A case for Renaming the Atlantic Ocean the African Ocean

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Emeka Aniagolu’s African Ocean

A Case for Renaming the Atlantic Ocean the African Ocean
Emeka Aniagolu


Black World Studies

Ohio Wesleyan University

Delaware, Ohio.

© Copyright, Aniagolu, 2002. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted in African Weekender, Vol. 2, Issue 5 June, 2003.

A Case for Renaming the Atlantic Ocean the African Ocean


Professor Emeka Aniagolu

Black World Studies

Ohio Wesleyan University

Delaware, Ohio

The central premise of this paper is twofold: (1) The African continent is the only major inhabited landmass of the so-called “Old World,” that does not have any abutting major body of water named after it; and (2) On the basis of geographic propinquity as well as historical sacrifice, the African continent has earned the right to have the Atlantic Ocean renamed after it.

The paper ties together three elements that often combine to bring about a potent cocktail: Geography, history, and political ideology. Through the dynamic interplay of those three potent elements across space and time, a pattern developed that came to be taken for granted and treated with almost idolatry reverence; “sacred cows” that are neither sacred nor cows at all.
The paper traces the historical origins of the current name of the body of water called the “Atlantic Ocean,” copiously making the claim that that appellation is neither an act of nature or God, nor is it founded on empirically verifiable historical evidence. Instead, it is the result of the politically motivated historical practice of European nomenclature in the context of Europe’s colonial expansionism and/or imperialism.
Finally, the paper makes bold the claim that it is not too late to rename the Atlantic Ocean the African Ocean, and suggests viable means whereby that preferred future can be realized.

A Case for Renaming the Atlantic Ocean the African Ocean

This article explores a proposal as thought provoking as its implementation might seem improbable. However, it is a kernel of thought, worthwhile not only for its iconoclastic insight, but for the awareness its suggestion can potentially ignite in continental and Diaspora Africans, as well as in others.

This proposal, as its title states, is a case for renaming the Atlantic Ocean the African Ocean. Immediately, several thoughts begin to occur to the reader. What is the big deal? Why African Ocean and not something else? What is wrong with the present name of that ocean—Atlantic Ocean, anyway? Probably no one who begins to read this article—African or non-African, will initially think the proposal important, necessary, or feasible. Many will dismiss it out of hand as trivial. Yet, there is much in the relationship between the naming of the world’s continents, oceans, seas, mountains, waterfalls, etc., and the desirability, necessity, and feasibility of renaming the Atlantic Ocean the African Ocean.

I propose that the Atlantic Ocean be renamed the African Ocean for a number of good reasons. First, I am of the view that one of Africa’s problems, among others, is her state of artificial invisibility—in the geographical, political, and psychic space or consciousness of the “outside world.” Consequently, there is a practical purpose that such a name change can serve for Africa: It will force the “outside world” to recon more routinely with Africa’s presence, rather than routinely consigning her and her peoples to the margins, to an artificial state of invisibility.

I can just hear the pilots of commercial airplanes of almost every member state of the United Nations, whether headed to Africa or elsewhere, announcing over the intercom that they are crossing or have just crossed the African Ocean. Or commercial ocean liners and cruise ships, doing likewise. Imagine going on a seven-day cruise, three days of which you spent on the African Ocean! I especially like the thought and image of the currents of the African Ocean lapping, on its western side, at the shores of every place from Buenos Aires in South America, to Halifax, Canada, in North America; and, on its eastern side, from the southern Cape of Africa all the way to Shannon in Ireland.

Second, the renaming of the Atlantic Ocean the African Ocean, will accord a greater sense of Africa’s historical relevance and importance alongside other parts of the world. It will invite the “outside world’s” recognition and re-conception of Africa’s historical agency rather than one that has her marooned in historical objectification and marginalization of the heuristic and iconographic construct of the world. It will assign to Africa a more proprietary place in world history.

Whenever school pupils learn about or recite historical accounts about Africa and Africans, other nation’s naval battles, piracy, and much more that took place on the African Ocean, a new aperture on Africa will open up in their mind’s eye. The regularity of the mention of the African Ocean on their lips will underscore Africa’s presence in their mental horizon.

Third, and more importantly, the African continent has earned such an honor in sheer suffering, blood, and sweat. Approximately 5 to 10 million of her sons and daughters perished in the Atlantic Ocean—African Ocean, during the “Middle Passage” of the incalculably inhuman 19th century Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. The above figures are my calculations based on the overall figures of the 19th century slave trade of 50 to 100 million people, estimated by Karenga (p. 138: 2002). Howard Zinn (1999) also notes that, “. . . By 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported as slaves to the Americas, representing perhaps one-third of those originally seized in Africa. It is roughly estimated that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world.” (p. 29)

There are, of course, various other estimates lower than those of Karenga and Zinn. [Dunbar, 1861; Kuczynski, 1936; Curtin, 1969; & Inikori, 1976] (p. 41: Franklin et. al., 1994) I, however, prefer Karenga’s and Zinn’s estimates, as I am convinced that the others, including many more not mentioned here, are gross underestimations of the global figures of that nefarious trade. Suffice to say, then, that even the masterful and careful historian, John Hope Franklin, et. al. (1994), regarding those estimates, observed that: “In view of the great numbers that must have been killed while resisting capture, the additional numbers that died during the middle passage, and the millions that were successfully brought to the Americas, the aggregate approaches staggering proportions.” (p. 41)

It has even been said that so predictable did the throwing overboard of sick, stubborn, rebellious, and overstocked enslaved Africans on slave ships become, that whole schools of sharks followed the ships to the Americas, expectant of their meal of human cargo. Perhaps this is what the venerable African American historian, John Hope Franklin et. al. (1994) was alluding to when he observed of the “Middle Passage” that: “At first opportunity, if indeed it ever presented itself, many [enslaved Africans] would leap off the ship into the mouths of hungry sharks to avoid enslavement in the New World.” (pp. 36-37) In addition to the foregoing misfortunes of enslaved Africans, is the impact the 19th century slave trade had on the fortunes of the African continent itself. As Franklin et. al. (1994) note :

It is more difficult to measure the effect of such an activity on African life than it is to estimate the number of persons removed. The expatriation of millions of Africans in less than four centuries constitutes one of the most far-reaching and drastic social revolutions in the annals of history. It is to be remembered that traders would have none but the best available natives. They demanded the healthiest, the largest, the youngest, the ablest, and the most culturally advanced. The vast majority of the slaving was carried on in the area of West Africa, where civilization had reached its highest point on the continent, with the possible exception of Egypt. (pp. 41 - 42)
Thus, there are no other people in the world that can make the same grisly claim to the scale of suffering and sacrifice on the Atlantic Ocean like Africans. And this is in terms of the nature and degree of suffering endured, the duration of the phenomena of the “Middle Passage,” and the sheer body count of casualties.

By now, this seemingly trite proposition has kindled in the reader a curiosity they did not know was possible over so seemingly benign a subject matter. “How,” you ask yourself, “did the Atlantic Ocean get its name in the first place, anyway?” Who named it the Atlantic Ocean? How did that name come to stick and gain universal currency? Who decides not only what such natural geographic features will be called, why, when, and where?

There are essentially two schools of thought regarding the origins of the naming of the Atlantic Ocean. The first school of thought is that associated with the Greek name “Atlas;” the term having been first attributed to the mountain range of North Africa by the Greek historian and traveler, Herodotus. It is claimed that the tradition subsequently developed whereby the term came to be applied to “. . . the sea near the western shore of Africa, afterwards [extending] to the whole ocean lying between Europe and Africa on the east and America on the west.” (p. 536: Grimal, 1985). In fact, The World Book Encyclopedia (A1) (1994), claims that, “…the ancient Romans named the Atlantic after the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, which marked the western limit of what was then the known world . . .” (p. 864)

The second school of thought is alluded to by Bahr et. al., (1996). They point out that, “. . . The name “Atlantic may have been derived from the Atlas Mountains, or possibly from the mythological lost continent, Atlantis.” (p. 158) While it is fairly clear from where the North African Mountains got their name—namely, the Greeks—alá Herodotus, and on that I will have more to say later, it is less certain from whence the Atlantic Ocean got its name. Indisputably, both the Atlas Mountains of North Africa and the Atlantic Ocean, have a common etymological root. Both are obviously rooted in the Greek name, Atlas.

However, how the Atlantic Ocean came to be called that name is not quite as straightforward as its etymological root in the Greek name, Atlas, might suggest. The proximate source for the Atlantic Ocean’s name is most probably, the mythical lost island continent, Atlantis. For it is rather doubtful that such American places like the City of Atlanta in the state of Georgia and the seashore resort city, Atlantic City, in New Jersey, were named in honor of Africa—north, south, east or west. Rather, to those who gave such American places that name, it was most likely believed that they were harkening back to the fabled lost island-continent of Atlantis.

Interestingly enough, it turns out that both the root term “Atlas” and its etymological derivatives, Atlantis, and hence, Atlantic, are all firmly rooted in mythology. With regards to the mythology of the Greek name, Atlas, Webster’s New World Encyclopedia (1992), notes that:

Atlas in Greek mythology [was] one of the Titans who revolted against the gods; as a punishment, Atlas was compelled to support the heavens on his head and shoulders. Growing weary, he asked Persus to turn him into stone and he was transformed in Mount Atlas. (p. 81)
Little wonder Herodotus associated the North African mountain range with the Greek mythological figure of “Atlas.” The Dutch cartographer, Gerhadus Mercator, first started to apply the term “Atlas” as the name for his book of maps in the 16th century. He began work on his “Atlas” in 1585; and his son completed his work in 1594. Early Atlases display a trademark figurine of Atlas supporting the globe. (p. 81: Ibid) Thus, the Atlas Mountains of North Africa were, ultimately, named as a projection of Greek mythology and persona, rather than as part of African mythology, personality, or identity.

As for the other possible mythological origin of the Atlantic Ocean—the legendary island-continent of Atlantis, Webster’s New World Encyclopedia (1992), points out additionally that “Atlantis,” is a “. . . legendary island continent, said to have sunk c. 9600 BC, following underwater convulsions.” (p. 81) More pertinently, however, the same source goes on to note that, “Although the Atlantic Ocean is probably named after it, the structure of the sea bottom [of the Atlantic Ocean] rules out its ever having existed there.” (p. 81)

How then did the legendary island continent, Atlantis, gain in popularity in the imagination of the world? It turns out that there is no getting away from the obsessive Greek mythologists and taxonomists; for the source of that mythological “island-continent,” is a story told by the Greek philosopher, Plato; which he had, in fact, derived from an account by Egyptian priests. (p. 81: Ibid) In the story, “. . . a volcanic eruption [that] devastated Santorini in the Cyclades, north of Crete c. 1500 BC. The ensuing earthquakes and tidal waves brought about the collapse of the empire of Minoan Crete.” (p. 81: Ibid)

Thus, if the “island continent” of Atlantis never really existed, and even if it did exist, as we have seen in the foregoing, could geologically, never have existed in the so-called “Atlantic” Ocean, why is it a preferable name for that ocean to that of a real continent, that did, and still does exist, namely, Africa? How, at any rate, did the other prominent parts of the so-called “Old World”—Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, manage to get a large body of the world’s water or other, named after them and not the African continent? We have, for example, in Europe, the Baltic Sea, the Celtic Sea, the Norwegian Sea; and little England, off the coast of the Asian peninsula popularly known as the “continent” of Europe, has the body of water separating it from the European mainland named, the English Channel.

In Asia, we have the South China Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. How come, Africa, as centrally located as she is—in the middle of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Indian, and the Atlantic Oceans; and as large as she is—Africa is the second largest of the world’s inhabited continents, does not have any of the world’s major bodies of water bordering it named after her?

The answers to those questions lie in the historiography of the geopolitics of colonization and cartography. Historically, Europeans—from the ancient Greeks to the modern Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians, to northwestern Europeans—the Dutch, French, and the English; have been central to that historiography, and thus, the naming game of the world’s oceans, seas, continents, mountains, waterfalls, etc., precisely because they have been the world’s principal colonizers.

The closest Africa has come to having any geographic feature around her named somewhat after her is the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mozambique Channel. Unbeknownst to most people, the Strait of Gibraltar is named after an African Moorish general by the name Tarik. His name became corrupted over time to Gibraltar. As Karenga (2002) observes:

The Moorish conquest and cultural transformation of Spain began in 711. In that year, Tarik, a Moorish general, landed in Spain near a cliff later named Jebel Tarik, the Rock or Mountain of Tarik i.e. Gibraltar, in his honor. After conquering some towns near Gibraltar, Tarik met and defeated Roderick, King of the Visigoths in Spain at the Battle of Xeres. (p. 111)

However, as stated earlier, most people do not know that piece of historical information, and thus, do not associate the name of that Strait in any way, shape, or form, with the African continent. The second example is that of the Mozambique Channel, which as its name suggests, refers to the channel of water that passes between the Island of Madagascar and the mainland of southern Africa. Thus, these two examples hardly qualify as sufficient representation on a world map of a continent as geographically and historically central to the drama of the evolution of the human species and the development of human civilization, as the African continent.

One can almost predict the garden variety of negative arguments the “Empire’s” court historians and spin-doctors will marshal against this proposal. This, it will be said, is another one of the series of “Afrocentric” or “Multicultural” revisionist assaults mounted in order to tool historical “facts” to the expediency of modern “political agendas.” This first kind of negative argument is the politicization and de-legitimization strategy.

There will follow a number of “hard-headed” articles that will barely give a nod of approval to the proposal’s idea in principle, then, proceed to provide rational reasons why the proposal is not feasible. They will speak of the bureaucratic, political, and economic impediments to the implementation of such a proposal. Can one imagine, the articles will opine, the economic cost the implementation of such a proposal will encumber on the educational system, in terms of revisions to textbooks, world maps, and terrestrial globes? Who will pay for such an expensive undertaking?

Will the African countries be willing to pay for the costs associated with such a renaming? No, the articles will answer to their own rhetorical question, African countries are too mired in poverty and debt. They can ill-afford to spend the little money they have on such an unimportant exercise, and would be, otherwise, ill-advised to undertake such an irresponsible, nay unnecessary expense, should they decide to do so.

The articles will go on to prophetically second guess the United States Congress by pointing out that it will be disinclined to pick up the tab for such a flight of fancy. This second set of negative articles will be the intellectual infanticide by other means strategy; the “other means” being mostly of the blackmail power of the purse. What Congress likes, it funds. What Congress does not like, it starves of funds—sometimes to an untimely death.

For a while, the “controversial” proposal might get sensational airing on the air and in newsprint then be relegated to the background, where it will be out of sight, and as might be hoped, if not confidently anticipated by the architects of its ignominy, out of mind within a short period of time. This third negative move is the benign neglect and hanging-out-to-dry strategy.

By these various tried-and-tested means, the proposal will be simultaneously aired and scuttled with a right-left combination punch. Yet, there is a fail-proof means by which the proposal can be made a modern-day reality. A strategy that does not have to involve or require the approval of the governments, mass media, or intelligentsia of the Western World, partially, at large, or even, at all.

As far as the feasibility of the proposal is concerned, I think it would be a lot easier to implement than a lot of people imagine. “How,” you ask, “can the proposal be implemented when, in all likelihood, the Western industrial powers, especially the United States, Britain, and France, are likely to reject it?” And they are the hegemons of the contemporary global system, and what they say prevails or, at least, has a stronger chance of prevailing than anything else. Right? Well, not so fast.

To begin with, I suggest that African countries unilaterally declare the Atlantic Ocean the African Ocean, through a binding resolution in the African Union. As an integral part of that AU binding resolution, every history and geography textbook published for and used in the school systems of African countries, should henceforth be required to refer to the Atlantic Ocean as the African Ocean.

Let the Western World go on calling it by the name Atlantic Ocean if it must or so prefers, but let it also be on notice that as soon as any Westerner sets foot on any part of African soil and/or does business in Africa—especially in the publishing industry, that that vast body of water is and will only be known and referred to as the African Ocean—in school texts, official government and business documents, novels, radio, and television. Following the AU ‘African Ocean Resolution,’ I suggest that African countries table the matter in the General Assembly of the United Nations for a non-binding resolution by the majority of the member states, of which they themselves constitute nearly, if not, in fact, the majority.

On the basis of the ‘African Ocean’ UN initiative, African states should co-opt as many supporters among Asian and Latin American countries as possible, to agree to the terms of the AU ‘African Ocean Resolution.’ Especially, to have school texts used in their educational systems henceforth refer to the Atlantic Ocean as the African Ocean. The Asian and Latin American countries should, of course, also be lobbied to require their government and business documents, mass media—radio, newspaper, and television networks, to likewise, henceforth refer to the Atlantic Ocean as the African Ocean. The support of the United States and Europe should be sought and welcome[d], but is not necessary to the success of the proposed name-change campaign. After all, as Boyd (1987) graphically observes:
The two biggest masses of people—in China, and in the group made up of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—are both in Asia. Asia has probably always contained more than half of the human race. Asia and Africa together contain about two-thirds of it. Adding Latin America to them and subtracting Japan, the ‘third-world’ countries contain about three-quarters. (p. 6)

One might rightly ask what practical purpose would such a name change from the Atlantic Ocean to the African Ocean serve for Africa’s numerous problems. Will the successful implementation of this proposal’s idea bring about an end to famine, internecine wars, border disputes, the debt crisis, and/or the epidemic of HIV-AIDS? The answer is, of course not. It will be foolish for anyone, least of all I to imagine that such a name change will solve any of those daunting problems. However, it is equally foolish for anyone to pose such a question in the first place as riposte to the name change being suggested here. Africa’s problems and this proposal are neither substitute for nor mutually exclusive of one another.

Finally, if this issue of name change is so much ado about nothing, as some would be apt to claim, why did European explorers and colonizers of Africa, the Americas, and other parts of the world, take such great pains to name places and geographic sites after themselves, their sponsors, and their sovereigns? The naming game serves, essentially, two main objectives. The first is political and psychological self-projection, and the second, is cultural homogenization. Anne Hugon (1993), speaking of the African case, has put the matter in perspective.
. . . It seemed as if the rivers, towns, and mountains could be said to exist only once they had been “discovered” and named by European explorers. Conveniently forgetting that the Africans were already well acquainted with their native lands, the explorers had no hesitation in claiming to be the “first” to climb this mountain or the “first” to follow that river to its source, as if they had just set foot on an uninhabited planet. In the same spirit they “christened” lakes and waterfalls, deliberately ignoring their existing names, which were, of course, full of meaning. (p. 35)
The answer to why Europeans undertook such extensive renaming of many of the places they explored and/or colonized lies in the politics of image-making, the politics of perception management. For a person’s “reality,” is largely determined by their perception of, rather than their direct engagement with “reality.” Consequently, if the stage props of the world’s symbolic “reality” are caste in the image and likeness of Europeans, the architecture of that symbolic environment, assumes a far larger space in the imagination—the perception, of the inhabitants of that symbolic “world,” than would otherwise be the case. If, logically and empirically, behavior follows upon the heels of perception, the likely result is not too difficult to imagine or to predict.

Anne Hugon (1993) goes on to explain in the case of the European naming game in Africa that: “. . . The waterfalls of the Zambezi, for example, known to the native population for self-evident reasons as the "smoke that thunders” (Mosioatunya), became known as Victoria Falls after Livingstone reached them in 1855. In this way the Europeans symbolically appropriated the places they discovered.” (p. 35)

They gave many other such places and geographic sites the names of European explorers themselves, members of the British royal family, and the names of presidents of the Royal Geographical Society in London. That way, Europeans succeeded in making Europe loom large in the perception and imagination of the average Asian and African, though in actuality, it is a tiny fraction of the world. As a result, “The [European] explorers began to see themselves almost as the divine creators of all they discovered.” (p. 38: Hugon, 1993)

Africa, on the other hand, features as a pygmy in that perceptual world, though in actuality, it is a giant. There is much then in a name, and much more, in fact, in a picture. Therefore, should the proposal being put forth here be implemented, the world’s name and picture of Africa would enlarge, as well it should, to make adequate room in its perceptual realm for the giant that Africa really is.

So, ‘let the message go forth,’ that in the Year of Our Lord, Two Thousand and Two, I do, hereby, declare the Ocean formerly known as the “Atlantic Ocean,” the African Ocean!

Note: Following the publication of this article, I came across additional information of a name change by the British in colonial Kenya worthy of note. Laurel Corona, in Kenya: Modern Nations of the World, Lucent Books, Inc., San Diego, CA, 2000, observed that the mountains of the Highlands of Kenya, known to its native Kikuyu as the Nyandarua Mountains, was renamed the Aberdare Mountains “. . . after Lord Aberdare, head of the Royal Geographic Society during the colonial period . . .”

Bibliographic References

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Inikori, J.E., Measuring the African Slave Trade: A Rejoinder, Journal of African History, XVII, No. 4, 1976. 
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