Place names are points of memory in the fabric of West Indian lifestyle. Let us look at some of the names that come from the period long before the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean Sea, from the years when Trinidad was settled only by the Amerindian people. The world being ‘brand new’ in those days, things received their names for the first time - some of them have survived.
The tribal people gave names to the rivers and plains, the mountains and capes. Some of these names are to be found in Venezuela as well, such as Tacarigua, which has a parallel in the Lago Tacarigua, or Cumana, which is found in two places on Trinidad’s North coast and also on the mainland. There is a Caroni river on this island and a mighty Caroni running through the jungles on the neighbouring continent. Other pre-Columbian names are Arouca and Caura, where the Capuchins had missions in the 17th century.
People spoke Spanish exclusively in these hamlets until quite recently. Siparia was the site of another mission, where tobacco was cultivated. Arima and Naparima, Toco and Tunapuna, Chaguanas and Chaguaramas, Piarco and Oropouche - all these are Amerindian names which survived. Port of Spain was once called Conquerabia, a name which disappeared early.
Corosal, Maraval and many other names ending in -al are very interesting, because in most cases the -al is the Spanish collective suffix, sometimes stuck onto an old Amerindian root. For example, a place rich in the palmtree called “corozo” by the Amerindians became “Corozal”. In Cocal, the name refers to an abundance of coconut trees. The story is that a ship was wrecked on this part of the east coast of Trinidad. Its cargo of nuts were washed ashore and took root. Maraval is described as a large track of land below Anapo. It was covered with maro trees.
This marriage of Spanish and Amerindian also happened in the other islands. Pouisal in Montserrat got its name from the abundance of poui trees, as did Morichal in the same island and in Trinidad as well, which refers to the moriche palms that grew there.
The Spanish settlers who came in the wake of Christopher Columbus named their estates after the distant places now left behind: El Socorro, Barataria, Aranjuez, El Dorado. When they marveled at the beauty of their new homes, they called the Vistabella and Buenos Ayres.
There is magic and beauty in these place names. They contain, like time capsules, messages from another age, when our country was still roamed by its original inhabitants.
They contain, like time capsules, messages from another age, when our country was young.
From the African languages, other words have survived like "zami" ﬁ (meaning "friends"), and "susu", which we use when we become "partners", each contributing so much a week to a savings club. When gardeners went into their fields, they owuld take with them a calabash full of water, known long ago as a "paki", unsing te Ashanti work "apakyi". In parts of West Africa, it is the custom to name a child by the day of the week on which it was born, for example "cudjoe" is the the Ashanti word for Monday, "quashie" for Sunday, "quaco" for Wednesday, "cuffie" for Friday and so on.
In our search for African words that have survived, we have to turn to our floklore. Here we find fascinating evidence of African survivals: anansi, the central charater of many folk tales, is in fact the spider god of the Akan-Ashanti people. In Accra, Lagos and the northern regions of Nigeria, where the land falls away into a vast ocean of tawny-coloured sand, people know all about this Anasi, the spiderman who is weak but who overcomes the strong by guile in a way that the Greek hero Odysseus overcame the cyclop.
Nansi stories brough delight, but as a boy gowing up in belmont in the 1940s and 1950s, these were jumbies living in the "big canal", in Olton Road and at the corner of Reform Lane and Hermitage Road - a dangerous place after 9 o'clock!
Throughout the Caribbean, out the Caribbean region, chance word used in conversation, a game played at evening time, a song chanted to still a restless child, the names given to food and plants, link us with distant times and with men and women long dead. Cudjoe, Quashie, Paki, Zami, Senseh: words like these whisper of the past, revealing our history to us - but only to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.