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Why everything you thought about ‘slave names’ could be wrong

In the Netherlands, descendants of slaves are being offered the opportunity to change their name free of charge. Should Britain follow suit?

08 Oct 2021

In September, the Dutch city of Utretcht announced an update to the processes required for residents who wished to change their names. Normally the bureaucratic processes of the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands are unlikely to make international news, but the council’s decision grabbed attention. From now on, they declared, individuals who wanted to take a new moniker because of their existing name’s links to the “colonial legacy” of the Netherlands would be able to do without paying the hefty €835 (£715) fee, or having to undergo a costly psychological evaluation. 

What did this mean in practice? That people living in Utrecht, carrying what they referred to as their ‘slave names’ – surnames they believed had been imposed upon enslaved African ancestors by Dutch plantation owners – could now swap them for something they deemed more fitting to bear. 

“As soon as that door opens, I’ll be at the front of the queue,” one man waiting outside Utrecht city hall told the BBC. Born Guno Mac Intosch, he wanted to change his name to ‘Yaw’, he said. It means ‘born on a Thursday’ in the tradition of the Ghanian ancestry he said he’d roughly traced. 

Yaw wasn’t alone. Reportedly, Utrecht’s rule change has already resulted in “hundreds of expressions of interest”. Understandable, says Linda Nooitmeer, chair of the National Institute for Dutch Slavery History.

“I think maybe in the last five years, people are becoming more aware of the fact that with slavery, everything that was derived from being African was diminished,” she says. “When people realise that, they want to get their Africanness back”. 

The Dutch slave trade saw over 600,000 Africans enslaved in colonies, stretching from Indonesia to Caribbean islands. Post-abolition (a lengthy process that legally began in 1863) emancipated slaves either choose new names, or were given them by local authorities. For Linda – whose own surname, ‘Nooitmeer’ means ‘never again’ and was selected by her forebears – the option for descendants of the enslaved to choose a new name is a form of agency often denied to their ancestors and a testament to their survival. 

“It [is] all to do with embracing your own identity [and] recognising the strength of the ancestors,” she says. “If you look at history, how it has been taught, for centuries it’s always been about the enslaved being weak. It’s never about strength. And it should be, because there were 600,000 people taken from Africa to the colonies. After slavery, there was something like 60,000 left. 

“The people who are left, we are the descendents of the strongest ones. That is something to embrace”. 

But is the Dutch example one that other countries, such as Britain– which presided over a trade enslaving millions of Africans – can, or should be willing to follow? 

What’s in a name?

It’s difficult to trace the descendants of slaves through ‘standard’ forms of genealogy. Often, the stories of enslaved ancestors are passed down through oral histories, especially in the event of migration away from what scant records might exist. For Black and mixed-Black descendants of slaves, the ‘slave name’ they bear can often feel like one of the few connections to a past deliberately erased. The complexities a ‘slave name’ carries makes the decision to jettison it a difficult – and loaded – choice.

“I don’t want to change my ‘slave’ name for a number of reasons,” says 28 year-old Yasmin Clarke, who is white British-Jamaican. “It’s a part of my family history and changing it would feel like erasure of the trauma and adversity my ancestors faced.

While Yasmin believes there’s merit to both sides of the debate – wanting to keep a ‘slave name’ vs selecting something entirely new – she also thinks it could be used by politicians as a placation device.

“I think the greater issue to be dealt with is in providing reparations to the descendants of slaves and sincerely making amends,” she adds.

Yasmin knows little about the provenance of her surname, but surmises that as it’s “most prevalent in Wales,”  her ancestors must have been owned by Welsh slave-owners. This patchwork history, of guesswork and speculation, is common among the descendants of the enslaved. 

“The lack of information is abysmal,” says Simone, 34. Her family are from Sierra Leone, which was founded as a British colony for ‘repatriated’ and freed slaves. Simone’s Krio ancestors were ‘given’ the name “Cole” but she and her family have been unable to track down any information about their lives before abolition. 

If we could locate a name it would be the first step to learning exactly where our family came from”

“We don’t know the basics, such as which of our family were enslaved [or] where they were enslaved, let alone what their experience of slavery was” says Simone. 

Despite Sierra Leone’s close ties with Britain – including the initial 1787 ‘resettlement’ scheme of London’s Black poor that saw the beginnings of the colony – Simone says that records are scant and the chances of finding her family’s former name is virtually nil.

“Identity wise this means that half my family has been completely severed from our heritage,” she observes. 

“If we could locate a name it would be the first step to learning exactly where our family came from, as well as more about the culture they were separated from. It is a cruel legacy of slavery which I imagine many of us experience when trying to learn more about the people we come from”.  

Unsurprisingly, this lack of record keeping regarding the African origins of the enslaved, was a deliberate endeavour. 

“The people who bought and sold enslaved people used numbers,” says Professor Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull. Trevor has been investigating naming practices within the British transatlantic slave trade, an underresearched area.

“So you [become] ‘woman, number five, from Sierra Leone. The link between yourself, and the past is being obliterated. That was a deliberate thing planters wanted to do. When they enslaved people, they wanted to get rid of that person’s connection to the past”. 

While the enslaved would have “resisted” this, says Trevor, for those scouring official records to trace their ancestry, especially for name changing purposes, it poses an almost insurmountable roadblock. 

“For us today to try and get back to [the African origins of the enslaved], that’s very difficult,” Trevor adds. 

“The chances of you being able to connect yourself to an actual African ancestor are infinitesimally small”. 

Pinning down the area African forebears might have come from is also tough for those descended from people enslaved in British colonies like the Caribbean. While DNA analysis has helped identify that Black African slaves in places like Jamaica were more likely to come from Ghana or the ‘Gold Coast’ colony, most Black Jamaicans have incredibly mixed heritage. It’s a similar story elsewhere; enslaved populations were extremely heterogeneous, says Trevor, and as a result, African ancestry can be drawn from all over the continent. 

New information

Adding extra complexity to the decision to re-name oneself, is the lack of commonly held knowledge about naming practices among the enslaved. 

Most descendants of the enslaved (myself included) assume their surnames are likely that of the family who owned their ancestors and thus must be their ‘slave names’. Yet Trevor says this is not the case. 

While planters – or those working on their behalf – did rename the people they forced into their service as part of the dehumanisation process, they only gave them one name, a forename. In British slave colonies, this would often be something banal and typically ‘English’ like ‘Mary’ or ‘Tom’. Classical names such as ‘Hercules’ also appear, including cruel ‘joke’ names like ‘Venus’ that reflected the hyper-sexualised way white slavers viewed enslaved Black women.

Occasionally, slaves would be given African forenames that seemed to – according to Trevor’s research – correspond with a slightly higher status or ‘prestige’ (by the standards of plantation life) jobs. While some academics believe that these African first names may have been chosen by the enslaved themselves, Trevor is sceptical, due to the overuse of particular names, like ‘Quashee’, which became so synonymous with slavery that they transformed into a derogatory term in their own right.

Surnames, however, came later, chosen either by the enslaved population themselves upon conversion to Christianity, or after emancipation. 

“The various records I’ve looked at suggest that in the first and second dates of the 19th century, a proportion of enslaved people chose Christian names and were baptised, which were recorded by their various owners in various registrations,” explains Trevor.

Surnames came later, chosen either by the enslaved population themselves upon conversion to Christianity, or after emancipation”

“By the time of [British] abolition in the 1830s, a great majority of enslaved people would have chosen a ‘Christian’ [fore]name and a surname, which reflects how by the 1830s a great proportion of [Black African] people in the British West Indies and North America are Christian”. 

So if the newly emancipated Black population in the British colonies were free to choose a brand new name and shake off the shackles of the all-too recent past, why do so many of us still bear surnames clearly connected to white slaving families? The answer is surprising. 

In somewhere like Jamaica, for example, around 10% of the formerly enslaved took the surnames of the owners they belonged to, Trevor’s research has shown. However most chose another surname and would often pick from the names of prominent families in the area – who would usually be slaveholders. 

“If you’re in Clarendon [Jamaica], for example, and you’re owned by the Dawkins family, you might not call yourself ‘Dawkins’ but you might call yourself ‘Beckford’, another prominent household,” says Trevor. 

He believes several factors were at play; firstly that formerly enslaved people wanted to distance themselves from their personal pasts. First names, while remaining ‘English’, would often change – such as ‘Will’ becoming ‘Harry’. Surnames would be picked to afford them the (meagre) advantages of being attached to wealthy white English families in some manner but emancipated slaves would often exert what agency they had by rejecting the names of their former owners. 

Those who had been given African names would also swap them out for ‘English’ monikers, separating themselves from their own ancestry. This was thanks to white colonisers, who degraded the continent as ‘uncivilised’. To enter ‘civil’ society, the newly free Black Africans assimilated via naming practices. 

“Naming practices are really important to get into something we find very difficult, which is [understanding] the thinking of enslaved people”

And those naming practices, says Trevor, were inventive and didn’t follow Western European rules. He’s found records of women in the Caribbean who had “five or six children” and each had a different surname. It’s possible, of course, he admits that the children may simply have been sired by different men. But more likely, for the period and context, was that formerly enslaved women were being innovative with the way they named their Black children, setting them up with the best possible chances in a world that still wished to subjugate them, even if it was now longer wholly permitted by law. 

The importance of these new names cannot be overstated, Trevor stresses. 

“One, changing and taking a name is hugely significant,” he says. “ It relates very much to you and your sense of yourself. 

“Secondly, since this arose around becoming Christian, it’s also about a transformation from one type of person into another – there’s so much emphasis on being born into Christ and that sort of stuff. Naming practices are really important to get into something we find very difficult, which is [understanding] the thinking, the psyche of enslaved people”. 

In line with this, the descendants of slaves who desire to select an ‘African’ name, are in-keeping with the unique naming practices of their ancestors. But the knowledge that the slave ‘surnames’, borne by those descended from slaves in British colonies, are likely to have been picked by the emancipated enslaved themselves, might change the conversation in Britain at least. 

“The only risk,” says Trevor, thoughtfully, “is that by changing your name to an African name, yes you recognise your African ancestors, but you may diminish your enslaved ancestors”.