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Lutjeharms, Johann R.E. - Origin of the name Agulhas

posted 19 Feb 2011, 06:06 by Historie van de Oceanografie Club   [ updated 2 Nov 2011, 02:24 ]
Lutjeharms, J.R.E., 2006. The Agulhas Current. Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg, xiii + 329 pp.

As with so many place names that have an ancient derivation, there is uncertainty about the exact origin of the name Agulhas Current. Bartholomew Dias, the first European explorer to round the Cape of Good Hope, gave up his attempt to reach India at the Great Fish River on the south-eastern coast of South Africa and shortly after reached the southern tip of Africa for the first time, on his return journey. This probably occurred on 16 May 1488, the name-day of the Irish monk, St Brendan, since he called this promontory Ponto de S. Brandão. He was unaware that this was the southernmost tip of Africa. This name for the southernmost cape of the African continent soon fell into disuse although it was employed to denote the present Quoin Point for some time. A map of 1502 by Alberto Cantino, summarising the early Portuguese cartography of the region, shows a Golfo das Agulhas (Bay of Needles) directly to the east of the cape currently called Cape Agulhas, and cartographers subsequently started using variations on the name Cape Agulhas with increasing frequency. So, for instance, Hen Hondio in 1631 designated this headland as C. d’ Angulas, I. Covens and C. Mortier (1660–1730) as Cap des  Aiguilles, Gerardo and Leonardo Valk (1650–1720) as C. das Agulhas and D’Anville in 1763 as Kaap des Aiguilles.

Two possible origins for the concept “needles” have been put forward: one, the resemblance of the jagged reefs opposite the cape; two, the observation that the needles of compasses showed no magnetic declination at this point, i.e. magnetic north and true north were identical at this time. The latter origin is more likely, since, for example, authors such as Jan Huijgens van Linschoten in his book Itinerario (1595) have called this cape the Cape of Compasses or Needles of the Compass. Particulary notable in this regard is the inscription on a map of Mathia Hasio (probably redrawn from one by Batiste Homan) of about 1750 describing the cape as Prom. Acicularum ` c declinatione magnet carentium (Cape Needle, i.e. without magnetic declination). The Agulhas Bank, Agulhas Current and the Agulhas Plateau all take their names from the cape. Cartographers I. Covens and C. Mortier (1660–1730) have called the continental shelf south of Africa Banc du Cap; by 1746 M. Belin designated it as Banc des Equilles. When the name of the cape was first transferred to the current is not entirely clear. Kerhallet (1852) has still indicated a Courant de Cap, while Zimmermann (1865) has shown a Cap Lagullass Strömung, suggesting the gradual equating of the name of the cape and the current. Rennell in his 1778 map has indicated the Bank of Lagullas, but has not named the current; but fifty years later (1832) he clearly denoted it Lagullas Current, as did Maury in 1855. By 1866 Findlay called it, unequivocally, Agulhas Current, as did Krümmel (1882). Krümmel (1911, p. 672) has in fact stated that south of 30° S latitude the current along the south-eastern coast of Africa is to be called the Agulhas Current, and so it has remained since.