A slave name is a name given to a person who is or has been enslaved, or a name inherited from enslaved ancestors. Modern use of the term applies mostly to Africans, African-Americans and West Indians who are descended from enslaved Africans.
Changing from a slave name became an emancipatory practice, especially with the Nation of Islam, by those in the African Diaspora seeking a reconnection to their cultural roots, a name embodies an African identity.
In Rome, slaves had a single name given at the discretion of their owner. A slave who was freed might keep his or her slave name and adopt his or her former owner's name as a praenomen and nomen. As an example, one historian says that "a man named Publius Larcius freed a male slave named Nicia, who was then called Publius Larcius Nicia."
In the former Dutch colony that is present day Cape Town, slaves were named after the months in which they were purchased. This resulted in surnames such as Januarie and Februarie.
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In the 15th century, the Cape Verde islands and the rivers of Guinea were among the first parts of Africa to be explored by the Portuguese. In 1446, Portugal claimed Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau), but few trading posts were established before 1600. By 1630, the Portuguese had settled and were governing the territory. By then Cacheu had become one of the main centers of the (slave trade), which declined in the 19th century.
In 1600, Portugal and other European powers, including France, England, Sweden, Scotland, Spain, Brandenburg-Prussia, Denmark and the Netherlands set up a thriving slave trade along the West African coast.
In 1765, Bissau was founded as a military center and slave-trading post. It grew to become the main commercial center of the slave trade. The Portuguese used slave labour to grow cotton and indigo in the previously uninhabited Cape Verde islands. They traded goods and slaves in the Geba River estuary and slaves captured in local African wars and raids were sold in Europe and from the 16th century onwards, in the Americas.
Captured slaves were all given a slave name and in Europe many of their ancestors still bear this name. The name Gomis is associated with slavery in the history of Guinea-Bissau and its Manjack people). Bissau, a creole region, became known as the Slave Coast as the result of the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. Before that, slavery was not a significant feature of the coastal economy. The change occurred after the Portuguese reached this region in 1446. The surnames Gomis, Mendy, Preira, Correa, Dacosta, Monteiro and Vieira can all be traced back to Portuguese through the slave trade in the Casamance River region, governed at times by both Portugal and France.
For a brief period in the 1790s the British attempted to establish a rival foothold on the offshore island of Bolama. But many of the Manjaco and other entities became French after the abolition of the Slave trade in 1794 and 1848. It was not until January 1, 1860 that the Netherlands abolished slavery. Slaves in Dutch Guiana would have to wait until January 1, 1863 for the abolition of slavery.
Freedom was restored and their slave name won back dignity and respect. Today, slave name, baptised from birth or rebirth in the new world, testifies to the authenticity of one's identity and own heritage of history, or lack thereof.
Prior to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, the vast majority of African-Americans in the United States were enslaved. During enslavement, slaves' names were assigned by their owners. Others received a name based on what kind of work they were forced to do. Some African-Americans have last names such as Cotton, reflecting when they were made to pick cotton as slaves.
After emancipation, many freedmen and women took the surnames of their former owners as their own. Some blacks in the U.S. took on the surname Freeman, while others adopted the names of popular historical or contemporary figures of social importance, such as former presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson.
A number of African-Americans and Jamaican Americans have changed their names out of the belief that the names they were given at birth were "slave names." An individual's name change often coincides with a religious conversion (Muhammad Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and Louis Farrakhan changed his from Louis Eugene Walcott, for example) or involvement with the black nationalist movement (e.g., Amiri Baraka and Assata Shakur).
Some organizations encourage African-Americans to abandon their "slave names." The Nation of Islam is perhaps the best-known of them. In his book, Message to the Blackman in America, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad writes often of "slave names." Some of his comments include:
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Caribbean elements of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, like Aruba and the Dutch Antilles, and former colonies of the Netherlands, such as Suriname, have large Creole populations consisting mostly of the descendants of slaves.
When freed during the 19th century, the ancestors of these people received surnames that were given by their former owners, many of which referred to a specific character trait. For example Aruban governor Frits Goedgedrag's name is Dutch for "good behavior", whereas football player Edson Braafheid's name means "goodness".
Many kept these names, while others later chose their own. The new names were often in the local Spanish-based creole language, and subsequently changed to "proper" Spanish by Dutch officials. This explains why many Arubans and some Surinamese have Spanish surnames, but no Spanish ancestry.