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Marking an ‘X’: Exploring the History of Grenada’s Surnames

  • Despite the widespread belief that most Grenadian surnames today are derived from plantation/slave owners, many former enslaved men actually used their first (and only) names to create their family names.
  • This is the case for a plurality of both English and French-derived surnames today.
  • That means your surname may contain a clue to the name of your last enslaved male ancestor.
  • A smaller percentage of Grenadian surnames, both English and French, are derived from plantation owners, and this often indicates a blood connection.
  • Maybe we can see these surnames as more a creation of the newly freed Grenadians to establish identity, rather than something imposed upon them, as was the case in other countries.

 

Malcolm X, the son of Grenadian Louise Langdon Norton Little (1895/6-1989), made famous the identity struggles of Black people in the diaspora when he replaced his family name of Little (or what has also been termed his “slave name”) with an ‘X’ to signify his lost or robbed African identity as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the legacy of slavery. It is a cry voiced by many descendants of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean who feel a sense of loss, a sense of disconnect, not knowing their African name, their African identity.

In the 1970s, following the emergence of Rastafari and the Black Power Movement, several Grenadians adopted African names (like Akee, Kamau and Owusu) in an attempt to reclaim that perceived lost identity, adorned with their dashiki and a big Afro, even carrying around beautifully carved afro-combs to enhance that identity. The recent developments in DNA technology have provided some solace in creating a “direct” biological connection to the peoples of West Africa, but the connections to ancestral birthplaces remain elusive at best. Yet, many continue to search their ancestry for any links that would take them closer to finding that lost identity.

For Grenadians (and others from the Caribbean), doing genealogical research is difficult to say the least. Luck is the most operative word here: luck in locating pertinent records, luck that the records have not been eaten by time, luck that you can read the handwriting, etc. It is often easier for Grenadians in the diaspora because many of our records are available in the US, UK and other places. Grenada has outsourced the preservation of its history to others! For those making that difficult search because of the dearth of records, archives, and access to whatever might be available, I would like to share my thoughts on a very important aspect of that search from my years of experience in my own family search and as a historian and archivist working among those historical records. I am referring specifically to the origin and history of the surnames of Grenadians, which I hope will aid you in your search and overall understanding of Grenadian genealogy.

Slave Registers and Surnames

It is often repeated that most Grenadians (and West Indians) today have family names that were unwittingly received from their enslaved ancestors’ masters/owners, hence the reference to family names as “slave names” and Malcolm X’s use of an “X” to illustrate that. However, that is only true for a minority of Grenadian surnames (although it could be argued that all names of enslaved Africans are “slave names”).

There is little on enslaved names and naming practices, which makes it rather difficult to trace Black ancestry beyond the limited official records like the Civil List (which begins in 1866) and selected church records, especially the Anglican Church (see Handler & Jacoby 1996). However, a look at the names of plantation owners (Legacies of British Slave-ownership) and the Slave Registers (Former British Colonial Dependencies…) makes clear that many of those names do not survive in Grenada as surnames, and when they do, there is an actual blood connection. In fact, the plurality of Grenadian family names today, and the most popular ones at least, are derived from the first names of the last enslaved male ancestors. This does not seem to be the case across the region (for example, in Trinidad, St. Lucia and Belize, enslaved were given last names on the Slave Registers; or in Curacao where former enslaved received surnames based on the first names of the wives of their white slave owners, hence the preponderance of female surnames). But for Grenada, an examination of family names today will reveal the preponderance of male first names. This in itself is not unusual, as many European cultures and patrilineal societies worldwide have used this naming practice for centuries (think of many names in the Bible – Solomon, son of David; Joseph, son of Jacob, etc.). What is unique about it here is how it came about in Grenada.

Records of the names of enslaved Grenadians are readily available and give a good idea of the names that were given to enslaved peoples in Grenada. As a matter of fact, there are complete lists of the enslaved in Grenada between 1817 and 1834 as part of the Slave Registry Act passed to inhibit the continued illegal importation of captive Africans (Former British Colonial Dependencies…). Other lists are also available in legal deeds from the sale of plantations, which included enslaved as part of the property (Register of Records, 1764-1931).

These lists provide a clear picture of the rendered/official names of the last generation or two of enslaved Grenadians. Comparing the list of surnames today with the Slave Registers reveal an obvious connection: a majority of the family names today were derived from the actual names held by the last enslaved males. They did not have actual surnames, so the Slave Registers recorded the patriarch’s first name. Table 1 provides a list of the 20 most common family names today and compares them to the prevalence of these names to their counterpart in the Slave Registers.

Table 1. The 20 Most Common Grenadian Surnames Today and Their Prevalence in the Slave Registers

Rank in Grenada

Rank in Carriacou

Surname

Current Incidence

# in the 1834 Slave Register

Comments

1

3

Charles

3870

115

 

2

1

Joseph

2807

138

 

3

9

Thomas

2787

92

 

4

17

Williams

2312

150

“s” added to William

5

4

Alexander

2255

83

 

6

42

Lewis

1839

5*

 

7

4

John

1743

149

 

8

54

Phillip

1660

19

The French Philip is #94

9

2

Noel

1638

46

 

10

33

Mitchell

1558

33

 

11

68

Francis

1456

8*

 

12

12

George

1310

111

 

13

41

James

1165

69

 

14

64

Baptiste

1138

38

French-derived name

15

150

Edwards

915

78

“s” added to Edward

16

33

Peters

826

44

“s” added to Peter

17

97

Paul

823

22

 

18

33

Sylvester

786

23

Sylvest/Sylvestre/Sylvester

19

14

Roberts

758

83

“s” added to Robert

20

166

Frederick

751

52

 

*Lewis and Francis on the Slave Registers are far below expected numbers to their popularity today.

Sources: https://forebears.io/grenada/surnames
https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/1129/

 

The Survival of African Names

One easy test of the theory is to examine the unique example of the few surviving African names. African day-names and others, especially from the Akan, have survived slavery like few other African cultural memories. This may have been due to the large numbers of Akans (from the historical Gold Coast region) brought to Grenada, from whom we have other cultural survivals like Anansi the trickster spider and a handful of Twi words (Martin 2007).

These few African names as first names can be seen on the Slave Registers, but only the male names have survived because they became surnames in Grenada and Carriacou today: Cuffie (<Kofi), Quamina (<Kwami), Quashie (<Kwesi), and Cudjoe (<Kojo). The female names like Cumba, Accou, Acra, Ama, Yabba and Amba have totally disappeared, as have the ethnic appendages like Ebo/Ibo, Chamba, Moco, and Congo (see Table 2). The retention of these few African names possibly suggests that the enslaved may have had some agency in naming their offspring, but that would be difficult to prove as much of the evidence is anecdotal. It is believed that the enslaved, especially those born in Grenada, were named by their grandmothers and godparents (Handler & Jacoby 1996).

Table 2. Historical Male African First Names as Surnames Today and Their Prevalence in the 1834 Slave Register

Rank

Surname

Current Incidence

# in the 1834 Slave Register

Comments

213

Quashie

96

7

Ranks #18 in Carriacou

305

Cudjoe

63

8

Ranks #31 in Carriacou

309

Cuffie

62

10

Not present in Carriacou

537

Quamina

28

6

Ranks #111 in Carriacou

Sources: https://forebears.io/grenada/surnames 
https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/1129/

Another good example from the Slave Registers is when changes in names had to be explained from one year to the next. For example, the Register for 1834 provided comments for names of three families on the “Breteche and Lance La Roche Estates” in Carriacou owned by E. B. Dallas. A patriarch named Rodney (no last name) was listed as being born in Africa around 1787/88, and was about 46 years in 1834; he is described as having “country [tribal] marks on his breast” (see image below). The children, who had been recorded on previous Registers with only one name, were now recorded with the family name Rodney: Mary Charlotte Rodney (15 yrs), Damfreson Rodney (12 yrs), Noel Rodney (10 yrs), Arline/Alexline Rodney (7½ yrs) and Johnny Rodney (4 yrs), with the comment “Surname taken on father’s marriage.” His wife (the mother of the children) is not identified because she may have been on another plantation, or was not associated with the name Rodney. (It is interesting to speculate that the Rodney family of Beauséjour, Carriacou today could be descendants of Rodney from 1834.) Other families identified on the same page include Henry and Joseph.

         



Pages from the 1834 Slave Register for “Breteche and Lance La Roche Estates” in Carriacou listing enslaved, with references to members of the Rodney, Joseph and Henry families highlighted (courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk)

There are almost 7,000 unique surnames in Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique. Most of them are historical Grenadian families that date to the immediate post-Emancipation period when the majority of Grenadians adopted surnames. There were a few enslaved who had two names, mostly compound names (and primarily French-derived), but compound names were also used to differentiate those with similar names on the same plantation (examples: Jean Paul, Jean Pierre, Louis Pierre & Louis Charles; Julien & Julien 1st, Charles & Charles 2nd, Harriet 1st & Harriet London). Some of these compound names may account for why we do not see surnames like Jean and Louis today. For Grenada, I examined almost 1000 surnames and their incidences of occurrence, 200 for Carriacou, and 40 for Petite Martinique (see the Forebears directory). English, Scottish, and other names of the British Isles dominate as the British were the last and longest colonial rulers of Grenada.

Continuity of British Surnames

Although male first names dominate the English-derived (including British, Scottish, Irish) Grenadian names (see Table 1 above), some British surnames that derive directly from British families are quite evident as well. Most of these indicate blood connections, as in the offspring of white men and Black/mixed women (free and enslaved), who thus carried their name, often even identified in last wills and testaments (see Table 3).

Table 3. English-Derived Surnames from British Slave Owners

Rank

Surname

Current Incidence

Listed on 1834 Slave Register

Comments

5

Alexander

2255

Yes

Ranks #4 in Carriacou

62

Campbell

308

Yes

Ranks #166 in Carriacou

97

Ferguson

216

No

Not present

114

Whiteman

178

No

Not present

119

Munro

180

No

Ranks #198 in Carriacou

125

Cummings

175

No

Ranks #49 in Carriacou

235

Young

86

No

Not present

530

Hankey

29

No

Not present

Sources: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/search/ 
https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/1129/

Names of some Grenadian surnames stem from British surnames because of some other connection to a plantation and the family. One example is the Mills family of Carriacou, who took their name from the Mill family that owned Grand Bay Estate into the early 1900s; there were no registered enslaved with the name of Mill or Mills. The Carriacou family added an “s” as was the case with several adopted male first names like Williams, Peters, Edwards, Richards, and Andrews. It is unclear why this happened instead of taking the patriarchs’ name.

The many Scottish names of Carriacou and Petite Martinique are also as a result of racial mixing between the Scots and Blacks (free and enslaved), with names like McLawrence, McFarlane, and McGillivary (see Table 4). One of the most popular family names on Petite Martinique is Bethel, a Welsh-derived name.

Table 4. English-Derived Surnames in Carriacou & Petite Martinique

Rank

Surname

Current Incidence

Listed on Slave Registers

Comments

11

McLawrence

90

No

Ranks #197 in Grenada

18

Stewart

69

Yes (2)

Ranks #85 in Grenada

20

Boatswain

67

No

Ranks #207 in Grenada

22

McFarlane

65

No

Ranks #274 in Grenada

29

McIntosh

55

No

Ranks #910 in Grenada

33

Matheson

50

No

Ranks #323 in Grenada


1

Bethel

198

No

Ranks #73 in Grenada

4

Blair

42

Yes (2)

Ranks #259 in Grenada

12

Tillock

21

No

Ranks #470 in Grenada

Sources: https://forebears.io/grenada/surnames 
https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/1129/

 

French Surnames

Though Grenada was a French colony between 1649 and 1763, French-derived names are still quite common centuries on. Several of these surnames of French origin are French male first names that were converted to surnames, similar to their British counterparts (see Table 5). The plurality of French-derived family names, however, were present since the mid- to late 18th century and held by persons of French and African ancestry or mixed race (see Table 6). Most of these French family surnames do not appear on Slave Registers, but rather by owners of enslaved, they being the descendants of “interracial relationships” (free and enslaved).

Table 5. The 15 Most Common French-Derived Surnames Today and Their Prevalence in the 1834 Slave Register

Rank

Surname

Current Incidence

# on the 1834 Slave Register

Comments

9

Noel

1638

46

Ranks #18 in Carriacou

14

Baptiste

1138

38

Ranks #31 in Carriacou

24

Antoine

691

46

Ranks #135 in Carriacou

30

Calliste

556

12

Ranks #111 in Carriacou

31

Pierre

538

45

Ranks #166 in Carriacou

32

Julien

536

30 (+Julienne)

Ranks #45 in Carriacou

37

Modeste

475

46

Ranks #47 in Carriacou

44

St. Louis

371

19

 

59

St. Bernard

315

No

Ranks #198 in Carriacou

70

Francois

272

40

 

88

Pascal

230

29

Ranks #150 in Carriacou

92

Clement

222

8

 

94

Philip

220

52 (+John Philip)

 

98

Cadore

214

No

Ranks #198 in Carriacou

99

Hosten

213

No

Ranks #135 in Carriacou

Sources: https://forebears.io/grenada/surnames 
https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/1129/

 

Table 6. Popular Historical French Surnames and Their Prevalence in the 1834 Slave Register

Rank

Surname

Current Incidence

# on the 1834 Slave Register

Comments

115

De Coteau

189

No

Ranks #85 in Carriacou

118

Langaine

182

No

Not present

125

La Touche

175

No

Not present

129

Stanislaus

172

Yes (11)

Ranks #47 in Carriacou

182

Bedeau

109

No

Ranks #20 in Carriacou

Sources: https://forebears.io/grenada/surnames 
https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/1129/

 

Final Thoughts

Lastly, due to migration since the mid-1800s, several names unique to neighboring islands have been brought to Grenada, some becoming well established. But it is still possible to differentiate exclusively Grenadian names from those of neighboring Caribbean islands. Table 7 presents a short list of some of these names originally exclusive to Grenada, but now can be found in Trinidad, the US and UK due to migration of Grenadians since the 18th century. Surnames like Chantimel have disappeared, while names like Horsford and Ackie, coming from Antigua (where they are common), or Quarless, Dowden, Chandler, and Dottin from Barbados, have enriched Grenada’s family history and cultural identity.

Table 7. Unique Surnames to Grenada

Rank

Surname

Possibly Derived From

Listed on the 1834 Slave Register

Comments

59

Belfon

Pierre Aman Belfon

No

 

191

Braveboy

1st name of enslaved

Yes

 

209

Brizan

Brisant

Yes

 Place name

98/243

Cadore/Cadoo

Unknown

Yes

Ranks #198 in Carriacou

115

De Coteau

Clozier Decoteau

No

Ranks #85 in Carriacou

163

De Roche

La Roche

No

Ranks #85 in Carriacou

108

Hillaire

St. Hillaire

Yes

 

867

La Grenade

Grenade

No

 Name of the island

194

Lalgie

East-Indian derived

No

 

125

La Touche

La Touche-Limouzinière de Mareuil

No

 

207

Lendore

 Unknown

No

Ranks #13 in Carriacou

218

Marryshow

Maricheau

No

 

57/749

Morain/Moraine

Unknown

No

 

413

Viechweg

John Viechweg (Belair, 1800)

No

 

Sources: https://forebears.io/grenada/surnames 
https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/1129/

So in conclusion, Grenadian surnames are not purely baggage from our enslaved ancestors. Slavery is the reason for the lack of surnames in the first place, but the ones we have bear the names of our ancestors, much as surnames are supposed to. As such, these surnames may lead to Grenadians today finding their enslaved ancestors on Slave Registers and other lists if aware of the village (and thus plantation) where your family originated. As a final example, the name Braveboy shows up on Slave Registers for the Carriere Estate in St. Andrew. Knowing that the Braveboy family has roots in that area (and the name is quite distinctive) leads to the conclusion that the young man identified as Braveboy was probably the patriarch of the Braveboy clan, a family name that is unique to Grenada.

Page from the Slave Register for 1834 listing enslaved males on the Carriere Estate, St. Andrew, with the name Braveboy highlighted

-JAM

 

References

For the names of enslaved Grenadians see “Former British Colonial Dependencies, Slave Registers, 1813-1834” at https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/1129/

For the names of mostly British slave owners in Grenada see “Legacies of British Slave-Ownership” at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/maps/caribbean/grenada

For current surnames of Grenadians see “Most Common Last Names in Grenada,” Forebears at https://forebears.io/grenada/surnames.

“Most Common Last Names of Carriacou,” Forebears at https://forebears.io/grenada/carriacou#surnames

Most Common Last Names of Petite Martinique,” Forebears at https://forebears.io/grenada/petite-martinique#surnames

Handler, Jerome S. and JoAnn Jacoby. 1996. “Slave Names and Naming in Barbados, 1650-1830,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 53, (Oct):685-728.

Martin, John Angus. 2007. A-Z of Grenada. Oxford: Macmillan Caribbean.

 

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