Naming ‘Paradise’: The Adamic Imagination, Colonial Toponyms, and Remembering the Indigenous Caribbean

‘Boeri Lake’ [Acrylic on Canvas] painting by Rose Wark

My name, Renée, means ‘re-born’. It bears a distinct irony considering the power of naming, re-naming, un-naming, and misnaming which are all constituted in a process of birthing or rebirthing. My first name and surname, though, are in contest with each other; the former to me represents the power of choice and the latter represents a history of erasure and re-labelling. My identity is implicated in the enslavement of African peoples who were forcibly uprooted from their African nations, displaced in the Caribbean and stripped of their native names. But anthroponymic erasure was only part of this treacherous colonial process of re-naming. Indeed, the un-naming and re-naming of Black bodies are reflected in the toponymical erasure of Caribbean islands, towns, cities. I quite often think about the multiple ways in which our identity is informed, attached and shaped by our relationship to place, and how toponyms (place names) are crucial components of community building, cultural heritage, and even our very sense of place.

Naming is largely considered to be an effectual act of formation following Adam’s mandate from God to give names to the animals in the Garden of Eden. Philo describes the Adamic act of naming as an “Edenic linguistic triumph” which is “superior to any other theory of language’s origin” because of the interconnection between language and power.[1] As a paradigm of theo-anthropology (man as, or imitating the power of, God), European colonisers like Columbus believed that they were, in fact, the ones who possessed the power to perform what God and Adam made possible: creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”)—assuming upon their arrival that the Caribbean had no history, culture or identity. In this sense, the Christianising, civilising, and re-naming project was based upon an epistemology imparted with the notion of ex nihilo, and though Adam’s naming is said to have allowed animals to have true identity and the freedom to ‘be’, in the colonial project, naming is rooted in a kind of nomination that expresses its destructive and oppressive abilities. Colonisers felt as though they could create the Caribbean in their image and according to their likeness through cultural transmission and naming. This was the ‘second coming’ of the Caribbean and the creation of a New World Paradise.

With the replacing of indigenous place names came the paradisiacal mythologizing of the landscape: (e.g., Dies Dominica as Lord’s Day; Valle del Paraíso as Valley of Paradise, Trinidad as representing the Holy Trinity, etc.). Colonialists sought to baptise the landscape so that it took on the name and identity of Jesus, and Europe (linguistically). Guzuskyte argues that “naming with religious toponyms was […] an act of voicing a prophetic vision of Christian millenarianism […] eschatology” and the Earthly paradise.[2] It is this colonial construction of the Caribbean as a ‘paradise’ which has transformed the region into a zone of delight, free from human anxieties, a site of exploitation and consumption.

Many Caribbean writers have contested the exploitative taxonomic act of re-naming in their work. One of my favourite literary examples is the poem ‘Guanahani, My Love’ by Bahamian poet Marion Bethel. In her counter-discursive and defiant poem, Bethel conceptualises this hegemonic practice of geographical (re)naming through the very title of her poem. Guanahani is the indigenous Indian name of Columbus’ first landfall, and the name that Columbus negated by choosing the European toponym San Salvador (which translates into English as, Christ the Saviour, or perhaps in this case to, ‘Christ[opher Columbus] the Saviour’) instead. Bethel’s ‘Guanahani’ is qualified by ‘My Love’ (possession and intimacy), and together these two clauses act as a potent metaphor of resistance.

‘The small garden blanket’ [acrylic on canvas], painting by Antoine Molinero
[Image description: Young Caribbean girl sitting in a bed of colourful foliage and plants.]

Bethel goes further by highlighting the implications of toponymical erasure by describing ‘Guanahani’ as “a species endangered.” [3]  In describing her land as ‘endangered’, I immediately think about how colonial toponyms pose the threat of cultural extinction by encouraging historic amnesia. I believe that hope is rooted in remembrance: learning, experiencing and repeating indigenous names for an understanding of indigenous cultures, their knowledge of the land, connections to place and how they ordered and classified the world. According to Kaleigh Bradley, “place names act as mnemonic devices, embodying histories, spiritual and environmental knowledge, and traditional teachings.”[4] Asserting memory (re-petition and re-naming) as a tool of resistance is not a call to necessarily return to pre-colonial place names for cultural purification, as I am aware that these names now serve as evidence of colonialization and its disrupting effects. But I do believe that a recovering of these names through remembrance is important when establishing the cultural pluralism entangled in the landscape.

Marion Bethel claims that in order to avoid the “death toll”, we must reinstate power in the land by responding to its “sighs” and “yearning[s] for [a] life fashioned out of clay.”[5] The most important thing about clay, I believe, is not that it represents the earth/home/place but that it symbolises change, transformation, and pliability. Bethel emphasises the great possibilities of shaping place and taking back ownership. In contrast, the colonial toponymic act of naming was not intended to be as clay but as rock: solid, stubborn, and inflexible. The beautiful thing about remembrance is that it positions us in the past; as such, looking back to when the rocks were once clay (when these places were identifiable by their indigenous names) we can not only acknowledge the cultural heritage of the land, but we can also recover it through memory.

[1] David Dawson, Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992).

[2] Evelina Gužauskytė, Christopher Columbus’s Naming in the Diarios of the Four Voyages (1492-1504): A Discourse of Negotiation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 22.

[3] Marion Bethel, Guanahani, My Love, 2nd ed. (Philipsburg, St. Martin: House of Nehesi Publisher, 2009), 1.

[4] Kaleigh Bradley, “What’s in a Name? Place Names, History, and Colonialism,” Active History (February 2, 2015), para. 2.

[5] Marion Bethel, Guanahani, My Love, 2nd ed. (Philipsburg, St. Martin: House of Nehesi Publisher, 2009), 1.

*Cover image: ‘Boeri Lake’ [acrylic on canvas], painting by Rose Wark.

[*Cover image description: “Misty clouds drift over the hills surrounding a crater lake in the mountains of Dominica. The reddish-brown volcanic rocks are covered with lush green foliage. The trail that leads up the mountain to this lake winds through jungle and cloud forest, along a ridge and along creek beds.”]