cambridge and the culture of colonies: day four on the north island.

Near the crossroads of Victoria and Queen Streets in a little town called Cambridge, the Prince Albert Olde English Pub offers “traditional cuisine at affordable prices.” Just across the street, the Jubilee Gardens, built in 1897 to celebrate the sixtieth year of Queen Victoria’s reign, features a cenotaph memorial dedicated “to the immortal memory of the Cambridge men who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918.” And the National Hotel, with its arched brick balcony, and a red iron, pillar-styled postbox, with its insignia of the royal cypher in tact – VR for Victoria Regina – are among the many classified as A-list historic buildings in Cambridge.

Cambridge, New Zealand, that is.

Just thirty minutes southeast of ever-expanding Hamilton and I find myself in Cambridge, struggling to understand the most intriguing case of identity crisis I have yet to come across. After time in places like Kihikihi and Raglan, I’m back in the land of mottos and monikers and Cambridge, the self-professed “Town of Trees and Champions,” doesn’t disappoint. The “Champions” claim, with Cambridge hailed as the Equine Center of New Zealand, is easy to understand and for once, I don’t scoff at the title. Unlike so many others, Cambridge has the stuff to back it up. The town could be considered the Kentucky of New Zealand, so rich is the history of its thoroughbreds. A series of sidewalk mosaics honor such four-legged heroes as Charisma, double Olympic champion in Los Angeles and Seoul, Jezabeel, the 1998 winner of the Melbourne Cup, and Eight Carat, New Zealand Broodmare of the Year three years running in the 1990s.

But trees? Isn’t that like saying, “Smithtowne: The City of Streets and Boulevards” or “Marysville: The Center of Sidewalks?” Do not trees generally come with the territory of being an incorporated municipality? Of course Cambridge appears slightly leafier than average, but is that not a product of being told so upon arrival? In the i-Site, I wait in line to speak with an attendant. The woman in front of me enquires about having a “girls’ day out” getaway in Cambridge and is given a map of the town’s Boutique Trail. I need an explanation, not a brochure.

“Hi there, question for you.” I flash a smile and try not to appear like the Nagging Seeker of Deeper Meaning I am swiftly becoming in these strange little cities. “Cambridge is the ‘Town of Trees,’ right?”

“Oh, yes,” she answers brightly. “The Town of Trees and Champions.” Her voice inflects up on ‘trees’ and ends on a satisfied note.

“Could you tell me where the “Town of Trees” part of the motto came from?” I ask.

“The Town of Trees and Champions,” she repeats, as if chiding my forgetful nature, and directs my gaze to a commemorative display listing Cambridge’s equine successes.

“Right, I understand that…but what about the trees?”

I begin to regret pushing the issue. She looks defeated and admits, “Well, I suppose someone on the council thought it up.”

Let me make clear that my intention was not to call their bluff; I wanted only to know what side of this chicken-or-the-egg argument I was looking at. After another back-breaking autumn of fruitless raking, did an exhausted councilman suddenly pause, lean slightly on his rake, and look up into the branches of an expansive chestnut and think, “Hey, we’ve got a lot of trees. We can do something with this”? Or was it the other way around, with a continual shipment of seedlings brought in to keep up with an official decree? I thanked her for her time and said I wouldn’t blame the messenger.

I got my answer instead from the Te Ara Encyclopedia, learning that “thoughtful planting of exotic trees in early days allowed Cambridge to call itself ‘town of trees’ in the late 20th century…” There now, that wasn’t so difficult, was it?

And it was the white-haired owner of the Colonial Heritage Antiques store who, befitting to his occupation, shed further light on the town’s history. It was named after the queen’s cousin, the Duke of Cambridge and commander-in-chief of the British army, by Colonel William Charles Lyon, a man who led British troops against the Maori.

I wandered further through the town, past a row of timbered Tudor Revival houses and a grand two-storied Town Hall, and discovered that Cambridge – as the name suggests – is an homage to all things English. Street signs herald another place and time, that of Imperial England: streets with names like Queen, Victoria, and Empire are just a verb or two short of spelling out a tribute to the monarchy. From Kings Crescent to Coronation Street, from Princes Court to Duke Street, there’s hardly a royal title that isn’t mentioned.

West of the Waikato River, the street names continue, reading off like the required reading list of a high school English class: Shakespeare Street, Longfellow Street, Bronte Place, Spencer Street, Wordsworth Street, Coleridge Street, Eliot Place, Dickens Place, Tennyson Street, Kipling Street, Conrad Place, Milton Street, even Rowling Place suggests a certain precognition of bestsellers to come at the time of naming. Roto-O-Rangi Road, on the other hand, seems starkly out of place.

At which point in my tour of the town I began to wonder, just what was with these early explorers and colonists and simply transferring old places names to a new country? In an entry on “The Imperial Connection,” the Encyclopedia of New Zealand writes:

“Since most non-Māori New Zealanders came from the United Kingdom, they looked to place names to create a sense of home and proclaim their membership of the British Empire.”

Giselle Byrnes, a history professor at the University of Waikato and a former Fulbright Visiting Professor in New Zealand Studies at Georgetown, has examined the topic further, specifically in regards to the city of Tauranga, in her essay, “’A dead sheet covered with meaningless words?’ Place Names and the Cultural Colonization of Tauranga.” An abstract of the article reads:

“The dominance of European place names in Aotearoa New Zealand is an enduring legacy of the colonial project. Place names are also cultural markers that speak of a contested and negotiated history. This article takes the city of Tauranga as a case study and asks: What street names exist? Why were they given? What Maori names have been erased or retained by the settlers and why? It suggests that place names are dynamic rather than static artifacts.”

You would think the discovery of a new land and the ensuing opportunity to inhabit it would loosen the hold of the Motherland, and yet the early settlers of New Zealand seem to have been no less eager to create something new as England was in sponsoring the initial settlement. But then again, in our own way, I suppose we all do the same today, seeking out the familiar in the foreign. Have I not visited Starbucks everywhere from Macau to Bangkok to Prague and dined on McDonald’s in Cairo and London? Do I not carry my favorite mementos, knick-knacks, and duvet cover with me no matter where in this great world I call home?

I may not be naming streets after my hometown, but what other cultural baggage am I bringing with me everywhere?

Cambridge: The Town of Trees...

...and Champions.

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