BLACK HISTORY MONTH: From Guinea to Barbados
“GUINEA”, a name we all can generally associate with being a part of Africa, as a country, or a general notion of being one of the first things that come to mind when describing things African.
But beyond our typical perception of Guinea lies a history that goes beyond Africa, reaching parts of the world that one would not even begin to fathom an association with the word from a European and Caribbean perspective, especially Barbados.
In truth, the factual origins of the word “Guinea” are unknown.
However, research has given the closest, most practical history that the word is English in origin, but was first adapted from the Portuguese word ‘Guine’, which came into use during the 15th century by sailors who used it to refer to the area along the West African coast, south of the Senegal River.
Another theory cites that Guinea potentially came from the North African Berber phrase “Tuareg Aginaw”, which translates to “Black People”, to describe the dark-skinned indigenous people of Africa.
By the 18th century, European geographers used Guinea to refer to the broader West African coast. Countries that are now within this region include the country of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, but it does not include the third country of its namesake, Equatorial Guinea, which lies close to the equator.
A map, originally drawn by British cartographer Herman Moll in 1736, features the region known as Guinea, and within is the Gold Coast, which is now the independent country of Ghana. This was where Europeans sourced most of their gold, and the purpose of the word began in a slightly different direction.
Two centuries after the discovery of gold in Ghana, Britain introduced a new form of currency called the “Guinea” or “Guinea coin” in 1663. This was a small coin that was actually minted from the gold that originated from the Guinea Coast itself. The Guinea coin was originally used for trade between Britain and the Guinea region during that time, but soon after, was domestically used for transactions within Britain. During the original run of the Guinea coin from 1663 to 1813, it was worth exactly 21 shillings.
Another use of Guinea was shed in a more racist light, as it was used as a derogatory term to describe Italians. “Guinea” or “Guinea Negro” was a slang or slur directed to Italians because of their dark-olive complexions compared to their northern and western European counterparts. This was their way of comparing the Italians, as well as Hispanics and Pacific Islanders for a short period, to the dark-skinned Africans, as a way of undermining their racial identity.
The Spanish explorer Inigo Ortiz de Retez came across a large island in the south-west Pacific, just north of Australia and east of Indonesia, around 1545. When reaching the island and observing the native inhabitants, he gave the island the name of Papua, New Guinea due to the physical resemblance and characteristics of the inhabitants, most having dark skin and tightly curled hair, being in similar appearance to the natives of Guinea West Africa.
In the Caribbean, the word Guinea has been applied to numerous items and terms that are derivative of our African roots. It is most typically used as a general word to represent anything that has originated from Africa.
For instance, Guinea refers to the hairstyle Guinea row or Guineaplait, which is more commonly known as the braided hairstyle, the ‘cornrow’, which is traditionally said to replenish the hair and help to make it grow. In some islands such as Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica and
Trinidad and Tobago, Guinea refers to the ground provision known as Guinea yam. This long-root tuber, which comes in both yellow and white variations, is actually a native to West Africa, specifically Nigeria, where the world’s largest source of this tuber is grown and cultivated.
The Guinea Fowl or Guinea Bird is another common application of the word Guinea seen throughout the Caribbean, especially being common in Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados. The Guinea Fowl or the scientific name, Numida meleagris, is a bird native to West Africa. They are naturally terrestrial, even though they are capable of flight. These birds are mainly reared for their delectable meat, and are very common in the gourmet market. However, due to their loud, harsh and cackling calls, these birds are also used to guard other poultry and animals from potential thieves.
In Barbados, as well as Jamaica and The Bahamas, Guinea-hen weed is a term most commonly used to identify “gully root”. This erect weed, standing three feet tall, is used for medicinal purposes, to treat aches, fevers and skin disorders, distinctly smelling of garlic when crushed for these purposes.
Most Barbadians, in earlier times, knew the grain Guinea corn, also known as sorghum or millet. This grain is also native to West Africa and received its name mainly due to the way it grows, taking on a similar appearance to corn (maize). This grain comes in a variety of colours, including black, white, red and yellow, but the most common varieties used here would be white and yellow Guinea corn.
Guinea corn, when ground into flour, can be used for various recipes such as bread or pancakes. In its granular state, it can even be popped into popcorn, similar to the regular corn on the cob. But we Barbadians know it best for being one of the main ingredients in our indigenous delicacy jug-jug, traditionally served during Christmastime.
As a concluding note, Guinea also applied to an area of St Philip, which further emphasises the country’s links to its African background.
It has become evident through the research that “Guinea” goes beyond its original use of representing West Africa. It was and still is capable of identifying so much.
• Mariah Standford is a student in the Divisionof Fine Arts of the Barbados Community College.