Guinea — 4 Countries, 1 Former Currency

Guinea. Guinea-Bissau. Equatorial Guinea. Papua New Guinea. Other than the words “and”, “the”, “of”, and “Islands”, Guinea is one of the names more commonly shared among multiple nations. It definitely piques the curiosity of people, who might wonder, why are there so many countries with Guinea in its name? Are they all in the same place?

To answer the second question, no. While Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea lie in West Africa, Papua New Guinea forms the eastern part of the island of Papua in Oceania, bordering Indonesia. So, with these Guineas being spread so far and wide, what is in a Guinea?

To simplify a lot of things, the origin of the word Guinea is not really clear. But what we do have are some leading theories. The word we use today traces back to the Portuguese Guiné, referring to the lands where the Guineus live, a demonym given to the African people groups living south of the Senegal River. Some went further to propose that this word was borrowed from the Berber language, who called such people Ghinawen, meaning “burnt people”, referring to the dark skin complexion of the people groups there.

But there are other words that could sound like Guinea. One is the city of Djenné in what is today Mali, which could have been referred to as Genni, which could sound really similar to Guinea. This city straddled the Upper Niger River, and dominated the gold and salt trade across West Africa. This would enter great use in Arabic, where it is referred to as Genewah. It is not known if Djenné and Ghinawen are connected in some form, but a hypothesis that brought the two theories together suggested that the word Ghinawen gave rise to the city name Djenné, and hence Guinea. This word Guinea then came to refer to an entire region of the African West Coast lying on the Gulf of Guinea. This stretches from what is today Senegal to Equatorial Guinea.

Following brutal colonisation, the country of Guinea (formerly French Guinea) gained independence first in 1958, claiming the name Guinea first. Second among the Guineas is Equatorial Guinea, which gained independence from Spain in 1968. The “Equatorial” part is partly true — while the country has latitudes spanning from 4 degrees north to 2 degrees south, the equator does not actually run through any of its land. But anyway, this is the Guinea (on Africa) that lies closest to the equator.

Lastly, comes Guinea-Bissau’s independence from Portugal in 1973. The “Bissau” part of the refers to the capital city of the country, distinguish it from Guinea and Equatorial Guinea. It was similar to how we used to distinguish the two countries with Congo in their names, Congo-Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DR Congo), and Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo). But there is something more about the name of the capital city, Bissau. While the city was founded in the 17th century by Portugal, the name Bissau was most likely derived from a clan called N’nssassun, pluralised as Bôssassun. This became the Kingdom of Bissau over time, which declined by the early 20th century.

And in 1975, came Papua New Guinea’s independence. The term New Guinea was first coined in the 16th century by Spanish explorers, who thought that the dark skin complexion of the indigenous Papuan peoples resembled those on the African continent. With the age of exploration, came the addition of “new” to many places the European explorers found, like New Zealand, New Caledonia, and many others. But the word Papua has rather murky origins. Some leading theories behind the name include one from the Malay language, which called curly-hair papua or pua-pua, referring to the curly-hair of the inhabitants of the island of Papua. The other comes from the Tidore language, which called Papua Papo ua Gamsio, meaning The Papua Nine Negeri (state). The Papua here comes from a contraction of the words “united” and “not”, referring to the island’s geographical distance from the rest of Tidore. Lastly, we have sup i papwa from the Biak language, translating to the “land below”, referring to the islands from Bird’s Head to Halmahera. Sup i papwa became associated with Halmahera, to which the Portuguese would hear of during their era of colonisation.

This brings us to the currency called the guinea. The guinea was a coin minted from gold in Great Britain during the 17th to the early 19th centuries. Throughout its history, its value was affected by the value of gold (since it is made out of gold) on the market. This originally converted to 20 shillings, or one pound, although price fluctuations could have seen conversions as high as 30 shillings. After the guinea was demonetised in the early 19th century, it continued to be used in colloquial speech, converting to one pound and one shilling, or 1.05 pounds, the value used since it was officially fixed in 1717. This gold mostly originated in the gold mines of the Guinea region in West Africa, hence giving the coin its name.

Furthermore, far out in the Andes of South America, there exists this rodent called a guinea pig. Despite what the name suggests, this species is not native to the Guinea region, nor is it a pig. Other common names refer to it as a cavy or a domesticated cavy. Curiously, genetic research suggests that this species does not occur naturally in the wild. Additionally, no one quite knows where the word “guinea pig” comes from. The word “pig” could have referred to their domestication for human consumption (which some still do to this day), but this is still just a theory. The Guinea here could have referred to its origin in a faraway location, since guinea pigs were exotic pets when colonists first brought the animals to Europe in the 16th century. It is perhaps one of the commonly known animals today that we do not exactly have an idea about the name’s origins. Otherwise regionally known as a cuy, or in the scientific community as a Cavia porcellus, these fuzzy friends perhaps present one of the more mysterious cases surrounding the use of Guinea in their most used common name.


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