Place Names

Ethnic Politics and the Relocation of Ghana, Benin, and Mauritania

Map Showing Modern Ghana and the Old Empire of GhanaAs was recently mentioned in the GeoCurrents discussion forum, the names of several modern African countries were derived from former African kingdoms (or empires) located in different places. When the British Gold Coast gained independence in 1957, for example, it was rechristened Ghana, a name borrowed from the Ghana Empire (830-1235 CE) in what is now Mali and Mauritania. In 1975, the leaders of Dahomey changed its name to Benin, even though the former Benin Empire (1440–1897 CE) was situated in what is now Nigeria. Mauritania is also seemingly displaced, as the ancient Kingdom of Mauretania was located in what is now Morocco and Algeria.

Adopting such venerable names is generally understood as an attempt to borrow the glory of the former kingdoms, enlisting their prestige to give a measure of historical significance to modern states whose borders were created by European colonial powers. In each case, however, the designation of the new names was a rather more involved process.

Map Showing Modern benin and the Old Empire of BeninBefore 1975, the West African country sandwiched between Nigeria and Togo had been called the Republic of Dahomey. That name derived from the Kingdom of Dahomey (1600-1894 CE), a once-powerful state that had dominated the coastal zone. Under the colonial regime, a larger region extending well inland was dubbed French Dahomey. The independent Republic of Dahomey followed in 1960. After a Marxist coup toppled the government in 1972, the country’s new leaders wanted a clean break from the past, and in 1975 they renamed the state the People’s Republic of Benin. After the fall of the communist government in 1990, the official name was shortened to the Republic of Benin.

According to the Wikipedia article on the People’s Republic of Benin, the new name was chosen to reflect the Benin Empire “that had once flourished in neighboring Nigeria.” Most sources, however, maintain that the new name referenced not the Empire but the Bight of Benin, the adjacent stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. The country’s new leaders rejected the name “Dahomey” because they considered it too ethnically exclusive, since the old kingdom of that name had been closely identified with the Fon people of the coastal zone. The new name, based on physical geography, seemed less divisive—even though the term “Benin” ultimate derives from the former Benin Kingdom of the Edo people in what is now Nigeria. The capital of that state, Ubinu, gave rise to the term “Benin City,” which was generalized to cover the entire kingdom, and was subsequently applied to the adjacent sea.

In the case of Ghana, formerly the British Gold Coast, the new name directly refers to the old Kingdom (or Empire) of Ghana. Yet interpretations of the name change vary. According to the U.S. Department of State, “The Gold Coast was renamed Ghana upon independence in 1957 because of indications that present-day inhabitants descended from migrants who moved south from the ancient kingdom of Ghana.” Any such “indications” of major population transfers, however, are weak to non-existent. A more common view holds that modern Ghana’s founders wanted to reflect the prestige and power associated with West Africa’s first major empire.  But as was the case with Dahomey/Benin, issues of ethnic and regional inclusivity also played a role. According to a 2004 GhanaWeb article, Kwame Nkrumah— founder of the country—selected the new name after examining its history and etymology in great detail. He chose “Ghana,” the author argues, in part because of its association with the inland portion of West Africa. Since “Gold Coast” referred historically to the southern part of the country, continuing under that name would have alienated the northern peoples. As many northerners are Muslims, the association with the former Islamic state of Ghana would be advantageous in this regard.

Map Showing Modern Mauritania and Ancient MauretaniaThe specific connection between the modern and ancient states of Mauritania/Mauretania is also contested. In this case, the place name is of colonial origin, as the French dubbed their holdings in the region Mauritanie.  According to the Wikipedia, the name was derived from “the ancient Berber Kingdom of Mauretania, which later became a province of the Roman Empire, even though the modern state covers a territory far to the southwest of the old kingdom.” But according to the Library of Congress “country study” of Mauritania, the name actually derives from the pseudo-ethnic term Maure, which in French denotes the Arab and especially the Berber inhabitants of northwestern Africa, cognate with the English word “Moor.” Maure, in turn, stems from the Latin Maurus, meaning “coming from Mauretania.”

Map of French West Africa from 1936If “Ghana” and “Benin” were selected in part to signal ethnic inclusivity, the same cannot be said of “Mauritania.” The country is deeply divided along racial lines, with the Arab- and Berber-descended Bidhans, also known as Maures or Moors, maintaining hegemony over the people of sub-Saharan African descent. According to the Wikipedia, “The descendants of black Africans abducted into slavery now live in Mauritania as ‘blacks’ or haratin and partially still serve the ‘Moors’ (whites), or bidhan, as slaves.” The Anti-Slavery Society reports that approximately eighteen percent of the people of Mauritania are currently enslaved to one degree or another.

The Mauritanian government officially abolished slavery in 1981, and finally outlawed the practice in 2007. Several human rights organizations, however, claim that such laws are not enforced, and that those who struggle against the practice of slavery face persecution. In January 2011, three anti-slavery activists who had publicized the enslavement of a ten-year old girl were sentenced to a year in prison for the crimes of “unauthorized gathering” and “rebellion.” In August 2011, Amnesty International reported that, “The draconian response to the work of these activists suggests that the Mauritanian authorities are trying to cover up the fact that slavery takes place in the country.”


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The Many Meanings of “Guinea”

Map of the Three African "Guineas"Few place-names have been used to refer to more distinct places than “Guinea.” Four countries now share the name, three in western Africa (Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea), and one in the western Pacific (Papua New Guinea). Historically, several other places were referenced by the name as well. The Wikipedia disambiguation page lists thirteen “countries” called “Guinea,” in one form or another, including the former Dutch Guinea and German Guinea in West Africa. The same article counts seven additional regions called “Guinea,” including one in Gloucester County, Virginia, USA.

The origin of the term is uncertain. It entered English and other European languages by way of the Portuguese word Guiné, applied by fifteenth-century mariners to the African coast south of the Senegal River. How the term entered Portuguese is unknown. Some have linked it to various Berber words for dark-skinned people, others to the major commercial city of Djenné, located far inland on the Niger River. A third theory holds that “Guinea” comes from the medieval kingdom (or empire) of Ghana, located in modern Mali and Mauritania.

H. Moll's Map of West Africa Showing GuineaIn the eighteenth century, European geographers applied the term “Guinea” broadly to the West African coast, although the exact zone so labeled varied. In Herman Moll’s 1736 map posted here, Guinea does not include the areas that would later be called Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) and Spanish Guinea (now Equatorial Guinea). The early gold trade in this region is reflected in Moll’s map, in which the Gold Coast figures as a prominent sub-division of Guinea. As this area had long been the main source of gold for Europe and the Mediterranean region, British gold coins minted between 1663 and 1813 were called “guineas,” eventually valued at one pound plus one shilling. (To this day, payments at British livestock auctions and horse races are often figured in hypothetical “guineas,” each of which is worth 1.05 pounds.) It has been suggested the use of the term “Guinea” to refer to an area in Gloucester County, Virginia dates to the Revolutionary War, when the local swamps attracted deserting Hessian mercenaries who had been paid in guineas. Although the Wikipedia judges this etymology “incorrect,” it does not supply any alternatives.

Map of West Africa Showing GuineaThe designation of “New Guinea” for the massive island north of Australia dates to 1545, when it was bestowed by the Spanish mariner Yñigo Ortiz de Retez on the basis of the indigenous inhabitants’ physical resemblance to the people of Africa’s Guinea coast. Today the more local term “Papua” is often preferred, with the landmass as a whole sometimes called “Papua Island.” “Papua” is also of uncertain origin, although most sources link it to the Malay term papuah, meaning “frizzled,” evidently referring to the hair texture of the island’s inhabitants. Both “Papua” and “New Guinea” are thus foreign terms that refer to the physical characteristics of the islanders. But both terms have also been indigenized: the official name of the country that covers the eastern half of the island is, in Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin English), Independen Stet bilong Papua Niugini (or, in English, the “Independent State of Papua New Guinea”).

And if that were not complicated enough, “Guinea” is occasionally confused with Guyana (Guiana), a term referencing the northeastern coast of South America. The two words not only sound similar, but they exhibit a parallel geographical structure: both refer to coastal strips that were formerly divided among European powers: Guyana historically encompassed British Guyana (Guyana), Dutch Guiana (Suriname), French Guiana, and Portuguese Guiana (Amapá state of Brazil).  The two terms are not etymologically related, as “Guyana” probably stems from a local word meaning “land of many waters.” Confusion between the two, however, may have given rise to the term “guinea pig.” The Guinea pig is a South American rodent with no connection to Africa. Ties to Guyana, however, are tenuous, as the animal originated in the Andes. A more plausible explanation stems from the fact that the rodent was “first brought back to Britain aboard Guinea-men, ships that plied the triangle trade between England, Guinea, and South America.”

The domesticated guineafowl, on the other hand, is of West African origin. But it too has been involved with place-name confusion and substitution. According to one theory, guineafowl were first called “turkeys” in Britain, owing to the fact that they were introduced to the country in the 1500s by “Turkey merchants” who traded with the Ottoman Empire. The first English colonists in New England subsequently confused the large native fowl with the African bird, calling it “turkey” as well. The mix-up extends to scientific nomenclature. According to the Wikipedia, “The word meleagris, Greek for guineafowl, is also shared in the scientific names of the two species, although for the guineafowl it is the species name, whereas for the turkey, it is the name of the genus and (in an altered state) the family.”

As a final note, “Guinea” has also been applied pejoratively to Americans of Italian descent. According to first definition in the Urban Dictionary, “Guinea” is “the most vile racial slur that can be used against an Italian-American. Refers to the Guinea Coast of Africa; using this slur is a very offensive way of implying that Italian-Americans are non-whites…” Actually, the origin of this derogatory usage remains uncertain. According to a theory propounded in the WikiAnswers discussion page, the word goes back to British guinea coins: “the early Italians, seeking jobs & ways to get money, would walk around saying, “Ginny, Ginny, which at the time … was an English form of money…”

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