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Lost Rivers

Lee Valley mill

I started writing this post before I left the UK and then abandoned it because I got busy and a lot of other things seemed more pressing. But the recent rediscovery of the HMS Terror and last year’s discovery of the HMS Erebus reminded me of it.

Shortly before I left the UK I was cycling down a road that I’d been down numerous times. I’m not entirely sure what tipped me off that day but suddenly I recognized that it was a canal. It made sense: the road’s location in a trough, the bridges that crossed it, the occasional bullwark here and there in locations that were nowhere near the river. All of the pieces just clicked together and I understood.

I googled it to find out more about the route and ended up at Paul Talling’s London’s Lost Rivers where I spent a few hours reading. There are many watercourses that feed into London, but they tend to disappear in urban areas, and over time many have been forgotten.

There are clues though. First off there is the shape of the city itself. The weird shapes of city blocks and routes that streets take is a product of people in the past working far more within the constraints of geography than we would do now. A river would have posed more of an obstacle to be built around rather than over. Rivers also form handy boundaries between different boroughs, so you find that some bits of the city are curiously less connected to adjacent bits.

This historic geography is also embedded in place names. The names of streets, ditches, drains, and pubs often give clues as to the former routes of waterways. Long after they’ve disappeared from view and long after the original industries such as mills or ferries are gone their names remain. Though many things have passed out of people’s memories and lived experience, the names of things are clues that can be traced back to help you discover hundreds of years of local history. The names are intimately connected to the places they describe.

In Canada we have a lot of places that are named after so many other places. The names are completely decontextualized and lack the relationships between one another that existed in the places where the names were first used. It’s not something that I really noticed before I travelled a bit around the UK but now those names seem strange. Not only that… but you will see the same set of names in Australia, South Africa and other Commonwealth countries, making just as much sense as they do anywhere else they don’t really belong. Every colony has a Victoria, a London, a Halifax. That’s colonialism for you.

It’s not merely the physical control of territory but also the control of history and narrative. By renaming everything in sight, colonists severed our connection to our land’s pre-colonial past. Naming things after the ‘old country’ says, as we’ve often said in so many narratives, that history starts now. History starts when we got here, when we ‘discovered’ this place, when we colonized it and gave it new names. Whatever happened before this happened is not merely irrelevant, by erasing names we try to make it so that history it never existed in the first place.

Reading through a fascinating account of rediscovering the routes of lost rivers made me sad to have grown up in a place that was colonized. No doubt the societies that were here first have names for everything, and those names hold a lot of knowledge. But that knowledge, and the cultural and language skills to decode it is not something I’ve ever really been exposed to.

Why am I thinking about this now? Because the recent rediscovery of the ships from the Franklin expedition happened thanks to indigenous knowledge. Inuit hunters knew where Terror was years before anyone else did because they spend a lot of time in the area and know it intimately. The Erebus was found in an area that was literally called by the Inuit “the boat sunk here” or “the big boat is here.” And sure, we laugh about it but it’s the sort of thing that should make people hang their heads in shame.

Just think of what else we might discover if we actually took the time to recognize these people as the owners and stewards of this land.

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