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Carriacou: “Land of Reefs” or “Land of Ramiers”?

Figure 1: Du Chaffault’s Plan de la Petite Ance, 1751. This bay, known today as Tyrrel Bay, was referenced by Father DuTertre in 1656
(courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

The name Carriacou has intrigued us all, especially because its origin, like Camáhogne for Grenada, is indigenous and remains one of several islands that have retained or reverted to their original names (or some version of it, including Bequia, Tobago, Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti).

Carriacou is, in fact, the Anglicized spelling of the Carib/Kalinago name for the island, which was recorded by Father Jean-Baptiste DuTertre as Kayryouacou in 1656 when he sailed past the island on his way to Grenada and observed:

“The most beautiful of all the little isles is Kayrioüacou, where I stopped long enough to note its peculiarities. It is a very beautiful and good isle, capable of supporting a colony: it is about eight or nine leagues in circumference, and on a line of land to the north (sic) it has a very beautiful bay, almost semicircular, and on the northern end of this bay there is a great rock [bluff] which protects one of the most beautiful harbors that I have seen in the islands” (DuTerte 1667, I:41-42; translation from Devas 1974:178-179; see Figure 1).

DuTertre adds that “Fairly close to the harbor is a pond of chomache water, that is to say, half salt, which cannot come from anything else than a river or a spring of fresh water that loses itself in the saltwater close to the sea-shore. The color of this water is as red as blood, and even the crabs there take on this color; but the bottom of the pond is white sand covered with red slime, which makes me believe that this water passes over some deposit of ochre.” This is likely the mangroves of Tyrrel Bay, now part of the Sandy Island Oyster Bed Marine Protected Area.

Figure 2: Google Maps satellite image of Carriacou, showing the island surrounded by reefs, especially on the eastern coast

Though it has recently been reported (since the 1980s) and widely accepted that Carriacou means “Land of Reefs” or “Land Surrounded by Reefs” as the island is in fact surrounded by many reefs, especially on the eastern windward coast, there is no historical reference to it as such (see Figure 2). Neither DuTertre, nor Jean Baptiste Labat a half century later, provided a meaning for the name, if they knew it at all. And indeed, all the Grenadines are surrounded by reefs. A paper by Hanna and Giovas (2019) on Amerindian settlement patterns in the Grenadines found that reefs were a common denominator for site selection, including sites on Carriacou, which favored the windward side (where all the reefs are). Moreover the Kalinago word for “reef” in Breton’s dictionary is chébi (Breton 1999 [1665]:68).

However, Guadeloupean historian Thierry L’Etang (2007) who has researched the indigenous names of the islands, provides a possible meaning of the name Carriacou as Ile Ramier or “Ramier (Pigeon) Island,” based on kairi (“isle”) and ouacoúcoua (“ramier pigeon”),” with reference to the prevalence of the ramier pigeon on the island.

DuTretre did record the presence of a conspicuous bird, a “kind of pheasant, which had a confused sort of call, louder and more tiresome than that of several fowls together, that have just laid.” He continues: 

“…we kept on hearing a great noise made by some big birds which were continually crying out caracara caracara. With our local people there, these birds pass as pheasants: M. de Rochefort says the French call them Poulle-pintardes and Faisans, which would be hardly remarkable, were it not that, in reproducing an illustration, he has depicted not this ‘pheasant’ at all, but the Poule-pintarde, which is a bird belonging to the sea coast of Africa, and is as rare in the islands as it is in France.

The real (Carriacou) pheasant is a very beautiful bird, as big as a young cock, but standing higher, on legs like a peacock’s. and its beak and head resemble those of a corbeau. All feathers on its neck and breast are a beautiful shining blue, also like a peacock’s. The whole of its back is browny grey, and the feathers of its rather short tail are black. When the bird becomes tame it makes itself master of the situation, chasing away turkey-hens and domestic fowls with its beak, and sometimes killing them. It does the same with dogs, pecking at them and making them yelp.... Those who have eaten it assure me that the flesh is as good as that of the pheasant of France.” (Translated by Devas 1974:179-180).

The bird was in fact a Guinea-fowl, brought from west Africa (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Birds depicted in Rochefort’s Histoire naturelle et morale des Iles
Antilles de l’Amerique, referencing the poule-pintarde and Le faisan

It is interesting to note that Sparrow Bay on Carriacou’s northwest coast was known as Baye des Ramiers and located in the Quartier des Ramiers under the French (see Figures 4 and 5). Glover Island, off Grenada’s southern coast, was also originally named Ile des Ramiers by the French for the presence of the ramier or red-necked pigeon (Columba squamosa). Coincidently, the bird depicted on Grenada’s current coat-of-arms is the ramier pigeon, though the Grenada dove (Leptotila wellsi) replaced it as the national bird with its designation in 1991 in an attempt to protect this endemic bird.

L’Etang also mentions “deer” as an alternative meaning, which he dismissed. However, it is worth noting that the names do not necessarily have to make sense to us (nor accurately describe the place in question). Nonetheless, Christina Giovas (2017) studied the fauna found in the prehistoric levels of Sabazan and Grand Bay, two of Carriacou’s biggest Amerindian sites. Both contained brocket deer (Mazama americana), a type common in South America and Trinidad, and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus sp.), also found in South America and Curacao, although neither are found in the Antilles today. Indeed, Giovas concluded that, based on the small size of the assemblages and the fact that they were mostly worked (carved in some way), among other things, suggests certain parts of the animals were brought/exchanged into the islands (rather than entire live animals). Other islands have reported worked deer bone as well, including Trinidad, Aruba, Islas Los Roques, and Grenada — all in the southern Caribbean and close to the mainland.

Figure 4: A map of Carriacou based on data from the 1750 census (JAM)

Figure 5: A map of Carriacou based on data from the 1762 census (JAM)

Finally, a quick perusal of similar-sounding words in Breton’s (1999 [1665]) dictionary reveals two other candidates: caïricouaáli (to be torn, to tear apart) and carou-carou, which Breton says means “grenade”. The lowercase “g” here suggests not the island of Grenada but the word Breton uses elsewhere for “turtle eggs.” 

But given the historical references to ramiers, perhaps L'Etang is on to something with Ile des Ramiers, many of which can be seen in backyards and fields across the island.

-JAM and JAH

(Adapted from JAM’s books Island Caribs and French Settlers in Grenada and A-Z of Grenada Heritage 2nd edition, forthcoming)

Breton, Raymond
1999    Dictionnaire Caraïbe-Français [1665]. Edited by Marina Besada Paisa and Jean Bernabé. Paris: Karthala: Editions de l’IRD.

Devas, Ratmund P.
1974    A History of the Island of Grenada, 1698-1796, With Some Notes and Comments on Carriacou and Events of Later Years. St. George’s, Grenada: Carenage Press.

Du Tertre, Jean-Baptiste
1667    Histoire generale des Antilles habitées par les François. Vol. I. Collège de la Sainte Trinité de la Compagnie de Jésus: Chez Thomas Iolly.

LEtang, Thierry
2007    “Du nom indigène des îles de l’archipel des Antilles.” Montray Kréyol. (accessed April 30, 2020).

Giovas,Christina M.
2017    “Continental Connections and Insular Distributions: Deer Bone Artifacts of the Precolumbian West Indies—A Review and Synthesis With New Records.” Latin American Antiquity 29 (1): 1–17.

Hanna, Jonathan A., and Christina M. Giovas
2019    “An Islandscape IFD: Using the Ideal Free Distribution to Predict Pre-Columbian Settlements from Grenada to St. Vincent, Eastern Caribbean.” Environmental Archaeology.


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