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By Eric Shackle (who lives a kilometre from Umina)

Did the small Australian town of Umina (pronounced you-miner) acquire its unusual name from the aboriginal word meaning sleep, or from the Aztec goddess of health, Umiña?

A patient search of little-known Internet sites, and frequent use of a Spanish-English automated translater, have found two towns named Umiña (with a tilde over the n, indicating that it's pronounced oo-mean-YAH), on the opposite side of the globe in South America - one in Ecuador, the other in Chile.

Australia's Umina is a pleasant coastal resort 80km north of Sydney. Ecuador's Umiña is on the other side of the Pacific, in the Manta district, just a few kilometres south of the equator. Photographs show remarkable similarities in the appearance of the two towns. An Ecuadorian real estate agent advertises a lot "in the Umiña neighborhood, the best district of Manta, with 24 hour security and only 200 meters away from the sea." A photo of the  building site, with bright blue sea in the background, could easily be mistaken for the Oz Umina.

The Hotel Maria José webpage says "When you visit Ecuador don´t forget to visit the city of Manta, full of magic, with beautiful beaches and a busy nightlife..." We Aussies have the Umina Tennis and Sporting Club; Ecuadorians have the Umiña Tennis Club.

A minor Umiña is high in the Andes, 3600 metres above sea level, not far from Arica. It's the site of a new dam being built to provide water for the coastal city of Iquique. Two 26-year-old students from Oxford University (UK) recently found that "getting to the desert town of Arica on their bikes is not as easy as originally thought."

Known as "The City of Eternal Spring," Arica is located at the northern tip of Chile on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It enjoys a mild, dry climate and waters warm enough for swimming, making it a popular, year-round beach resort. Arica's annual rainfall averages less than one millimetre and they have recorded 14 consecutive years without rain. The town is justly proud of San Marcos de Arica Cathedral, designed by world-famous tower builder Gustav Eiffel.

Both of the South American Umiñas  were named in honour of the Aztec goddess of health. A U.S. website says  "In the temple of Manta, Ecuador, was the altar of Umiña, the goddess of health. She was represented by a statuette made of emerald the size of an ostrich egg and cut to the shape of the upper part of a human figure."

In Ecuador, Manta Municipal Council's website recounts a gripping story (in Spanish). It tells how, centuries ago, a group of men with reddish-brown skins, aquiline noses and straight hair landed in the bay. Skilled in commerce and navigation, they formed the tribe of Mantans, who founded the great city of Jocay, the Mayan name for "house of the fish." The city grew to cover an area 10 km long and 2 km wide, with 20,000 inhabitants.

They fashioned objects of mud and stone, and worshipped the goddess Umiña, building a great temple in her honour. A Spaniard, Bartholomew Ruiz, was one of the first Europeans to visit Jocay (now Manta), in 1526.

Eight years later, the city was raided, sacked and set alight by an expedition of 11 ships and 450 soldiers, commanded by the Governor of Guatemala, Don Pedro de Alvarado. Accompanying the invaders were some Spanish women, several Central American monks, some natives and about 200 horses.

The raiders searched in vain for Umiña's temple and its treasures. They imprisoned some of the natives, and hanged one of their leaders. Manta was destroyed and robbed by pirates in 1543, 1607 and 1628.

Just who was the goddess Umiña? There are conflicting tales. One version, Legend and Traditions of the Umiña Goddess, by historian Ramón Chávez García, says that one of the chiefs of the Mantan tribe, Shygui, was married to a humble but very intelligent woman, and they had a daughter with beautiful green eyes, called Umiña. Her mother was healer and priestess in the city of Jocay.

When Umiña was 21, her mother died. The following year her father's friends advised him to marry another woman, a wizard of the tribe. He did so, but the public disliked his new wife. They preferred Umiña, who had dedicated her life to helping all who sought medical and religious aid, continuing the beneficial work her mother had entrusted to her.

In a fit of jealousy, Shygui's new wife bewitched him into ordering that his daughter be tied to a raft and left for three days without water or food. Soldiers ordered to carry out the sentence were grateful to Umiña and did not allow her to die. After three days, a neighboring tribe found her on the raft, and took her to a friend's house.

Her father then decreed that she be taken to the highest mountains, tied and left in the snow, without shelter or food. Three months later, Umiña appeared again, saying that a condor had carried her home. The people of Jocay rejoiced at the news. The witch, infuriated by the ridicule she had suffered, wanted to force her husband to order the death of his daughter, but Shygui, freed at last from her witchcraft, punished his wife and threw her out of the house. In a rage, she vowed that before three moons he would be dead.

In a dawn attack, while Shygui was asleep, the witch killed him with a knife. Umiña was sleeping, guarded in another house. When told what had happened to her father, she called to the soldiers to capture the witch. One hundred soldiers set out to do so, but returned saying that when they found her, the evil woman had become a ferocious wolf.

Shygui was buried in his own house and Umiña, crying brokenheartedly, lay down on his tomb, refusing to take food. A few days later, she died, after ordering that nobody should move her body. The settlers retired, obeying the order of their goddess.

Soon after Umiña's death, people began to notice that her heart had turned into a red stone as large as a fist. The upper part had two green points which gradually grew until they covered all the heart, which was transformed into a beautiful emerald.

The new chief took the precious stone, and arranged for a goldsmith to shape its upper part into a bust of Umiña. He built a beautiful temple so that she would be adored like a goddess. From the first moment, sick people who touched the emerald immediately became well. The fame of the Goddess of Health reached many parts of the continent. Visitors came from Peru, Mexico and Central America, donating gold dust and other gifts.

But another website, Tupacamaru, tells a different story, about Sebastian Berzewiczi-Benesz, an 18th century devil-may-care Polish adventurer, spendthrift and troublemaker, and his amazing career in Peru (not Ecuador, as in the previous story).

"When he was nearly 30, Sebastian set off for Peru. He had heard of unimaginable Inca treasures while travelling through Europe. First he set off for Panama from Kaddish in Southern Spain. From there he took another ship to Lima. Despite favorable winds, the journey lasted three full months.

"In November 1760 the young adventurer finally reached his destination. A dangerous endeavor, for the occupying Spanish checked on everyone wanting to enter Peru. Sebastian had only one thing in mind, to find the riches of the Incas, whatever the cost.

"Irrespective of the tense political situation, the new arrival sought contact with the Incas, continued failed rebellions against the Spanish, incited the Dynasty of the Indians to elicit help from the British crown, but to no avail. Sebastian, ever the opportunist, pretended to be an English lord and promised to support the rebellion.

"In a strange country, he rescued the daughter of the royal Indian family from the clutches of Spanish troops. His heroism endeared him to the ruling clan. Sebastian fell hopelessly in love with Princess Umiña; her affection undoubtedly changed him. The European soldier of fortune told everyone gathered of his true identity. In an ancient ritual the descendants of the last dynasty adopted him into their family, with a sacrifice for Pacha Mama, the great mother earth, and Taita Inti, the shining sun...."

Fast forward to the present day: "While tracing his family roots, Andre Benesz comes across a baffling portrait. He is surprised at the similarity between himself, a Pole, and the exotic facial features of Tupac Amaru, the leader of the India rebellion of 1780. There could be no doubt, he had Indian blood.

"The reason lay in a church in Cuzco, 150  years ago,  where his blood relative, Sebastian Berzewiczi, had married Inca princess, Umiña. The marriage took place in a Catholic church and not in the ruins of an Inca temple as the groom had imagined. The Spanish had brought Catholicism to the country and it had widely established itself in just over two centuries. But the Indians have not given up their own religion completely, their passive resistance to the Christian teachings continues covertly even today."

Those legends leave several important questions unanswered: was Umiña an Aztec goddess or an Inca princess? Did she live in Manta (Ecuador) or Cuzco (Peru), capital city of the old Inca empire? Or were there two women named Umiña? Above all, there's that fabulous emerald, the size of an ostrich egg, which the Indians hid from the Spanish invaders. Did it ever exist, and if so, where is it today?

After reading these stirring tales from South America, who wants to believe our Australian town is called Umina just because that's the aboriginal word for sleep?


Until Umiña's hidden emerald "the size of an ostrich egg" is found, the world's biggest emerald is the Queen Isabella gem, a cut, 964 carat deep green oblong stone "so large that it overlaps the palm of the human hand."

Dr. Victor Benilous of Florida (US) and his team discovered the Isabella and other treasures in the sunken wreck of a Spanish galleon 12 miles off the Florida coast in 1993. They also retrieved the world's largest emerald conglomerate, weighing 24,644 cts., more than 25,000 cts. of cut and polished emeralds, and hundreds of unique pieces of Aztec jewellery.

Divers found the shipwreck at a spot pinpointed by two psychics. The sensational discovery achieved newspaper and magazine headlines and TV footage seen around the world. It was reported that the Isabella emerald could be worth more than $20 million.

You can read a detailed description on the website of Archaeological Discovery Ventures Inc., of which Dr. Benilous is president, by clicking HERE.

Someone should ask those two amazing psychics to show them exactly where the Umiña emerald is hidden!

FOOTNOTE. Automated translations of Spanish into English on the internet were a great help in researching this story. You have to take care not to be fooled by some of the literal translations. For instance, when we sought a translation of Este es el sitio web del cana #manta en el IRC. the automated interpreter offered This # is the Web site of the grey hair blanket in the IRC. A check with a Spanish/English dictionary revealed canoso = gray haired, manta = blanket.












Copyright © 2002

  Eric Shackle   

Story first posted December 2002

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