The Encyclopedia of Raincoast Place Names: A Complete Reference to Coastal British Columbia
November 4, 2013
Review By Mark Diotte
The publication of Andrew Scott’s The Encyclopedia of Raincoast Place Names: A Complete Reference to Coastal British Columbia in 2009 both commemorates the one hundredth anniversary of Captain John T. Walbran’s British Columbia Coast Names and continues Harbour Publishing’s exemplary dedication to publishing in British Columbia. In the promotional material, Raincoast Place Names is described as a “monumental work,” one that Howard White sees in terms of “sheer magnitude” and “remarkable achievement.” At 664 pages, covering four thousand detailed entries, and the stories of over five thousand place names, Scott’s work lives up to its descriptors. The book is impressive, and in approaching it I was somewhat daunted by its size and extraordinary depth of detail. This was a reaction I expected given that it is, after all, an encyclopaedia. Unexpectedly, as I turned the pages and ranged through the entries, photographs, essays, and maps, I experienced excitement and delight. Scott’s work is more than an encyclopaedia: it is a history and an inspiring work of literature filled with passion, humour, and irony.
In Scott’s helpful “User’s Guide” located at the beginning of the book, he is quick to state that Raincoast Place Names is primarily “about the history of the place names, not the places themselves” (21), yet this is a modest claim. While it is certainly true that no explicit “history of place” is attempted, every page in the encyclopaedia does, in fact, provide a history of the place name and, most often, the individual associated with that name. Even a small entry such as “Bonner Islet” provides the information that “Frank Richard Bonner was a seaman aboard CGS William J. Stewart, which was conducting survey work in this area in 1937” (79). Taken together, these entries do provide something of a history of place – namely, that of coastal British Columbia.
Aside from looking up a specific entry or casually perusing the volume, an engaging manner in which to approach this encyclopaedia is through one of the twelve entertaining essay-style interludes. In “Naming Rocks the Hard Way” Scott examines the disgrace of having your vessel wrecked on an uncharted rock or reef – the result being your name “printed on the charts for fellow mariners to chuckle over until the end of time” (46). Despite the many instances of humour, Scott also tackles the serious side of naming – the oppressive colonial practice of supplanting First Nations place names with European place names. He does, however, indicate that progress has been made in redressing this issue, and, in the essay entitled “Nisga’a First Nations Names,” he remarks that, in the years to come, the BC gazetteer “will need extensive revision” because “one aspect of most treaty negotiations involves the restoration of traditional names as ‘official’ names” (421).
In terms of the scope of the volume, Scott states that, “with very few exceptions, only official or ‘gazetted’ names have entries” (21). While this might seem limiting, outdated and local names are listed and cross-referenced with official names. What has been excluded? Primarily it is names for which Scott could find no information or for which the information found proved unreliable. Scott does, however, provide a wealth of sources for further information. Foremost among these sources is the British Columbia Geographical Names Office and its online Names Information System (BCGNIS). Other important sources include Kathleen E. Dalzell’s The Queen Charlotte Islands: Place and Names; the Encyclopedia of British Columbia, edited by Daniel Francis; and Captain John T. Walbran’s British Columbia Coast Names, 1592–1906: Their Origin and History. Scott has appended a D, E, or W, respectively, to indicate when a source has been invaluable to a particular entry. Scott’s inclusion of these sources is crucial considering he has not included a bibliography, an addition that, in his words, “would have greatly lengthened what is already a very long book and made it needlessly repetitive and formal” (23). What would be quite helpful, however, is a searchable, online component or edition.
While Scott’s encyclopaedia is titled a “Complete Reference,” I find it to be an exciting starting point for further research and discovery. This book is, in my opinion, an invaluable resource for the academic and student alike, and it deserves its place on the short list for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize for “the book that contributes most to the enjoyment and understanding of British Columbia.”