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Geo-Joint: Guinea

Posted on December 30 2015


Geek that I am, this Geo-Joint involves two of my favorite things: words and geography. The etymology of today’s word/place name ties together location and a bit of history, and not surprisingly wanders off into rabbit holes of hard-to-verify factoids. What we know for sure is that the name “Guinea” pops up in a trio of West African country names, to wit: Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea, the last of which sits on the Gulf of Guinea. In the past, those three countries were known as French Guinea, Portuguese Guinea, and Spanish Guinea, respectively. Dutch Guinea, or the Dutch Gold Coast, later became Ghana. How come all this Guinea business? The word “Guinea” was a word used by Europeans when referring to the largely unknown region of West Africa. One explanation for the source of that word cites a term from the Berber tribesmen living to the north. They called that vast forested area to their south, “Akal n’Iguinawen,” (land of the blacks) which sounded to European ears something like “Guinea.” Kind of a stretch, but in the annals of cross-cultural term exchange, it’s not the worst example of word-mangling. An alternate derivation is the name of the town called Jenne (now Djénné) in Mali, a couple of hundred miles southwest of Timbuktu. Jenne would be even easier to morph into “Guinea.” This trading center was near a gold mining region, and in those days it was commonly believed that gold generally came from tropical climates. In 15th century Europe, Guinea became a sort of catch-all reference to gold-bearing areas. Indeed, with gold from Guinea the British minted a coin in those days with a value of 21 schillings, that they called, you guessed it, a guinea. Despite all that, other scholars argue that a town far inland, unvisited by European coastal explorers, was not likely the source of the name. They posit that the people living along the West African coast called their own kingdom Gunowa which the Portuguese wrote as Gunee and which transformed into Guinea. Take your pick of the stories – nobody seems to be certain.

Outside of Africa, the name Guinea also pops up in southeast Asia in the form of New Guinea, a very large island just north of Australia. That locale apparently picked up its Guinea reference because to early European explorers the land appeared similarly hot and forested, and the residents dark-skinned. British, German, and Dutch New Guinea each sat on parts of the island well into the 20th century before the place came to be half Indonesian (Irian Jaya on the west end) and half as an independent country, Papua New Guinea.

Now some of you may be thinking, “Hey, what about Guiana? There are a bunch of those – do they count, too?” No, they don’t. The Guianas, British, Dutch, and French, sit atop Brazil in South America. Of course the British one is now called Guyana, and the Dutch one is Suriname, name changes that came with independence. French Guiana remains an overseas department of France and still carries the name, although Francophones simply call it Guyane. However, none of these names are even remotely related to Guinea. Encyclopedia Britannica says that in a language native to the local area, “guiana” means “land of water.” It’s an appropriate name, given the amount of rain that falls there.

All this and I didn’t even mention guinea fowl.…guess where they come from. But wait, there’s more! Guinea pigs (can’t leave them out!) are from South America, not Africa. And while they come from the Andean region and not the east coast of South America, they may have gotten their name by having been brought to Europe by Guinea-men, the ships that sailed the triangular route from Africa to South America and then back to Europe. How the fuzzy little rodents got across Amazonia in the first place is more than I can figure.

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