Which Guinea?

Previously: Which Iberia?Which Alexandria?Which Albania?Which African Nation?

Guinea is yet another name that, due to unusual historical reasons, has become attributed to a number of regions across the globe. You could even say that the sun never sets on Guineau.


The story starts with the Portugese who arrived in western Africa centuries ago. Apparently, when they pulled ashore on the African coast south of Morocco, they met some women washing clothes in an estuary. The women indicated to the men that they were women with the word guine, the explorers misunderstood and thought the women were referring to the geographic area. They subsequently used the word “Guinea” to describe coastal West Africa. (An alternative theory to the origin of the word is that Europeans had contact with the Berbers of North Africa before arriving, and Guinea originates from the Berber term for “black.”)

As the Europeans explored more of Western Africa, the geographic region was subdivided into “Lower Guinea”, covering today’s southern Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana; and “Upper Guinea”, which is far less densely populated and stretches from the Côte d’Ivoire to Guinea-Bissau. Most of Upper Guinea became part of French Guinea, and that was later divided into today’s Guinea and Guinea Bisseau.

How, then, did this spread thousands of miles south to Equatorial Guinea? Here also the origin of the word is not clearly understood, but the general belief is that when the Spanish colonized the region, the word Guineau was used in a broader sense to reference the Atlantic coast of Africa. Due to its location, the Spanish attached the word “Equatorial” (from the word “equator”), and thus was born yet another colony, and later country, with the name Guinea.

Even more peculiar is the island of New Guinea in the Indonesian archipelago. New Guinea was named such by the Spanish explorer Íñigo Ortiz de Retes, who noted that, despite being in Asia, the people resembled those people he had earlier seen along the Guinea coast of Africa. The country of Papua New Guinea takes its name from being the eastern half of the island of New Guinea.

The region of Guyana in northern South America was divided into several colonies. British Guiana became Guyana, Dutch Guiana became Surinam, and French Guiana remains a territory of France. The Guiana/Guyana word sounds similar to Guinea, but the origin of the word is in the language of the native people, who used the word Guiana to refer to the “land of waters,” because of the many rivers in the region.

The Guinea Baboon and the Guineafowl are both from western Africa, while the Guinea Pig is from South America, possibly due to confusion with Guiana. The Guinea unit of currency used in the British Empire takes its name from the gold that came from western Africa.

ENDNOTE: GUINEA, USA! Even America has it’s own Guinea, a region encompassing several unincorporated communities in Gloucester County, Virginia. The origin is uncertain, but you can read more about it here.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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One Response to Which Guinea?

  1. Vivian says:

    Oooh – you used the wrong “its”; and here I was admiring the intellect behind this website!
    Please fix it!
    Thank you!