I see no other way to say it: it is a disgrace and an embarrassment to Dominica that Morne Diablotin and Morne aux Diable are to receive new names because of the supposed demonic “danger” of the original names. The fact that Morne Diablotin, as anyone may easily look up, was in fact given its name because “Diablotin” is the French name for the Black-Capped Petrel, a bird that lived in the mountain in grand numbers during the days of colonisation, only adds to the absurdity of this situation. Yes, the name means “little devils.” But only the most superstitious of persons—those who put salt along their doors or windowsills at night, those who should not be leading a country—could fail to see that this name is not literal, but figurative; it’s a poetic description of the birds.
And, frankly, even if the mountains had simply been named after beings from the seven levels of Dante’s hell, surely it should be clear that merely naming a thing does not mean it is that thing, for one, and, secondly, anyone can see that these mountains are just that: mountains. Show me devils and crackling pits of brimstone, and then we can talk. Why is it so hard to actually find evidence for claims before making them? I am a great fan of detective stories, from Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to G. K. Chesterton’s fabulous priest-detective, Father Brown; and it is clear that any lesser detective, fictional or otherwise, would determine that the case for renaming the mountains is groundless.
The origin of this extraordinary state of affairs appears to be around 2004, when the evangelist Peter R. Augustine began trying to get the mountains’ names changed. “It is ironic,” Augustine told an online news source in an interview on December 10th of this year (from where I take the following quotes), “that the two tallest mountains on the island of Dominica, the land of the Lord, have been named after the devil; diable, Diablo,” a name that he said “is no accident, it did not just happen.” Augustine added that he knew of Dr. Lennox Honychurch’s explanation for the name, but—as Augustine, no doubt, considers Dr. Honychurch insufficiently qualified as a historian—while he respects “Dr. Lennox Honychurch’s rationale for the names, I must defer and view with spiritual eyes what I view to be deliberate.” The article from the online news source then claims—and this is the most extraordinary bit of all—that Augustine is on this geography-renaming/magic-spell crusade because “a Cameroon doctor told him the word Diablotin means ‘little devil.’”
If the last bit is true, this is truly remarkable. Not only did Augustine not know what the names of the mountains meant—it does not take a degree in French to guess correctly—but it appears that Dominica is being indirectly told what to do by a doctor from the Republic of Cameroon. I will not press this latter point too much because I don’t know enough about the specifics, but suffice to say that this story sounds absurd, and it is absurd. This is akin to saying that a fervent environmentalist, the kind who will not kill a fly, had been driving a Volkswagen Beetle and suddenly was informed by a man two continents away on Facebook Chat that the name “Beetle” means “Beetle”; as a result, the environmentalist, shocked and offended, stops driving the car. Or, let us go closer to home: should someone petition to change the name of Massacre because the name suggests, well, massacring, despite the fact that it is named for an important historical massacre? Will leaving the name lead to mass murders, even though the name has been there for centuries? No? So, why the mountains?
But let us examine Mr. Augustine’s statements further. He claims that Dominica is “the land of the Lord.” As to where this claim came from, I have no idea (beyond taking Columbus’ name for the day he espied the island too literally), though I have heard it before. What separates this claim from the others is that the government has indirectly endorsed it by renaming the mountains. Are we to believe that Dominica will soon no longer be allowed to be referred to as “Waitukubuli” because the name is not Christian or because its evocation of “tallness” represents, in some fanatic’s anti-historical eyes, the tallness of the tower of Babel? Is Roseau soon to be renamed Bethlehem, and will Dominica soon have its own version of Mormonism, where we are told that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, but Roseau? The Mormons, after all, claim that Jesus will rule from Jackson County, Missouri, upon his return; no doubt Dominica, upon the peaks of Morne Sante, is where the Second Coming will take place. If it is not clear by now: I think it is absurd to call Dominica “the land of the Lord.” Columbus called it what he did because of the day he spotted it, not because he thought it was literally the Lord’s land. It is a beautiful island in terms of its natural wonders. But the land of God? Please. Exercise some restraint—and some examination of the other natural wonders of the world, many of which surpass what we have in Dominica. Be pleased with what we have and do not exaggerate the beauties of our island to mythical proportions. And whose Lord, anyway? Surely Augustine realizes Dominica is also home to Muslims, practitioners of Baha’i, and a fraction of other and nonreligious persons.
The final bit of questionable rhetoric from the pastor emerges in his claim to have seen that he must change the names of the mountains not simply on advice from an African doctor but because he saw it through “spiritual eyes.” As to where these eyes are or how one accesses them, Augustine is silent, and I would be delighted to be enlightened on the matter. More seriously, I am disturbed that what a man sees through “spiritual eyes” rather than the eyes all of who are not blind already know we have is ostensibly being used by the government as a reason to rename historical landmasses. Are we now in Puritan America during the Salem witch trials, in which “witches” were often convicted not from actual empirical evidence but from what they called “spectral evidence”—evidence that no one could actually prove existed? Is this how we are to operate in the courts now? Is Samantha now able to land Johnny in jail because Samantha “saw” with her “spiritual eyes” that Johnny stole her television, though Johnny was in Barbados during the time of the robbery? If that example sounds absurd, it is little worse than what is going on with these mountains.
I cannot help but be reminded of other, equally absurd, attempts at renaming in recent history. The first that comes to mind is the controversy over the presence of the n word in Mark Twain’s great novel, Huckleberry Finn, as the word appears 219 times in the text. Because this novel is often taught to young students in American high schools (though the controversy extended far beyond high school), Alan Gribben of Auburn University got the bright idea to change the n word in the novel to “slave.” Gribben’s rationale? To prevent the word from forming a “barrier” between students in the 21st century—or, in other words, to be politically correct.
The problem here is that you cannot change a piece of literature like this, that Twain was describing a period in society that actually existed whether we like it or not, and that we are babying our students by trying to sanitize what they learn rather than having an educated discussion with them about uncomfortable topics. I love learning about the context of troubling words and ideas, and it is a great way to gauge the maturity of students. Many great works of literature have moments in them that we may find uncomfortable today: sexism, racism, discrimination of all imaginable kinds. And yet we must be able to put them in context. That does not excuse them, of course, but it means we are not acting like offended children and actually trying to sanitize history.
Indeed, what comes next? Will the myth of La Diablesse be evicted from our folktales and culture because her name means “she-devil?” Will Soufriere be renamed Lourdes? Will we stop teaching Derek Walcott in school because he curses in his poems once in a while and doesn’t preface every poem with a Hail Mary?
Let this mark something very important in the history of Dominica. This renaming of the mountains, though laughable, is also no joke, for it signifies just how far some of us have fallen from reason and the desire to know or understand our history. We are better than this. We should not allow the names of these mountains to be changed for such reasons. This is on par with trying to cast a magic spell. This is on par with Papa Doc Duvalier ordering the execution of all the black dogs in Haiti in 1963 because he had been told Clement Barbot had transformed into a black dog, and Ahmadinejad’s allies being accused of sorcery to carry out his policies. This is on par with a century we should not be living in. If this is where Dominica is now—trying to fix its problems by renaming outgrowths of rock—then we are in a sad, sad place. An island where a beautiful, evocative name like “Morne Diablotin” cannot exist because it suggests the existence of evil is an island in which reason, historical scholarship, and common sense have been abandoned, and this is not the island we should be trying to create.
I am reminded of the words of the literary detective I invoked earlier, Father Brown, who, in Chesterton’s first story with Brown, “The Blue Cross,” was able to uncover a thief dressed as a priest because the thief had done what no priest should do: he had attacked reason and logic. As the shocked thief asks Brown how he knew he wasn’t a priest, Father Brown calmly replies, “You attacked reason….It’s bad theology.” And renaming these mountains is indeed unreasonable and divorced from any kind of meaningful theology. Let us not forget what the names of the mountains were. Names can change—but there should be a reason for their change. And there is no good reason here.
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