prince william augustus duke of cumberland.jpg

This painting depicts General H.R.H. The Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, with Culloden in the background.

I love Northern Virginia. It has been home between my military assignments overseas since 1974. When I returned for the last time in 1988, I settled in Prince William County.

After years in Asia and Europe, I was particularly fond of the diverse cultures and heterogeneous population. The Ikea at Potomac Mills sold the same things I bought in the Ikea in Heidelberg, Germany. A walk around the Potomac Town Center exposed me to every kind of dress and to a symphony of languages from around the world. This is my family’s home.

Prince William County was named after Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, Marquess of Berkhampstead, Viscount Trematon and Earl of Kennington. The Duke was the third and youngest son of King George II.

In England, Prince William had another title. He was commonly called “Butcher Cumberland” for his ruthless conduct during the Battle of Culloden and subsequent genocide of Catholic Jacobites.

The Battle of Culloden and atrocities that followed are how the Duke earned his nickname. This battle was the showdown between the Jacobites (Scottish, Irish, English and French Catholics), who were defending Prince Charles Edward Stewart’s claim to the throne of Great Britain, and Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, who was defending King George II’s (a Protestant) claim.

The Duke prevailed. He ordered no mercy be shown to the wounded who lay on the battlefield or those who retreated. They were quickly killed. He then ordered that Jacobites, whether they supported the battle or not, be executed. Women and children were not spared. Torture and rape were common. Many of those who did survive were sent to the colonies and sold to the highest bidder.

I inherited my Catholic faith through my Irish grandmother and claim both English and Scottish ancestors. I was aware of the Jacobite rebellion; however, I’ll admit the “Outlander” TV series piqued my interest in Charles Edward Stewart, the Catholic pretender to the throne. I suspect there are many Catholics of Scottish, Irish, and English ancestry who connected the same dots.

History matters. Names matter. There is a lot of discussion about naming schools these days. Black residents of Prince William have objected to naming a new high school after Thomas Gaines, a slave owner and namesake of Gainesville. They successfully led an initiative to rename Stonewall Jackson Middle School to Unity Braxton Middle School, and Stonewall Jackson High School to Unity Reed. Likewise, Mills E. Godwin Middle School was renamed several years ago after Dr. George Hampton. I understand the objections and consider the new names appropriate for our community.

I suggest it is now time to abandon the name of a British general nicknamed “Butcher Cumberland” for his behavior toward combatants, the genocide he perpetrated against Catholics, and the slave sales that subsequently occurred. Do we want to live in a community named after such a disgraceful historical figure?

The Prince William County Board of County Supervisors should direct staff to explore the history of our namesake and work with the Virginia legislature to rename our county after someone who better represents our community and our values.

“Butcher Cumberland” is not a person we should honor. He certainly does not reflect our values and is offensive to the descendents of those he tortured, sold into involuntary servitude and killed. As our county reflects upon itself, its history and who it remembers, its own namesake should be reconsidered. We deserve better.

Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week. You can learn more about Al at www.alborn.net.

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