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Place Name Changes

September 17th, 2017

Geographical renaming and the changing names of places

Things change! One quiz question that kept cropping up with the same quiz master several years ago was 'name the largest land locked country in the world?' Most regular quizzers would know this to be Kazakhstan (capital city Astana). However, with our quiz master the answer was sometimes Mongolia, sometimes Kazakhstan. It was obvious his answer depended on which reference book he was using to set the quiz and that one pre-dated the break-up of the old Soviet Union. Reference books have a habit of becoming outdated as soon as they hit the press, and with such questions it's often advisable to cross reference with the more fluid Internet. Although, as you know the Internet is not without it errors (in fact, it's notorious for its errors!) By the way, the new record holder Kazakhstan is almost double the area of Mongolia, which always seemed a huge country on my old Phillip's school atlas.

That brings me onto the subject of this blog, that is, political geography changes. Being a nerdy teenager I took great pride in knowing all the capital cities of the world (in those days it never got more difficult than Fiji, which is Suva). Memory and age have taken their toll and I do not have such bragging rights anymore, but added to those factors are the amount of capital cities that have changed and the new countries that have come into recent existence. The break-up of the old Soviet Union and Yugoslavia has put my knowledge of European capitals into ruination. Everybody knew the capitals of Russia and Yugoslavia were Moscow and Belgrade, but what about the capitals of Montenegro and Slovenia? We also have Czechoslovakia's peaceful dissolution in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with capital cities Prague and Bratislava, easy enough to remember I guess, but yes, lets look at Yugoslavia.

The successor countries to the former Yugoslavia, with capital cities in brackets, are the following: Serbia (Belgrade), Croatia (Zagreb), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo), Slovenia (Ljubljana), Montenegro (Podgorica), Macedonia (Skopje), and finally, the breakaway country which is presently politically fighting to be recognised as a state, Kosovo (Pristina). Good luck with remembering every one, I always forget at least a couple!

Then we have the old Soviet States that became new countries. The new Baltic countries are Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and their capitals are Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius, respectively. I remember these with my own personal memory aid, I TRY to remember that the Baltic countries run from the North to South in alphabetical order and the acronym TRY stands for the first letters of their capitals, i.e., Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius (well, a 'Y' looks close enough to a 'V' for it to work via my odd thinking!)

Knowing the capitals of the Baltic countries is a must for any good quizzer, but if you know the capital of Turkmenistan you're a cleverer person than I am! The former Soviet states are now the following countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. It's not the purpose of this blog post to go hardcore (yes, I would call it hardcore) and list all of their capitals. We'll just aim for a few; I'll 'back you' to remember that the capital of Azerbaijan is Baku, Uzbekistan's is Tashkent, Yerevan is the capital of Armenia, and Tbilisi is the main city in Georgia. You'll have to look up Tajikistan and Turkmenistan for yourself - and they've never come up in any quiz that I've been to!

Moving on to a different continent, I was shocked (too strong a word, I know!) to discover just last month that Dar es Salaam is not the capital of Tanzania anymore (although still it's largest city by far) and that the new capital is Dodoma. Well, nobody emailed me about it, but perhaps that's because the official changeover happened in 1996. Apparently, changing Tanzania's new capital to Dodoma hoped to divorce the country from Dar es Salaam's legacy of slavery and segregation. However, many government offices remain in Dar es Salaam while Tanzania's National Assembly moved to Dodoma in February 1996.

Staying with Africa, South Sudan became a new country by gaining its independence from Sudan in 2011 (and its capital is Juba). However, this does have serious implications for us quizzers because before South Sudan's break away Sudan was the largest country in Africa and this title has now been gratefully accepted by Algeria (with the Democratic Republic of Congo in second place and Sudan now in third). Other notable changes on the African continent are The Federal Republic of Nigeria moving its capital from Lagos to Abuja, and the Republic of Zaire becoming the Democratic Republic of the Congo (capital Kinshasa) in 1997. An interesting snippet picked up along the way is that the Congo River is the world's deepest river and the world's second largest by discharge. Finally, I should mention that Eritrea (capital city, Asmara) declared its independence from Ethiopia and gained international recognition as a new country in 1993.

In Asia, there have been a number of cities that have changed their name. The name Beijing, which means 'Northern Capital', was spelt Peking until the 1980s. And Canton is now Guangzhou. In India, Bombay has become Mumbai, Madras is now Chennai, and Calcutta is Kolkata. And isn't the country Burma now called Myanmar? Well, in 2012 the issue was so sensitive that on a one day visit President Obama tried to avoid mentioning the country by name. However, he used both during his trip — 'Myanmar’ during morning talks with the country's ruling President, 'Burma' afterwards while visiting with the opposition leader.

Historically, there's been a number of geographical name changes - far too many to mention in this blog. However, we'll visit a few.

Van Diemen's Land was the original name used by most Europeans for the Australian island of Tasmania. The name was changed to Tasmania in 1856. Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to land on the shores of Tasmania in 1642 and he named the island in honour of Anthony van Diemen (the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies), who had sent Tasman on his voyage of exploration. The name Van Diemen's Land was considered by Victorians to have unsavoury criminal connotations because of its similarity to the word 'demon', so the name was changed to honour Abel Tasman. Interestingly, Tasmania was not known to be an island until Englishmen Matthew Flinders and George Bass circumnavigated it in the Norfolk in 1798–99 (the sea channel that separates Australia and Tasmania was named the Bass Strait after George Bass). And as a footnote, the last penal settlement in Tasmania closed in 1877.

Staying with Australia, Uluru is Australia's most recognisable natural landmark. But wasn't it once called Ayers Rock? In 1873, the surveyor William Gosse sighted the landmark and named it Ayers Rock in honour of the then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. The local Aboriginal owners, the Pitjantjatjara people, had always known the landmark as Uluru. In 1993, a national Australian dual naming policy was adopted that allowed official names that consists of both the traditional Aboriginal name and the English name. The massive sandstone monolith (my apologies, I did ‘A’ level geology but get little chance to use it!) was renamed 'Ayers Rock / Uluru' and became the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory. In 2002, the order of the dual names was officially reversed to 'Uluru / Ayers Rock' following a request from the Regional Tourism Association. Uluru is 280 miles from the nearest large town, Alice Springs (which itself was officially known as Stuart until 1933 – does it never end?)

Moving closer to home, the village of Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch (I'm Welsh and I can say it, my wife's English and thinks she can say it, but she can't!) in Anglesey, Wales, was name changed from Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll in the 1860s. The 58 letter name was an early example of a publicity stunt. It was contrived to give the village station the fame of having the longest name of any railway station in Britain. With 58 characters it is the longest place name in Europe and the world's second longest one-word place name. These days, it is alternatively known as Llanfairpwll or Llanfair PG. The village is also famous for the first ever meeting of the Women's Institute, which took place in 1915, the W.I. (which began in Canada) then spread through the rest of Britain.

Cobh, a town on the south coast of County Cork, Ireland, was from 1849 until 1920 known as Queenstown. It was first called Cove in 1750, but renamed Queenstown in 1849 to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria. You may just have heard of the name Queenstown.  On 11 April 1912, it was famously the final port of call for the Titanic when she left for North America on her ill-fated maiden voyage. At Queenstown 123 passengers boarded the ship and only 44 survived. It was also the departure point for 2.5 million of the six million Irish people who emigrated to North America between 1848 and 1950. Today there is a statue on the waterfront of Cobh featuring Annie Moore and her brothers who were the first immigrants to the United States of America to pass through the federal immigrant inspection station at Ellis Island, in New York Harbour (in the year 1892).

This moves us on nicely to New York. You may know that New York was once called New Amsterdam. It was renamed in honour of the Duke of York (later James II of England), on September 8, 1664. In the 17th-century New Amsterdam was a Dutch settlement situated on the strategic southern tip of the island of Manhattan and was meant to defend the fur trade operations of the Dutch West India Company in the North River (now known as the Hudson River). By 1655 it had a population of 1,500.

Other place name I would like to mention include Harare, which was named Salisbury until 1982. It was the capital of Rhodesia, itself changed to Zimbabwe when the country officially adopted Britain's grant of independence in 1980. Ho Chi Minh City was formerly Saigon, until the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. Nuuk (the Kalaallisut word for 'cape'), the capital and largest city of Greenland with a population of just under 20,000, changed its name from Godthab in 1979 following home rule from Denmark. Finally, Oslo was once called Christiania and Tokyo was formerly known as Edo, until it became the capital of Japan in 1868.

Any blog on place name changes would not be complete without mentioning Saint Petersburg and Istanbul. Famous for the Hermitage Museum and situated on the Neva river (the Neva river came up in a recent quiz and I could not remember it!), the Russian city of Saint Petersburg was first named Saint Petersburg in 1703, then changed to Petrograd in 1914, Leningrad in 1924, and finally named back to Saint Petersburg in 1991. The city was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 and built by Swedish prisoners from the Great Northern War (1700-1721). It became capital of the Russian Empire for more than two hundred years (1712–1728, 1732–1918) until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Vladimir Lenin, fearing for its fall, moved the capital from Saint Petersburg to Moscow in 1918 to put more inland distance between the Russian capital and its potential enemies.

And Istanbul? The first ancient name of this city was Lygos. Under ancient Greek rule the city was known as Byzantium until the Roman emperor Constantine the Great made the city the new eastern capital of the Roman Empire in 330 and named it Constantinople. He undertook a major construction project, essentially rebuilding the city on a monumental scale. In 1930, the city of Constantinople was renamed Istanbul (derived from a Greek phrase that means 'in the city').

In the UK, Royal Tunbridge Wells changed from Queen's-Wells to Tunbridge Wells in 1797, then was renamed in 1909 to its current name after receiving a Royal Charter. The prefix 'Royal' was granted by King Edward VII to celebrate its popularity over the years as a short holiday destination among members of the royal family. Only two other towns in England have been granted this status, the others being Royal Leamington Spa and Royal Wootton Bassett. Wiltshire's Royal Wootton Bassett was known as Wootton Bassett until 2011 when it received its Royal Charter. The town was granted royal patronage in recognition of its role in the early-21st-century military funeral repatriations which passed through the town.

We'll finish this blog with some unusual place name changes. Regina, in Saskatchewan, Canada, changed its name from Pile-of-bones in 1882. Also North Tarrytown, New York, was renamed Sleepy Hollow in 1997, in honour of the Washington Irving short story - it was Irving's home town and he is buried in a local cemetry. Finally, Mas a Tierra was the island which was home to the marooned sailor Alexander Selkirk from 1704 to 1709. It is thought to have inspired novelist Daniel Defoe to write a famous book (it wasn't Moll Flanders!) and the Chilean government renamed the island Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966.

P.S. May I digress by adding that an awful quiz question that was once asked was 'name the highest mountain in the world before Mount Everest was discovered?' Well, the answer is still Mount Everest; it’s just that it wasn't discovered yet. Mount Everest (standing 29,000 feet above sea level) was named after Welsh surveyor and geographer Colonel Sir George Everest in 1865. However, Sir George Everest's name is actually pronounced Eve-rest, with the 'Eve' part pronounced as in the woman's name. Of course, pronunciations and language change and evolve with time, but the fact remains that we are not actually pronouncing the world's most famous mountain correctly as first intended!

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