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Where Does ‘Quisqueya’ Come From?

Behaim Globe (source: wikipedia)

This is the Behaim Globe.

It is possibly the earliest globe showing what people thought the world was like in the 15th century. It was compiled based on various maps and reports by Martin von Behaim in 1492… about the same time Columbus was exploring the New World, but before he could return to report on his findings, which is why the American continent is still missing. It sits now in the Germanic Museum in Nürnberg as a testament to human knowledge.

Now, we don’t know if Columbus laid his eyes on this particular globe, but we know  there were similar ones that he had seen and used to plan his trip. But we learn several things from this globe.

One, around the time of Columbus, a few superstitious sailors notwithstanding, people did not believe the earth was flat.

Two, a direct passage from Europe to Asia was possible: this was nothing new — it was common knowledge. But nobody made the trip earlier for the same reason humans have not gone back to the moon in recent years: what’s the point in taking such a risk, and nobody has the money and we’re all too busy doing other important stuff, like fighting the Moors, persecuting Jews and the holy inquisition ‘n all that. So to sum up: exploring a new world? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Three, it was known that there was land or islands between Europe and Asia. Particularly these two mysterious islands: Cipangu and Saint Brendan’s Island.

I’m not going to go into Saint Brendan’s Island, rumored to be a time-traveling island. So what was Cipangu? Well, for that we have to go back in time even further, about 150 years before Columbus, to the one man who set all of this in motion: Marco Polo.

While some of his accounts are disputed, there is no doubt that he, his father and his uncle traveled to Asia between 1276 and 1291 and that Marco Polo stayed at the court of Kublai Khan, the ruler of the Mongol Empire, for quite some times in what we now know as China.

While by no means the first or only European to have traveled to China, he was no doubt the most famous, and the book he wrote about his experiences became not just a best seller, but also heavily influenced future cartography as well as other explorers.

Cipangu for example, was a mysterious island off the coast of China, which he described as being immensely wealthy and ruled by a Great Emperor or Khan. While Marco Polo never visited it, he said it was there and cartographers believed him, which is why we can find it for example on the Behaim globe.

Guess who else was a big Polo fan? That’s right, Columbus. We say in general terms that Columbus was trying to find a westward passage to India, but that is actually not quite accurate: Columbus was expecting to find the mysterious island of Cipangu from where he wanted to establish the new trade-routes.

While uncertain, we believe today that the word Cipangu refers to the island that is now known as Japan, possibly a word that originated in early Mandarin or Wu Chinese — it’s not clear. You see, language is a funny thing. It changes so much that often the meanings and origins are lost in time.

So what does all of this have to do with the name Quisqueya?

The First Voyage Of Columbus

We know now that he was looking specifically for the island of Cipangu, and expecting to bump into that place he came prepared, best he could. While he obviously couldn’t find anyone who spoke Chinese, he brought along the next best thing: Luis de Torres, a man who was either Jewish or Arab (but probably a converted Jew) and spoke besides Spanish and Portuguese, Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. Columbus expected to find Jewish or Arab traders in the ports of Cipangu, who may then be able to help him get to the court of the Great Khan and deliver the letters from the King and Queen of Spain which he carried with him.

Shrewd Columbus.

Of course we know he never made it to Japan. But everywhere he went he was looking for Cipangu. Any time they met with the natives either he or his translator would ask them about Cipangu. This one word was literally all they had to go by. We can imagine how this interaction must have gone. But the responses for names of the locations he was at, seemed to change with each landfall.

Now, for a long time he thought Cuba had to be Cipangu, based on the indications the locals gave him. We need to understand: they were never able to really communicate because their languages were so different. For the most part they used sign language. And I’m not just talking about the difference between Spanish, Portuguese and the Taino language, but the different Taino dialects themselves.

However, on our island, Hispaniola, he made a linguistic breakthrough… or so he thought. Asking once again for Cipangu, he got an unexpected response: Cibao. Cibao? Cipangu? That was the closest he had ever gotten to a word that sounded kind of like Cipangu. Maybe he was wrong about Cuba after all, and Cibao was Cipangu. In fact, he was so certain, later writings reflected his belief that Cibao was Cipangu and started calling it that.

So what does all of that have to do with Quisqueya?

Patience. I’m almost there.

Let’s review what we know about names and places: Columbus was looking for Japan — Cipangu. He really thought he had found it. But he couldn’t understand the language, and every time he asked for the name of the place where he was, he would get completely different answers. This was in part due to the fact that the locals didn’t understand what Columbus was asking and Columbus didn’t understand what they were responding, and also because there were different dialects all over the island — on Hispaniola alone they spoke probably about 4 different Taino dialects. Maybe. That’s the other thing… we know so very little about the Taino language because they became extinct before the language or languages could be properly documented, so most of what we know about the Taino language is hearsay based on documents by Spanish explorers and writers.

A common word that came up was Bohio, but we know nowadays that this word refers to the huts they lived in… their “home”. So maybe when Columbus asked “what you call this place”, they apparently responded with “home”.

Basically Columbus was never able to clearly define the native names of the places he had discovered. So he often stuck with the names he gave them. In case of our island it became La Espanola, with Cipangu — called Cibao by the locals — somewhere in the interior.

Ok, now we’ll get straight to the word Quisqueya.

The one word Columbus NEVER encountered was Quisqueya. At no point did he ever mention it or write about it. As far as Columbus is concerned, it did not exist.

So where did it come from? The first time it ever showed up anywhere, was in the book De Orbe Novo Decades by one Peter Martyr d’Anhiera, an Italian chronicler working in Spain. De Orbe Novo Decades roughly translates as “Decades of the New World” and is split into 10 decades, or books, each talking about a different period in time of the exploration of the New World, from the Caribbean to the American Continent. The first edition was published around 1511 and in the following 20 years Peter Martyr added several more chapters, with the definitive edition being published in 1530.

Let’s’ first talk about the book, and then the man.

The book itself is a collection of reports and letters that Peter Martyr had collected over the years from people like Columbus to Hernan Cortes. It would seem he even corresponded with some of them, particularly Columbus. Thus much of what he wrote came directly from the horse’s mouth — as it were.

The book was a huge influence on the world, kind of like Marco Polo’s book, as it gave insight into a new world most people had only heard of. In fact, the English translation of the book from 1555 was what inspired the English exploration of the New World. Let’s remember that this is pre-internet, pre-radio, pre-newspapers, and news and knowledge were passed on via letters and books. Who knows, without this book maybe the English speaking world would not have made such an effort in exploring the New World, and we’d be writing this blog in Spanish, or Portuguese, or French.

The significance of this book can not be overstated, it’s reliability however… Well, that’s’ a different story. Most of what we know of the first encounters between the old and new world originated from the writings of Peter Martyr — but that doesn’t’ make them true.

The first appearance of the word Quisqueya is in the Third Decade, chapter 7. It reads as follows.

‘Nomina Hispaniolae a primis habitatoribus imposita fuere, primum Quizqueia, dehinc Haiti.’

Did I mention the book was written in Latin? Yeah, back then everything of importance was written in Latin, which means that the uneducated class… That is, pretty much every normal person… Could not understand diddly-squat. It was a way to separate people into those with knowledge and those without. Even in church they would preach in Latin.

Anyway, my latin is by no means acceptable. My knowledge may be from college, but my latin is from Manhattan, so I’ll dig up an English translation. So here is the full text that describes the name Quisqueya and its origins.

‘Hispaniola was first called by its early inhabitants Quizqueia, and afterwards Haiti. These names were not chosen at random, but were derived from natural features, for Quizqueia in their language means ‘something large’ ‘or larger than anything, and is a synonym for universality, the whole; something in the sense that ‘pan’ was used among the Greek. The islanders really believed that the island, being so great, comprised the entire universe, and that the sun warmed no other land than theirs and the neighbouring islands. Thus they decided to call it Quizqueia. The name Haiti in their language means altitude, and because it describes a part, was given to the entire island. The country rises in many places into lofty mountain-ranges, is covered with dense forests, or broken into profound valleys which, because of the height of the mountains, are gloomy; everywhere else it is very agreeable.’

Thus the first ever statement of the word Quisqueya. You will notice a few things here. Firstly the meaning of the word: something large or universal. Interesting how he compares it with the Greek word ‘pan’. In fact, Peter does that a lot: he’s always comparing or relating things to the ancient Greek, as if he is trying to appeal to the intellect of his readers — and that’s probably what he was trying to do.

You’ll also notice how he mentions the word Haiti as meaning altitude and that it was one of the names of the island. But in other areas he mentions Haiti as being the name of only the western area of the island, so he’s a bit fuzzy on that.

You may also notice my pronunciation of the word: Quizqueia as opposed to Quisqueya. In Spanish QUI becomes KI, but since this is a latin word, it’s still QUI.

But hold on… I hear you say… It’s’ not latin… It’s Taino.

Well… Is it?

That brings us to the question as to where he came up with this word in the first place.

We learned that he got everything second-hand, related to him either verbally or written — and very often verbally.

You see, Peter never left Europe, except for a small stint to Egypt. Other than that he spent his time on the cozy courts of various royalty and clergy, writing his books and being all smartypants and intellectual. Thus we can be certain he never got to actually hear a native Taino say the word Quizqueia, or even see it written down. Most words of the Taino language he wrote about — including the word ‘Taino’ — he only heard and wrote them down phonetically.

So, Did he, like other suggest, simply make it up? Hard to say. But to understand the man we need to read on.

You see Quizqueia appears five times in his book. We’ve already seen it 3 times. Let’s read about the other two times.

‘We have already said that Quizqueia and Haiti are the ancient names of the island. Some natives also call the island Cipangu, from the name of a mountain range rich in gold…’


Peter called our island Cipangu, and implies that it’s yet another Taino word.

Further down he writes

‘these islanders have given the names Quizqueia, Haiti and Cipangu to their country’.

Our deeply intellectual and smartypants Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, he who continuously wowed us with his knowledge of Greek history and other smartypants things, seemed to not have been aware of the writings of Marco Polo. A regular, illiterate sailor may have been forgiven for such an error, but Peter, a guy equivalent to what we’d call a scientist today…..

This error would be equal to Stephen Hawking writing:

‘And thus the ancient people of North America called their land Canada as well Endor, which in their language means ‘realm of the annoying teddy bears’.

You see what I mean? Marco Polo‘s book was available in any good library of his time, in any language he would have it, globes and maps with Cipangu on it were kicked around … And yet at no point does he make any reference to Polo, but continues to insist that Cipangu is a Taino word for the island. In fact, he mentions Cipangu as a name for the island more often than he does Quizqueia.

So what does that tell us about the man? What does that tell us about the veracity of the word Quizqueia? Did he just make that word up? Did he misunderstand something?

I’ll leave that to your judgement.

Should We Even Use The Word?

We can’t be certain it really is a Taino word, we can’t be certain it really is the original name for the island. Nobody but Peter ever used it. So can we use it?

Let’s remember that names are just words we apply to things — all names were made-up at some point. Very often names of places were misunderstood, misspelled, mislaid, mislabeled, misused, miss universe… But they’re still used. Yeah, I’m looking at you ’Idaho’.

So now, 500 years after Peter Maryr made it up — or didn’t, whatev — I think it’s safe to say that it’s safe to use the name: Quisqueya.

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