RIO TINTO SAYS SORRY

Diana McCaulay

An Australian story caught my attention, as global efforts to take down the statues of historical figures who had committed crimes against humanity intensified. I knew Rio Tinto was a giant mining multinational corporation and I was drawn to understand what horrors could have caused them to apologize. Turns out the world’s largest miner of iron ore had destroyed two caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. The caves were sacred sites for Aboriginal peoples known as Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) and had contained evidence of continual human habitation going back 46,000 years. The news story said that the destruction had been approved by the state government, albeit before the precise value of the site was understood, and went on to catalogue a number of similar applications to mine in areas sacred to Aboriginal peoples, all of which had been approved. We too, here, have blazed through Taino archaeological sites in the name of development. 

It got me thinking about what gets to be called a monument because so far, we seem to be focused on artifacts. You can’t rewrite history, we’re told by those who resist the removal of statuary. They honour people of their time, operating within the laws and morals of their age. But we seem to have no issue with the destruction of the places where history unfolded, along with their relics, particularly if that history was not White and Western. 

For many Aboriginal peoples, the place created the name, which was in turn connected to the events that happened there – stories of a search for a good place to live, close to water and food, able to be defended. What they made of their places is what they made of themselves and that was how the past was constructed, understood and remembered. From cultural anthropologist Keith Basso’s 1996 book, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache:  

For Indian men and women, the past lies embedded in features of the earth – in canyons and lakes, mountains and arroyos, rocks and vacant fields – which together endow their lands with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think. Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.

Although so many of Jamaica’s place names bear the stamp of conquest and brutality, there are places in Jamaica that refer to features of the landscape or to events. Cockpit Country, named either for the cockpit of sailing ships, where wounded men were taken, or for the fight to the death of the cock fighting pit. Either way, a place of blood and death. Bamboo. Bath, for its mineral spring. Bull Head. Round Hill. Dolphin Head. Canoe Valley, named for the cotton trees that made the dugout canoes of the Tainos. Alligator Head. Manatee Bay. Bog Walk – from boca d’agua – the water’s mouth. There are place names that describe journeys – Half Way Tree, Nine Miles, Eleven Miles, Passage Fort. Lacovia – the way by the lake. And there are places named for heroes – Nanny Town. Cuffee Ridge. Cudjoe Town.  

Once I went looking for a giant rock – which was the site of the port prior to Falmouth – called simply, The Rock. There was no rock, at least not that I found, but there was a cook shop, with the name painted on the front – The Rock – and I was glad to see just that.  

So on Jamaica’s 2020 Independence Day, if we’re going to entertain the argument that statues are part of a painful history which cannot be unwritten,  and therefore should remain standing, then let’s be consistent about the history written on the landforms themselves because these too are our monuments, and they deserve our recognition, respect and protection. 

Anchor image: Giant tree in Dornock. August 2019. Dornoch Head or Dornock Head is the headwaters of the Rio Bueno, rising in Cockpit Country

Diana McCaulay is a writer and environmental activist. Her fifth novel, Daylight Come, will be published by Peepal Tree Press in September 2020.

2 thoughts on “RIO TINTO SAYS SORRY

  1. May I suggest a slight modification- the piece references ‘Indian’ men and women. If this is not referring to persons who are nationals of the country India, you may wish to use what persons who are aboriginal nationals of North America call themselves, I.e. “First Nations”. I think ‘Indian’ is considered a derogatory label.

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