Saint Peter

Hagiography was perhaps the most important toponymic driver in the days of the caravels. All the way down the west coast of Africa, the early charts of Jorge de Aguiar, dated 1492, illustrate this religious fervor.

Some names have other origins, often unexplained. Places like Angra da Judia, or Jewess Bay, or Albadacençam, which presumably means White Ascension.

But mostly St. Anthony, St. Christopher, St. Sebastian, St. Lazarus, St. Mary, St. Lucia, and a host of others. The Portuguese named a lot of places, as they wandered the oceans of Africa, Asia, and America in the XVth and XVIth centuries.

And there are quite a few duplicate names.

One of the tricks for telling them apart was to introduce a further qualification. For instance, there’s a city in the state of Rio de Janeiro called S. João de Meriti—the Meriti river is appended to the saint’s name. I’d never heard of the place, but half a million people live there, and the population densty is so high that it’s known as ‘the anthill of the Americas.’

So how many saints are there anyhow? Short answer is that no one knows. Some Catholic websites are careful to point out that we should refer only to those canonized, and the numbers suggest somewhere between 1500 and 2000. That’s about one per year since the start of christianity. So the sailors wouldn’t be short of saints.

I can hardly think of a Portuguese male name that doesn’t qualify as a saint, and there are a good many ladies as well. What better place to delve into sainthood than the Italian site Santi, beati e testimoni? Tastefully robed in blue and red, this digital holy site informs us that today is not just the day of Saint Peter, but also Saint Paul, San Siro of Genoa, and even the Chinese martyr Magdalena Du Fengju. A little more digging tells us that Magdalena was buried alive on this day in 1900, during the Boxer Wars—I just realized that’s an awful pun, but it’s too late now.

Today is branded in my mind for various reasons, one of them being that it was my grandmother’s birthday. I’ve spoken about Angelica in these pages before, always with admiration. She lost her father, husband, and youngest son all in the same year (1925 or thereabouts). In the late 1970s, she had the magnificent pension of six hundred escudos per month—three euros, or about a dollar a week.

Ever since the days of the Portuguese discoveries, westerners have been hell-bent on evangelizing the natives. This was most recently noted in Obama’s plea for three African countries to legalize homosexuality.

Glad to be gay? Any of the hot colors means too hot to handle. Blood red means the death penalty.

Glad to be gay? Any of the hot colors means too hot to handle. Blood red means the death penalty.

The U.S. President, after praising the democratic nature of Senegal, and its free and fair elections, beseeched the president to change the law on homosexuality. I think democracy is not just about free elections, but also free erections, whether or not you’re gay.

In their relationships with African nations, the Chinese make no effort to judge or condemn. For the Middle Kingdom it’s strictly business, and who cares about human rights and Swiss accounts. Other countries throughout the world see the West as purely meddlesome, attempting to impose its values as if divinely blessed with moral high ground.

African culture and society is vastly different from the Judaico-Christian reality of Europe, the societal model that was exported to the Americas from the XVIth century onward. America grew over twenty-five generations into countries with stable borders, national identities, and an ever-improving lifestyle. Some, like the U.S. and Canada, are bastions of democracy, others have only recently emerged from military regimes—Argentina, Brazil, and Chile are prime examples.

In the works of Hergé, author of the Tintin series, two opposing dictators constantly overturn each other in some obscure Latin American banana republic. General Alcazar and General Tapioca alternate between president and exile, sometimes on a weekly rota, the man in charge receiving shady delegations from American multinationals a la United Fruit.

Back in those days, the large U.S. corporations were suspiciously similar to the Chinese government in their disregard for laws and morals. But the Africa of St. Peter and St. Paul is a very different proposition, a place where tribal divisions often matter far more than national borders, where Hutu and Tutsi, Xhosa and Zulu, Kimbundu and Ovimbundu, stake their spears into the red African clay.

It’s even more challenging to find out how many tribes exist in Africa than the number of saints canonized by the Catholic church. Once again, numbers go up into the thousands.

Whether you sanctify tribalism or prefer a tribunal of saints, the devil is in the details.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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