Guinea, Guinea or indeed Guinea…

Let`s have a look at the word Guinea. There is Guinea the country in Africa, New Guinea the Asian country, and  the guinea the unit of currency. They are all connected. Let us start, as the word did, with West Africa.

There is in the Tuareg languages of north western Africa a word aginaw, which means black people; and it’s just possible that this is why the Portuguese decided to call a stretch of the north west African coast Guiné. Just possible, but not certain.

What is utterly certain is that the splendidly named Ynigo Ortez de Retez had a great surprise when he got to the Far East. He was a Portuguese explorer who knew the Guiné coast and its black, frizzy-haired inhabitants. But he went further, all the way round Africa to Asia, where people had straight hair and lighter skins until… he got to an island east even of the Malays that was populated by black fellows with frizzy hair, just like the chaps back in Guinea . He therefore decided to call it New Guinea, and the name stuck. Papua is probably derived from the Malay word for frizzy hair.

Back in Africa the British regarded the Guinea coast with envious eyes, partially because it had some lovely gold mines. In 1663 we started to use this gold to make coins with little pictures of elephants on them and one eighty-ninth of a pound of 22-carat Guinea gold in each. One of these coins was therefore worth twenty silver shillings.

But the prices of gold and silver fluctuate, and they fluctuate in relation to each other. So when gold was expensive and silver was cheap, you could find that a golden guinea was worth thirty silver shillings and so on and so forth. Eventually, in 1717, the value was fixed at twenty one shillings to one guinea. In modern parlance this means that a guinea is worth £1.05. The last guinea was minted in 1813, however, for reasons best known to nobody, it is still the currency in which racehorses are traded.

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