Isn’t It Time We Stopped Calling Mount Everest, ‘Everest’?
One needn’t travel terribly far to seek out critics of the age of political correctness. While to many the request that we not cause offense with our speech or actions is a perfectly justifiable one, to countless others it represents, at one end of the scale, a once-admissable cultural theme that the overdelicate ‘snowflake generation’ has now taken too far, and at the other an altogether unreasonable encroachment upon our freedom of expression.
Few would disagree, however, that in turning their attention to the presence or nomenclature of those landmarks that pay homage to some of the more dishonorable legacies of human history the proponents and executors of political correctness have managed to rectify many a longstanding ill and blemish on the world’s cultural landscape: in the USA, the statues of the Confederate leaders and slave owners have fallen; in South Africa, memorials to Apartheid’s leading advocates and abettors are being erased from streets and schools; in Italy, pressure is mounting to wipe the name ‘Cadorna’ from the national memory; in Germany, the last vestigial traces of the Nazi Wehrmacht are being expunged with the removal of its leaders’ names from military barracks across the country.
Commendable at these triumphs may be, however, to date they have been limited in scope, and have excluded what is undoubtedly the largest remaining tribute to one of the most severe and destructive regimes the world has ever known. Everest, the name pinned upon the world’s highest mountain, may not come down quite so easily as the statues of General Lee or take to renaming quite so flawlessly as a Durban high school or Milan square, but the first step, as always, is to begin the conversation.
The Naming of Everest
In 1852, Radhanath Sikhdar, an Indian mathematician working for the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, discovered what he thought was the highest summit in the world after measuring his target from six different locations in the north of India. The peak was named Peak XV in accordance with the Survey’s practice of numerical identification. In 1865, following confirmation of Peak XV’s status as the highest on the planet, the British decided to name it after Colonel George Everest, the Survey’s former leader, despite the fact that Everest had never set eyes on the mountain and had been a strict observer of the Survey’s policy of applying the local name to significant landmarks wherever possible. Chomolungma and Sagarmatha, the respective Tibetan and Nepalese names for the peak, were casually discounted and dismissed, with the Calcutta correspondent of The Times at the time declaring that the peak had “no name intelligible to civilised men”. ‘Everest’ it was…
Antecedent and Subsequent Cases
Sagarmatha, however, was far from the first exotic mountain to be ladled with a European name, and certainly wouldn’t be the last. Before it, the highest mountain in Indonesia — known locally as Puncak Jaya — had been named the ‘Carstensz Pyramid’ after a Dutch explorer who had seen it from his ship while making his way to Australia via New Guinea in 1623. It mattered little that he was more than 100 km away and would barely set foot on the island on which the mountain stands, let alone on the mountain itself.
Then there is Too-man-i-goo-yah, otherwise known as Mount Whitney. The Sierra Nevada’s highest peak was stripped of its Paiute name in 1864, when members of the California Geological Survey named the mountain after Josiah Whitney, the State Geologist of California and benefactor of the survey. A little further north, we find a 14,410-foot peak curiously named after a British Naval officer who actually fought against the ‘colonies’ in the American Revolution — something akin, perhaps, to naming a famous modern-day landmark after a fairly obscure functionary in the North Korean military or the Islamic State. Before this peculiar intervention, Washington’s Mount Rainier had been known as Talol, Tacoma, or Tahoma in the Lushootseed language spoken by the Puyallup people.
Back in the Himalaya, later colonialist or hegemonic name appropriations include K2 (previously known as Dapsang or Chogori), Broad Peak (Faichan Kangri until renamed in 1892 by the British explorer Martin Conway), and Island Peak (known as Imja Tse until its redesignation by English mountaineer Eric Shipton’s party in 1951). The list goes on…
There is, alas, something of a tradition when it comes to naming mountains after their region’s conquering, occupying or, essentially, white luminaries and blithely overlooking the original indigenous designations. In recent years, however, we have seen signs that the whitewash is starting to flake in places where it has heretofore remained stubbornly intact.
Precedents — Is It Possible?
The most notable renaming of geographical landmarks in recent times has perhaps been that of another mountain, this time Alaska’s Mount Denali, the tallest peak in North America. First handed the moniker of ‘Mount McKinley’ by a gold prospector in 1896, Denali had to wait until 2015 to have its Koyukon name restored by President Obama. At the time of writing, the Trump administration has intimated its wish to reverse the decision, but for now the renaming remains a major victory for indigenous populations against the whitewashing of landmarks sacred to their people for centuries, if not millennia.
But would legal renaming necessarily achieve anything in practice? In the case of Denali, the Koyukon name was already in popular usage for years prior to the Obama administration’s intervention. In other scenarios, however, time has proven that de facto renaming of landmarks — both geographical and not — is often more difficult than doing so de jure. We only need to look at football stadiums and their supporters’ stubborn clinging to old names (or polite ignorance of sponsors’ wishes) to know that the old tends to stick.
Others would recur to the old adage that the victors write the history books and, in turn, the toponyms that grace the features of the land over which they have prevailed. For evidence of this, no case is more demonstrative than that of the highest mountain in Europe outside the Russian Caucasus, which is known worldwide as ‘Mont Blanc’. Though the name is French, the summit’s division between Italian and French territory would have made ‘Monte Bianco’ an equally plausible and legitimate alternative had the Italians paid more attention to the mischievous erratum of a few rogue French cartographers in 1865 and then not shied away from the controversy of territorial division in the aftermath of WWII. As things happened, half a century passed before anyone contested the Gallic claim and the French name has stuck. Likewise, the name ‘Everest’ is now into its 153rd year. The alternatives, though well known, are not in wide usage. The undoing would be tricky and protracted, no doubt, but until the possibility is put on the table, justice and restoration of a more apt, native appellation is unlikely to take place.
Fifty years ago, it may have been difficult to ever imagine the renaming of Denali, or the application of the blue pencil to the numerous tips of the hat to the high priests of Apartheid in South Africa. But it happened. The confluence of socio-political climate with the work of a few conscientious souls inspired a collective mood of indignation and injustice which prevailed upon the enshrinement of historical atrocities and their perpetrators. While some may lament the advent and advance of political correctness, we would do well to remember that compared to the trends that have inspired its opposition — amongst which me might count fascism, hate speech, homophobia, and misogyny, to name but a few — it is to be considered a power for the good. The past decades have not been without their misadventures and regrettable developments on the world’s political stage, but ridding our maps and cultural landscapes of their most opprobrious blemishes is not one of them.
Why Rename it?: An Effect Well Worthy of a Cause
When we think of the most tragic and deplorable events in world history, we tend to recall those atrocities which condensed the most abomination into the shortest period of time. Also those which we, from a perspective many years hence, would like to think could never be repeated. The Holocaust, the Holodomor in the Ukraine, the Battle of the Somme, the Vietnam War, and 9/11, for example, all sadly fulfill these grisly and regrettable criteria. By some curious quirk of history, however, many other atrocities have not been condemned nor denounced quite so thoroughly. The era of the British Raj in India was one just such event.
In 1700, India was one of the richest countries in the world, responsible for 27 percent of global gross domestic product. By the time the British left in 1947, over two centuries of exploitation, famine, looting, massacres, and misgovernment had left it one of the poorest.
Over the Raj’s 89-year reign in India, the total number of deaths caused either directly or indirectly by British occupation is estimated at 35 million people. (This number rises significantly if we take into account the deaths caused at the hands of the British East India Company, which had spent more than two centuries establishing itself by brute force in India and South Asia before governance was officially transferred to the British crown in 1848.) Curious, then, that any of us should be willing to pay homage to such a regime or any part of it. George Everest may not have been directly responsible for any of those deaths, but his name stands as the emblem of a historical horror show that we should be loathe to honor or acknowledge in any way whatsoever. That it should stand atop and grace our planet’s greatest natural monument is an affront not only to those who suffered as a result of British occupation in India, but to the very humanity of any conscionable soul who might wish to count themselves a friend of moral decency and objector to the subjugation of sovereign peoples and tyranny in any of its various forms.
Sagarmatha, like all of our planet’s natural landmarks, is a part of our collective cultural heritage. As such, it’s nomenclature should be of a kind of which we can collectively stomach and voice without qualms. That it lies within neighboring Nepal should matter little. We would not, for instance, tolerate the name of one of the Fuhrer’s lesser henchmen atop the highest peak in Poland or Denmark, say, so why should we be willing to turn a blind eye to that of a servant to a regime as ruthless and unconscionable as that of the British Raj?
While the name ‘Everest’ does not necessarily pay tribute to a man of as questionable ethics as Hitler, it passively honors a regime and colonial power that was equally, if not more, brutal in its treatment of a particular human demographic than even the Third Reich.
Part of the problem, of course, is marketing. The makers of history, as we are often reminded, are those who do the winning. To this dictum we might add, to accommodate the case of the British, those at least able to renounce their hegemony and shuffle off quietly, as in some stately ‘garden leave’ for empires, whilst conceitedly accepting plaudits for the work done as well as the decision to decamp (as opposed, of course, to fielding criticism for damages done and having gone in the first place).
While regimes such as the Third Reich, Khmer Rouge, and that of Mao Zedong left no legacy that could be interpreted as a silver lining of any sort, the modernized infrastructures and democratic governance British rule installed in India have, to a large extent, allowed the period of British occupation — thus far — to enjoy portrayal in a far more amiable light. The post-sale marketers have excelled, mostly, in their silence, leaving us to a somewhat rosy picture of paternalistic priming for progress and to conclude, sadly, that the myth of civilization-bringing is alive and well. As was the case with South America, the US, Australia, and various other parts of the globe where civilized societies had existed for millennia prior to the arrival of Europeans, we too often view more recent imperialist interventions — I use a euphemism, to be sure — through the lens of the west’s particular brand of civilization and cultural norms, forgetful of the many civilizations and norms once of note whose eulogies now read as perfect fodder for ridicule and scorn. For most of us in the ‘west’, it is difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of a vanquished populace, having — for the most part — never experienced the degradations of long-term occupation, imperial subjugation, or any other such ‘intervention’.
Here an element of foresight and humility might serve us well. One day, after all, the complaint might well be ours should some rising star on the world stage roll up in London or Washington or Paris and decide a moniker more in line with their own idiom more befitting of landmarks such as the Lincoln Memorial, Royal Exchange, and Arc de Triomphe.
The Denial of History?
One of the most frequently voiced arguments in favor of retaining place names and memorials to colonial, unethical and/or destructive regimes is that their eradication equates to a denial of our history. A ‘warts and all’ approach, some claim, is the only means of reminding ourselves of the various ills perpetrated over the years so that they might never be repeated. An argument akin to, you might say, maintaining a small portion of your cancer just to remind yourself of the bad time you had of things before convalescence.
Remembrance is one thing; celebration, consecration and enshrinement quite another. The effects of the rule of the British East India Company and the Raj remained evident and visible throughout India for decades after the Raj’s departure, and even to this day, in ways that were not and cannot be so easily dismantled — widespread poverty, famine, class division, and a colossal gap between rich and poor. There’s no need for the name of one of that regime’s eventual dignitaries to rest atop the continent’s greatest landmark to remind anyone of the ills visited there.
Renaming Everest would not amount to a denial of history, but instead represent a first step in undoing the denial that has existed heretofore. It would also serve as a timely counterweight and coup for that conscientious demographic keen to excoriate the shameful deeds of our ancestors — and thus lay a benchmark for what will be deemed unacceptable of our contemporaries — at a time when our politicians appear to be hellbent on repeating them.
*This article was originally published in Little India Magazine