From: "Ernest M. Wiltshire" firstname.lastname@example.org
I highly recommend the scholarly article on slave naming practices by
Jerome Handler & Jo-Ann Jacoby (a brief excerpt below). Although they
treat specifically of Barbados, they do compare naming practices in
other colonies and they also detail (West) African naming practices.
There may be other lengthier studies of the topic, but their article is
an excellent starting point.
Ernest M. Wiltshire
Friends of the Barbados Archives
38 Inglewood Place, Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1Y 4C7
WILLIAM AND MARY QUARTERLY, Vol 53 (1996) pps 685-728 - "Slave Names &
Naming in Barbados", by Jerome S. Handler & JoAnn Jacoby. [Extracts]
How slaves adopted or were assigned surnames is another issue.
Writing in the early nineteenth century about the growth of the freedman population (free blacks and mulattoes) in Barbados, J. W. Orderson, a white Creole, reported that most slaves who purchased their freedom were already baptized; when they were manumitted, they added "to their Christian name that of their owner's family." Illustrations of Orderson's observation can be found in the Newton plantation records.
Several manumitted or about to be manumitted slaves seem to have adopted the names of Newton owners, though the records are unclear as to whether these names were legally recognized or informally acknowledged by plantation authorities. For example, Dolly refers to herself as Dolly Newton in an 1807 letter to Thomas Lane who, with his brother John, owned Newton and Seawell, requesting that her manumission be "executed."
Elizabeth Ann, a manumitted Newton slave, appears with two surnames
(Miler and Newton) in another document. Another woman is referred to as "Jenny Lane, a slave," in a document prior to her manumission and calls herself Jane Lane in a letter to John and Thomas Lane; she is referred to as "Jenny, a free black woman" in the deed by which the Lane brothers sold to Jenny her two sons, whom she hoped to manumit herself. Such examples apart, it must be emphasized that only a minute fraction of Barbadian slaves were manumitted-far below 1 percent of the total slave
population-and an even smaller percentage gained freedom through
There was no clear tendency for slaves with surnames to bear the
names of their owners or other slave masters. For example, at Newton and
Seawell during 1796, some fourteen slaves had second names that may have
been surnames, e.g. Banton, Knight, Spencer, Rogers, Straker, Scott, and
Saer, none of which was the name of an owner or a known manager. George
Saer carried his white father's names, and, although his father may have
been connected to Newton, he had not been an owner; none of the other
possibly surnamed slaves had the same name as any of the plantations'
seventeenth- or eighteenth- century owners. Moreover, all of these
slaves had been born at either Newton or Seawell. Likewise, the 1791
Seawell list contains some six slaves with possible surnames (e.g.,
Williams, Thomas, Sergeant), but none of these names could be associated with any of Seawell's owners or managers.
We sought data on slave surnames by sampling hundreds (out of
thousands) of slave baptism registrations for five parishes from the
mid-182os to 1834. The registers give the names of the stave, the
mother, the plantation, and the slave-owner. Most of the slaves had
single names, but double names-e.g., Sarah Kitty, John Thomas, Mary
Patience, Betty Frances, Mary Ann-were not uncommon. Some of these
double names were possibly or probably surnames, but rarely were these
the nme of the slave's owner. Very typical examples include: Henry
Barrow was owned by Samuel Ramsey, James Lewis was owned by Alice
Squires, Samuel Livingston by David Hall, John Alleyne by Benjamin
Hinds, and Charlotte Holder by John Higginson. Only Elizabeth Cobham
bore the surname of her owner, Catherine Cobham; Hester Cadogan was
baptized as an infant, and her mother's owner was Ward Cadogan. The
registers undoubtedly contain more cases of this kind, but the sample
indicates that slaves generally had surnames that differed from those of their owners.
Scores of runaway ads in several newspapers during the late
1700s and early 1800s yield similar results. Most of the slaves
mentioned were known only by a single Christian or Anglo-European name
and less often by a double name, and rarely is the second of these
double names identifiable as a surname; in such cases, the name is
always different from that of the owner who is advertising for the
runaway. Thus, as with the parish registers, the newspaper ads offer no evidence that surnames were taken from the names of the masters who
owned the slaves in question.
The adoption of surnames increased toward the end of the slave
period and accelerated after emancipation, when the ex-slaves required
surnames for such legal purposes as land titles, marriages, and death
certificates. Ex-slaves took the Anglo-European names available on the
island, including those of slave-owners, plantation overseers, or other whites. We have no systematically collected data to establish the frequency of this practice or the criteria employed in selecting
surnames. In all, there seems to have been no marked tendency for
Barbadian slaves to bear their owners' surnames, but the criteria used
in adopting or assigning surnames remain beyond the ability of our data to resolve.
Footnote: It is possible that slaves sometimes adopted the names of
poor or other classes of whites, such as plantation militia tenants,
hucksters, tradesmen, town dwellers, or even British military or naval
officers or men with whom they were in contact. Females may have adopted the names of white men with whom they had continuing sexual relations-a practice not uncommon on plantations with lower-echelon whites as well as the slave masters themselves and in the towns. Rachael Pringle-Polgreen, a legendary late 18th-century tavern owner who had been born a slave, rejected the name of her biological white father, who her when she was a child and who mistreated her, and took the last names of two white benefactors-lovers, one of whom had been a British naval officer.