In Prince George, British Columbia, poetry readings are raucous and well-attended. Five hundred miles north of Vancouver, P.G. is a first giant step on the way to the Alaska Highway or to the coast at Prince Rupert, or to the Peace River country. You never know where poetry’s going to find a place to flourish. I read at the College of New Caledonia and the next night Sarah de Leeuw read at Books & Co.; we’d not met before but we came to each other’s events and, at the bookstore, she—a very interesting poet and essayist and a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia—was introduced as being a northern native from a place called Haida Gwaii. “What’s Haida Gwaii?” I whispered to my friend. “New name for the Charlottes,” he replied.
I was sitting with the Caledonia crowd—my hosts in Prince George—and could write here about the literary rivalry between that college and UNBC. But I think the more interesting tale concerns the Charlottes, the Queen Charlotte Islands, now Haida Gwaii, off the coast of B.C.’s mainland, an eight-hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert. Home to about 3,500 people, about half of whom are Haida or of Haida descent—the Haida have lived on the islands for thousands of years, but exposure to European diseases in the 18th century decimated the population, the familiar tragedy. In 1787, Captain George Dixon, a fur trader particularly interested in sea otters, named the islands after his ship, the Queen Charlotte; the boat was owned by a British syndicate in possession of various colonial licenses and permissions. The year previous, Captain George Vancouver (or the trader James Strange; reports vary) had named the water south of the islands Queen Charlotte Sound, for the consort of George III, Queen Charlotte Sophia herself. The islands have been renamed (the new name means “islands of the people”) but the name for the sound remains.
Now I met Queen Charlotte many years ago in J.A. Rogers’s three-volume set, Sex and Race: Negro-Caucasian Mixing in All Ages and All Lands, published in the 1940s by Rogers himself. The illustration in the frontispiece of the first book is a reproduction of Sir Allan Ramsey’s 1762 painting of the queen, which hangs in the National Gallery in London. She’s youthful and slim in the painting and she appears to be—as we in the United States would describe her at this long moment—a light-skinned black woman; Rogers discusses her in the chapter titled “The Mixing of Whites and Blacks in the British Isles” and remarks on the clarity of “her Negro strain.” Recently a Web site, put up by WGBH, sheds light on the European contexts of her apparent African ancestry. This idea is, of course, not without controversy, and there has been some discussion of Queen Charlotte—including a page put up by the Council of Conservative Citizens—on the World Wide Web.
For a long time I’ve been interested in British Columbia and in racial toponyms and in naming itself, and I spoke to Sarah de Leeuw about all that after her reading and our conversation has blossomed into a correspondence. I’ve never visited the islands and want to—they’re legendary in the cycling community—but I’ve written about them as an oblique African reference, an anomaly, in a region not connected in the public mind with blackness. And the presence of a place named for someone of arguable African descent brings to mind the saying, common among older African-Americans, that no matter where you go, someone else black will have been there before you. So as much as I cheer the deep-sixing of old colonial designations I greeted the new name with a certain ambivalence—as the poet said, “I was of three minds/ Like a tree/ In which there are three blackbirds.” Or ravens.
Sarah wrote me that she grew up in “the Charlottes” and that nowadays, “Every time I say ‘Haida Gwaii’ I want to say a million other things that I feel need saying—that the islands are untreatied contested lands claimed by a sovereign nation (the Haida) who named and still name their homes with many different words, most of which were erased or disregarded by colonial settlement.” But she worries, she says, that the simple name change (part of the Haida Gwaii Reconciliation Act of 2010) “just makes everything seem nice and cozy and reconciled between Haida people and non-Haida people.” We agreed that the whole situation—the name of Queen Charlotte, the new name from a First Nations language, the commerce at the heart of the islands’ colonial name—are things to stumble over. But she wrote to me: “Maybe stumbling is good. Maybe it’s good to always want to say more.”
I’m on sabbatical and, right now, on a short reading tour. I left my hosts at the College of New Caledonia for equally wonderful hosts at Yale and will conclude with a reading at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. After my presentation in New Haven I climbed the stairs at the Center for British Art, on my way to John Constable’s cloud studies. But halfway there my eye was caught by George Stubbs’s huge 1763 painting of a zebra. It was the first zebra, claimed the description, that had ever been seen in Britain. It was shipped from the Cape of Good Hope as a present for young Queen Charlotte.
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