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!