In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slave Names and Naming in the Anglophone Atlantic

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theories of Naming
  • Journals
  • Archives and Databases
  • Documentary Primary Sources
  • African Naming Traditions
  • The Anglophone Caribbean
  • The South Atlantic
  • Slave Names on Emancipation and after Slavery

Atlantic History Slave Names and Naming in the Anglophone Atlantic
Margaret Williamson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0291


The naming of slaves has not been treated in dedicated monographs, but it often figures in general accounts of plantation culture and the practices of enslavement. Questions about slave naming intersect with some of the major debates in slavery studies (especially regarding Creolization and the formation of Atlantic Creoles) and can illuminate issues about the ethnicity of African slaves, the personhood and agency of those enslaved, the nature of kinship structures among the enslaved, and the survival of African cultural practices in the diaspora. There has been disagreement about whether it was slaveholders or the enslaved who gave the recorded names. Practices undoubtedly varied, and different archival sources may yield different conclusions. In addition to time and place, a likely variable is whether the birth rate, in a severely overworked and maltreated population, was sufficient to ensure a relatively stable population over several generations, or whether the high mortality associated with slavery led to declining numbers and hence to the frequent acquisition of new slaves. Slaveholders often renamed newly acquired slaves; but self-naming by slaves, which also occurred, is likely to be underreported in the records, which were mainly created by and for slaveholders. Also largely unrecorded are the alternative names the enslaved used among themselves, sometimes called “country names” or “basket names”; they may also, according to African practice, have had multiple names over a lifetime. There are issues, too, about how to interpret the recorded names, which have been classified in different ways depending on researchers’ interests. Major types on which most would agree are European place and literary names, European personal names in hypocoristic (pet or diminutive) form, biblical and classical names, and names of African origin. Many names, whether African derived or English, refer to birth circumstances, including both the ubiquitous day-names, which derive from the West African Akan-Twi language group, and others such as birth order and time of birth (e.g., day of the week, month, or season). But the meanings of names certainly evolved over time, and some have argued that the principles according to which an individual name was given (e.g., after a relative or ancestor) are at least as important as its apparent meaning and type. Slaves were generally listed with just one name and thus with little to none of the genealogical information recorded for free whites. It is these single names that have been most often studied. However, the enslaved occasionally had surnames, which became normal leading up to and after emancipation as a mark of assimilation into free society. Surnames (not always those of former owners) would then be adopted as family names by former slaves and their descendants. Newly emancipated slaves also frequently chose new first names, discarding those associated with slavery. Analyzing Creole names, especially those of African origin, demands a combination of historical and linguistic expertise that has not yet been systematically applied to slave names.

General Overviews

To date there are no book-length studies covering the naming of slaves across the Anglophone Atlantic, but Burton 1999 and Kaplan and Bernays 1997 provide useful entry-level discussions for the Caribbean and mainland United States, respectively. Benson 2006 is one of the few general discussions of slave names. Abel, et al. 2019 (cited under the Anglophone Caribbean) includes a good general introduction to slave naming.

  • Benson, Susan. “Injurious Names: Naming, Disavowal, and Recuperation in Contexts of Slavery and Emancipation.” In The Anthropology of Names and Naming. Edited by Gabriele vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn, 178–199. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    A valuable and incisive discussion, both theoretically and historically informed, of slave naming in two African societies, the Caribbean, and the American South. Emphasizes the giving and repeated use of names as a performative act of domination.

  • Burton, Richard D. E. “Names and Naming in Afro-Caribbean Culture.” New West Indian Guide/Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 73 (1999): 35–58.

    DOI: 10.1163/13822373-90002584

    Wide-ranging survey of naming practices in the (mainly Anglophone) Atlantic world both during and after slavery. An accessible introduction to the field.

  • Kaplan, Justin, and Anne Bernays. The Language of Names. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

    Chapter 4 gives a brief and introductory outline of naming in the United States during slavery and its consequences in African American culture. Brief, but stimulating and thoughtful for students coming new to the subject.

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