to me.
Whereas, the aye-namers argue that it would be a restoration of history. This makes more intuitive sense to me, but again becomes somewhat circular when you ask to when? The discrepancy between arguments thus centres on when and whose history? In essence, the arguments from both writers are the same, it is just who you are arguing for that differs.
Is There a Difference?
As alluded to, I think there is a difference between the renaming of institutions versus places. The institutions are relatively recent creations and often are more temporarily related to their name-bearers. An argument could be made that the names of the founding, or at least temporally correlated, characters are justified. The institutional namesakes might be deserved via the creator(s)’s contributions, at least the socially positive ones. I am willing to concede that. The issue becomes whether as a society we see the totality of their deeds as net-positive. And perhaps more importantly, are those deeds reflective of our present ideals and virtues, with the correlated caveat that asks whether the historical context of these people’s actions matters. Can we judge history from an absolutist reference frame? Or are actions and intentions relative to the historical context? I am inclined to side with the latter viewpoint. As an almost absolute rule, I don’t believe in absolutes. Everything is relative. What constitutes acceptable behaviour in Ancient Greece, Medieval Europe, or Victorian Era Canada cannot be considered equivalent. Historical context matters.
At the same time, so too does the current context matter. I believe that we should all strive to have a better understanding of the present through a better understanding of the past. Specific to institutional names, I do think the totality of the name bearers’ deeds matters. History in my mind should be judged from the present with an understanding of the past. The namesakes of institutions should be better understood for both their positive and negative contributions. And the nuance of this duality should be evident to the public. That doesn’t necessarily mean the full-scale abandonment of the past, as some voices from the far-right would have you believe. The very fact that the renaming conversation in Canada (Kanata) is current is a testament to this fact. “Canada” is likely a bastardization of the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata,” meaning “village” or “settlement.” History is not immediately erased with renaming. Blurred maybe, but history is erased with time, not titles.
In my view, you can keep the current namesakes to quell the concerned conservatives’ hysteria over historical erasure and allay the nay-sayers’ renaming rebukes, but perhaps a placard to placate the aye-sayers is in order. I realize that this is too simple of a solution to a complex issue, and borders at the edge of a false utopian kumbaya-esk ideal of the good-naturedness of humanity. My point is that concession and compromise need to come from both sides. That is what reconciliation is. Making one view or belief compatible with another. With the caveat that the power dynamic should be in favour of the oppressed to balance the inequity under our current mythological ideology of equity and equality. We are living in the present of our forebearer’s past. Not everyone will feel a connection or responsibility toward their ancestors’ actions. Nor should they necessarily. But the reality is that we are not here in the present without the past. We cannot undo history, nor negate or erase it (though we know that has been attempted aboundingly). Instead, we should try to understand our past in order to inform our actions in the present and future. While simultaneously recognising we are neurologically hardwired to be tribal and that our tribe isn’t always a universally inclusive one. The upside is our innate tendencies aren’t set in stone, our current culture proves that we have adapted our animalistic nature to a newfound humanistic ideal. To knowledge, we have the ability to be the architects of our society to an unprecedented degree.
In the context of place names, I think the same approach is in order. With the provision of acknowledging a probable theoretical seminal place name. Though the true epistemological etymology of most place names is likely lost to (pre-)history. In the cases where we know the past names of places I think it is important to honour that history. Particularly in the context where the power dynamic is unequal, as is the case for much of British Columbia given its imperial-colonialist past. Something as simple as acknowledging both names is an easy gesture to attest to the earlier history and its attempted erasure (whether deliberate or inadvertently consequential), while acknowledging the presence of previous peoples that are still present. I have begun this approach with my plog, stating the indigenous name as the primary reference when available. I realize that it is an imperfect approach. Which name do you select? Especially, in the context where multiple groups with different languages inhabited/frequented a location. Who and when deserves primacy? And there is also a utilitarian argument against this practice for the convenience of familiarity. Most Vancouverites will easily recognize the name Stanley Park but might struggle with identifying and pronouncing X̱wáýx̱way, the indigenous title for the same landmass.
Modern Myths Revisited
However, I think learning a few new words with different appearances and pronunciations is an inconvenience we can all endure in order to attempt to achieve some of our current anthropogenic myths. While I am not wholeheartedly a believer in realistically achieving these mythological ideals (e.g., liberty, equality, justice, inclusivity), I do think there is merit in trying. Perhaps I am too pessimistic in my humanistic outlook, though I prefer the pronouncement of pragmatism. The optimistic view is best captured in the quote attributed to the positivist Norman Vincent Peale, “Shoot for the Moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” While I see it as a virtuous goal to strive for the overall betterment of the human cause, I recognise it to be a selfish one. Nothing in life comes for free and our existence is a sort of biological transactional zero-sum game. The betterment of Homo sapiens comes at the cost of some other biological taxonomic rank. Sometimes that toll is paid in real-time (e.g., with predator and prey) and other times on larger time scales (e.g., climate change, anthropogenic or otherwise). Without the assumption of anthropocentric supremacy, justification of anthropogenic advancement is arbitrary.
The common Canadian conservative contention that we need a national narrative for our collective cooperation is correct. But my take is that a new national narrative is needed. I’d even take that to a global scale in that the most pressing issue of our time, climate change, is one that is unsolvable without global cooperation. Greenhouse gas emissions, temperature, and extreme weather don’t conform neatly to nationalistic boundaries. We need a universal human narrative that inspires cooperation to combat global issues. Ideally, that narrative will hold us accountable for our past as a way to prevent the same mistakes in the future. Nationally, for Canadians, we need to truly live up to our Coat of Arms, Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam. The Latin text translates to, “They desire a better country.”
I tell my children regularly that it is okay to make mistakes. As long as they learn from their mistakes. Aside from a small subset of bigots, I think we all can agree that the atrocities of the colonial era were an aberrant error. As we strive toward our mythological ideal society, a reckoning of past injustices is in order so that we can move forward and deliver on our proclaimed desire for a better country (and perhaps even a better world).
When in Rome
The idiom when in Rome (do as the Romans do) is taken to mean that “when you are visiting another place, you should follow the customs of the people in that place.” Seems simple enough and an easy rule to go by. It is along the same lines as the golden rule, treat others the way you yourself want to be treated. While the golden rule in some form or another can be traced back to the 94th to 95th centuries HE (i.e., 6th to 5th centuries BCE) the when in Rome idiom appears in English only around 11530 HE. Despite the Rome idiom’s recency, it would seem that humanity espoused more decency in ancient times, given the golden rule’s genealogy, than was afforded to the people who suffered from the Age of Discovery. The term “discovery” is a peculiar pick here. It is hard to claim human discovery of inhabited lands. I suspect the language here was deliberate to downplay the indigenous claim to land ownership by claiming European explorers’ discovery and thus proprietorship. A more apt term would be the Age of Exploration, but I will continue with the discovery euphemism in italics. If you are doubtful of the deliberation of “discovery,” consider another colonial-era euphemism, the plantation. “Plantation” is a stand-in for slave labour at worst or forced labour at best. In any case, neither the golden rule nor the when in Rome edict was abided by the explorers of age, despite a close temporal correlation to the latter’s introduction to the English-speaking world.
Gold, God, and Glory
I’ve often wondered what made the Age of Discovery and subsequent Scramble for Africa, the two great waves of colonialism so brutal. This era of exploration ultimately paved the way for the transatlantic slave trade, a multi-century horror that would see the enslavement of more than 15 million Africans, as well as the death of an estimated 56 million indigenous people in the Americas. Ostensibly, enough people died to affect the Earth’s climate! Slavery itself was nothing new, humans have been enslaving each other from time immemorial. Nor was it the first large-scale operation.
Reading Peter Frankopan‘s The Silk Roads I was introduced to the Scandanavian slave trade, often overlooked in our origin story of chattel slavery since the Old Norse word thræll was used instead of “slave.” Shockingly, the Old Norse word gives us the “modern English “thrall,” which we now use as in being enthralled by a person, a work of art or an idea” (Price, 2020). “Enthralled” invokes a previously unknown level of savagery knowing its etymology is entwined with enslaved.
From around the 106th to 111th century HE (6th to 11th century CE), during the Viking Age, Scandanavians made the acquisition of human chattel a key part of their economy. Frankopan highlights how the main driver for this practice was economic. There was money to be made in human trafficking to what we now call the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. As was the case roughly 1200 years ago, so too was the case around 500 years ago when economics was a main driver behind the resurgence of transcontinental human trafficking in the Age of Discovery.
The motivations behind the Age of Discovery are often summarised by the shorthand gold, god, and glory. “Gold” refers to the pursuit of material gain by acquiring and selling Asian spices, African slaves, American metals, and other resources. The so-called Columbian Exchange, saw the exchange of diseases, ideas, food crops, and populations between the New World and the Old World following the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean by Christopher Columbus and company in 11492 HE (here “Old World” refers to the entire Eastern Hemisphere and not just Europe).
“God” refers to the militaristic missionary practices and traditions of Christianity. The uniqueness of the Christian monotheistic doctrine placed it in competition with Islam resulting in the crusades and fostering a hatred of non-Christian religions. The origins of monotheism are complicated, but it is worth noting that the mainstream theological view of Old Testament scholars is that the religion of the early Israelites was not monotheistic or polytheistic, but monolatrous. The existence of other gods was not denied, but the Israelites were to worship no god but Yahweh. How Christianity came to be monotheistic is a great question and possibly an even better one is whether Christianity is monotheistic. The trinitarian controversy is a long-standing dispute that was brought to a head by the Cyrenaic presbyter Arius in the 104 century HE (4th century CE), which depending on your interpretation could negate Christianity’s claim to monotheistic fame. Regardless of how monotheism started, its doctrine definitely played a role in the desire of the discovery age.
It is also worth noting that while the crusades are best remembered as a series of holy wars between Christianity and Islam, Peter Frankopan highlights how they were “also a springboard for accruing serious wealth and power” (Frankopan, 2017). It seems religious rule was reused to ransack riches recurrently.
“Glory” refers to the competition between monarchies. Various kings sought to establish claims over newly discovered territory in order to strengthen and secure their position in European politics. The embrace of mercantilism as the economic policy ideology of the time also bolstered this competition. Designed to maximize the exports and minimize the imports for an economy, mercantilism “promotes imperialism, colonialism, tariffs, and subsidies on traded goods to achieve that goal” (“Mercantilism”, Wikipedia). Historically, mercantile “policies frequently led to war and motivated colonial expansion” (“Mercantilism”, Wikipedia).
The Spanish and Portuguese were the early architects of overseas expansion in the Age of Discovery. Their “favorable geographic location [on the Iberian Peninsula] facing the Atlantic and North Africa, a maritime tradition of deep sea fishing, an aggressive Christian crusading tradition, and possession of the best ships and navigation techniques in Europe by the 1400s” sowed the seeds for their sea fare searching ascendency (“Gold, God, And Glory”, Encylopedia.com). Coupled with the Ottoman Empire’s capture of Constantinople in 11453 HE, the concomitant closing of many existing trade routes to China and India via the silk roads necessitated the creation of new trading routes. The brutality that accompanied the expansion was a by-product of the aforementioned factors, particularly the history of hostile neighbourly interactions culminating in the crusade campaigns which combined to create a culture accustomed to cruelty. These proximal causes were influenced by precipitating distal factors that set the stage for the age of expansion.
The net results were changes that would forever change the world as it was known. The Eastern and Western Hemisphere continents were (re)united, creating the foundation for our modern global economy. Trade routes prior to the imperial expansions had been limited to only the Eastern Hemisphere connecting the orient to the ocassus via the silk roads.
A Fast Foray into Foods
The explorers of the exploration age have left their mark on the modern world in many ways. The resulting Columbian Exchange of diseases, ideas, food crops, and people has forever changed our world. I am always fascinated by the fact that many of us in modernity don’t know the origin or appearance of many of the plant foods we eat apart from our encounters with them at the supermarket. For example, do bananas grow to point upwards or downwards (see below for the answer)? So when I came across a paper on the Columbian Exchange highlighting the foods, diseases, and ideas that were transferred across the Atlantic Ocean while researching for this post I was delighted.
Not only was the paper informative it was surprising. I was surprised to read that cassava was a New World crop that had been brought to the Old World in Nunn and Qian’s (2010) paper. My mother was from what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, and as I child I recall her talking about and making a dish called sombe from cassava leaves. I had always just assumed that cassava was a plant native to Africa since it featured so prominently in the Congolese food culture that my mother recounted. I was shocked to find out it wasn’t native to Africa but rather South America and was only introduced to Africa in the 116th century HE (16th century CE) by Portuguese traders from Brazil. In fact, the number of non-native crops that are now flagship flora and food in foreign places flabbergasted me.
Source: “Banana.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Jan. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana. Accessed 20 Jan. 2023.
Personally, I know I associate many foods with places, only some of which I know to be non-native crops. I doubt I am alone in this habit. For example, tomatoes with Italy, potatoes with Ireland, pineapples with Hawaii, vanilla with Madagascar, bacon with Canada, and grapes with California, to name a few. Perhaps the best example of the convoluted connections between commerce and culinary arts is the case of Hawaiian pizza. Topped flatbreads have a long history dating back to antiquity, but the modern pizza’s birthplace is reported as southwestern Italy’s Campania region, home to the city of Naples. The Hawaiian pizza’s invention is attributed to Sam Panopoulos, a Greek-born Canadian who came up with the creation in Chatham, Ontario, Canada in 11962 HE. Inspired in part by his experience preparing Chinese dishes that commonly combine sweet and savory flavours, Panopoulos experimented with adding pineapple, ham, bacon, and other toppings. So a Greek-born Canadian inspired by Chinese cuisine adapts an Italian dish made possible by the expansion of bread from the fertile crescent where wheat was domesticated, the transatlantic exchange of tomatoes from South and Central America, cattle domesticated in Southeast Asia for cheese, pigs domesticated in the Near East for pork, and pineapples which are native to South America, but happened to be Hawaiian brand, giving the pizza its name. If that isn’t a crazy historical trade trail I don’t know what is. That something as commonplace today as Hawaiian pizza has such a complicated past is a striking example of how the past is constantly exerting its influence (often subconsciously) on us in the present.
Mapping Monikers of the Modern World
Let’s transition from sustenance to settings with subconscious similarities to some of the main monikers of the modern world. Have you ever stopped to consider how the continents got their names? Or consider how many continents there are? If you grew up in North America chances are that you recite seven. Europeans are brought up believing in six continents. If you are an Olympian apparently there are five continents symbolized by the iconic five overlapping rings. Depending on where you grew up your definition of continental boundaries is different. Starting to sound a bit mythological to me. The problem is that while the geographical land features that comprise continents are real, as per our mythological litmus test, the criteria we used to differentiate features is neither set nor real. This re-raises the interesting point about how language delimits our cognition.
As an example consider the usage of the words “left” and “right”. As an Anglophone, I grew up considering them to be useful relative directional terms. Turn right here. Pass me the object to the left of you. But what I never consciously considered much is how they relativistically change and how that could be confusing. For example, in a city with grid-style streets orientated in the cardinal directions (e.g., much of Vancouver), if you are trying to get to a location west of a roadway and are traveling north then it would require a left-hand turn. Conversely, if you are traveling south the required turn would be right at the same intersection. That seems simple enough because it is the norm of our Anglophone culture.
However, another approach that avoids changing terminology would be to simply use the cardinal directions in the description rather than relative directions. The cardinal (or compass) system is an absolute system, but in order to use it you need to know your relative location and orientation. For many of us, this is challenging as we don’t maintain an accurate representation of where we are in space at all times (you either need to do this or rely on some external cue to orientate you, e.g., the Sun, a geographic feature of known orientation (e.g., a northern mountain range), or use a compass). However, what if you didn’t have words for “right” and “left”? Then there would be no way to use the relative system since it would cease to exist in your reality. You would be required to maintain that orientation representation, using an internal compass.
That is exactly what happens in languages where there is no word for left or right. Speakers describe directions from a cardinal direction system without the use of an external map or reference point and never use relative egocentric references (another system that is sometimes employed is the geocentric direction system). They consistently maintain an internal compass. For a fascinating discussion on language and internal compasses as well as how the meaning of words morphs with time check out this episode of NPR‘s Hidden Brain, “Watch Your Mouth.”
Bringing this back to the nomenclature of continents, what we accept as unquestioned truths are actually just arbitrary assignments. Consider that what we now know as Australia was once named New Holland after the name was applied by the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, who’s credited as the first European explorer to arrive. Tasman is still the namesake of Tasmania which was originally referred to by the Dutch as Van Diemen’s Land. Before the arrival of Europeans to Australia, the land mass was referred to as just that, “land” or “ground.” The aboriginals (literally Latin for “original inhabitants“) historically didn’t travel very far, and thus generally only had a word to encompass their local lands rather than the entire landmass of the island. Various tribes refer to their homeland as just that, words that translate into “ground” or “land.”
From this local perspective, it makes sense that an all-encompassing renaming was in order, given the arrival of faster modes of travel and interconnectedness. The name eventually selected was “Australia” which essentially means “southern land.” Australia was a shortened form of Terra Australis which was the name given to an imagined (but undiscovered) land mass believed to balance the geography of the globe. The name was popularized starting around 11804 HE and officially replaced New Holland in 11817 HE. Unfortunately, that was before the truly southern polar landmass was witnessed around 11820 HE. This meant that Australia officially became a misnomer, and that is why Antarctica is called Antarctica and not Terra Australis (or Australia).
A similar case of confusion exists for the naming of America. The typical explanation is that America was named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. But that seems to go against the naming conventions of the time as explained in the excellent video below from Cogito. The custom was to feminize the last name of the explorer, so America should have been Vespuccia or perhaps even Columbusia or Colombosia (as per Christoforo Colombo’s lesser-known Genoese name) for the Columbophiles out there. Except it’s not. So what happened. Piecing the story together from the video below and this more in-depth article, “The Waldseemüller Map: Charting the New World” from Smithsonian Magazine, it seems to stem from some confusion as to who discovered America (keep in mind Columbus died believing he had successfully found a new route to the East, not a new Western continent), maybe a mistaken mountain range, some playful punning by an Alsatian scholar and poet (Matthias Ringmann) in collaboration with a German cartographer (Martin Waldseemüller), and perhaps some elements of all three? The result is that today we know the newfound Western landmass as “America”, a feminized form of Amerigo’s first name rather than Columbusia or Colombosia.
Though, as it would turn out, Columbus would be commemorated, often to controversy, in other ways (for an excellent account of Columbus, check out episode one of a recent four-part series from The Rest is History podcast, “306. Columbus: The Adventure Begins“). Columbus’ namesake was used in the European christening (different Chris for the etymology here) of two countries, Colombia and Saint Kitts and Nevis. Columbus was ultimately responsible for the christenings of eight current countries (Antigua and Barbuda, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago). He was also responsible for the naming of the island Hispaniola, now home to the Caribbean nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. His name is now also synonymous with the transatlantic trade-route system that developed after his discovery of the New World, the Columbian Exchange. Columbus Day is also celebrated, and more recently criticized, in various countries in the Americas (perhaps most curiously in North America where he never actually set foot – check out episode four of The Rest is History Columbus tetralogy, “309. Columbus: Villain or Hero?” for details) as well as Spain and Italy.
Household Names and Subconscious Subjugation
And tributes to Columbus’ exploration are paid in more subtle subconscious ways too. Growing up in Squamish, a community with a large South Asian population from the Punjab state in India, I was all too familiar with the term “East Indian” to describe this demographic. It serves as another example of an unquestioned truth, for as a youth growing up in a cultural milieu where Native Americans were referred to as “Indians” because of Columbus’ error and later conviction that he had in fact sailed to India, I had little reason to question the term. I was the fish in water not knowing what water was. In grade school, I recall writing a paper on Christopher Columbus. I remember getting up early in the morning before school to hurriedly write away in the week before it was due in order to transcribe (by hand) my final version. The four-part account by The Rest is History paints a much more complete picture of this complicated historical figure. In high school, at some point, likely from my older brother, I recall becoming acutely aware of the demonym adjective. It was “East” Indian. East of what I recall my brother saying. It was a line I would repeat to my Indian (South Asian) friends and discuss with my Indian (now becoming Native, this was the mid-90s) friends. Our Columbian classifications are something to (re)consider the next time you attempt to describe someone by their geo-ethnic ancestry.
One other example that I came across preparing this blog is the case of turkey, which also ties into India(n). In French, the word for turkey is “dinde.” French was my first language, but growing up in an Anglophone culture I quickly lost my language roots and gravitated toward English. As such, I had never really given much thought to French word etymology. So when I came across this post on, “Which Turkey Came First: The Bird Or The Country?“, I was surprised by the French word origin. Originally the words for the New World bird were coq d’Inde, which translates to “rooster of India.” Eventually, that was shortened to dinde and is the current French term for the formidable fowl. Next Thanksgiving, be sure to ask for an extra serving of Indian rooster.
For another take on the etymology of “turkey,” and in multiple languages check out the Rob Words video below.
Finally, this brings up a conversation with a client a few weeks ago regarding renaming. I indubitably brought up the topic as it has been on my mind as I worked through this composition. The oddity was my reaction when they asked if I had heard about the recent rumblings to rename British Columbia. I hadn’t. But what was striking was my initial visceral response. It felt wrong to rename British Columbia. And I am not sure why I had that reaction.
I am well aware of the colonial associations to both the British and Columbus that are evident in the name. I have even previously thought that the name is a constant affront to indigenous inhabitants of the province, and that is not a new perspective for me. I’ve wrestled with the good, the bad, and the ugly of colonialism. My dad is Belgian and my mom was Congolese. In some sense, I am the offspring of post-colonialism. It’s possible that my ovarian lottery ticket would not have been drawn without the Age of Discovery and the ensuing sequelae. The colonial era was full of atrocities, no doubt. But at the same time, it also resulted in advances. Would it have been better to have achieved those advances with the atrocities? Of course. But that’s not the reality we’re in. The past has passed. We can’t change it. So in my opinion we have to make the best of the present by understanding and learning from it. I recently heard the apt phrase, ‘History doesn’t repeat, people repeat history.’
So why then was my initial response to the renaming revolt? The only explanation I can come up with is that it felt like a personal attack on my home. Somehow, hearing that the name of the province I call home could change felt like it would take something away from me. As if my childhood and past experiences would be erased. I realize how irrational that sounds. But that’s just it, we are irrational emotional beings. Visceral responses to loss (perceived or real) are a survival tactic. Loss aversion likely provided an evolutionary advantage in our phylogenesis. In hindsight, I can see how absurd my gut reaction was. That doesn’t change how I felt at the moment. I expressed to my client the strange reaction his revelation released, and mused about my misgivings. Ultimately, my conclusion from musing was why should I care really. I joked that what I would miss most is the BBC slogan: Beautiful British Columbia.
Later, I looked up some information on the proposed renaming and came across this fantastic article, “Renaming places: how Canada is reexamining the map.” I particularly enjoyed the parallels between my reaction and the basic arguments for and against renaming. The argument ‘we cannot change the past‘ is true, but I thought the succinct rebuttal that ‘we are in the present and that we can change‘ was elementary yet eloquent. Also relevant was the argument that present place names for past people pertain more to the present than the past. I completely agree. For the majority of eponymous place names, most of us are none the wiser as to who the name bearer is or was. Our associations with places pertain to our particular experiences of and in those places. The names are arbitrary and arguably irrelevant. But, as presented, I side with the view that we should know our history better than we do. From that stance, in my utopia, we would all know the people (at least the prominent ones) behind the places we permeate. Thus, ultimately, renaming comes down to the type of ideologue you are. Small “c” conservative and let’s keep the status quo. Little “l” liberal and you are of the other view or willing to entertain it. Which leaves us in a sad state of affairs.
Enter history for more lessons. The article’s author, Robert Jago, suggests that British Columbia’s current name is a tribute to imperialism and genocide, acknowledging that the latter association is contentious (the question of Columbus’ intent versus impact). Jago highlights how British Columbia was nearly named “New Caledonia” in order to hastily secure the territory for the British amid an American influx of gold miners. New Caledonia would loosely translate to New Britain. Caledonia was the Latin name the Roman Empire used for Great Britain. However, that suggestion was rejected, as well as other suggestions like Pacifica and New Albion. A suggestion was put forth to use an Indian name, and that had parliamentary support. From there it was the Queen’s compulsion to maintain cartographic consistency with a Columbian cognomen that resulted in the title of “British Columbia.” Though the colonial secretary Lord Carnarvon contended it was to correct Columbus’ continental cognomen commandeering by Vespucci.
In any case, what I found most interesting was how close British Columbia came to having a representative indigenous name. Setting aside my emotionally instinctual loss aversion, my rational contention would be for British Columbia to have a name most representative of its historic inhabitants. That is easier said than done for the same reason we saw with Australia. Traditional peoples didn’t necessarily have as large of a regional (or global) conception of their lands. They lived locally. They lived on the land. So why not call it that. That is the proposal put forth by Jago. In the language of the Kwantlen First Nation‘s people, hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, the word for “our land” is S’ólh Téméxw (pronounced “Soul Tow-mock”) and I am in agreement that it would be an excellent new… no wait, old name for these lands.
Jago ends his article with the following statement:
S’ólh Téméxw doesn’t appear on any maps today. But names change all the time.Jago, R. (2021, July 22). Renaming places: How Canada is reexamining the Map. Canadian Geographic. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://canadiangeographic.ca/articles/renaming-places-how-canada-is-reexamining-the-map/
Addendum: Other Animal Issues
Here is one more take on naming practices in the field of ornithology by Atlantic writer Ed Yong in an interview on the CBC’s The Current with Matt Galloway titled, “The dark histories behind birds’ names.” You can read the article “The Fight Over Animal Names Has Reached a New Extreme” here.