Back in 2006 and 2007, there was a lively public debate about replacing the Trinity Cross as the nation’s highest award. Because both words referred to Christian symbols—the Holy Trinity and the Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified—the name of the award, and the shape of the medal, were seen as discriminating against the very large body of citizens who were not Christians.
In the event, as we know, the nation’s highest award was renamed the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and the medal was redesigned in a circular shape featuring appropriate national symbols on its face. Interestingly, last year it was awarded (posthumously) to one person who refused to accept the Trinity Cross because he saw it as a Christian symbol (Pundit Krishna Maharaj) and to another (Dr Wahid Ali) who accepted it reluctantly when the then Prime Minister, Eric Williams, promised to change its name—a promise he didn’t keep.
But some people argued back in 2006 that if we were going to get rid of the Trinity Cross, then logically, we should also get rid of the name of Trinidad, since the island was, of course, named after that same Holy Trinity by Columbus. The argument was made by people who opposed any change in the award and was, perhaps, not meant to be taken very seriously. But it might make us think about how Caribbean islands, including Trinidad and Tobago, got their names and what they mean.
Most of the Caribbean islands were named by the first Europeans to turn up in the region, the Spaniards, who ignored the names used by the native inhabitants. Of course this is typical of colonial powers, and the act of giving a new name to a place which already has one was a vital part of the colonial enterprise. By so doing, you wipe out the indigenous identity of a place and, by extension, deny the native peoples’ right to occupy it.
So we have the Christian Saints—Lucia, Thomas, Christopher (St Kitts for short), John, Vincent, Martin. Puerto Rico was originally San Juan (Saint John) and its capital was Puerto Rico (rich port), but somehow the names for the island and the city got switched.
We have islands named for places in Spain (Montserrat, Grenada); we have islands given Spanish names because of some physical feature which struck them (Anguilla—little eel, because of its skinny shape); we have Hispaniola (little Spain).
And we have Trinidad, so named because Columbus had promised to call the first land he saw on his third voyage in 1498 after the Holy Trinity—whether or not he thought he saw three peaks on the southern coast of the island where he first sighted it..
But some islands did retain their indigenous names. One example is Jamaica, a Taino (Arawakan) word recorded by Columbus as ‘Yamaye’ or ‘Xamaye’ and made more Spanish sounding as ‘Jamaica’. It simply means the place where the Jamai (or Yamaye) people lived, although it is often translated more poetically as ‘land of springs or water’.
One of the problems with the Trinity Cross was that its name related only to Trinidad, not to Tobago. And Tobago is one of the few islands which, like Jamaica, retained in a modified form its indigenous name. It derives from a Kalinago or Carib word meaning either a cigar-like roll of tobacco leaf, or a long-stemmed pipe used to smoke it, and was used for the island presumably because of its long, skinny shape. What the Caribs probably called ‘Tavaco’ became ‘Tobago’, related to the modern English word ‘tobacco’.
So Tobago has its original name, more or less. Should Trinidad be renamed, as some of the defenders of the Trinity Cross argued was only logical if we were abandoning the ‘Trinity’ symbol? There is one Caribbean country which took the bold step, on gaining its independence, to abandon its colonial name and adopt a ‘native’ one instead.
The rich French colony of Saint Domingue (the western part of Hispaniola) became an independent, Black-ruled state in January 1804 after a long and bloody revolution. In a remarkable move, the leaders of the new state threw out the French colonial name—associated with enslavement and brutal colonial rule—and took instead a Taino word, ‘Ayiti’, meaning ‘mountainous’. So the new state became Haiti. The new name symbolised a total rejection of enslavement and European rule, and looked back to the first inhabitants of the land.
Trinidad’s indigenous name was Cairi or Kairi (sometimes written Iere). This is an Arawakan term. Sadly, it doesn’t mean ‘Land of the Humming Bird’, as so many have thought. It simply means ‘the island’.
But not just any island. In a recent article, the archaeologist Arie Boomert (who worked at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, in the 1980s) shows that for the Arawakan and Warao people of the adjacent mainland, Trinidad was THE island: the first island they encountered as they moved out from the Orinoco Delta region into the Caribbean, the island which had a mythical importance for them, their sacred island.
So: if ever we wanted to revert to our original name, we would end up with ‘Kairi and Tavaco’. What’s in a name?
The following article was also published in Trinidad and Tobago’s daily newspaper, The Daily Express.