Benedict Anderson

  • Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800 edited by Nicholas Canny and Anthony Pagden
    Princeton, 290 pp, £22.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 691 05372 3

New York, Nueva Leon, Nouvelle Orléans, Nova Lisboa and Nieuw Amsterdam – already in the 16th century, Western Europeans had begun the strange habit of naming remote places in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania as ‘new’ versions of (thereby) ‘old’ toponyms in their lands of origin. Moreover, they retained the habit even when these places passed under different masters, so that Nouvelle Orléans calmly became New Orleans, and Nieuw Zeeland New Zealand. Just how odd this practice was can be seen from the fact that although Arabs settled, and sometimes set up statelets, all round the perimeter of the Indian Ocean, and speakers of various Chinese dialects spread all over South-East Asia during the same period (say, 1500-1800), we find no traces of any New Baghdad or New Damascus, New Wuhun or New Tientsin. What we do find are toponyms like Chiangmai (New City) or Pekanbaru (New Market), for which no ‘old’ comrades exist, and which, in any case, by using the general words ‘city’ and ‘market’, imply none of the specific bondings that link York to New York – for the oddity of the pairing was that the two places existed contemporaneously in homogeneous time, and that their inhabitants could easily and peaceably communicate with one another. They might, one day, fight each other, but the outcome of the struggle would always leave their respective titles unchanged: New York would never obliterate York, or vice versa.

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