A rose by any other name may indeed smell as sweet, but plans to name a coastal Florida island after a controversial Spanish explorer have some groups holding their noses.
A storm is brewing in one of Florida’s small coastal towns over a yet-unnamed stretch of a barrier island on the state’s Space Coast, so-named for its proximity to the Kennedy Space Center. The island is home to famous Cape Canaveral at the northern end, with eight other communities lining its shores. The town of Melbourne Beach, located about 60 miles southeast of Orlando, is at the forefront of a lobbying campaign to name the 45-acre island after Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, who journeyed through the area – and gave Florida its name – in the 15th Century.
On the other side of the debate, the American Indian Association of Florida has strongly protested the move on the grounds that Ponce de León brutalized and caused the extinction of the Ais tribe, once the dominant group along the continent’s southeastern coast. In their words, he and his men “had no qualms about pillaging, mutilating, raping and murdering the Ais people.” The association is lobbying to name the island after the Ais to honor their memory.
It’s a common question, especially about islands – who, exactly, gets to name them? In the United States, island names or changes are typically proposed by the land owner or trustee, and the stamp of approval comes from the U.S. Board of Geographic Names (BGN), a federal agency with sweeping jurisdiction over the naming of physical features like lakes, mountains, islands, and parks.
In the situation of the currently nameless island, it is one of the rare occasions where the normally speedy naming process drags on for months, if not years, while the name is being disputed. Both sides have a compelling case to make, and arbitrators will have to make a difficult choice.
The town manager of Melbourne Beach, Bill Hoskovec, told USA Today that naming the island after Ponce de León will put his town on the map, and support a stronger tourism industry in his sleepy town. The barrier island in question has been proposed by historians as the most likely place where the explorer and his 200-man crew first made contact with Florida’s coast in 1513, as part of a Spanish Royal expedition in search of new island territories.
The heroic portrayal of Ponce de León as a courageous explorer is heavily disputed by the Ais Indians and their supporters, however, who use a word they find more appropriate: conquistador. The Spanish colonialists, as they did throughout the Caribbean, devastated the indigenous population living near what is now Melbourne Beach, both exposing them to fatal diseases and also murdering and violently enslaving them to help build Spain’s colonial empire.
As these considerations are weighty ones, the BGN requires a lengthy period of time to arbitrate such disputes. Media reports have suggested it may be eight months or longer before the town of Melbourne Beach and American Indian Association of Florida gets any indication of which way the BGN will lean. For now, the island remains nameless; but as there is plenty of time, perhaps a third option will be proposed that will honor the area’s history, without inflaming a centuries-old battle.
Read more about this story: USA Today