Where in the World Were Carnarvon and Senegambia?

Place names change for many reasons (Berlin, Ontario became Kitchener during the First World War for patriotic reasons; Peking became Beijing to reflect the official Chinese dialect) and while we still remember and use many of the old names, many more have become obscure or entirely forgotten.

In Whatever Happened to Tanganyika: The Place Names That History Left Behind, Harry Campbell reminds us of dozens of these names that now only pop up in stamp collections, old atlases, or in our memories: from countries that changed their names postcolonially (Ceylon, Belgian Congo) to places with similar names scattered across the globe (Guinea, Georgetown), adding bits of history, conjecture, and humour along the way.

This is a light-hearted but informative book that is a lot of fun to read.  Being a map addict for many years, some of these stories were already familiar to me, but Campbell has added a few new examples to my corpus of useless knowledge.  For example, I knew about Memel, but “Neutral Moresnet” between Germany and Belgium was new to me.

An old song asks, “Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.”  Campbell must agree, because Constantinople isn’t one of the place names he examines.  But there’s plenty of other great stories in this book, and with short chapters, it’s perfect to dive into at your leisure, and maybe impress your friends with the story behind The Islands of Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins (maybe they’ve unknowlingly holidayed there).

* By the way, Carnarvon now goes by the Welsh spelling of Caernarfon, and Senegambia was, as you might expect, a combination of Senegal and Gambia, independent nations now, but tied together by geography and, for a brief period in the 1980s, politics.

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Desert Island Picks

Surviving ParadiseI’ll start by saying that I’ve never been on the ocean, nor over it–I’ve waded into it, but I don’t think that really counts.  On top of that, I’m actually afraid of the idea of the ocean; I’m not a great swimmer, and the idea of hundreds of metres of water between me and the bottom scares the daylights out of me.  So it’s maybe surprising that I really enjoy books about remote islands–the remoter the better.  I have a dream of visiting Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, and read a great book this year (Curious Little World by Rex Bartlett) about a Canadian couple who went my dream one better and actually moved to Saint Helena from Winnipeg.

Peter Rudiak-Gould, author of Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island, had an entirely different motive when he moved to Ujae in the Marshall Islands, situated halfway between the Philippines and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.  He went to teach English for a year on this remote island in a remote archipelago which is a protectorate of the United States.  As the only foreigner on an island whose nearest neighbour is 30 miles away, Rudiak-Gould faced special challenges.

The author was only twenty-one when he landed on Ujae for the first time, committed to spending a year there teaching English to students in one of the worst schools in one of the worst educational systems in the entire Pacific.  He not only faced the challenges of teaching children who were largely unmotivated, but parents who didn’t seem to care that much about education either.  Outside of school, he faced a culture very different from his own, seeming to treat its children with a disregard that was shocking to him.  It was far removed from the tropical paradise he had imagined when he signed up to teach there, and the language barrier, food, lodgings, and climate all challenge him greatly.

Rudiak-Gould writes well–passionately and intellectually–about his experiences and frustrations, and comes to understand his new home to a degree which seemed impossible at the start, although ultimately he realizes the island and its culture are too different from his own for him to become truly at-home there.  Like the best travel literature, Surviving Paradise teaches us as much about our own culture as about the foreign culture within which the book immerses us.