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Baja California, Mexico. The origins of a name

By Rodrigo Manterola

Baja California, in the Northwest of Mexico, is unique in ways that defy the norm. 
The volcanic origins of this peninsula, the rare flora, and fauna of its land, combined with the amazingly diverse sea life in the most recently formed sea in the world, the Sea of Cortez, makes it a place of wonder.

But the astonishing uniqueness of Baja goes beyond the realm of the natural world and it reaches the field of narrative.

The history of Baja was shaped in tales of discovery, exploration, war, piracy, and endurance; stories that in the end gave Baja, and it’s northern neighbor California their name.

In this issue, we are going to focus on the origins of the name California, and it’s roots in a mythical island located at the west of the dreams of men.

We now know Baja California is not an island, but that wasn’t always the case. For about 300 years the world thought it was, and all due to one book.

Probable origins 

From a Bestseller

According to some historians and, as every good myth, the lore behind California as an island was born in a story filled with adventure, lust and romance.

California was a fictitious island Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, a Spanish writer, created in his novel “Las Sergas de Esplandian” or the Adventures of Esplandian, in English. Written in 1510

In his novel, de Montalvo depicts the adventures of Esplandian, son of Amadis de Gaula a character of previous writings and a literature blockbuster of its time, and Don Quixote‘s favorite book (1508)

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Cover of one of the four books Amadis de Gaula

In his novel, de Montalvo reported the island of California:

“… Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons. “

Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo

For the men of that time, it was an invitation to explore the world through the imagination.

Let’s remember that Columbus had just discovered the new world in 1492, exploration was synonymous of enterprise, so when Hernan Cortez, Conqueror of the Aztec empire, was looking for men to join his crew, stories like this one were of great help to inspire the men of Europe into the unknown new world, America.

By 1521 the Aztec empire has fallen, and Cortez and his men are up and exploring their new estate.

In 1533 Cortez sends an exploration crew to the western seas, onboard, a mutineer by the name of Fortun Ximenez, whom, after killing the Captain of his ship and taking control, discovered the southern portion of Baja, landing in what’s now La Paz.

This event probably sprang the myth of the island of California seeded in the fertile heads of these seamen.

Ximenez was killed by the local indigenous people in what seems to be a Karmatic turn of events. Some of his men eventually returned to mainland Mexico and reported their findings to Cortez. 

In 1535 Cortez arrived in the area and named it Santa Cruz, but due to logistical complications the attempt was abandoned.

In 1539 Cortez sent explorer Francisco de Ulloa in a rather different path, bordering Mexico’s pacific shore through to the Colorado River Delta proving, finally, that Baja California was a Peninsula, not an island.

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First map to print the toponym California in 1562

Eventually other explorers would confirm this, yet, the myth of an island would subsist for decades, partly due to mixed reports from other explorers.

In 1622 a map made by Dutch map-maker Michiel Colijn, still presented California as an island; this map remained as the basis for maps made in the following centuries, which helped preserve the myth.

The myth of an island was still around during the 18th century but eventually faded as new explorations and discoveries documented and refuted this idea.

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Map of the island of California 1650

Other origins.

Like other myths, California can’t escape form discussion, and while the most popular origin rests in Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s novel, other theories involve a much earlier poem written in France in the 11th century

The Song of Roland 

According to Wikipedia the Song of Roland is a medieval French epic poem, and it may have served as inspiration for the name “California”. 

The poem refers to Charlemagne‘s army’s defeat and retreat suffered in the year 778, by the Basque army in Battle of Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. On one line of this poem, the word Califerne is one of the lands mentioned, however, there is no indication of its geographic location. It is, though, named after a reference to Affrike, or Africa.

The poem is first in the original old French language and later in English :

“Morz est mis nies, ki tant me fist cunquere

Encuntre mei revelerunt li Seisne,

E Hungre e Bugre e tante gent averse,

Romain, Puillain et tuit icil de Palerne

E cil d’Affrike e cil de Califerne”;

“Dead is my nephew, who conquered so much for me!

Against me will rebel the Saxons,

Hungarians, Bulgars, and many hostile men,

Romans, Apulians, and all those of Palermo,

And those of Africa, and those of Califerne”

– Excerpt from the Song of Roland, 11th century.

Maybe de Montalvo was inspired by this since both works contain a similar plot point: a battle between Christian and non-Christian armies. 

The Hot Furnace

And of course, there’s yet another theory some authors like to point to, the name could derive from Old Spanish “Calit Fornay”, an evolution of the Latin word Calida Fornax, which means a hot furnace 

This may explain why in the circa map of 1650, California is an island and has the name written as two separate words, “Cali – Fornia.“In this theory, the word California may signify the obvious, that this is a hot place, but in the not so obvious manner of a lime kiln; as both Spanish and Catalan have similar words taken from the Latin roots calcis (lime) and fornax (oven)

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Traditional lime kiln in Sri Lanka

The truth may be more elusive yet, as there is no agreement on which one of these theories is right, or if all of them are to some extent. 

This, of course, just adds to the romantic myth and legend, making the origins of California even more fascinating. 

Queen Calafia, the spirit of California

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Queen Calafia, Mark Hopkins Hotel San Francisco

Calafia was a character created by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo for his novel the Adventures of Esplandian.

In this book, Calafia is a warrior queen, ruler of a kingdom of Amazons, women of Arabic origin, and according to the novel, citizens of the island of California.

In the plot, Calafia was supposed to build an army of women and trained griffins to join the Muslim in a battle against the Christians of Constantinople.

Long story short, Calafia was taken prisoner, turned into Christianity, and marry Esplandian’s cousin and return to her Island as a married woman and live many more adventures.

Her name, Calafia was likely inspired in the Arabic word Khalifa (a religious state leader), caliph in English and “Califa” in Spanish

The name of Calafia’s kingdom, California, has, likely, the same root, coined by the author to remember the Reconquista, a several centuries-long fight between Christians and Muslims which had recently concluded in Spain.

Queen Calafia represents, in a way, the Spirit of California, and has been the subject of modern-day sculpture, paintings, stories, and films; she is part of the myth of California’s origin, symbolizing an untamed and exotic land before the arrival of the Europeans

California could become an island after all

California and its peninsula were formed by plate tectonics and volcanic rage, in what seems to be a blink of an eye, speaking in geological time.

An event that started some 50 million years ago and that it’s still ongoing to this day forged the peninsula from the bottom of the sea up.

The San Andreas Fault is where two tectonic plates separate the land and allow the mighty Pacific Ocean to flood the void left behind; now known as the Gulf of California or Sea of Cortez.

According to predictions from geologists and seismologists, the Peninsula of Baja California and a great portion of southern California will eventually be separated from the mainland due to the ripping forces of these tectonic plates drifting apart in different directions.

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San Andreas fault

So yes, it is very likely someday in 10 million years, Los Angeles and San Francisco will be neighboring cities, and even more interesting is the fact that Baja will go along this motion, changing the borderline once more …but then again, what will be there in 10 million years is anybody’s guess.

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