Saintly tales of the Caribbean

By Bob Schulman

Cruise ships dock at St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin islands. Photo by USVI  Department of Tourism.Have you ever wondered why so many Caribbean islands are named after saints? The answer is, Christopher Columbus was fond of matching up the day he came across a new island with the feast days of the various saints.

St. Martin, for example, got that name when Columbus sailed by it on Nov. 14,  1493, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, a French bishop. St. Vincent was so-named in 1498 when Columbus spotted it on Jan. 22, the feast day of St. Vincent de Saragossa. Ditto for St. Lucia later that year when The Great Explorer came by on Dec. 13, the feast day of the martyred Sicilian virgin St. Lucy.

Historians note the irony of the latter name, because St. Lucia is one of the prettiest spots in the Caribbean, known for its soaring, Bora Bora-like volcanic peaks, and St. Lucy was the patron saint of the blind.

Ancient guns guard a harbor on St. Lucia. Photo by Bob Schulman.When no feast days fit Columbus' discoveries, he used other naming systems. Take St. Kitts, which he originally tagged St. Christopher after his own patron saint. The name later became St. Kitts after the 17th century nickname Kit or Kitt for St. Christopher.

Another island, St. Barthelemy (St. Bart's or St. Barth's for short), was named by Columbus after his younger brother, Bartolomeo, although researchers differ on where the “St.” designation came from (Columbus' brother was no saint).

Columbus was cruising around the southern Caribbean in 1498 when he came across an island he called Trinidad (after the Catholic Holy Trinity) and one nearby he tagged Tobago (after the tobacco crops grown there by the native Caribs). Columbus thought another island in the area looked like a pomegranate, so he named it Grenada (Spanish for the round, reddish fruit).

There's a whole different story behind the naming of what's now the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. As Mexico City-based historian Jaime Capulli tells it: “When Columbus came across this group of 100 or so islands in 1493, he was so dazzled by their pristine beauty that he called them Las Virgenes – meaning “the virgins,” after the legendary 11,000 virgin handmaidens of the martyred 3rd century British Princess St. Ursula.”

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