BHS logo Welcome to the Bahamas Historical Society

Vol. 1/1979
Vol. 2/1980
Vol. 3/1981
Vol. 4/1982
Vol. 5/1983
Vol. 6/1984
Vol. 7/1985
Vol. 8/1986
Vol. 9/1987
Vol. 10/1988
Vol. 11/1989
Vol. 12/1990
Vol. 13/1991
Vol. 14/1992
Vol. 15/1993
Vol. 16/1994
Vol. 17/1995
Vol. 18/1996
Vol. 19/1997
Vol. 20/1998
Vol. 21/1999
Vol. 22/2000
Vol. 23/2001
Vol. 24/2002
Vol. 25/2003
Vol. 26/2004
Vol. 27/2005
Vol. 28/2006
Vol. 29/2007
Vol. 30/2008
Vol. 31/2009
Vol. 32/2010
Vol. 33/2011
Vol. 34/2012
Vol. 35/2013
Vol. 36/2014
Vol. 37/2015

News & Events
Research Aids
Show Your Support

Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, Volume 13 (October 1991)

by Julian Granberry


A few of the aboriginal names of the islands of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and the Crown Colony of the Turks & Caicos Islands - the Lucayan Archipelago - have survived intact to the present: Abaco, Bahama, Bimini, Caicos, Exuma, Guana (in several places), Inagua, Jumen-to, Mayaguana, and Samana. Abaco and Exuma are now applied to islands other than those they first designated, if we are reading the early maps correctly, but the others still designate the islands they originally named. The names of many others are also known from the writings of Spanish chroniclers and maps of the early 16th century. In all we have 40 aboriginal island names.

Until recently there has been no attempt to determine what, if anything, these names meant and what significance such meanings might have in determining the order of settlement, extent of occupation, curtural differences, and relative importance of the individual islands. The names have been listed, of course, with varying degrees of accuracy and there has been speculation as to the import of some of them, but the lack of information on the language they were part of made even guess-work difficult.

Correlating the native names with specific islands in the archipelago is itself not an easy task, for the early maps often dislocate individual islands and frequently give them shapes which are only partly a function of actual geography. In 1953/54, using the beautifully reproduced maps of the Duque de Alba's Mapas Espanoles de America, Siglos XV-XBII (Academia Real de la Historia 1951) and other maps and reproductions available at the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida, I correlated the names and locations of the islands in the archipelago from the principal maps of the early 16th century, particularly those of Juan de la Cosa (1500), Alberto Cantino (1502), Freducci d'Ancona (1514/15), the Turin map (c1520), Juan Vespucci (1526), and Alonso de Santa Cruz (1545) (Cranberry 1955:23-31). I have since added correlations from a number of other maps, such as that of Alonso de Chaves (c1526). Recently Josiah Marvel has embarked on a scholarly listing and correlation for 320 cartographic and manuscript sources listing Lucayan island names (Marvel 1988). Our correlations are largely in agreement, though there are a few discrepancies.

The mere reading of the cartographic names is often a difficult task, for variant spellings abound. One is often forced to the assumption that the map-maker himself introduced aberrant spellings for individual names, all of which must have been totally exotic and unfamiliar to him. This seems particularly true of maps whose primary task was to chart areas other than the Caribbean itself. Where individual island names occur in Las Casas' Historia de las Indias (1875), that spelling has been taken as definitive.

The translation of Lucayan names posed additional problems, for it had simply been assumed without verification that Arawakan Taino, the general language of the Greater Antilles, was also the language of the islands - Columbus' Guanahani interpreter was able to converse with the natives of Cuba (Fuson 1987:100, 103, 107, etc.).

In the late 1950's the present writer and a colleague, the late Gary S. Vescelius, former Territorial Archaeologist for the U.S. Virgin Islands, independently began to examine both the surviving Taino lexicon and the native place-names of the Greater Antilles with the object of adding to the number of translatable Taino forms and of determining the method by which the Taino named their settlements. In 1978 we began to consolidate our research efforts. After Mr. Vescelius' untimely death some years later, I obtained his linguistic and toponymic notes, and I am in the final process of completing our joint venture'(Cranberry and Vescelius Msa, Msb).


If you are interested in the full text of the article, you may order this issue of our Journal for B$5.00 plus s&h by contacting the society.