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What’s in a name?

JAMAICAN HERITAGE: Former boxer Chris Eubank has a common Jamaican surname

WHY IS Gladstone a male Christian name only found in the Caribbean? What faces do the names Merlene Hinds, Kenrick Nesbitt or Kenisha Cadogan summon?

Where do these names come from? Why are there so many Edwards, Longs and Beckfords in Jamaica; Martins and Burtons in Antigua; Josephs and Henrys in Dominica; and Mingos seemingly all over the West Indies?

The family name Eubanks/Ebanks is nowadays almost a uniquely Jamaican one, and I know I wasn’t the only person who just knew that Sharon Ebanks (a prominent BNP member from the East Midlands) had African-Caribbean ancestry without having to use Google Images.

These names are, of course, those of prominent planter families, but the story of our names is more complicated than you might think.

In traditional African societies, children could be named after the time or place of their birth or for their birth order in a family.

Sometimes children received names that would ‘mislead evil spirits’, particularly if an older sibling had died.

Others may have been named after an event or incident that occurred during pregnancy such as a festival, a market day, or extreme weather; they could be named for the circumstances of birth or peculiar characteristics (for example albino, twin, six fingers) or a personality trait.

NICKNAMES: Many people go by the name ‘Bunny’, like singer Bunny Wailer

Children could also be named after male or female relatives, including living grandparents or ancestors.

There were many ways to name a child, but all of them held meaning.

The philosopher John Mbiti writes, ‘There is no stop to the giving of names in many African societies, so that a person can acquire a sizeable collection of names by the time he becomes an old man.’

The name Gladstone was taken from the British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, who oversaw the passage of the Emancipation Bill 1834. His family owned estates in Guyana and he was awarded £114,677 for the loss of his human ‘property’.

A sizeable collection of names was one of the African cultural elements the plantation system sought to remove.

Once their lives had been sold, the enslaved would be identified by a single name, usually of European origin.

An inventory of slaves on the Waterhouse and Tunbridge plantation in Jamaica, from New Year’s Day 1797 lists the number of those working on the Waterhouse and Tunbridge plantation for the month of January 1797. The slaves are divided into men, women, boys and girls, and invalids.

The inventory gives the names of the slaves and there are few African names on the list. The slaves would have been renamed by the plantation owner as a way of removing identity and assuming control over them. From the inventory we can see that a diverse range of names were used, from place names such as London and Halifax to figures from European mythology such as Cupid and Jupiter. Many of the girls have names such as Love, Doll and Duchess, while one of the boys is called Goose.


The few African names that appear on plantation inventories, such as ‘Femmy’ in this instance, highlight the traditional African cultures that were maintained by slave communities. It is likely that only favoured slaves would have been allowed to have such names.

Other African names that surface in similar records are often Anglicised ‘day-names’ such as Juba (Monday), Cuffey (Friday), and Quashy (Sunday). Interestingly, in Barbados, between 1650-1800, approximately one-third of the enslaved population had African names. After abolition the number fell to 14 percent.

Family names are absent as the family unit in either the African or European sense did not and could not exist in a society built on chattel slavery. Individuals born into this system are registered under their mother’s name only.
In spite of this hostile environment there were a number of ways in which African traditions persisted. On most estates Europeanised Christian names like Joseph, Francis, Elizabeth and Samuel existed alongside ‘plantation names’ often of African origin like Occo, Nanna, Adjubah and Mayfango. People therefore possessed two names, one which they answered to on the plantation and another (their real or preferred name) which was used in conversations in the quarters.

LEGACY: Former British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone

These traditions exist today in the exhaustive list of nicknames by which many of us are known in preference to our ‘legal names’.

Most people know a Sheba, Blacka, Mousey, Nicey, Icey, Soldier, Bibbsy, Bunny, etc… We may know these people for years without needing to have any idea of their ‘legal names’.

Anglicised names are often unnecessary inasmuch as they have no bearing as to how people are. Who do we recognise O'Neil Bryan or Elephant Man? Rexton Gordon or Shabba Ranks?

Our birth names tell a different story. Most of us will live and die under family names of European origin.

Although many of our families took or were given plantation-owners’ surnames after Emancipation in the 1830s, current research reveals a surprisingly high number who chose family names which bore no relation to the plantation where they worked or any known slave owner. These names were still those of local European families, which of course varied from island to island. But there was more choice in naming than was previously thought.

One African family name which survives to this day is Mingo. Originally a name from the Bobangi people of West Africa, the name survived the middle passage to flourish throughout the Caribbean and north America from the 17th century onwards.

Although there are very few examples of African names that have endured, African naming systems persist with the occurrence of highly individual first names many of us give our children. Can anyone argue that Tiara, Lashawn or Dejernay are more eccentric or clunky than Nigella, Apple or Peaches? Do Olly or Polly really suit African-Caribbean youngsters better than Terell or Maya?

Names can still be a means to maintain self-esteem and establish identities that both reflect and transcend our histories.

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