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Horse latitudes

Q From Paul Wiele, Syracuse University: Where does horse latitudes come from, meaning areas that have little or no wind? One of my professors recounted a story that the term came from sailors being stranded there for so long that they’d throw their horses overboard to conserve the remaining supplies and lighten the ship. He doubted this explanation, and I’m inclined to agree. What do you say?

A Horse latitudes is a mariner’s term for a band of irregular and unreliable winds that lie about 30 degrees north and south of the equator. They can suffer periods of calm, a persistent nuisance in the days of sail, though less well known to landlubbers than the infamous doldrums around the equator.

The story about casting horses overboard is old and, for example, appears in George Forster’s memoir about one of Captain Cook’s expeditions, A Voyage Round the World in his Britannic Majesty’s Sloop Resolution, dated 1777. You might feel it would have been more practical to kill and eat the horses, fresh meat being at a premium on board ship. It doesn’t make (horse) sense.

Another explanation appears in Seafaring Lore and Legend by Peter D Jeans, published in 2004, “In the earlier days of sail, ships out of the English Channel took about two months to get clear of these particular latitudes, by which time the crew had worked off their advance pay, known as the dead horse. The crew celebrated this event by parading a straw horse around the deck, flogging it with a rope’s end, and then throwing it overboard.” Let us not flog this dead horse for more than it’s worth, which isn’t a lot.

In an article with the title The Sense of “Horse” in Horse Latitudes in The Journal of Geography in October 1967, Edward Taube suggested an origin in a maritime sense of the verb horse recorded from the end of the seventeenth century. A ship that was horsed was being carried along by a strong current or tide, like a rider on horseback. He suggested that, in an area of light winds such as that found south of the Azores, currents would control the movement of the ship and the term might have been transferred to the location.

Yet a fourth explanation is in Robert Scott’s Elementary Meteorology of 1883: “The Horse Latitudes, a title which Mr. Laughton derives from the Spanish El Golfo de las Yeguas, the Mares’ Sea, from its unruly and boisterous nature.” This has a lot going for it. Golfo de las Yeguas is a term of some antiquity in Spanish. Lopez de Gómara wrote in El Camino Para las Indias (The Road to the Indies) in 1552: “The worst part of the passage is the Golfo de las Yeguas between the Canaries and Spain.” But why mares? A little earlier, 1535, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés noted in his Historia General y Natural de las Indias that mariners gave it this name because many brood mares being shipped from Spain to the Canaries died on board.

This explanation, though much nearer the date of creation of the expression, may be just as incorrect as other stories. But it would surely be too much of a coincidence for this not to be the source of the English term.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Jan. 2008
Last updated: 13 Dec. 2008

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Last modified: 13 December 2008.