Wednesday, July 15, 2015

cutting the malarkey

Pirates are back in the news -- and not the cartoonish Jack Sparrow type.

These are real "seize-the-ship-and steal-the-booty" pirates.  This time, not in Somalia, but in the Straits of Malacca -- that narrow strip of water that separates Indonesia from Malaysia and Singapore.

The Economist (Malacca bucaneers) reports the international force that tamped down the Somali pirates may need to be relocated in the Straits of Malacca.  The Malacca pirates are not interested in kidnapping crews and ships; they merely want the cargo.  But the frequency of boardings has increased along with heightened violence.

The story caught my eye not only because I am always attracted to tales of pirates, but because of the location.  I had recently heard an interesting theory that the neighboring village of Melaque was named after the Malaysian port of Malacca.

But this part of Mexico is filled with all sorts of naming myths.

I have written before about my quest to determine how the village of San Patricio came to be named after the patron saint of Ireland (wearin' of the orange).  During the Mexican-American War, a group of mainly Irish immigrants, who had volunteered to fight for the American Army, deserted and joined the Mexican side. 

Most of them deserted for idealistic reasons.  But the Mexicans also offered enticements -- officer commissions and land.

There has long been a local myth that the area around San Patricio was settled by survivors of the battalion.  I have repeatedly been told that a deed exists granting a hacienda to the deserters.

If you have followed my research on this question, you already know I have been unable to discover any documentation supporting that creation myth.  It seems far more likely that San Patricio got its name because Saint Patrick is a Catholic saint, just like other Mexican towns named for European and Asia Minor Christians, rather than anything connected with the Mexican-American war.

The Irish theory has several laughable spinoffs.  There are three villages that make up what is commonly called Melaque.  Melaque on the west end of the beach, San Patricio in the middle, and Villa
Obregón on the east end.

Some proponents of the Irish connection have argued that
Obregón and Melaque are bastardizations of Irish words -- O'Brien and malarkey.  The problem with that type of ad hoc reasoning is that Villa Obregón is named in honor of Álvaro Obregón, a post-Revolution president, and the malarkey explanation is just that on its face -- malarkey.

Having drilled nothing but dry wells on the "San Patricio" question, my interest was piqued when I heard a local physician and aspiring politician claim he knew the derivation of the term "Melaque."  I missed his full presentation.  All I heard was his topical sentence: the name is derived from the same Malaysian port whose pirates now run rampant -- Malacca.

I saw him last week at a Rotary meeting.  Even though he was there on another subject, he brought one of his handouts on the topic.

Here is his argument. 

"I have found a map dated 1650 created by the Dutch West Indian Company.  It is one of many found in their 'Great Atlas' which was used by the Dutch mercantile and military trabsort.  It clearly shows 'Puerto de la Navidad' [what we know as Barra de Navidad] and 'Melacca.'"

The good doctor then goes on to explain the importance of the port of Malacca in the period Spain began settling Mexico.  I will give the doctor his own voice.

"I believe there is a strong possibility that it [Melaque's name] originated from Melaka, Malacca in Malaysia and used by the Portuguese when they travelled here.  They had a strong competition with the Spaniards for discovering places."

And that is about it.  An old Dutch atlas and a dash of possibilities.  At least, it is more than the Irish connection advocates have.  But it is rather weak reed on which to lean.

When I moved down here, I thought my historical research tools would help me resolve these nomenclature conundrums.  They haven't.  Often, the best I can verify is that most theories are based on a mystical brew of speculation and romanticism.

But I have not ended up empty-handed.  In researching these questions, I have met interesting people who are the archivists of fascinating, and contradictory, oral histories.

And that is not a bad place to be at the end of an essay.


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