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: