• According to locals, the origin story of a NSW island named after a coal miner should be better known, as the community weighs in on a potential name change. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
Swansea locals hope the NSW township can rise above toxic debate, as the community reconciles the history of 'C**n Island'.
By
Shahni Wellington

Source:
The Point
23 Mar 2021 - 8:03 AM  UPDATED 23 Mar 2021 - 9:25 AM

A truth-telling movement has rippled through a small coastal community in New South Wales, where there's a push for the "shameful" origin story of a local island to be better known. 

In Swansea, a New South Wales township 30kms south of Newcastle, there is a local nature reserve named C**n Island, part of C**n Island Point. 

Traditional Owners, the Awabakal people, called Swansea 'Galgabba,' which means a place to rest, but for the local Aboriginal community, many have grown tired of the commonplace racist and derogatory term.

"You wouldn't use that word to an Aboriginal person, you wouldn't say that to their face," Kentan Proctor from the Bahtabah Local Aboriginal Council told NITV's The Point.

"So why can we have a placed named after it?"

The Lake Macquarie City Council has passed a motion to look at re-naming the island, with community consultations to begin soon. 

The island was originally named after Herbert Heaney, the first permanent resident.

Heaney was a miner who would come home covered with coal dust and was referred to as ‘c**n’ because of his blackface.

For Mr Proctor, who grew up in the area, dropping the term would mean a lot - especially to the older members of his family. 

"I know that it hurts, I know that it hurts them so... it hurts me really.

"I guess the best descriptive word is almost 'yuck' - That's how it makes you feel on the inside," he said.

Truth-telling backlash

The push to better understand the origins of the island name has become a topic of division.

Recent media coverage has given a platform for racist commentary, with many online posts going un-filtered and un-moderated.

Those on the frontline of the re-naming campaign, including staff at the Bahtabah Local Aboriginal Land Council, said they have become the targets for a barrage of online abuse. 

"Everyone's entitled to their own opinion but you know it brings up prolific racism in the community, and it's quite hurting and harsh that people can attack us, even attack me, for something that they don't really know much about," Kentan Proctor said. 

"We’re always here if people want to come and have a chat, we can educate each other, so I don't understand why we have to attack each other."

As part of the process going forward, Kentan has proposed finding a new name that respects both the traditional owners connection to the place, as well as Mr Heaney's legacy. 

He hopes for a name that will not isolate the Aboriginal community and allow the town to heal the pains of the past. 

Two histories and a way forward

What stands on the island today is a nature reserve surrounded by water views, including a bird-watching platform praised by local tourism websites.

Prior to this, the area was home to a small village of people.

Residents lived in about 70 houses on the island between 1915 and the 1990’s, with the last evacuated in 1994.

Opposition to the proposed name-change include the next generations of those residents. 

As the former president of the Island's Management board, Kamilaroi man, Keith Graham, spent years looking after site and cleaning up the demolished dwellings. 

Mr Graham told NITV News that he and others in Swansea have a long-standing connection to the place.

"They don’t want the name changed because a lot of them, if they weren't born here, their parents lived here and this was their community - So they don’t want it changed but I know, nowadays, a lot of people found it very objectionable," he said.

He thinks it’s about finding a way forward without sacrificing their story.

"We would want a name that people could still relate to the area, because this is the heritage, this is where the whole township was, this is where they all grew up," Mr Graham said

"So one of the things that people have been talking about, is if the name has to be changed, they want to change it to 'Heaney.'"

Council confidence

Last month, Lake Macquarie Council voted to commence a consultation process to investigate alternate names.

With a national conversation allowing the public to weigh in, Councillor Keith Baker, who filed the motion, is still confident the community will support it.

"One of the big things I found when I am speaking to people is that they say 'oh, wasn't this named after Mr Coon? Isn't this just c**n cheese all over again? Yeah, what about Coonabarabran? What about Coonamble?'

"But when you actually go through it and say to people, 'This is totally different - This isn't named after Mr. Coon, this is a genuine racist name,'" he told NITV News.

If the push to re-name the Island is successful, it’s hoped the momentum will extend to a conversation about other places in the area, including the origins of Black Ned's Bay and Black Ned's Point.

For now, Councillor Baker, has proposed a dual-name, including the local Awabakal language.

Alternative names for the island will be produced following the community consultation, before being presented to the Geographical Names Board of New South Wales.

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