California has long been associated with fantasy, but few people know that centuries before Hollywood, it drew its very name from an imaginary kingdom – one ruled by a Black queen. Around 1530, when Hernán Cortés’s conquistadors, amid shipwrecks, mutinies, and the destruction of the Aztec Empire, arrived at the peninsula on Mexico’s western side, they christened it “California”, after a fictional island in a Spanish book published decades earlier. The name, later extended from the peninsula (now Baja California) to the mainland coast to the north, endured, surviving the region’s incorporation into the US in 1850. Meanwhile, the novel of chivalry that spawned it, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandían, has been all but forgotten (despite being memorably cited by Cervantes as one of the books that turned poor Don Quixote’s brains to mush). Yet its portrait of California’s queen, the dark-skinned warrior Calafia, is worth revisiting – not just for its marvellous details, but for the light it sheds on mediaeval European attitudes about race.

At least initially, Queen Calafia seems like she could have sprung from the pages of a modern fantasy novel, ruling a kingdom that wouldn’t have been out of place in Westeros or Middle Earth. Her island, located “on the right side of the Indies, very close to … the Terrestrial Paradise,” is filled with gold and inhabited only by Black women, who tame wild griffins to ride into battle (fed with the flesh of any unfortunate men who show up). Calafia herself is described as beautiful, strong, and courageous. The book portrays her in an unfailingly positive light, though it ultimately places her under the control of medieaval European patriarchy.

– Agencies

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