In 1808, an Order in Council directed that slaves seized from foreign ships were to be given a random but English-sounding name if their African name was not sufficiently clear. They were to be called by that name until sufficiently instructed in the Christian faith to be baptized. After that, their baptismal name had to be prefixed to the given name, which from then on acted as surname. It would seem that this was common practice long before 1808, however, almost immediately after Emancipation freed people began to invent new names for themselves.
Historian Breen had this to say – “Some had the sobriquets of Moncoq, Fanfan, and Laguerre. Others had their names mollified; Anne became Annzie, Catherine – Catiche, Besson – Bessonnette. While some dropped the baptismal names others adopted modern names. Jean Baptiste was replaced by Nelson, François by Francis, and Cyprien by Camille.
M. Jean Marie Beaurégard considered Jean Marie too vulgar and adopted the name Alfred; and his friends deemed Beaurégard too long and omitted it altogether in their dealings with him. His name was simplified to M. Alfred while his wife was titled Madame Alfred.”
It might have been possible that such liberal name-giving practices hid a deeper process of reinvention of identity, mainly a distancing from names reminiscent of slavery. Freed people took a special pride to use the respectful terms of address of ‘monsieur’, ‘madame’, ‘gentleman’, ‘lady’ and ‘mademoiselle’ for each other and applied them with a persistence which baffled Breen – who obviously missed its social significance and mistook it for a linguistic eccentricity.
Did you know freed people reportedly also displayed a distinct absence of servility in their body language? ‘Unlike the European peasant, who seldom presented himself before a clean coat without a feeling of crawling submissiveness and degradation, the St. Lucia Negro was polite to a point; he could touch his hat to anyone, but he would not uncover himself in the open air, even for the Governor of the Colony.’ In similar vein, Breen marveled at the relaxed fashion in which a man strolled down the street in pursuit of his blown-off hat, rather than destroying his cool by breaking into a concerned trot.
Source: A History of St. Lucia by Harmsen. Ellis & Devaux – 2012
This feature runs every Tuesday and Thursday. It is compiled by daughter of the soil Anselma Aimable, a former agricultural officer and former correspondent for Caribbean Net News, who has a deep interest in local culture and history. Send ideas and tips to [email protected]