Posted by: Steve Coplan | June 19, 2006

Same name, different place

Bantry Bay in Cape Town was one of my favorite places as an adolescent and in my early 20s. In the summer, it's quiet and sheltered from the wind. This provides an opportunity to lie out in the sun like a lizard on enormous, smooth granite boulders and take occassional dips in the chilly water to cool off. Taking a dip involves jumping off a rock and then waiting for the ebb and flow of the water to lift you high enough to grab onto a ledge to pull yourself out. After a few beers or other forms of intoxication, this process can prove to be quite entertaining and the water even more refreshing. In the winter, depending on the strength of the storms out at sea, Bantry Bay's boulders can be slammed so hard that a mist builds up. The roar resounding against the rocks can be overpowering.

For a long time, it didnt actually occur to me that a Bantry Bay existed somewhere else. How is it that a cove on the southern tip of Africa ended up being named for a bay between two spectacular peninsulas in southwestern Cork? Since Bantry Bay in Cape Town is a special place for me, I was pretty curious how the 'real' Bantry Bay would stack up. Also, I've always been intrigued by toponymy and growing up in South Africa, what factors were involved in transposing European names to African places. This is obviously a politically charged issue – using imported place names is clearly an act of appropriation – but I've wondered what it is that created the association in the minds of the colonisers who assigned names as they confronted a foreign landscape.

My cursory Web research didn't turn up much in the way of answers, but did uncover a few sites on Scottish and Khoi places names in South Africa and learned that Bantry Bay was apparently originally called Botany Bay because of a medicinal herb garden situated there. I suppose that leaves me free to speculate. It's difficult to draw comparisons in terms of topography or geographic features, but the two places do share something in common: they are unusually beautiful spots. I'd like to believe that it was more of an emotional response to the beauty of the place than the probably more likely scenario that someone with a vested interest (ie a realtor in the early 1900s) in people moving to the spot came up with the name.

Here's a interesting blog on toponymy, an enlightening Wikipedia exchange on an unusual place names entry, and the Most beautiful Bays of the World Club.


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