An iconic mountain range in Western Australia’s north will be renamed to remove the link to a former “tyrant” monarch responsible for the deaths of millions of people in Africa.
- The King Leopold Ranges were named after a Belgian king in 1879
- Successive state governments have tried to change the name
- Traditional owners will be consulted on a new name for the area
The WA Government plans to rename the King Leopold Ranges, a lengthy section of hills and gorges including several popular tourist destinations in the Kimberley region.
The King Leopold Ranges are named after the former king of Belgium, whose atrocities and violent reign of the Congo Free State led to up to 10 million deaths.
King Leopold II never visited WA and held no connection to the state, other than having the site named after him.
Lands Minister Ben Wyatt said King Leopold II was an “evil tyrant” who should not be honoured in WA, pointing to the fact that a statue of him in Antwerp had been taken down after being repeatedly vandalised during Black Lives Matter protests.
“It highlights the absurdity that we still have something named after someone who the Belgians do not have any kind sentiment to themselves,” Mr Wyatt told ABC Radio Perth.
“He was a nasty piece of work and we have this odd historical artefact still with us about why it is named after him.”
There have been moves within successive state governments to rename the King Leopold Ranges over more than a decade, but Mr Wyatt said those had been delayed because numerous native title groups had input over the issue.
Mountains named after mass-murdering ‘tyrant’
The King Leopold Ranges run 567 kilometres through the heart of the Kimberley and include popular tourist destinations such as Bell and Dimond gorges.
They received their colonial name in 1879 from Alexander Forrest, brother of WA’s first premier John Forrest, who selected the Belgian monarch due to Leopold II’s “interest in exploration”.
But Leopold’s bloodthirsty reign over the Congo Free State — estimated to have claimed up to 10 million lives — has sparked continuing calls for the ranges to be renamed.
An international outcry eventually forced Belgium to annex what had previously been the king’s personal fiefdom in 1908.
Former WA Geographic Names Committee secretary Brian Goodchild said Forrest’s call reflected the approach at the time.
“There were a lot of mountains through the Pilbara and Kimberley named after European royalty,” he said.
“The Oscar Range for King Oscar of Sweden, Baron Negri of Italy has the Negri River in the East Kimberley; these were all European royalty the Forrest brothers connected with exploration.
Call for traditional owners’ input on new name
It is still not clear how long the naming issue will take to resolve, but Mr Wyatt said he wanted it done as soon as possible.
“It has been delayed for a number of reasons but the time for that delay is up,” he said.
“I can get on and rename that fairly quickly once I have consensus from the two main groups up there.”
Kimberley Land Council chairman Anthony Watson said the decision was a positive step, urging the Government to negotiate with traditional owners over a future name.
“[The history of King Leopold] was shocking and it was a shame that it got brought to Australia,” Mr Watson said.
“Once we knew his background, we needed to reflect a good positive name.”
Mr Goodchild contributed a previous effort to rename the ranges launched by the Carpenter government in 2008.
The cause was picked up again by Barnett government environment minister Albert Jacob in 2017, who had a personal stake in the debate with his Belgium-born grandfather sent to Congo after King Leopold’s reign.
Mr Goodchild agreed involving traditional owners in the renaming could prove a complicated exercise.
“The … complication is finding a single name, as Aboriginal names were more localised and this range covers different regions and native title claimant areas,” he said.
Stretching from the far western to the far eastern Kimberley at their fullest extent, the ranges fall into the country of a number of the region’s traditional owner groups.
In a statement, the Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation, representing the Ngarinyin traditional owners of more than 60,000 square kilometres of the Kimberley, including part of the Ranges, said consultation would be critical.
“The Wilinggin native title group is very supportive of the move and congratulates the Minister on his announcement,” he said.
“We will be fully engaged in the process and hope that proper recognition for all traditional owner groups will occur.”
Other traditional owner groups declined to comment, citing a desire to see more detail of Mr Wyatt’s proposal.
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