Written by Om Marathe
The Cook Islands, an island nation located in the Pacific Ocean, is in the news for mulling a name change that would reflect its Polynesian culture, departing from its colonial past. In the words of Danny Mataroa, head of the committee looking into the name change: “It must have a taste of our Christian faith, and a big say on our Maori heritage. And it must instil a sense of pride in our people, and unite our people.” Named in 1835 after British explorer James Cook, the country became a self-governing territory in 1965 while being in free association with New Zealand.
While the country is in the headlines currently for the proposed name change, there are other examples of island nations that were named after colonial explorers, but went on to adopt more local names, in an attempt to reflect their native cultures. Some, however, continue to retain their old names in spite of enjoying political autonomy.
Kiribati and Tuvalu
The two island nations, located in the Central and South Pacific respectively, were formerly known as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, the former named after British seafarer Thomas Gilbert and the latter after erstwhile politician Edward Ellice. Upon a referendum in 1974, both countries went on to become independent nations within the British Commonwealth, subsequently changing their names. Kiribati later became a republic, while Tuvalu continues to have Elizabeth II as the constitutional head. The coral atolls that comprise the countries are seriously threatened by climate change, with the whole of Kiribati expected to be submerged in the next decade.
Discovered by British ship captain William Keeling in 1609, the country was ruled in a hereditary fashion by the Clunies-Ross family, running it as a plantation for almost 150 years. After its integration into Australia in 1955, it got the dual name of Cocos Islands, after the Cocos Malay population that was brought there as indentured labour during colonial rule. Currently, not more than 600 people live in this country comprised of 2 coral atolls and 27 tiny islands.
Upon discovery by British captain John Fearn in 1798, it was first named as Pleasant Island due to its positive description by the explorer. It was later renamed Nauru when German colonialists arrived in 1886. Nauru today is known to be a tax haven, and has also been in the news for high levels of obesity. Located to the northeast of Australia, Canberra has recently ordered refugees of ‘adverse character’ to be diverted here for medical treatment.
The marine hot-spot and snorkelling paradise was also discovered by explorer James Cook in 1774. The British captain named it after Scotland, after some of the island’s topography reminded him of that country. Passed into French hands in 1853, New Caledonia voted to remain a part of France in a referendum for independence in 2018. Located in the South Pacific, it is known as the location of the Grand Terre, an important barrier reef. The country also has a small community of Tamil descendants.
A United States associated state today, the islands were discovered by Spanish explorers in 1526. Later, they were named after British captain John Charles Marshall, who visited the volcanic islands in 1788. The place was frequently used for nuclear tests by the American government in the 1950’s. Scarred by the destructive effects of that era, the country today plays an active role in the movement for global denuclearization. In 2014, Marshall Islands sued India and eight other countries for non-compliance of legal commitments on the same topic.
Discovered by Spanish explorers in 1568, the islands were named Islas Solomon after the Biblical king. They later passed into British hands. Although independent since 1978, the country remains part of the British Commonwealth, with Elizabeth II as monarch. India supports the nation through grants-in-aid as part of the government’s Regional Assistance Initiatives for Pacific Island countries.
Om Marathe is an intern at The Indian Express