Among the thousands of names used for Canadian post offices over the years, most are quite forgettable. For example, there are the countless replicated British town names, the many Saints of Quebec, and the unlimited supply of first settler/first postmaster honourifics (Smithville, Jonestown, and the like). However, other names are more unusual, and beg the question of how and why they were selected. Such is the case with the significant number – over 40 – of Canadian post offices, past and present, with names that are of apparent Asian or African origin. Here are the diverse stories behind the choice of some of these post office names.
Several of the earliest Asian/African names in Canada, not surprisingly, replicate the names of places mentioned in Judeo-Christian scriptures. Examples include Damascus (NB, ON); New Jerusalem NB; Galilee SK; and Nile, Palmyra, Jaffa, Jericho, and Antioch, all in Ontario.
At the turn of the century, public interest was fixated on South Africa, where a large contingent of Canadian soldiers (as well as others from Australia and New Zealand) had joined British forces fighting against the Afrikaners in the Boer War. It is hardly surprising that several post offices established about that time were named after places in South Africa. Among these places are Ladysmith (ON, BC); Mafeking (ON, MB); Durban MB, and Natal BC.
The choice of Indian city names for the Ontario towns of Delhi (formerly Middleton, renamed in 1853) and Lucknow (post office opened in 1860) offer insight into Canadians' self-identity as British subjects rather than as colonials. Lucknow was chosen to commemorate the British victory in the siege of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. As another example from several decades later: Kandahar SK was named by CPR authorities in honour of the British victory in the 1880 Battle of Kandahar.
Few name choices seem as obscure and unlikely as that of Khiva. How was a small, ancient trading city along the Silk Road in what is now northwestern Uzbekistan chosen in 1878 as the name for a rural-Ontario hamlet? Once again, there is a British Indian connection, in the form of Frederick Barnaby, an adventurist military officer and traveler who undertook an extended solo journey through central Asia and visited the closed city of Khiva. His book Ride to Khiva: Adventures in Central Asia was published in 1876 and was widely acclaimed.
Unlike Khiva, the equally-exotic names of Dongola (ON, SK) and Khartum ON have firm roots in Canadian history, albeit a history that has largely been forgotten. In the mid-1880s, General Garnet Wolseley was tasked with heading a British military mission to free Major-General Charles Gordon, who had been besieged by rebel forces in Sudan. Drawing upon his experiences in Canada during the Riel Rebellion, Wolseley recruited Canadian voyageurs to ferry soldiers and supplies along the Nile River from Cairo to Khartoum. Some 400 river-men, many of them from the Ottawa Valley, took up the challenge. The task was onerous – they had to paddle heavy and heavily-laden whaling boats over 1,600 km upstream, through or around 6 major cataracts, while enduring the searing heat of the Sahara, as well as malaria, dysentery and other diseases, and in the latter stages attacks by hostile Sudanese forces. Although the expedition failed, the distinguished service of the Canadian oarsmen was honoured in the choice of Sudanese city names, Khartum and Dongola, for new post offices in Canada.
Not all apparently-Asian or African names are what they seem. For example, Medina ON is named after the town of Medina NY, not the city in Saudi Arabia. Likewise, Cochin SK has no connection to the city (now called Kochi) and defunct Feudatory State in southern India, but rather was named in honour of Father Louis Cochin, a French priest who served Métis and First Nations communities in the area.