You Gotta Know These Countries Once Known by Different Names
- Bangladesh adopted its current name upon gaining its independence from Pakistan in 1971. In 1947, the partition of British India created the new countries of India and Pakistan, based on the majority religion of various areas. The new Dominion of Pakistan consisted of the areas where Islam was the majority religion, and was split into two separate exclaves: West Pakistan, consisting of what is now Pakistan; and East Pakistan, covering what is now Bangladesh and consisting mostly of ethnic Bengali people. In 1966 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then head of East Pakistan’s Awami League, launched a major push for greater autonomy. In 1971 Pakistan began a genocide within East Pakistan in response to independence calls; one day later, East Pakistan officially declared independence as “Bangladesh.” In the subsequent Liberation War, the Bengalis were supported by India. Pakistani forces surrendered in December 1971.
- Burkina Faso assumed its current name in 1984, having previously been known as the Republic of Upper Volta. France controlled the region under the name French Upper Volta—which referred to its position along the upper course of the Volta River—for much of the 20th century, during which it was one part of French West Africa. Under the 1956 Basic Law, it was made a self-governing colony of France; two years later, it became fully independent under President Maurice Yaméogo, who was overthrown in 1966. A 1983 coup d’état brought military officer Thomas Sankara to power; the year after his ascent, he changed the country’s name to “Burkina Faso,” which roughly translates as “land of the upright” in two native tongues. Sankara was assassinated in 1987.
- The Democratic Republic of the Congo was known as Zaire between 1971 and 1997. The 1971 name change came about under the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, a dictator who effectively seized power during the Congo Crisis of 1960–1965, during which he toppled and later executed Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The name “Zaire” was derived from the Portuguese word for the Congo River, which itself was derived from a Bantu-language name for the river. Mobutu was ousted and forced into exile following the 1997 First Congo War by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, a coalition led by Laurent Kabila. Four days after seizing power, Kabila changed the country’s name back to the DRC.
- eSwatini (also commonly stylized as Eswatini) adopted its current name in 2018, following a proclamation to that effect by King Mswati III, who uses the title Ingwenyama. The tiny absolute monarchy, which is sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, had previously been known as Swaziland since it became a British protectorate in 1906 following the Second Boer War. The country, which is mostly populated by ethnic Swazis, gained independence from Britain in 1968. The new name of eSwatini, which was adopted in part to mark 50 years of independence, means “the land of Swazis” in the country’s native tongue, which is also known as Swazi.
- Ghana is a nation of former British holdings on Africa’s west coast, the most prominent of which was the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast was so named by multiple European powers for the rich gold reserves found within the area; in time, the region also became heavily involved in the slave trade. Britain incorporated its Gold Coast Colony in 1821 after seizing the chartered lands of the African Company of Merchants, which had continued to trade in slaves after Britain had outlawed the trade in 1807; Britain subsequently subsumed other nations’s holdings in the region into the British Gold Coast. The modern push for independence began in the late 1940s, and was led by Kwame Nkrumah, who later served as Ghana’s first prime minister and first president. Britain combined its Gold Coast, Northern Territories, Ashanti, and Togoland colonies into a single entity, which became the Dominion of Ghana in 1957. Ghana became a fully independent republic in 1960.
- North Macedonia officially became known as such in February 2019. For over two decades, the country’s former name, Macedonia had been the subject of a dispute with Greece, which objected to the use of the name “Macedonia” due both to the name’s ties to the ancient Kingdom of Macedon, and the fact that Greece itself contains an administrative region named “Macedonia.” For many years, the country was referred to in the United Nations as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) due to the Greek objection, which also prevented Macedonia from joining the EU and NATO. The countries agreed to resolve the naming dispute in the 2018 Treaty of Prespa.
- Sri Lanka was referred to by numerous different names in various ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and Arabic texts, including Taprobana and Serendib, and the island became widely known as Ceylon following Portuguese arrival in 1505. The Portuguese gave the island the name Ceilão, which was translated into English as “Ceylon.” The Portuguese, who clashed with the island’s Kingdom of Kandy, were largely driven off the island by a coalition of the Dutch and the island’s Sinhalese people beginning in the 1640s. In 1796, the island passed into British hands after the Dutch were conquered by Napoleon. As part of the divestment of British colonies following World War II, the Dominion of Ceylon became an independent Commonwealth of Nations state in 1948. It adopted the name “Sri Lanka” in 1972.
- The Kingdom of Thailand had its name changed from “Siam” twice within a decade. Portuguese explorers began using the term “Siam” to refer to the region in the 1500s; such usage gained official prominence via its use by rulers from the Chakri dynasty. A rebellion and monarchical crisis in the 1930s led to the 1938 rise of Luang Phibunsongkhram, commonly known as Phibun. In 1939 Phibun officially changed the country’s name to Thailand, or Prathet Thai, having a double meaning of “Land of the Thai” and “Land of the Free”—part of Phibun’s campaign against China. Phibun allied with the Japanese during World War II but was forced out of power in 1944. In 1945, the country’s post-war government changed the nation’s name back to Siam; however, another monarchical crisis sparked by the 1946 assassination of Rama VIII led to Phidun’s return to power in 1948 with U.S. support. In 1949 he once again renamed the country “Thailand.”
- The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven internal states (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain, and Ras Al Khaimah) that were previously known as the Trucial States and which united in 1971. The Trucial States were a group of seven sheikhdoms that signed treaties (or truces) with Great Britain beginning in 1820. These states lay along what Britain termed the “Pirate Coast” of the Persian Gulf; the treaties were intended to protect British ships from raids. In the late 19th century, these treaties evolved into an Exclusive Agreement, in which Britain promised the emirates military protection. In 1968, Britain announced it would withdraw military support from the region. Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the emir of Abu Dhabi, negotiated an agreement among the Trucial States to join together and became the first president of the United Arab Emirates when it was established in December 1971.
- Zimbabwe assumed its current name upon its formal independence from Britain in 1980 and was named after the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe within its borders. Zimbabwe grew out of the colony of Rhodesia, named for Cecil Rhodes, which Britain established in southern Africa in the late 19th century. That colony was later split along the Zambezi River into Northern Rhodesia (which later became the country of Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia. Southern Rhodesia’s white government attempted to declare independence from Britain in 1965 (as simply “Rhodesia”) in an effort to suppress the country’s black population, leading to the 15-year-long Rhodesian Bush War. Under the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, Britain resumed control long enough to oversee elections that were won by the ZANU party, led by Robert Mugabe, who ruled the new country for the next 37 years.
This article was contributed by NAQT member Jason Thompson.