A faraway name

We live near the top of a hill called “Trincomali Heights,” an unusual name that we often have to spell when giving an address for any sort of registration. One of our friends, however, immediately recognized the name: “Trincomalee? That’s a place on Sri Lanka!” We had no idea of the connection at the time, but of course wanted to find out how a hill on a Canadian island came to be named after a place in Sri Lanka.

Trincomali Place road sign

It turns out that the various places on and around Salt Spring that have “Trincomali” in the name (such as Trincomali Heights, Trincomali Place, and Trincomali Channel) were all named after a British warship called the HMS Trincomalee, which, in turn, was named after Trincomalee, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).

The BC Geographical Names Office tells us that Trincomali Channel (originally spelled “Trincomalie”) was “named in 1858 by Captain Richards, after HMS Trincomalee.”1 This ship was built in Mumbai (then Bombay), India (1816-17). After being launched in October 1817, the ship was moved to Trincomalee, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to be completed.2 This last fact is available from the Friends of HMS Trincomalee, by its own description a “registered charity run by volunteers to support the preservation, exhibiting and promotion of our ship, now at the Historic Quay at Hartlepool, England.”3

Name on the stern of the HMS Trincomalee
“Trincomalee”by shadowfax the second is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It strikes me as odd (to put it mildly) to celebrate a colonial warship so uncritically, without attention to the violence this warship was involved in. Trincomalee has a long history of colonial occupation (Portuguese, Dutch, French, British), but a much longer and richer precolonial history. The connection between Trincomali Heights and Trincomalee is the history of British colonial occupation that Canada shares with Sri Lanka.

The Indigenous Coast Salish peoples have had their own name for what Captain Richards named Trincomali Channel (e.g., tl’ooltxw or tl’aaltxw).4 Whether or not Trincomali Channel will ever be officially renamed, I want to remember this troubling connection between Trincomalee, Sri Lanka and tl’aaltxw.

  1. BC Geographical Names Office, “Trincomali Channel,” http://apps.gov.bc.ca/pub/bcgnws/names/22942.html
  2. Hugh Turner, “The History of HMS Trincomalee 1812 to 1986,” Friends of HMS Trincomalee, 2012, http://friendsofhmstrincomalee.org.uk/archive.html
  3. The Friends of HMS Trincomalee, http://friendsofhmstrincomalee.org.uk/index.html
  4. David Lewis Rozen, Place-Names of the Island Halkomelem Indian People (Master’s thesis), University of British Columbia (1985), 119.