John Ramming Chappell
In September 2021, a military coup unseated Alpha Condé, Guinea’s president since 2010. The same month, the United States renewed efforts to capture Antonio Indjai, an ex-general and drug-trafficking suspect living in Guinea Bissau. Meanwhile, the U.S. government announced that $27 million seized from Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, Vice President of Equatorial Guinea, would be used to buy COVID-19 vaccines for the country. On September 16, 2021, Papua New Guinea celebrated its 46th anniversary of independence.
These events unfolded in the same month in four different countries, all bearing the name Guinea, in disparate parts of the world with distinct cultures and different languages. Two currencies and several species, each from different regions, have Guinea as a namesake. Why?
One wouldn’t know it from today’s headlines, but Guinea’s linguistic journey spans from medieval North Africa to the 20th-century United States, tracing the forces of race, commerce, and empire that made the modern world.
Guinea’s pedigree is intertwined with processes of racialization. Race predated European colonialism in West Africa. Scholars writing in Arabic long described Africa south of the Sahara as Bilād as-Sūdān, or “Land of the Black People.” Amazigh people, the indigenous inhabitants of the Maghreb, used the Tamazight language to express an equivalent concept, Akal n-Iginawen.
Although the precise origins of the term Guinea remain disputed, scholars generally agree that it originated in Africa before Europeans adopted it. Edward William Bovill argued that Guinea developed from the Tamazight iginawen (singular: aginaw), thereby refuting the 17th-century Moroccan author Leo Africanus, who suggested that Guinea originated from the ancient Malian city of Djenné. Bovill posited that Bab Agnaou, a south-facing gate of Marrakech, indicates medieval Moroccans used the Amazigh term to refer to Black people. Others have claimed that Guinea derives from the Kingdom of Ghana.
Whether Guinea derives from aginaw or from an African place-name, the word remains a racial marker in Morocco. The descendants of enslaved people trafficked across the Sahara to Morocco are called Gnawa, a community renowned for its Sufi music.
Europeans knew of Guinea long before the colonial period. The 1375 Catalan Atlas, made by a Majorcan Jewish cartographer, labels a region of West Africa Ginyia. An earlier Genovese map, destroyed in 1943, similarly marked Gunuia south of the Niger River. The Portuguese used the term Guinea in the 15th century when their naval campaigns in West Africa sowed the seeds for colonization. Predating the Dutch East India Company by more than a century, the Casa da Guiné was Europe’s first state-run company to colonize parts of the Global South. Portugal established the first European forts in West Africa, building Elmina Castle in 1482 near the Efutu nation. After establishing the fortress, King João II styled himself Lord of Guinea.
Other European powers followed Portugal into Africa in the seventeenth century. The Netherlands, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and France all established outposts in coastal West Africa. They generally adopted the Portuguese name for the region, calling it Guinea.
Guinea was never a precisely defined area with agreed-upon borders. Instead, it was a racial term used to describe a shifting region of coastal West Africa. In his 1789 Interesting Narrative, abolitionist Olaudah Equiano described his Igboland birthplace, in the southeast of modern Nigeria, as located in “That part of Africa, known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade for slaves is carried on, [which] extends along the coast above 3400 miles, from the Senegal to Angola.” Venture Smith, who was kidnapped and enslaved in modern-day Ghana, placed his home of Dukandarra in Guinea in his 1798 autobiography.
The British so strongly associated Guinea and slavery that they dubbed slave ships guineamen. Guineamen trafficked enslaved African people across the Atlantic to colonies in the Americas before returning to Europe. Some sources claim guineamen brought South American cavies to Europe, where they became exotic pets called guinea pigs, named for the ships that bore them from the Western Hemisphere. Other species bearing the name guinea–including guineafowl, guinea corn, and guinea worm–were so labeled for their associations with coastal West Africa.
In the United States, guinea and guinea negro long referred to enslaved people from coastal West Africa and their descendants. Melungeons, a term for mixed-race communities in Appalachia, are also called guineas for their African ancestry.
Guinea also emerged as a slur wielded against non-Black racialized groups. Associating immigrants with Blackness asserted their lowly status in the racial pecking order. Since the 1890s, guinea has been a slur against Southern European immigrants in the eastern United States. Dialogue in the Italian-American family crime dramas The Godfather and The Sopranos immortalized the insult in 21st-century popular culture.
The tale of guinea is also a story of gold. West African kingdoms rose and fell during the medieval period based on rulers’ ability to control caravan routes that traded salt, slaves, and gold to the Mediterranean Basin. Though not the first empire to consolidate power in West Africa, the Kingdom of Mali was the first to burst onto the world stage. Founded by Sundiata Keita in the early 13th century, Mali reached its zenith during the reign of Mansa Musa, whose fame spread across the Islamic world after his 1324 pilgrimage to Mecca. With a caravan of attendants in tow, Mansa Musa reportedly brought so much gold on his trip that his stop-over in Cairo caused a sudden devaluation of gold in the Egyptian economy.
Europeans associated West Africa with gold during the medieval period. The Catalan Atlas depicts a seated king holding a scepter and a large gold nugget in West Africa. The caption reads, “This Moorish ruler is named Musse Melly, lord of Guinea. This king is the richest and most distinguished ruler of this whole region on account of the great quantity of gold that is found in his lands.”
West African trade shifted away from inland trans-Saharan routes in the seventeenth-century, instead supplying gold and slaves to Portuguese and Dutch outposts along the coast. Britain soon entered the fray. After the establishment of the Commonwealth and the execution of King Charles I, Prince Rupert of the deposed Stuart family took control of the Royalist fleet’s remnants to raid Commonwealth shipping vessels in the Atlantic. In 1652, he sailed up the Gambia River in search of gold, hearing reports of deposits that supplied a nearby Dutch fort.
Upon the Stuart Restoration in 1660, Rupert returned to Britain with news of gold. That year, Charles II granted a charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa, established to extract gold from fields up the Gambia River. In 1663, British monetary authorities began minting gold coins called guineas, named for the region from whence the gold came. Great Britain continued minting guineas until 1813.
Twenty-one years later, in Egypt, the Westernizing reformer Muhammad Ali issued a decree to adopt standardized gold and silver currency. In 1836, Egypt minted the first Egyptian pounds, known in Arabic as genēh. The genēh remains Egypt’s currency to this day.
How did the racialized and monetary term Guinea find its way into the names of four different countries, each newly independent in the 20th century? The question calls for an examination of each country’s colonial history.
In 1884, European diplomats gathered in Berlin to divide nearly all of Africa among themselves, expanding coastal enclaves into a colonial patchwork across the continent. Different European powers colonized Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea, but each applied the generic term for coastal West Africa to their colonial holdings. After World War II, nationalist agitation and international pressure ushered in the era of decolonization.
After voting overwhelmingly to part ways with France in 1958, Guinea gained its independence with Ahmed Sékou Touré as its first president. While other countries opted for name changes after independence, Guinea kept its colonial name. As anticolonial pressures mounted, Spain incorporated Spanish Guinea as a province in 1959, calling it the Spanish Equatorial Region. The region gained further autonomy in a 1963 referendum and adopted the name Equatorial Guinea, which it kept after independence in 1968. Portuguese Guinea won independence in 1974 after an eleven-year war, becoming Guinea-Bissau to distinguish itself from Guinea, its southern neighbor.
Papua New Guinea, located on New Guinea’s eastern half over ten thousand miles from West Africa, is an outlier among Guinea’s namesakes. Spanish seafarer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez sailed along the island’s northern coast in 1545 and named it Nueva Guinea for the resemblance he perceived between the inhabitants and the people of West Africa. British and German colonial administrations in the late nineteenth century used variations of Papua and New Guinea. Following twenty-eight years of United Nations trusteeship under Australian administration, the country gained independence as Papua New Guinea in 1975.
Thus, four countries now bear the name Guinea. With origins dating back to medieval times, Guinea’s lineage has long been entangled with the racialization, enslavement, and colonization that shaped our world.
Image: The 1375 Catalan Atlas is among the earliest surviving maps to label West Africa as Guinea, spelled here Ginyia. The illustration depicts Mansa Musa on a throne holding a gold nugget..” Source: Wikipedia.
John Ramming Chappell is a J.D. and M.S. in Foreign Service candidate at Georgetown University, where he focuses on progressive foreign policy and national security law. His academic interests include law and colonialism, West African history, and international law.