CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS AND THE CARIBBEAN PLACENAMES

THE SCIENCE OF TYPONOMY

            In his Historia del Almirante, (Luís Arranz edition, Madrid, 1984, p.117), Hernando Colón says that his father “acted in a logical and orderly fashion in his choice of names, so as to satisfy the memory of the things spiritual and temporal”. In his first voyage of discovery, between capes, headlands, islands, gulfs, ports, rivers and other geographical features, Columbus used 62 anthroponyms or toponyms, between Octover 12th 1492 and January 16th 1493 to name the places that he found in the New World. According to Kirkpatrick Sale (The Conquest of Paradise – Columbus and The Columbian Legacy, New York, 1990, p. 93) “twenty-four of these are inspired by their resemblances to natural features, eleven are names after religious figures or saints’ days, eight which reflect general feelings of holiness or beauty, four after heavenly bodies, four after animals, three for specific people, five names taken from the Taino language and nine others miscellaneous and mysterious inspirations”. However, the American author is mistaken because I have found a total of 72 names coined by Columbus during his first voyage and I have investigated the historical sources of each and everyone of them. One thing, however, is irrefutable: Christopher Columbus alone gave name to the geographical features he found, and in one occasion when he thought that Martin Alonso Pinzón had named a river after himself, the Admiral changed the name to “García”.

            Antonio Blázquez (Nuevas Fuentes de Geografía e Historia, Madrid, 1903) points out that “the geographical names have not been given whimsically or haphazardly, but rather quite often contain a topographical description of the place designed specifically for it, or frequently express an ideological connection with some aspect of the place in question”.

            Julio Rey Pastor and Ernesto García Camarero (Cartografía Mallorquina, Madrid, 1959) point out that “all the basic elements which we rely on in a seachart are the placenames because they are the key to many of the problems posed by the history of cartography and also prevent us with an abundant source of data for the history of geography and commerce in the Middle Ages”.

            Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864-1936), a prominent Basque writer and university Professor, in a taped interview which has been preserved by Radio Nacional de España, also expresses the same opinion: “Words transmit the human essence of things in such a way that those geographical place names which are not named after a person carry with them a landscape, and we need only to hear the word to imagine the kind of place which was given this name”.

            The great Catalan philologist Joan Coromines i Vigneaux (Estudis de Toponimia Catalana, Barcelona, 1961, Vol I, p 22) recognises  the fundamental importance of placenames since “it supplies geography with an infinite amount of exact and precise data in all the areas which go to make up this science: in particular, human geography and obviously cartography (…) and above all any research into historical geography”. Joan Coromines goes on to say that toponimical data “throw a light on periods of which we know very little, such as the pattern of foreign colonisation, and which are virtually impossible to learn about in any other way”. Doctor Coromines also states that “toponimy is often of great assistance in the study of old documents and other important historical sources written  in former times”.

            Josep Maria Albaigés (Enciclopedia de los Toponimos Españoles, Barcelona, 1998, pp 7-16) explains that “the name of the things will outlast even human memory, living on as it does in generation after generation, saving from oblivion that magic moment in which the object truly came to life. And the toponym holds a position of particular relevance in the field of word names, deriving originally from an ordinary word before being applied to one specific place, and then shaped by successive generations who transform and refine it creating their own particular version of the name for the use of the following generation”. Albaigés also says that various elements must be brought into play in analysing a placename: its relationship to other place names, a knowledge of different languages, the ways in which names are formed, and even a knowledge of local conditions and circumstances. When explaining definitions, Albaigés reminds us that “toponym”, a term derived from the Greek word topos –place-, and onoma –name-, is any word used to refer to a place, area, town, river, geographical feature or in general, any place that we may wish to single out in some way. The most common manner in which the process is applied is by using its physical characteristics to define the place, although on other occasions will prevail the age –old custom of pandering to the vanity of rulers (…). Another ever-present phenomenon is anthroponymy from the Greek anthropos, -man- any word which refers to a particular individual. Indeed, countless placenames derive from someone related to the spot through its foundation, history, dedication or mere anecdote”.

            Josep Maria Albaigés also tells us that “another interesting chapter is that of the transference of names, such as Toledo in the United States, Guadalajara in Mexico, or Santiago de Chile, and the underlying explanation is common knowledge: natives of their Spanish namesakes or at least people with emotional ties to that place and who wanted to immortalise it in the new American lands”.

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS AND TOPONYMY

            In the case of the names used by Columbus in the Caribbean, as we shall see, the amount of transference of placenames from the Mediterranean coast is extremely widespread while there are practically no names taken from the Italian region of Liguria. In actual fact, the names used by Columbus can be found in the Straits of Gibraltar, Andalusia, the east coast of mainland Spain, the coasts of Morocco, Algeria, Sardinia and the Balearics, especially Ibiza and Formentera, Galicia and a few from the Tyrrhenian Sea, a fact which can be explained by the time he spent as a corsair with René d’Anjou.

            I have based my toponymic research on the works of Fray Bartolomé de la Casas (Historia de las Indias , Madrid, 1957 and Diario de Colón, Madrid, 1962), who studied all the Admiral’s logbooks as well as both his official and private documents, and who drew up a list of names used during the four Columbian voyages. I have also studied the works of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (Historia General y Natural de las Indias, Madrid, 1959), those of Martín Fernández Navarrete (Colección de Viajes de Descubrimiento, Madrid, 1954) of Juan Gil and Consuelo Varela (Cristóbal Colón – Textos y documentos completos, Madrid, 1992) and the Pleitos Colombinos published by the Seville School of Iberoamerican Studies in 1964, 1967, 1983 and 1984. I then compared them with all the seacharts of the coasts of Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean, the West Indies and the Caribbean, and everything goes to show that Columbus, “giving names in a logical and orderly fashion”, as we are told by his son Hernando, what he did in actual fact was to draw up the Primer Derrotero del Nuevo Mundo (first West Indies Pilot), which coincides to an amazing extent with the western Mediterranean, transferring to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean names which were familiar and pleasing to him, a fact which can help us to solve some of the enigmas posed by the illustrious explorer, including his true identity and his mother tongue.

            At the same time, we should remember that the great majority of Christopher Columbus’s documents have been either lost or have been deliberately removed. Any research must therefore be carried out using documents which may well have suffered alterations at the hands of the copyists so as to adapt them to their own language and phonetic system, and we shall see clear and convincing examples of this throughout the present work. When I use the term copyists, I am referring to Castilian functionaries who did not understand Columbus’s linguistic peculiarities, being as he was a speaker of Catalan, a subject of the kingdom of Aragon and quite possibly a native of Ibiza (see the works of Nito Verdera, Cristóbal Colón, Catalanoparlante, Ibiza, 1994 and La Verdad de un nacimiento – Colón ibicenco, Madrid, 1988).

            Other factors to be taken into account for the better understanding of the problems inherent in the study and interpretation of the names used by Columbus in the New World are those expounded in such a masterly fashion by Máximo Trapero (Para una teoría lingüística de la toponimia, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1995):

1-     Toponomy is an area whose object of study is so varied and so complex, a science in which so many fields of knowledge must converge for any interpretation, that anyone approaching it should be advised to proceed with both modesty and prudence; prudence not to assume anything or consider it as wholly certain, and modesty to be able to accept any other theory or outside explanation which might improve on one’s own in any of the above aspects.

2-     Toponyms vary from anthroponyms in that the latter refer to people and the former to places, and also in that anthroponyms are always arbitrary and most toponyms have a logical reason for their existence.

3-     Toponymy relates to human existence as a whole, in both an individual and collective sphere, and so he avails himself of all the possibilities of naming offered by a language are to be considered.

LISTS OF TOPONYMS

From Columbus’s four voyages a total of 197 names have come down to us and I have analysed and studied each and every one of them in depth (see the work of Nito Verdera, De Ibiza y Formentera al Caribe – Cristóbal Colón y la toponimia, Ibiza, 2000). There were certainly many more, but the loss of his log books makes it impossible for us to know the number and pattern of toponyms and anthroponyms used by the Admiral. In addition, it has been seen that the name of some of them was changed, as is the case with the island of Evangelista, situated to the south-west of Cuba and discovered during his second voyage, and which came to be called Isla de Pinos (Island of Pines). The Greeks christened the islands of Ibiza and Formentera with the name of Pityuses, which means Islands of Pines, but Ibiza and the Cuban island of Pines also happen to share a strong physical likeness, because both of them have two bays, one on the east and one on the west. Another clear example of name transference.

I have previously mentioned that Columbus, with all these placenames, virtually drew up what might be called the First West Indies Pilot and this would surely have been reflected in the charts he drafted for Ferdinand and Isabella, which have also been lost. Using existing material, the names which have been studied have succeeded in filling a gap in our knowledge of Columbian toponymy and at the same time, in clarifying the ideas of some researchers who only cast more confusion on subjects which are per se difficult and complex. A case in point are the Lucayas Islands, now called the Bahamas – where we find the first island to be discovered: Sant Salvador, the patron saint of the old guild of Ibizan sailors from the thirteenth century onwards – and it has been said, by some researchers, that this name (Lucayas) comes from Lluc, a famous Majorcan monestry, and even from some ghostly Genoan personage by the name of Lucca. On the other hand, José Luis Pando de Villarroya (Colón y la carta en alemán, Madrid, 1987, p.175) says that Lucayas comes from Jucayo, which in the language of the Arawaks, the inhabitants of the first islands to be discovered, means a skilful swimmer; in time -the author goes on to say- the “J” was changed to “Y” and this, thanks to its phonetic similarity, to “LL”, and, for economy, to “L”. For his part, Patricio Montojo (Las primeras tierras descubiertas, Madrid, 1982, p.17) offers us another possibility: “these islands of the Lucayos, because this was the name of the people inhabiting these little islands, the name meaning “key dwellers”, since in this language keys are islands”. It is truly difficult to know which of these two authors is right, but they at least offer two coherent examples of scientific research.

As for the island of Trinidad, discovered during Columbus’s third voyage, this name can also be found in the Boniface Strait, off the south-east coast of Corsica. It must be remembered that this island has close ties to the kingdom of Aragon because in 1297 Pope Boniface VIII awarded its feudal rights to king James II of Spain and a governor was appointed, a post which continued to exist until the second half of the fifteenth century.

In the present toponymyc study, I have aimed to emphasize the fact that it was therefore not strange for Columbus to have sailed in the Tyrrhenian Sea as if it were his home waters, and I have discovered that he carried several names with him to the Caribbean. From Corsica: Trinidad; another from Dardinia: Porto Torres; three from the island of Elba: Cabo del Elefanate, Cabo Francés and Cabo del Enamorado, and also that of the island of Montecristo.

Below we shall see the complete lists of the names used during his four voyages, arranged according to the headings which I have used in my research; that is, the transference of toponyms, saints, religious festivals, new names, which I have termed incidental, classical and of doubtful origin. I have than made a percentage selection so that the study carried out may help to locate the Admiral geo-physically, mentally and in terms of his family and background.

In order to make the data easier to understand and to put the placenames in some sort of order within the headings, the numbers which appear in brackets refer to the number of the voyage. Again, it must be remembered that Christopher Columbus alone named the places he came across; that is, he personally made the transference of placenames from the Old World to the Caribbean, he devised them to coincide with important points of the voyages and he would certainly have noted them in his logbooks, which have, unfortunately, disappeared.

 

PLACENAMES FROM THE SOUTH-WEST COAST OF SPAIN, STRAIT OF GIBRALTRAR AND NORTH MOROCCO.

-         Cabo del Monte (1)

-         Río de Gracia (1)

-         Monte de Plata (1)

-         Cabo Redondo (1)

-         Cabo de Peña (1)

-         Isla Aguja (2)

-         Isla Anegada (2)

-         Isla Bonete (2)

-         El Gallo, islet (3)

-         Punta Sara (3)

-         Puerto de Gatos (3)

-         Cabo de Conchas (3)

         Total 12

 

PLACENAMES FROM GALICIA

-         Cabo de Estrella (1)

-         Punta de Prados (4)

-         Montes de San Cristóbal (4)

Total 3

 

PLACENAMES FROM THE EAST COAST OF MAINLAND SPAIN

-         Cabo de Campana (1)

-         Puerto Mata (1)

-         Punta Seca (1)

-         Cabo de Cruz (1)

-         Jardín de la Reina (2)

-         Monte Cristalina (2)

-         Golfo de Ballena (3)

-         Isla de Gracia (3)

-         Punta Seca (3)

-         Puerto de Cabañas (3)

-         Isletas Barbas (4)

Total 11

 

 

PLACENAMES FROM IBIZA AND FORMENTERA [*]

-         Cabo del Isleo [Illetes] (1)

-         Río de Marés (1)

-         Punta Rama (1)

-         Isla de las Ratas (1)

-         Isla de Cabra (1)

-         Cabo del Becerro [Vedella] (1)

-         Punta Roja (1)

-         Isla Anguila (2)

-         Berberia, Cayo de (2)

-         Puerto Grande [Porto Magno] (2)

-         Isla de Pinos [Pitiusa] (2)

-         Las Hormigas, bajo de (2)

-         Isla Saona (2)

-         Cabo de la Galera (3)

-         Camari (3)

-         Isleta Caracol (3)

-         Islote Delfín (3)

-         Islote Margarita [Margalida] (3)

-         Isla Martinet (3)

Total 19

            [*] The placenames taken from Ibiza and Formentera to the Caribbean are in actual fact 21 because the islands of Sant Salvador and Nieves (Nuestra Señora de las Nieves is the patron saint of Ibiza and Formentera), which appear in the following list.

 

NAMES OF SAINTS AND RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS [*]

-         Sant Salvador, isla de (1)

-         Santa María de la Concepción, isla de (1)

-         San Salvador, río de (1)

-         Mar de Nuestra Señora (1)

-         Puerto de Santa Catalina (1)

-         Puerto de la Concepción (1)

-         Isla de Santo Tomás (1)

-         Punta Santa (1)

-         Villa de Navidad (1)

-         Puerto Sacro (1)

-         Cabo de Sant Theramo (1)

-         Dominica (2)

-         Los Santos, islotes (2)

-         Guadalupe, isla (2)

-         Montserrat, isla (2)

-         Santa María de la Redonda (2)

-         Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, isla (2)

-         San Cristóbal, isla (2)

-         San Eustaquio, isla (2)

-         San Saba, isla (2)

-         Santa María del Antigua, isla (2)

-         San Martín, isla (2)

-         Santa Cruz, isla (2)

-         Santa Ursula, isla (2)

-         Onde Mil Vírgenes, isla (2)

-         Archipiélago de las Vírgenes, isla (2)

-         Virgen Gorda, isla (2)

-         San Juan, isla (2)

-         San Tomás, isla (2)

-         San Marcos, isla (2)

-         San Bartolomé, isla (2)

-         San Juan Bautista [Puerto Rico], isla (2)

-         Fortaleza de Santo Tomás (2)

-         Santa Gloria, puerto (2)

-         Santiago [Jamaica], isla (2)

-         Santa María, isla (2)

-         Cabo de San Miguel (2)

-         Santa Caterina, isla (2)

-         Cabo de San Rafael (2)

-         Fortaleza de la Esperanza (2)

-         Fortaleza de la Concepción (2)

-         Fortaleza de San Cristóbal (2)

-         Isla Santa (3)

-         Isla de la Asunción (3)

-         Isla de la Concepción (3)

-         Isla del Romero (3)

-         Río o Puerto de Belén (4)

-         Golfo de San Blas (4)

Total 53

[*] We have seen that, in the second voyage, Columbus gave 33 saints’ names, something which seems to be rather excessive, but we should not be too surprised because he was accompanied by Fray Bernat Buil, a monk of the Benedictine order of Montserrat and a papal representative, and there were also some other monks on board the ships of discovery. So this goes to confirm the words of Josep Maria Albaigés: “… on other occasions will prevail the age-old custom of pandering to the vanity of the rulers”.

 

PLACENAMES FROM MALLORCA

-         Vacas, canal de (2)

-         Punta del Arenal (3)

-         Tramuntana, isla (3)

-         Isletas Guardias (3)

Total 4

 

PLACENAMES FROM THE TYRRHENIAN SEA

-         Cabo del Elefante (1)

-         Cabo Torres (1)

-         Monte Christi (1)

-         Cabo Francés (1)

-         Cabo del Enamorado (1)

-         Trinidad (3)

Total 6

 

PLACENAMES FROM THE COAST OF ALGERIA

-         Cabo de Pico (1)

-         Alto Velo, isla (2)

-         Mona,isla (2)

-         Punta Aguja (3)

-         Los jardines, puerto (3)

-         Punta Caxines (4)

Total 6

 

INCIDENTAL PLACENAMES

-         Isla Bella (1)

-         Cabo Hermoso (1)

-         Cabo de la Laguna (1)

-         Isla de Arena (1)

-         Río de la Luna (1)

-         Cabo de Palmas (1)

-         Cabo de Peña (1)

-         Río de Sol (1)

-         Isla Llana (1)

-         Cabo Lindo (1)

-         Cabo de Cinquín (1)

-         Isla de la Tortuga (1)

-         Punta Pierna (1)

-         Punta Lanzada (1)

-         Punta Aguda (1)

-         Valle del Paraiso (1)

-         Los dos Hermanos, montañas (1)

-         Cabo Alto y Bajo (1)

-         Vega Real (1)

-         Cabo de Sierpe (1)

-         Río de Oro (1)

-         Cabo del Ángel (1)

-         Cabo del Buen Tiempo (1)

-         Cabo Tajado (1)

-         Cabo de Pdre e Hijo (1)

-         Golfo de las Flechas (1)

-         La Deseada, isla (2)

-         Barbuda, isla (2)

-         Sombrero, isla (2)

-         Tórtola, isla (2)

-         Puerto de los Hidalgos (2)

-         Río de las Cañas (2)

-         Cabo de la Espuela (2)

-         Golfo del Buen Tiempo (2)

-         Punta del Serafín (2)

-         Cabo del Farol (2)

-         Punta de la Playa (3)

-         Cabo Boto (3)

-         Boca de la Sierpe (3)

-         Boca del Drago (3)

-         Golfo de las Perlas (3)

-         Cabo Luengo (3)

-         Cabo del Sabor (3)

-         Cabo Rico (3)

-         Isletas los Testigos (3)

-         Islas Pozas (4)

-         Isla de Pinos (4)

-         Costa de la Oreja (4)

-         Puerto de las Cuatro Estaciones (4)

-         Isletas Limonares (4)

-         Cabo de Gracias a Dios (4)

-         Río del Desastre (4)

-         Isla del Escudo (4)

-         Isleta de la Huerta (4)

-         Puerto de Bastimientos (4)

-         Puerto Gordo (4)

-         El Peñón, península (4)

-         Costa de los Contrastes (4)

-         Cabo del Mármol (4)

-         Islas Tortugas (4)

-         Puerto Bueno (4)

Total 61

 

CATALANISMS

-         Cheranero [socaire- lee] (1)

-         Cabo Belprado (1)

-         Isla Belaforma (1)

-         Belpuero (4)

-         Puerto del Retrete (4)

Total 5

 

PROPER NAMES

-         Ferrandina, isla (1)

-         Puerto del Príncipe (1)

-         Juana [Cuba], isla (1)

-         Isla Española [haiti] (1)

-         Río Guadalquivir (1)

-         Cabo de Cuba (1)

-         Marigalante, isla (2)

-         Isabela, villa (2)

-         Isla Isabeta (3)

-         Madama Beata (3)

Total 10

 

PLACENAMES FROM PORTUGAL

-         Cabo de la Lapa (1)

Total 1

 

PLACENAMES FROM THE ATHLANTIC OCEAN

-         Cabo Verde (1)

-         Puerto Santo (1)

-         Punta del Hierro (1)

Total 3

 

OLD GEOGRAPHICAL NAMES

-         Cabo de Alpha et 0 (1)

-         Ciambo (4)

Total 2

 

NAMES OF DOUBTFUL ORIGIN [*]

-         Centrefrei, isla (1)

Total 1

         [*] It is related to the island of Frei in Norway.

 

TOTAL OF NAMES OVER ALL FOUR VOYAGES: 197

 

 

COLUMBIAN TOPONYMS AND PERCENTAGES

            The 197 placenames used by Christopher Columbus throughout his four voyages have been distributed in percentages, which provide an overview of the toponymical chart as a whole, and allow us to obtain an insight, albeit indirectly, into the mind of the explorer, or at least this is what I have attempted to do.

            The incidental placenames, that is, those relating to deeds or events which took place while navegating along the coastlines of the New World are 61 in number, which represents 30.9 % of the total. In second place come the names of saints and religious festivals, with a total of 51 and 25.8 %, a figure which indicates the importance conceded by Columbus to religious matters, and even more to the ruling powers, being as he was a converted Jew and, privately an active follower of the Jewish faith. Next in order of importance are the placenames of Ibiza and Formentera taken to the Caribbean, of which there are 21, 20.8 % of the total, an extremely high percentage which goes to show that the Pityusan coastline was familiar to him and inspired him with fond memories.

Next come the 12 placenames taken from the south-western coast of the Iberian peninsula, the Strait of Gibraltar and the north of Morocco: areas well known to Columbus, through having sailed their waters and his landfall after his voyages, and also as a result of the many years he lived in Andalusia. Another 11 placenames taken to the Caribbean can be located between the coasts of Alicante and Cap de Creus, in Catalonia, 5.6 % of the total number.

            There are then a list of 10 proper names, 5.7 %; 6 placenames from the Tyrrhenian Sea and the same number from the coasts of Algeria, 3.04 % in each case. We then have 5 of Columbus’s Catalanisms, 2.53 % and 4 names taken from the island of Majorca, 2.03 %. There are 3 placenames from Galicia and another 3 from the Atlantic, 1.52 % each. We can also find two names taken from classical sources, 1.01 %; Portugal supplies us with one placename, 0.5 %; and there is also one name of doubtful origin, another 0.5 %.

            If we count all the placenames taken from places in the old kingdom of Aragon: Ibiza and Formentera, the eastern coasts of mainland Spain and Majorca, and we add on the Catalanisms, we will arrive at a total of 42, with the inclusion of the island of Montserrat, discovered during the second voyage, this will give 21.3 %, almost a quarter of the total number. This fact proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christopher Columbus had a thorough knowledge of these coasts and that they inspired him with fond memories. To conclude then, the very placenames show that Columbus was a Catalan speaking sailor, a subject of the kingdom of Aragon. On the other hand, like a flat encephalogram, names taken from the Italian region of Liguria of the Gulf of Genoa are conspicuous by their absence, a fact which speaks for itself.

nitoverdera@arrakis.es