Controversy or Commemoration?

The first governor of Western Australia, Captain James Stirling, is a figure shrouded in equal parts historical praise and controversy. As the namesake of suburbs, highways, mountains and schools across the state, Stirling’s ongoing legacy continues to be questioned by members of the community.

Born in 1791, Captain James Stirling was a British naval officer who assisted in lobbying the British government to establish WA’s Swan River Colony. In 1828, he officially founded the city of Perth and the port of Fremantle, then went on to serve as the first governor of the state from 1831 to 1838. 

However, Stirling is also known for his participation in the genocide of Australia’s indigenous people, having personally led the infamous 1834 Pinjarra Massacre, where between 15 and 80 Bindjareb men, women and children were murdered in their camp on the Murray River. 

Stirling’s complex history has led to controversy regarding places named in his honour, such as the City of Stirling, the Stirling Ranges and the Stirling Highway. Stirling is also commemorated in a statue in Perth’s City, located outside the Magistrates Court Stirling Gardens. 

Captain James Stirling. Source: WA Government House

A Disputed Figure

In 2020, on the evening before a Black Lives Matter protest in Perth, a 30-year-old man was charged with vandalising the statue of James Stirling, painting the neck and hands of the statue red as well as spray painting the Aboriginal flag over the inscription on the bottom. The previous year, an ultimately unsuccessful campaign was launched to change the name of Nedland’s Stirling Highway, which had been named after the governor since 1932. 

In June 2021, protesters gathered outside of a City of Stirling council meeting holding signs saying “change the name”, as council members inside debated a proposal to alter the city’s name as part of its reconciliation plan. Although the recommendation failed to pass, the event displayed the growing concerns of many community members over the legacy of the name Stirling.

Curtin University history lecturer Dr André Brett said many people in society no longer believed it was appropriate to memorialise individuals when they participated in or authorised violent events. He said at the time, violence was accepted as a necessary measure for colonies, but modern views have shifted.

“The early governors of all the Australian colonies, now states, are implicated in various acts of violent dispossession or massacres. But in Stirling’s case, Pinjarra stands out as an especially violent and notorious sort of incident.”

Dr Brett said there were many people in the community who had strong positive or negative views on place names, and when it comes to changing them, it is often a case of how connected a community is with a place name and whether there are other names for the place that well-known.

 “If there are alternative names that are already well established, they can be readily accepted by the community. Think of, for instance, what we used to call Ayers Rock, now very readily accepted as being called Uluru to the point that nobody says Ayers Rock anymore.”

Uluru / Ayers Rock. Photo: Ellen Forsyth CC:BY

The dual name debate

Historian Dr Bruce Baskerville welcomed the controversy over Stirling’s name, as it leads people to ask questions about the history of a place. He said a place name tells a lot about its history, and people should consider what this means for commemorative names.

“When it comes to place names referring to people, it is always good to remember when these names were given and who applied them. Did they have any understanding of the indigenous places that they were renaming?”

Dr Baskerville argued in support of dual naming, where traditional indigenous names are paired with European names side by side. Since the 1990s, many Australian places and landmarks have begun to adopt dual names, including Fraser Island /K’gari, Mt Wellington/Kunanyi and Ayers Rock/Uluru. 

Dr Baskerville said as opposed to entirely renaming a place, dual names provide much more depth to the history of a place or landmark.

“My concern is that if you just remove a name and replace it altogether, which is what some of the settlers themselves did with indigenous sites, you then lose that history and understanding. The name is more than just words on a sign.”

Many of the places named after Stirling have specific pre-existing Indigenous names. One prominent example is the Stirling Ranges, which has the Noongar name Koi Kyeunu-ruff, meaning “place of ever moving about mist and fog”. Similarly, the City of Stirling sits on land known as Mooro Country in Indigenous culture.

WA places named after James Stirling. Image: Tegan Shirdon

A Touchy Subject

Dr Baskerville said although dual names can be uncomfortable, as people may see one name as bad and one as good, this discomfort should not be a reason to prevent a dual name from existing.

“If Stirling were to have a dual name, including the pre-existing Indigenous name for the land or a newly developed one, it reveals the complexity about the place and invites people to try and understand.”

However, not all members of the community supported a change of the Stirling name, according to Deputy Mayor of Stirling Stephanie Proud. Ms Proud said when the 2021 proposal was introduced, a majority of Stirling residents were very vocal about not changing the city’s name.

Ms Proud also said she did not believe there was a problem with the name Stirling, as to her knowledge the issue had “never been raised previously nor since the ‘history’ of its namesake became more publicly known.”

The cost of changing the city’s name was also an issue for Ms Proud, who said renaming infrastructure in over 450 parks, and 30 suburbs would not be a responsible management of ratepayer’s money. She said a smaller change would be much more manageable.

“Personally, while not disagreeing with the reasoning behind the suggestion in the first instance, if I were to support a change of name for the City, it would be along the lines of a minor amendment, such as ‘Stirling’ to Sterling. While there would still be cost ramifications, they would be far more palatable.

A City spokesperson for the Mayor of Stirling, Mark Irwin, said there were no future plans to change the name.

The City of Stirling coastline. Source: Council Magazine

However, despite the ongoing and polarising debate, Dr Brett said with enough time and effort, Indigenous place names can be successfully integrated into most communities. He said across the country we are already seeing Indigenous names side by side with European names, even if they are not officially recognised as dual names. 

“Often people will actually latch on to Indigenous names because the community likes them, and they make sense. European settler names can be quite arbitrary, referring to people who were dead 200 years ago or a suburb in England that no one who lives in the area has ever been to. Whereas the local Indigenous names will often refer to the land and geographical features, which people can have a connection with.”

He said it was important to recognise the Aboriginal culture and to provide a public acknowledgment of the indigenous people and their connection to country through place names.

“The process of renaming, although it can sometimes be controversial, can also be a great moment of healing and connection.”

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.