During a walk in Fort-de-France, I went to observe the iguanas that can be seen near the port and Fort Saint-Louis; this was the occasion to remind me that Martinique was once also known as Ioünacaera: the iguana island. Did you know that? And it’s not his only nickname! Today, I am speaking to you about iguanas, flowers, women and sweet names worn by our island.
From Matininό to Martinique
During his fourth voyage, in 1502, to the Americas, Columbus explored the island which became Martinique in French cartography and literature. I’m not going to repeat in detail the hypotheses about the origin of the name, because there is a very nice (French) work by Didier Lampin who does this by tracing the evolution of Martininό to Martinique with all its versions on the 16th century maps, which I invite you to read. But in short, it has nothing to do with Saint Martin. It would be better to see a derivative of Martes Spanish word for Tuesday or, if we look at the blog Vous voyez le topo, it would be the derivative of the name given to it by the Tainos of the Greater Antilles.
Martinique ou Matininό, the women island.
Contemporaries of C. Colombus report that the Tainos, Amerindians of the Greater Antilles, have told the explorer about an island inhabited only by women and having many metals: Matininό! I will not give you the developments on the mythical stories about the Amazons in this case; what is important to remember is that it may not be completely disconnected from a certain historical reality. Indeed, the Lesser Antilles experienced several waves of Native American migration and occupation. At the time of contact with Europeans, the Kalinagos were then the Amerindians occupying Martinique. As long as a good part of the men had gone on expeditions when Columbus and his men arrived on the island, you can imagine that it did not take long to see in their absence the « obvious » link with the Matininό evoked by the Tainos. But that is my personal interpretation.
Martinique or Ioünacaéra : the iguana island.
For more than 4000 years, our small land has been known and occupied more or less regularly by different tribes of Amerindians; also, before becoming Martinique, our island bore another name. For the Kalinagos living on the island at the time of the European conquest, it was called Ioünacaera: the island of iguanas! « Ioüana » or its derivatives meant iguana and « caera« , the island. In an article devoted to the indigenous toponymy of the West Indies, anthropologist Thierry L’ Étang lists different versions of Ioünacaera in the European sources of the 16th century and the following centuries: Iguanaqueya for Geraldini, Yguanaquera for Alonso de Chaves, Guanaquira for the chef Pedro Caribe and others…
Rediscovered little by little by the Martinique, Ioünacaera, the island of iguanas is still little mentioned today; it is Madinina, the island of flowers that I hear most often.
Martinique or Madinina : the flowers island.
I thought the terms Madinina or Madiana were relatively recent, so it was with surprise that I discovered Madinina « Reine des Antilles » [Madinina « Queen of the Antilles »] a work published in 1931. In the foreword, author William Dufougeré, a former doctor of colonial troops, evokes Martinique, « ce joyau de l’Atlantique que les Caraïbes avaient baptisé du gracieux nom de Madinina, l’île aux fleurs« . [« this jewel of the Atlantic that the Caribbean had christened with the graceful name of Madinina, the island of flowers ».]
After reading Didier Lampin’s article I mentioned earlier, the origin of Madinina can be understood. « Some lexicographers have pointed out that it could be a simple confusion of writing between the letters « rt » which would have merged into a single « d »… or vice versa. The recopy error hypothesis is certainly not unrealistic… » This was the explanation already put forward by Sidney Daney de Marcillac in his Histoire de la Martinique published in 1846. Speaking of C. Columbus and the islands, S. Daney said that he « had stopped for three days in one of them that the naturals or Caribbean called Madanina, Madiana or Mantinino » and S. Daney remarked in a note: »It is probable that the wild joints of the Caribbean, which pronounced this name to the first Spaniards, struck their ears in a different way, and each of them repeated it in its own way. » Error of transcription therefore, which can still happen nowadays; the official page of the French Overseas Ministry cannot deny it…
« Madidina »? 😉 But no more joking. Martinica, Madiana, Madinina… Okay with the changing script.
But where does the island of flowers come from?!
In trying to trace the path of this appellation, I found the expression in Les Colonies françaises d’Amérique… a work published in 1924, but also, and this is the oldest mention on Gallica, in Geographies départementales de la France… published in 1892! It says, »The natives used to call it Madiana the island of flowers. » Where did the article writer read this information? I haven’t been able to get past it yet. For me, the mystery of the Flower Island remains a mystery. I can understand that the expression is more than welcome for the tourist sector and explains its great success, but for the moment I have not found its origin in historical sources.
Have you ever encountered the expression Flower Island [île aux fleurs) for Martinique in the 19th century and before?
Lampin, Didier, Les cartes du XVIe siècle : la Martinique, l’île du Mardi ?
Blog Vous voyez le topo, La Martinique, l’île aux femmes
Celma, Cécile (coord.), Les civilisations amérindiennes des Petites Antilles, 2008.
A lire notamment pour les articles de Benoît Bérard et Thierry L’Étang.
1492, la double découverte, Bureau du Patrimoine, 1993.
Daney de Marcillac, Sidney, Histoire de la Martinique…, E. Ruelle, 1846, tome 1, pp. 1-2.
Dufougeré, William, Madinina « Reine des Antilles »…, Paris, Berger-Levrault, 1931.
Moreau de Jonnès, Alexandre, Histoire physique des Antilles Françaises…, Migneret, 1822, tome 1. p 10 et suivantes.
Les Colonies françaises d’Amérique… 1924. p. 38.
Géographies départementales de la France…, 1892. p. 3.
Iconography on Manioc.org
Les Caraïbes. Description du Monde, 1683. Extrait de Voyages aux Isles de l’Amérique (Antilles) 1693-1705, tome 1.
Finally, thank you very much to Milo for his picture of the common iguana. If you want to know more about iguanas in Martinique, visit the (French) Iguanes-Antilles website. There are 2 iguanas: the endemic species « delicatissima », endangered, and the common iguana which can easily be observed on the outskirts of Fort Saint-Louis.