Guinea and Guyana

Ever wonder what the origin of the term “Guinea” is, since it used for so many different things? Me, too.

“Guinea” is used as a place name for, count ’em, three different African countries: Guinea, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. It was applied to the whole southern curve of West Africa. In the days of Colonialism, there was French Guinea, German Guinea, Spanish Guinea, Dutch Guinea, Portu-bloody-guese-bloody-Guinea. You will see from the above 1736 map, “Negroland and the European Settlements,” that the “Slave Coast” was part of the region.

“Guinea” is also a type of rodent and a type of fowl. It was used for an antique UK currency, it’s a tri-racial Virginia clan, and it’s a racial slur against either the Italians or the Spanish, depending on which decade of which century you’re using it in. The Horatio Hornblower books by C.S. Forester have Royal Navy sailors using it for the Spanish during the English-Spanish wars; there, a far more common N-word is also applied by the British sailors to the Spanish.

Then there’s the similar term “Guyana” or “The Guianas,” referring to a region of northern South America (now Guyana, French Guyana, and Suriname). In the U.S., if you lived through the late ’70s, Guyana is virtually synonymous with mass suicide, owing to the 1978 Jonestown Massacre (and mass suicide) in the Jonestown intentional community in Guyana, led by People’s Temple cult leader Jim Jones. More than 900 people died there.

The Jonestown Massacre remains the only time a U.S. Congressional Representative was killed in the line of duty, as The Honorable Leo Ryan had traveled down there to investigate the cult. Ryan was one of five people murdered when the investigative team was ambushed attempting to board the plane and leave. Current representative Jackie Speier, who represents part of San Mateo County and the southwestern corner of San Francisco, was a Congressional aide at the time. She was shot five times by members of the People’s Temple. She survived after waiting 22 hours for help.

The Jonestown mass suicide/murder occurred the same day. It’s unclear how many at Jonestown committed suicide, and how many were murdered by being forced to drink poison by other cult members. The slang term “drank the Kool-Aid,” meaning to believe some godawful bullshit sold by a weird group of psychos, is derived from the Jonestown Massacre, even though they actually didn’t drink Kool-Aid — it was reportedly Flavor-Aid. I think over at Kraft Foods, some Marketing Manager has a Google Alert on “drank the Kool-Aid” and to this day probably has a conniption fit every time someone uses the term.

Well, according to my wise Aunt Wikipedia, the two place names Guinea and Guyana are not related. The African name may be (but no one knows for sure) from the Berber language term “Akal n-Iguinawen,” which means “land of the black people.” In Berber, it has variously referred to either the Guinea region of Central-Western Africa, or to the Sudan. Berber is the language of the Mahgreb (western North Africa — everything except Egypt) that predates the domination of Arabic following the Muslim invasions of the seventh century. Berber languages persist to this day in North Africa, in the form of Moroccan Amazigt or Tamazigt, and many other related Berber languages.

“Guyana,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from a Native American word meaning “land of many rivers.” They appear to be unrelated terms…each for a region with a grotesque history of Western excess. Hooray.


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