The oldest historical documents that refer to the western coast of North America by the name, “California,” come from the records of voyages of two Spanish explorers, Hernan Cortez and Fortun Ximenez, who sailed up the Baja coast from Mexico on orders from the Governor of Mexico some time between 1550 and 1556 AD. The explorers referred to the area as an island, and in fact, California appears in later maps as an island. In their journals of their travels, they referred to the area as, “California,” as if the name was commonly used by Spaniards of the time.
Although there is no tangible documentation available to prove how the state of California got it’s name, most historians agree, that the name of the state likely came from the word, Caliph which is the title of a Muslim political leader. Some theorize that the Moors knew of the New World, perhaps from explorers such as Khashkhash Ibn Saeed (see an earlier blog), and that an Andalusian Caliph claimed it for as his own territory. While there is no evidence of a Muslim caliph claiming California, several references of a mystical place called California are referenced in French and Spanish literature well before the arrival of Cortez and Ximenez.
Around the year 1510, a Castilian author named Garci Rodreguez de Montalvo wrote romance novels (perhaps based on tall tales of the time) entitled, The Adventures of Esplandian. In the story, a regal black woman referred to as, “Calafia,” rules a tribe of other black women on a beautiful island guarded by man eating griffins. She is meets a Muslim warrior and he convinces her to join him in a battle against the Christians who are attempting to take Constantinople. Calafia takes her griffins and sails to Constantinople, but becomes frustrated when she realizes that her griffins attack all men, but not women, whether they are Christian or Muslim. The story is so legendary that it was made into a Disney film called, Golden Dreams, in which Woopi Goldberg plays the role of Queen Calafia. Cortez referred to the novel when he spoke of the area. Today, the story is so legendary that it was made into a Disney film called, Golden Dreams, in which Woopi Goldberg plays the role of Queen Calafia. Regardless of whether or not black women lived in the west coast of North America, the story is a small piece of evidence that the name of the area was influenced by the culture of the Moors of the time.
This is a picture of a sculpture of Queen Calafia:
- When was the earliest historical document to use the word California to refer to the current day area written?
- Why did the Spanish Explorers refer to California as such? Where did they likely get the idea to name it California?
- Who was Queen Calafia? Write a basic story of the life of Queen Calafia.
- Why do you think people used to think that California was an island?