Do You Know The Meaning Of These Caribbean Island Names?

27th September 2019

The Caribbean is awash with influences from all over the globe. French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and British explorers have all colonised different parts of the region, leaving their mark in the form of cultural elements like music, cuisine and architecture. Add African, Native American and modern America influences and its clear to see how much of a melting pot this part of the world is.

The names of various Caribbean islands were given by many of these foreign explorers, for a variety of different reasons. It’s not always immediately obvious what they mean, so here’s an explanation for a few of our favourite destinations.

Anguilla

Anguilla From Above

One of the Leeward Islands, Anguilla is much-loved for its quiet retreats and sandy coves. It was originally named by Christopher Columbus after he supposedly spotted the island during his second expedition in 1493. The fact that it is about 30 miles long and no more than three miles wide gives it a serpent-like shape and this is exactly what the Spanish explorer had in mind when he named it. The word ‘anguila’ means eel in many Latin languages and describes the slender landscape perfectly.

Aruba

Aruba

Historians aren’t quite so sure where the name Aruba comes from, but many have posited a range of theories. We can, however, discount the idea that it derived from the Spanish phrase ‘oro huba’, which means ‘there was gold’, because the gold mining industry didn’t arrive until much later and original settlers knew nothing of the precious metals lying beneath the surface.

Another school of thought is that Aruba’s name has Indian roots and was either taken from the word ‘oruba’ (well-placed) or the combination of the words ‘ora’ (shell) and ‘oubao’ (island). Perhaps we’ll never know for sure.

Tortola

Tortola

Another island said to have been discovered by Columbus, a popular story claims he named it Tortola as the word means ‘turtledove’ in Spanish. However, evidence suggests that he actually proclaimed it to be called Santa Ana, after the mother of the Virgin Mary. It wasn’t until the Dutch took over that the name was changed to Ter Tholen in honour of a town and municipality in the Netherlands. This was later anglicised to Tortola when the British colonised the island.

Grenada

Grenada

Yet again, Columbus is at the heart of naming this Caribbean island, but the name he gave it is not the one that we use today. According to reports, the crew spotted two islands (modern-day Grenada and Tobago) and Columbus pointed to them both, announcing the names ‘Assumpción’ and ‘La Concepción’ respectively. Some confusion surrounds which was which, but it’s thought Grenada was christened the latter.

The island was later named ‘Mayo’ by Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci before Spanish colonials changed it to Grenada to reflect the Spanish city of the same name. It spent some time as ‘La Grenade’ when under French rule between 1652 and 1763, but was reverted back to Grenada by the British when they arrived.

Jamaica

Ochos Rios Jamaica

The name of this popular island has its roots in the language of the native Arawak Indians who lived here long before the European settlers arrived. They called the land ‘Xaymaca’, meaning either ‘Land of Wood and Water’ or the ‘Land of Springs’. During a brief period under Spanish rule, it was known as Santiago, but when the British arrived, in 1655, they chose to anglicise its original name to Jamaica.

Barbados

Bearded Fig Tree Barbados

Rather than Spanish sailors like Columbus, it was Portuguese adventurer Pedro a Campos who gave this island the name Barbados. When he and his crew arrived, in 1536, they immediately noticed a large number of bearded fig trees. Unlike most trees, this species has aerial roots that dangle down from the branches, making them look like hairs. The European explorers related this to a beard and thus called their discovered land ‘Os Barbados’ (the bearded).

Over the years, some people have posited that the term actually refers to natives with beards who met Campos and his men when they arrived. However, the fig tree origin is still the prevailing theory.


If you would like to visit any of the islands we’ve mentioned above, our range of Caribbean cruises can take you there. Call us on 0845 200 6145 to book or speak to an advisor via our online chat.

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