Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pirate Latitudes - Matanceros


While I was reading Pirate Latitudes, my thoughts kept returning to the name “Matanceros”, the Spanish fortress that Captain Hunter and his forces attack. I had the feeling I had seen that name before in connection with Michael Crichton. It took awhile, but I finally figured it out.

In Crichton’s novel Lost World, Ian Malcolm, speaking about where they are going, describes:

Five islands “strung out in an arc, all about ten miles offshore from the bay of Puerto Cortés…Local people call them the Five Deaths.”

“The Five Deaths are ancient volcanic islands…Matanceros, Muerte, Tacaño, Sorna, Pena…All names of death and destruction…” (paperback edition, pp. 87-88)


On p. 46 in Pirate Latitudes, Whisper tells Hunter “The island of Matanceros, it means slaughter in the Donnish tongue…” (The “Donnish tongue being Spanish.) But when I looked up the word “matanceros” I couldn’t find it in either online Spanish dictionaries or in the extensive dictionaries at my bookstore.

Fortunately, my friend (and major Michael Crichton fan) Erik Stengler, lives in Spain, and I asked him to investigate.

Here’s what he discovered:

I did notice the mention of Matanceros as supposedly meaning "slaughter", and it sounded strange to me, but I assumed it was archaic and left it at that. After all the modern word for "slaughter" is "matanza".

Now I have looked it up in the official dictionary of the Spanish Language www.rae.es. It turns out to have the obvious meaning of a word built from "matanza" with the suffix "-ero", which always refers to the person or object that does whatever the root word means. So, a "matancero" is the official of the slaughterhouse who kills and rips apart the animals that are slaughtered, "matanceros" being its plural.

Now, why would an island be called that? There are two possibilities: either the island was inhabited by people (indigenous or colonists) known for their bloody way of dealing with enemies, or it was inhabited by people from the Cuban province of "Matanzas". This province in turn probably got its name from bloody battles held during its colonization.

It so happens that here on the island of Tenerife where I live, we have a village called "La Matanza", because the indigenous inhabitants "slaughtered" the Spanish colonists there. (The Spanish had there revenge soon afterwards at the neighboring village now known as "La Victoria", that is "The Victory" - history is always told by the winners...)

So, a third and unlikely explanation for the name Matanceros is that that island was inhabited by people from Tenerife's village "La Matanza"!


I have a theory as to how Michael Crichton might have discovered and came to use the word “matanceros”.

Just off the coast of Akumal, Mexico on the Caribbean coastline of Yucatan peninsula is a Spanish shipwreck known was as the Matanceros. The merchant ship sank in 1741 after being fatally damaged by coral reefs.

American underwater archaeologist Robert F. Marx discovered the wreck in 1957
From his book Treasure Lost at Sea: Diving to the World's Great Shipwrecks:

“One day in 1956, while I was living in Cozumel, I was pouring over a chart when I noticed that the coast opposite the island was called Punta Matanceros, which translates as “Slaughter Point.” That made me think that perhaps a ship had been lost there and the survivors massacred by Indians. I might never have investigated the area if I had know then what I later gleaned from the archives: the vessel’s nickname came from Matanzas, Cuba, where it was built.”


The wreck is described by a travel guide as "quite possibly the best dive site along the Riviera Maya". So I wonder if Michael Crichton, an avid scuba diver, ever explored the sunken ship known as the Matanceros.

Related Posts - The Origin of Pirate Latitudes

Links and more info on Michael Crichton at:
Kahlessa's Corner



Nook Wifi - 300x250

8 comments:

FCEtier said...

I like your theory! It certainly fits in with Crichton's stories from "Travels" and you're probably right. He most likely did enjoy diving in that area, if not to the remains of the ship you mentioned!

Marla Warren said...

Thank you, FCEtier! I remember reading an interview with Michael Crichton in which he mentioned that he liked diving in the Caribbean.

Another question--did Crichton ever dive at Port Royal, Jamaica? The city was struck by a horrific earthquake in 1692, and two-thirds of the city sank into the sea. It was excavated by marine archeologists in the early 1960s, and people are allowed to dive there with permission from the local authorities.

In my post Origin of Pirate Latitudes, I noted that the John Lange novel, Grave Descend (published in 1970 and republished in 2006), reflected a thorough knowledge of the island of Jamaica. Even more telling is that the main character, James McGregor, is a professional diver who explores sunken wrecks.

Ken said...

I've poked around a little on your theories and suspect you're all on to something. One thing I did notice in my research is that the Cuban province of Matanzas is shaped much like the isle he describes with a U-shape facing east -- this being the port on the island; in other words, if Matanzas were an island it would be shaped like Matanceros.

Marla Warren said...

Nice catch, Ken! You can see the shape on this map of Matanzas, Cuba

Samuel said...

"Matanceros" itself is not a Spanish word but it does have a Spanish sound, good enough that even though Spanish is my first language he had me wondering if it indeed existed at some point. Didn't remember there was another "Matanceros" island from The Lost World. Too bad it's not the same made-up island, would have been cool to have some sort of link between the two stories.

Anonymous said...

Just a comment to point that "matanceros" is not used at all in spanish (at least the one spoken in Spain). It could be said that, despite being included in the dictionary, it sounds pretty strange.

The usual word meaning the person who works in the slaughterhouse is derived from "matanza" too but is "matarife" instead of "matancero".

Hope it helps

Anonymous said...

The Spanish for slaughterhouse or abattoir is "matadero". "Matanza" means slaughter, carnage. As place-name Matanceros makes sense in Spanish.A bit odd perhaps, but place-names many times are a bit odd. What is preposterous is the trumped-up Spanish (Italian rather than Spanish) spoken by the Spaniard soldiers on Cazalla's ship and on Matanceros.

Anonymous said...

Post Scriptum_ Matanceros (plural: matanceros) is as well the gentilic of Matanzas (Cuba).

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