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#494896 - 08/22/14 12:46 PM Etymology for Ambergris Caye's name  
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 57,750
Marty Offline
Marty  Offline

by Christopher Lloyd De Shield

Anybody expert on Belizean history think the following is plausible account of the history of Ambergris Caye's name?...I think I may have stumbled upon a more accurate etymology for Ambergris Caye. At least, I have a plausible alternative etymology to the current popular speculations.

Apparently there is some confusion as to how Ambergris Caye got its name.

What might be slightly misleading historians is the literal meaning of ‘Ambergris’: it is ‘a wax-like substance that originates as a secretion in the intestines of the sperm whale, found floating in tropical seas and used in perfume manufacture’. (or in [slightly inaccurate] layman’s terms: ‘[sperm]whale vomit’) Why name an island after whale vomit? because it is/was very valuable:

All the historical writeups on San Pedro and Amergris Caye I browsed give something similar to this account:

“In the 1600s British pirates roaming the Caribbean found a little haven, discretely tucked inside a great barrier reef. It is believed that the pirates used Ambergris Caye as a safehaven to hide-out and stash their valuables.” The Bacalar Channel was dredged either by these same pirates (or much earlier by the Maya who first lived there) “to facilitate the transportation of their treasures to mainland Belize. It is during this period that Ambergris Caye supposedly got its name.”

So far so good, but this is where historians are mislead:

Because ambergris was a valuable substance for perfumers back in the day (today they use synthetic alternatives) you could make a quick fortune harvesting the stuff from shorelines if and when it washed up (something like natural ‘sea lotto’ in the colonial-era). So pirates and bucanneers, who are by definition interested in treasure, would no doubt value the stuff. The implication is that their interest was such that they would perhaps name islands after it.

Here is a sample representative write-up from another website:

“Ambergris, being a very lightweight material, will float and thus washes up on beaches. Large quantities of ambergris *may* have washed up on the shores of Ambergris Caye before intense whaling of the-1800's and early 190O's decimated the sperm whale populations. Interestingly, the Bahamas also include an island named Ambergris Caye.”

The writer includes the word “may” because this is retrospect speculation.

While this is still a plausible account, the problem with this is that (as I understand it) ambergris is rarely found in any significant quantities washed up on shorelines (hence its value). It is thus a stretch to say that washed-up ambergris is *the* reason the caye is so named.

Historians, preoccupied with the literal definition of the word ‘ambergris’ and the substance's historical use, I submit, are overlooking alternative metaphorical, literary or allusive and figurative usages of the word.

I happened to stumble across such an allusive use of the word while reading a short late 18th-Century literary sketch, set in Jamaica, by a French-born cosmopolitan writer (and farmer-philospher) J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur.

The relevant passage reads (in the original lightly-edited spelling and syntax):

“Here however dwells men who finds in this appearent Havock of Nature their Greatest sécurity, their shoals serves them, as the most Impenetrable Bulwarks, & ye Mis-fortunes of ship-wretk’d vessels often affords them a Harvest which they Industriously gather by diving—.. Yet they are far from being Pyrates, they only recover what Nature has sunk, thus the largest Ambergrease is found after a Great Storm.—..” (Crèvecoeur "Sketches of Jamaica and Bermudas and other Subjects" 1773)

The word Crèvecoeur uses is ‘ambergrease’ which is a 17th-Century variant spelling of the word (according to the OED). But what is significant about this is *how* he uses it:

What Crèvecoeur’s account demonstrates is that, at least in the 18th Century, ‘ambergris’ had a metaphorical and allusive meaning that might be rendered literally as “serendipitous bounty” (or, more colloquially, ‘sea lotto’).

Ambergris is literally that substance found in whale vomit, but the word was also used to refer to any treasure obtained from the sea, including items from natural shipwrecks. What backs up this account, is the fact of so many shipwrecks off of Ambergris caye. Of course the island would be a great source of "ambergris" — the reef made navigation very precarious and shipwrecked merchant ships would provide free treasure for the observant and industrious salvager!

#494898 - 08/22/14 03:10 PM Re: Etymology for Ambergris Caye's name [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Nov 2002
Posts: 245
Nick Barton Offline
Nick Barton  Offline
That sounds very plausible!

#494920 - 08/23/14 08:30 AM Re: Etymology for Ambergris Caye's name [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 2008
Posts: 45
julie babcock Offline
julie babcock  Offline

That sounds right and makes sense.
Thank you, Marty

#494932 - 08/23/14 02:19 PM Re: Etymology for Ambergris Caye's name [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 2005
Posts: 246
Chica Blanca Offline
Chica Blanca  Offline
Great story, but I have issue having found 'amber fat' and degraded ambergris on the island. This was within months of a sperm whale being spotted out near the Blue Hole, 2011 or 2012. It was confirmed as 'amber fat' and degraded ambergris by the leading buyer of perfume grade ambergris in France.

We are not the only one's who have found it. Some friends were given a chunk of ambergris from a local expat in the 90's. It was sent in for lab analysis. It was found to be high grade ambergris. She still has the sample, analysis and a write up in her then local Colorado newspaper.

As the sperm whale population begins to recover, we should start to see more ambergris washing up on our beaches. So as we walk the beaches we will be looking for our version of the sea lottery, perfume grade ambergris.


Beach bum, butterfly stalker, native plant enthusiast.
#495022 - 08/26/14 12:17 PM Re: Etymology for Ambergris Caye's name [Re: Marty]  
Joined: May 2006
Posts: 538
Dane Offline
Dane  Offline
Funny how places get named. Just one person finding something on the beach they THINK is ambergris can call the island by that name and it can stick.
This happens a lot in Belize right up to today.

#495024 - 08/26/14 12:42 PM Re: Etymology for Ambergris Caye's name [Re: Marty]  
Joined: May 2006
Posts: 538
Dane Offline
Dane  Offline
When I built a development, the surveyor casually asked me the street names in a joking session waiting for the water taxi. We made up stuff like Yellow Brick Road and Dane Lane.
I naively thought place names were chosen in a organized fashion.
Six months later those names appeared on the final survey, much to our surprise. The surveyor said we could not easily change them.

#495028 - 08/26/14 03:07 PM Re: Etymology for Ambergris Caye's name [Re: Dane]  
Joined: Mar 2001
Posts: 11,010
klcman Offline
klcman  Offline
I once bought a property here in Maine that was named after a long passed prior owner, one without a lustre. My property was the only residence on this short municipally owned 1/3 mile dirt lane. When the town was going through a reassigning of names & numbers to facilitate a 911 system, one of the town fathers asked me if I lived on X road. I said, no it's the other road. When the new 911 maps were made public, I learned I now lived on "The Other Road". Then a neighbor petitioned and got his road name changed to "Still Another Road".

_ _ _ _ _ _ _________________ _ _ _ _ _ _
But then what do I know, I am but a mere caveman
#495058 - 08/27/14 08:52 AM Re: Etymology for Ambergris Caye's name [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 2005
Posts: 246
Chica Blanca Offline
Chica Blanca  Offline
I don't just THINK it's ambergris. Many people here over the years have found ambergris on the island. We were by no means the first. Just ask any one who has lived on the island over 30 years. It was named Ambergris Caye well before I was born, so I couldn't have named it after my finds. I guess my friends' and long time residents having a certified lab analysis on their ambergris isn't enough for some.

As my husband said, "You can read anything on the internet these days."


Beach bum, butterfly stalker, native plant enthusiast.
#495067 - 08/27/14 11:53 AM Re: Etymology for Ambergris Caye's name [Re: Marty]  
Joined: May 2000
Posts: 6,718
Amanda Syme Offline
Amanda Syme  Offline

#495074 - 08/27/14 02:41 PM Re: Etymology for Ambergris Caye's name [Re: Marty]  
Joined: May 2006
Posts: 538
Dane Offline
Dane  Offline
Nothing personal about your Ambergris, mam. I regret if you took offense.
I was referring to some long ago sailor who had no lab or prior experience.
You do, of course.
I wasn't responding to your post.

My point was that surveyors don't need to have anything verifiable when they name a place.
There are no yellow bricks on our road.
There are no tigers in Belize, just cats that were mistaken for tigers and the name stuck.
Caulking had nothing to so with the name Caye Caulker.
Paradise Cove is not a cove, it is a trash dump.
Everybody know what a honey wagon is?

Last edited by Dane; 08/27/14 02:52 PM.
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