Ask most Brits what the name of the giant rock formation that stands in the centre of the Australian outback is, and they will likely say Ayers Rock. However, since coming to Australia I have heard it called most often by a different name: Uluru. This is the name given to it by the Aboriginal people on whose land the rock stands. In the last 150 years the rock has held a variety of official titles; the first European to discover it named it Ayers Rock in 1873. Then, in 1993, the Australian government changed the name to Ayers Rock/Uluru; in 2002 the titles were reversed and its current official name is Uluru/Ayers Rock. To some, these may seem like trivial name changes, but place names are an important part of the cultural fabric of a nation and the groups that they correspond with say a lot about the cultural ownership of a nation.
In 1873 William Gosse, an English-born explorer, set eyes on a large sandstone formation in the heart of the Australian outback. He promptly named it Ayers Rock in honour of Sir Henry Ayers, the English-born premier of South Australia at the time. The name Uluru, on the other hand, dates back thousands of years and refers to the tract of land on which the rock stands, as well as the rock itself. It is of enormous cultural significance to the Aboriginal people of the area, being a key part of the Aboriginal story of creation – the Dreamtime. Between 1873 and 2002, then, the official name of this spiritual site did not reflect the cultural ownership of the Anangu people. Rather, it was symbolic of the decision of one English-born settler to name the site after another English-born settler. We rarely appreciate from our position of privilege just how important names are but a little thought is all that is required to see how distressing and disempowering it is to be robbed of the power of naming the place you live. Even now the official name remains Uluru/Ayers Rock, an uncomfortable reminder of the misappropriation of this landmark by European settlers.
a little thought is all that is required to see how distressing and disempowering it is to be robbed of the power of naming the place you live.
The name is emblematic of a deeper problem of respect. Uluru is a hugely important site, and the Anangu people have a very strict set of customs regulating the climbing of this rock. According to their customs, only certain people can climb the rock and only in a certain direction. Not only this: the cultural owners of this land have expressed a deep feeling of responsibility for any lives lost on their land. Even if those lives are lost climbing Uluru against the will of the Aboriginal people. Yet arrive at Uluru and you will see, anchored into the face of this spiritual site, a series of poles connected by a long chain to assist tourists who decide to make the ascent.
Also at the bottom of the rock is a sign displaying a plea from local Aboriginal people not to climb the rock. It emphasises the cultural significance of the site, as well as the fact that their role as custodians of the land makes them responsible for lives lost on the site. Despite this plea from the local people, it is estimated that around 30 per cent of visitors climb the rock each year, causing huge distress to the local people. This behaviour taps into the same thought process – or lack of – that jumps to the name Ayers Rock rather than Uluru. Obviously, the view from the top of the rock is fantastic, and would of course make a great Instagram photo. But compare it to the emotional harm caused by infringing on the spiritual customs which apply to this land and there’s really no contest.
I read an interview recently with a visitor to the rock who revealed that he knew how distressing it was for the local people to have the rock climbed. Initially, I was encouraged by this sense of awareness until I read further through the interview to the point where the man said he’d decided to climb the rock anyway because he wanted a great photo. Even more concerning is the approach from many Australians who are often of the view that it is their country and they may thus do as they please when it comes to the rock.
This view is problematic in many ways. Firstly, it fails to recognise the claim of the Anangu people over this rock, an issue which I have discussed already in this piece. However, it also fails to appreciate the argument at stake here. Few people would claim that there should be a law against climbing the rock. Instead, it is a question of respect for an ancient and marginalised culture, a crucial nuance which the ‘my country, my rock’ argument overlooks. This crass disregard for the custodians of the land simply reinforces the struggle that Aboriginal people face for recognition in modern day Australia. Tourists visiting the site have a responsibility to respect the customs of the original inhabitants of the land, and this involves calling it by its proper name and refraining from climbing it.
To commit so much of a nation’s heritage to “unhistory”, through ignorance or intentionally, is to commit at act of great disrespect.
Although the discourse surrounding the European settlement of Australia is changing in a way that places marginally more recognition on the long history of Aboriginal people, it all too often slips back into the frankly offensive ‘discovery’ narrative. I’ve heard several times since coming to Australia that it was “discovered” when Captain Cook landed here in 1770. To talk about the European exploration of Australia in this way is to whitewash thousands of years of Aboriginal history and consign it to what Noam Chomsky refers to as “unhistory”. Not only this, but many places in Australia still bear the names of the first Europeans who stumbled across them, rather than their ancient Aboriginal names – sites such as Botany Bay and Cooks River to name two in Sydney alone. It is difficult to imagine what it would be like to live in a nation in which place names corresponded not to your history, but to a history of outside influence and, in this case, outside aggression.
I am not saying that we abandon all of Australia’s current names in favour of the original Aboriginal names. The process of reconciliation does not necessarily require a complete turning back of the clocks. However, it is vitally important that visitors to Australia – in particular to those landmarks that are of great importance to Aboriginal people – recognise and respect the long and rich history of these people. To commit so much of a nation’s heritage to “unhistory”, through ignorance or intentionally, is to commit at act of great disrespect. As international students, and indeed tourists more generally, we have an obligation to respect all cultures in the country in which we find ourselves. Next time you wonder why the name of a place matters so much, bear this in mind.