The butcher of the Western suburbs

Communities all over the world are renaming places and removing monuments that no longer reflect today’s values. Professor Richard Blythe, pro vice-chancellor of the Faculty of Humanities at Curtin University in Western Australia loves his philosophers. Reflecting on this situation, he said, “Nietzsche talked about history as made in the moment we write it.”

Professor Blythe said dealing with changing street names in an appropriate way “is really the basis of a civic society and not a society that sweeps under the carpet all the bad stuff. It’s society that works out elegant ways of dealing with that stuff.”

Curtin University Professor Richard Blythe, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Humanities. Image supplied by Curtin University.

Reconciliation Australia says: “Acts of recognition, including memorialisation, plaques, and renaming places are key truth telling activities. A discussion about renaming of places or things must begin with an acknowledgement of its place and the importance of truth telling.”

In 2020, history was made in the Kimberley Region in the north of WA when the name of King Leopold of Belgium was removed from a series of mountain ranges, now officially called the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges. But that’s not the end of it.

Western Suburb street name connected to contentious colonial past

Council of Nedlands archives identify Leopold Street in Nedlands as a commemoration of King Leopold II of Belgium. It is common for streets to be named after historical figures from around the world, but today, in some situations, this may be divisive or contentious.

This Nedlands street name links the suburb to atrocities committed by King Leopold II of Belgium during his reign. Photo: Jess Rowe

A spokesperson for the City of Nedlands explained why the name hasn’t been changed: “The policies and standards document for geographical naming in Western Australia states that road names are intended to be enduring. The renaming of any road is discouraged unless there are good reasons for a change.”

Professor Blythe said: “We have this kind of politeness, we don’t want to talk about it, but if we don’t, we don’t acknowledge it and we’re fools because then we forget.”

King Leopold II of Belgium, now commonly known as ‘the butcher of Congo’, controlled the Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908 and was in charge of perpetrating numerous atrocities against the Congolese. “The guy was a tyrant,” Professor Blythe said. 

“It’s an interesting thing, that duplicity of life as a European king, at the same time the brutality of what he did is just appalling. It was quite shocking.

“The whole saga led to the first major human rights groups forming around the future of what should happen in the Congo; why it was wrong, and how we should think about that. It’s fairly brutal, just a shocking context, and not that long ago. This guy was king into the 1900s.”

King Leopold II. Image sourced from The African Exponent

World protests against historical tyrant

After decades of trying, the name of King Leopold II of Belgium was removed from the King Leopold Ranges in the Kimberley region of WA in 2020 and replaced with the Indigenous name Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges.

A spokesperson from Reconciliation Australia said “renaming is a key pillar of truth telling, truth telling must also be at the centre of reconciliation. Historical acceptance is key to reconciliation in Australia, and it cannot occur without truth-telling.”

Professor Blythe said: “I’m really against erasure of historical artefacts, materials, ideas and stories. We need to actively preserve them, keep them, but make sure we see them in context and in perspective. We don’t need them out there as our place names and streets names.”

History made in the moment

The City of Nedlands spokesperson explained that a proposal to change the name of Leopold Street or any other place “requires support of the local government in the first instance, however the Minister for Lands has final authority in all such matters.”

Asked if changing street names is a good idea, Professor Blythe said: “I’m fine with that because if you think back to Leopold, one of the reasons he got away with it was that no one knew it was happening. There was no one making TikToks in the Congo, we couldn’t see what was happening. Probably people didn’t want to know, there was a lot of money coming in, Belgium was doing great and probably no one realised.

“As people realise what happened, it changes how they think. No longer can you look at the guy sitting on top of his horse in quite the same way. It becomes appropriate to change it. What that change signifies is a recording of change in societal views and that’s really quite important.”

He said: “It has to be done with excellence, so what do you place there instead? What do you call it instead? That’s a very important change to make.”

A provision in the WA Government Landgate policy states: “In considering a [name] change proposal, careful consideration will be given to all relevant factors, including the extent and distribution of usage, historical context, user perceptions and intent, and lexical meanings.”

Professor Blythe said: “How you do that is important. There is a certain story telling aspect to this. It is slightly offensive, you know, you live in a place, it’s Leopold Street, ‘I‘ve always lived on it and my aunty always lived on it’ and then someone turns up and says ‘we got to change the name of Leopold Street’.”

The City of Nedlands spokesperson said: “For the City of Nedlands to consider a name change, there must be majority support from the affected landowners and residents.”

It can take considerable time to change names “Landgate will assess the proposal in line with the naming policies and guidelines, which includes a requirement to consult with the community and relevant stakeholders.”

Reconciliation Australia is one such stakeholder and a spokesperson said, “renaming landmarks can also support healing and forge stronger relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous people by achieving a fuller account of a community’s history.”

Professor Blythe said: “There  is a community-orientated way that takes people on a journey. That same person who lives on Leopold Street would be horrified if they knew what Leopold did in the Congo, so how do you bring them on that journey.

“The other side is what alternative do you offer, what’s the opportunity here to get people excited about what it could be called? What kind of ceremony would you set up to change the street or what kind of process for discovering a new name? This a community engagement process.”

Best or Lest we forget?

What becomes of the historical names and monument that are replaced?

Professor Blythe said: “Maybe a museum of street names could be something we do. They remain an important part of the story. It was like this, but because we now know all these things happened, we reinvented a different kind of future for this place, and that becomes part of history.

“There are things that happen. We continually change our position in relation to them, so history is contemporary. We make history on a daily basis. This idea it’s something fixed and is not changeable is not understanding what history is and  how it works.

“By the same token, we should never forget Leopold. We need to know about that guy, so we understand the depravity of the human condition in certain conditions. We need to learn form that. We need to be aware of it.”

There are procedures for street names to be changed in the Landgate policy under 1.2.6 Discriminatory, derogatory and inappropriate names.

Professor Blythe said, “It’s time to move on. Let’s change the street name.”

This article is part of a larger project called Where What Why. You can find the whole collection of stories about places and their names here.