Category Archives: History

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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The Humphrey Bogart Film Festival

Hold on to your fedoras, there’s gonna be a big blow! The Humphrey Bogart Film Festival is coming home…. “Home being Key Largo,” naturally. It’s May 2-5 in Key Largo, Florida. The Festival is hosted by one Stephen Bogart, Bogey and Bacall’s son and a frequent keeper of the flame as regards both their legacies. He’s reportedly named after his father’s character in To Have and Have Not, the first of the four films Stephen’s parents starred in together. (The others were Dark Passage, The Big Sleep, and — of course — Key Largo.)

Here’s a snippet from an update at the Humphrey Bogart Estate’s Facebook timeline, and a great pic of the younger Mr. Bogart in the restored African Queen.

We hope you’ll agree there’s a lot to like about our Humphrey Bogart Film Festival in Key Largo. It’s hard to pick a favorite element, but being able to take a ride on the real African Queen has to rank right up there. Here is a photo of Stephen Bogart taking the first ride after the boat was fully restored.

Let’s not forget, incidentally, that the book on which The African Queen‘s great James Agee/John Huston script was based was written by another of my favorite historical figures, the great C.S. Forester, author of the magnificent Horatio Hornblower series as well as many fiction and nonfiction books about seafaring men. One was Sink the Bismarck!, which I read well before I knew who C.S. Forester was. It was a defining book of my early childhood. (I believe it’s still known as The Last Nine Days in the Bismarck or Hunt the Bismarck in the UK, and was made into a tolerably good film in 1960.)

And while we’re at it, if you haven’t seen the 1948 film Key Largo, which inspired the festival’s location, you are missing out on a hell of a movie featuring three of the greatest performances in American film history (Bogart’s, Bacall’s, and Edward G. Robinson’s). Lionel Barrymore is also fantastic in this flick. You can also see the brief appearance of Jay Silverheels, who would later play Tonto to Clayton Moore’s The Lone Ranger, as one of the Native Americans wrongly accused of a crime in Key Largo. (Silverheels, incidentally, was also a poet, writing about his experience in First Nations communities.)

Far more than just a great crime movie (which it is), Key Largo is one of the films in American history that walks that line between crime thriller and closet drama without falling prey to the shortcomings of either genre. It is a study in great scripts and great performances. Key Largo was based on a Maxwell Anderson play in which the Native Americans were Mexican banditos and the war of which the main character is a veteran is not World War II, but the Spanish Civil War, which will remind any dedicated Bogeyhead of Casablanca, where Rick Blaine was (allegedly) a Spanish Civil War veteran…or, at least (allegedly) a gun-runner.

 Sadly, Key Largo is not available as Netflix Instant View, or I think I’d watch it right now. In fact, none of Bogey and Bacall’s collaborations can be found instant-viewable on Netflix. But The African Queen can be found there, and on Amazon you can instant-view The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and To Have and Have Not, as well as The African Queen and CasablancaBut not Key Largo, my very favorite of the batch. Bummer. If you want to see it, resort to DVD — it’s more than worth it.

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker's Guns

Two of Bonnie and Clyde’s guns are up for auction at RR Auction in Amherst, NH…but not the ones that dedicated collectors might hope for.

The weapons in question are the .38 Colt Detective Special (“squat gun”) Bonnie Parker had strapped to her leg and the .45 Colt M1911 in Clyde Barrow’s belt, both taken from the scene by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, a member of the posse that ambushed and killed the couple on the road in Gibsland, Bienville Parish, Louisiana. (Hamer, incidentally, claimed to have been in more than 100 gunfights during his law enforcement career, and to have killed 53 men. His son, Frank Hamer, Jr., was also a Texas Ranger, and provided the statement that authenticates the handguns on the RR Auction site. Also on auction at RR Auction are Bonnie’s cosmetic case, Clyde’s Colt Army Special (a modified “Fitzgerald Special”), his Elgin pocket watch, a letter by John Dillinger, and some really, really, really weird stuff from Capone.

But lovers of historical firearms know that Clyde Barrow’s favorite weapon was the Browning M1918 Automatic Rifle, or BAR. This bulky .30-’06 rifle was a selective fire weapon, meaning it could be fired single shot or full automatic. Because of the weapon’s size, Barrow famously modified his Browning, chopping down the stock and the barrel. You can see such a modified BAR in the Michael Mann film Public Enemies, where it is ahistorically placed in the hands of the historical gangster Homer Van Meter, a member of Dillinger’s gang. (Dillinger did not use the chopped-down BAR). According to user Mauser at the Internet Movie Firearms Database, the following is an actual historical photo of a chopped-down Barrow M1918  (it’s missing the magazine):

The Browning Automatic Rifle was an infantry weapon designed for World War I and deployed by the US military only late in the war — hence the “M1918,” or “Model 1918” designation. It was meant to replace the despised French Chauchat and Model 1909, which were prone to frequent malfunction. (The Chauchat may be one of the most hated weapons ever used by the US military).

The BAR was intended to be fired on full automatic by an advancing infantryman with the weapon slung over his shoulder, in a kind of suppressive fire that is called “walking fire” or “marching fire.” In military science, “suppressive fire” is fire that “degrades the performance of a target below the level needed to fulfill its mission.” In other words, rather than trying to hit the target, it makes the enemy troops keep their heads down so they can’t stop the squad from advancing.

The BAR was not ideally suited for doing this on the battlefield, for a couple of reasons. First was the powerful .30-’06 round, which remains a standard rifle cartridge to this day. It’s a popular hunting round and the standard for the US Army’s M1 rifle and its successor, the M14, as well as many other military weapons. But the .30-’06 has a fair amount of recoil — especially when fired on the run. Second, John Browning gave the BAR a rate of fire of up to 600 rounds per minute — good — but equipped it with a 20 round box magazine –bad. Twenty rounds does not last long when one is laying down suppressive fire and glorping across a muddy stretch of No Man’s Land. The BAR can’t use a belt like some other light machine guns (which would probably make the weight prohibitive for walking fire anyway), and the Browning Automatic Rifle could not use a 50-round drum, as could the .45 Thompson.

But while the BAR made it into service in the Great War, it was the Thompson that went into production too late for military contracts. This led Thompson to unload his inventory by advertising the thing in magazines as the ideal weapon for ranchers to shoot coyotes. Bootleggers and bank robbers also found it a great way to take care of unwanted pests.

Having shot a Thompson on full auto, I can say that the weapon’s reputation for jamming is well earned; they jam like holy hell if you ease up on the trigger even for the whisper of an instant. Emptying the drum might seem like a good idea if someone was shooting back at you. The Thompson became known as the “Chicago Typewriter,”  but I’d wager that more memos got written with it in Hollywood than in Chicago. It was not with the BAR but with the Thompson, in The Godfather, “They shot Sonny on the Causeway. He’s dead!” In the Coen Brothers’ brilliant and oft-forgotten Miller’s Crossing, Denholm Elliot’s Irish gangster memoed rival gangsters with the Chicago Typewriter using, shall we say, vivid language. “Fuck off,” he tells them, basically, “Never interrupt an Irishman when he’s listening to ‘Danny Boy.'”

The BAR, on the other hand, ended up remaining in US military service through World War II and the Korean War, but it was used as a light machine gun or squad automatic weapon, not to provide walking fire. In the US military, today’s squad automatic weapons are essentially just beefed-up versions of the AR-15, essentially the M-16 or the M-4 but with increased capacity and a heavier barrel to support fully automatic fire without overheating.

But back in the 1930s, “suppressive fire” has a lower threshold of effectiveness  if you’re, say, a bank robber shooting at local cops with .38 revolvers or FBI agents who aren’t legally entitled to carry weapons. In this context, Barrow found the BAR effective, especially since the .30-’06 rounds he was able to steal from National Guard armories in the Midwest could reportedly pierce the heavy steel doors of 1930s automobiles. For this purpose, one of Barrow’s BARs was used by the 90-pound Bonnie Parker to pin down law enforcement officers in a shootout in Joplin, Missouri.

Incidentally, you know that caliber I was talking about? That’s right, .30-’06. Now, if you’ve read this far you probably already know this, but in case you don’t: It’s pronounced “thirty-ought-six. In this case, “ought” is an antiquated way of saying “zero,” and it was a “thirty caliber” round developed in 1906. If you are, say, a writer, and can learn only one thing about firearms, this is a pretty good thing to learn, though the difference between “9 mm” (a common pistol round) and “.9 mm” (a copyeditor’s shooting offense) would also be worth learning. The thirty-ought-six is quite possibly the most common U.S. hunting and military rifle round of the twentieth century — unquestionably so prior to about 1970, and it remains standard. So you can imagine my annoyance when, listening to an audiobook about hunting safaris in Africa, I was subjected to the narrator’s repeated insistence on calling it a “point-three-oh, point-oh-six.”

Ouch. Let Tom Waits explain it to you, and sing you out while he’s at it:

Image from Wikipedia.