Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Was there another Troy for her to burn?

The debate about whether you call India's commercial capital Bombay or Mumbai is, in the scheme of things, not that important. Moreover, it's something of a minefield and you can't really blame the many news organisations that have just decided to do what everyone else is doing and follow the desires of the city's rulers and call it Mumbai.

Sticking to Bombay, though, isn't necessarily a sign of a hopelessly colonial and archaic mindset. Here's Christopher Hitchens on the topic:

When Salman Rushdie wrote, in The Moor's Last Sigh in 1995, that "those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay," he was alluding to the Hindu chauvinists who had tried to exert their own monopoly in the city and who had forcibly renamed it—after a Hindu goddess—Mumbai. We all now collude with this, in the same way that most newspapers and TV stations do the Burmese junta's work for it by using the fake name Myanmar. (Bombay's hospital and stock exchange, both targets of terrorists, are still called by their right name by most people, just as Bollywood retains its "B.")

Anyway, as long as you avoid something ridiculous, like the Telegraph's policy of calling it Bombay (Mumbai) at first mention in print and, it appears, Mumbai on the web - it seems that Sir Heffer's desire to stick to traditional proprieties and the management's desire to maximise web traffic are in conflict – it's just a question of making a choice.

An aside in the Bomaby/Mumbai debate set of a more parochial train of thoughts, though. There is the argument that a city's name dates back to its colonial founders is not necessarily a bad thing. Consider this, from Kevin Myers:

You can equally give London some fancy cod-Anglo-Saxon name that does not derive from the Latin 'Londinium' -- yet it remains a city founded by the Roman empire.

Actually he is not quite right there. The name is probably Brythonic in origin (though there's no consensus there) and a cod-Welsh name would be more authentic still. Then again, Bombay is probably an English corruption of a local name so the general point still stands.

Anyway, I mention this simply because its been a while since there was any debate about renaming London. However, in the late Middle Ages and the Tudor era there was a serious discussion about whether the capital should be renamed Troy-Novant. Like the renaming of Mumbai the suggestion was motivated by over-romanticised myth-making: in this case the belief that the Britons were descendants of the Trojans and that the island itself owed its name to one Brutus.

It's all in Geoffrey of Monmouth if you want the full story and - one may reasonably infer - it's also mixed up with the actual history of the area and the Trinovantes. The trick of claiming descent from the Trojans was one the Romans themselves had developed (you don't need to tell me that it's in Vergil, do you?) – it's possible the ancient Britons pinched it for themselves.

Personally, I find this antiquarian stuff pretty entertaining – if you're interested Peter Ackroyd has plenty in his London: the Biography – and like the idea of a dreamy otherworld of Troy-Novant, a city watched over by Celtic gods, a repository of ancient lore in which myth becomes reality. But renaming London Troy-Novant, even in an age in which the belief in witches and magic remained dominant, would have given it all far more potency that it would have warranted.

For noble Britons sprong from Trojans bold,
And Troy-novant was built of old Troyes ashes cold.

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