Friday, February 26, 2016

Slavery In New England & In The United States South: Names & Titles As Strategies Of Subordination, Degradation, And Resistance

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is part of an ongoing pancocojams series that excerpts online articles and books about naming practices during slavery in the United States, the Caribbean, and South America.

This post showcases an excerpt from Robert K. Fitts' 1998 book Inventing New England's Slave Paradise: Master/Slave Relations in Eighteenth-century Narragansett, Rhode Island

This excerpt focuses on eighteenth century Rhode Island (New England) slave masters' use of names and titles that preface those names strategies of subordination and degradation and enslaved Black people's resistance to those strategies.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, and linguistic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Robert K. Fitts for his research and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the enslaved and free Africans who lived in the Northern and Southern regions of the United States. Your legacy lives on.

Click for a related pancocojams post on Black names in South Carolina 18th and 19th centuries.

"Black slaves were in Rhode Island by 1652, and by the end of that century Rhode Island had become the only New England colony to use slaves for both labor and trade. After overtaking Boston by 1750, Newport and Bristol were the major slave markets in the American colonies. Slave-based economies existed in the Narragansett plantation family, the Middletown crop workers, and the indentured and slave craftsmen of Newport....

In Narragansett County, conditions favored large-scale farming, and here more than anywhere else in the North a system began to emerge that looked like the Southern plantation colonies. In parts of "South Country" (as Narragansett also was called), one-third of the population was black work force by the mid-18th century. That's comparable to the proportion of slaves in the Old South states in 1820. Narragansett planters used their slaves both as laborers and domestic servants. William Robinson owned an estate that was more than four miles long and two miles wide, and he kept about 40 slaves there. Robert Hazard of South Kingstown owned 12,000 acres and had 24 slave women just to work in his dairy. The Stantons of Narragansett, who were among the province's leading landowners, had at least 40 slaves.

In keeping with the usual pattern, a higher percentage of blacks meant a more strict control mechanism. South Kingstown had perhaps the harshest local slave control laws in New England. After 1718, for instance, if any black slave was caught in the cottage of a free black person, both were whipped. After 1750, anyone who sold so much as a cup of hard cider to a black slave faced a crushing fine of 30.

Rhode Island, of course, was among the most active Northern colonies in importing slaves.

During the Revolution, Quaker abolitionists and the powerful Newport shipping interest clashed over slavery. In February 1784 the Legislature passed a compromise measure for gradual emancipation. All children of slaves born after March 1 were to be "apprentices," the girls to become free at 18, the boys at 21. As with other Northern instances of gradual emancipation, this gave slaveowners many years of service to recoup the cost of raising the children.

No slaves were emancipated outright. The 1800 census listed 384 slaves, and the number fell gradually to 5 in 1840, after which slaves were no longer counted in the censuses for the state. And, in an essential element of the 1784 compromise, the right of Rhode Island ship-owners to participate in the foreign slave trade was undisturbed....

As was the case throughout the North, Rhode Island, having ended slavery, also sought to make it difficult for blacks to remain in the state or move there. In the early 19th century, Rhode Island towns especially turned to the old New England custom of "warning out" strangers to purify themselves racially. The custom continued to have as a stated goal the removal of poor and undesirable strangers from a community. But blacks were increasingly its targets, out of proportion to their numbers and without regard to whether they were long-term residents or not."...

From "Inventing New England's Slave Paradise: Master/Slave Relations in Eighteenth-century Narragansett, Rhode Island" by Robert K. Fitts
Taylor & Francis, 1998 - History - 274 pages
"Many 19th and 20th century historians have argued that Northern slavery was mild and that master/slave relations were relatively harmonious. Yet, Northern slavery, like Southern, was characterized by the conflict between the masters' desire to control their slaves and the slaves' resistance to this domination. For a variety of political, social, and intellectual reasons, 19th and 20th century historians ignored this inherent conflict in discussions of Northern slavery. Fitts' research focuses on how and why historians sanitized the history of slavery in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and then shows the inadequacy of these interpretations by examining several of the planters' and slaves' conflicting strategies of control and resistance. Topics include how planters used physical punishment, legislation, and the threat of sale in an attempt to control their slaves, and how slaves resisted through violence, running away, and non-violent crime. Fitts also examines the plantation landscape as a site of symbolic contestation and includes a chapter on slave names. (Ph.D. dissertation, Brown University, 1995; revised with new preface)"

From [Google Books]

page 190
...."masters used diminutive names to teach slaves their place in white society and to undermine their self-esteem so as to create docile slaves who accepted their position. There is little doubt that diminutives were degrading to the slaves. Genovese (1972:448) notes that when naming their own children, slaves rarely used diminutives and almost never shortened their proper names to diminutives among themselves. Furthermore, slave culture was built on beliefs and traditions from West Africa, where names were important symbols of personal identity.(Inscoe 1983; Paustian 1978). To use a name improperly showed great disrespect. (Price & Price 1972 352-354). By using diminutives, both white adults and children treated slaves as children. This was reinforced by the use of “boy” or “girl” to refer to slaves of any age.

page 191
Similarly, because of the special respect given to the aged, the misuse of titles for older people could be especially insulting . Maters purposely denied slaves the dignity of respectful titles. All slaves were known by their first names only. Some Southern masters rigidly reinforced this point. “The former Eastern Shore, Maryland free Black Levi Coppin, who was born in 1848, said merely that “White people didn’t permit us to say “Mr.” and “Mrs” to each other, so the children, for manners sake, were taught to call the older people “aunt” and “uncle”. (Gutman 1976:217). Whites did not start referring to older blacks by those titles until the nineteenth century. (Gutman 1976:217-218).* This form of disrespect clearly signaled the slaves’ position within society, but may have also undercut the slaves’ own self-esteem. Masters hoped that this degradation would keep slaves humble and thus easier to control....

The data suggests that degrading slaves with classical names and place names were common throughout colonial America. Likewise, degradation through diminutive names was also a common strategy....

page 193
Alien, degrading, and diminutive slave names were important symbols in upholding the Narragansett planters’ ideology of alienation and paternalism. There is no doubt that planters believed in these ideologies. Yet, it is unclear if these names caused slaves to internalize these ideologies. There are no surviving slave narratives from Narragansett; thus, one can never be sure how slaves viewed the names that planters imposed upon them....

page 194
These studies suggest that degrading names could have helped slaves develop poor self-images, which might have made them easier to control.

The historical evidence shows, however, that degrading names did not instill many slaves with inferiority complexes. Instead, slaves resisted their masters’ control over their names. Two primary sources suggest that slaves greatly resented their masters’ control and fought to retain their original names. “William Wells Brown recalled that he had “lost” his name ‘William’, when his master’s nephew of that same name arrived to live with them. Ordered to change his name in deference to the white boy, he balked. ‘This at the time, I thought to be one of the most cruel acts that could be committed against my rights; and I received severe whippings for telling people that my name was William after receiving orders were given to change it.” (Genovese 1972:445) Likewise, Gustavas Vassa only adopted his name after numerous beatings.(Edwards 1967:35-36)

Studies of African American names before and after emancipation suggest that blacks resented their slave names and quickly adopted new ones when the opportunity presented itself. (e.g. Berlin 1974; Nash 1988). Ira Berlin (1974:52) writes “Free Negroes commonly celebrated emancipation by taking a new name. A new name was both a symbol of personal liberation and an act of political defiance; it reversed the enslavement process and confirmed the free Negro’s newly won liberty, just as the loss of an African name had earlier symbolized enslavement.” This evidence suggests that most slaves did not internalize the degradation symbolized by their names. Instead, slaves in Narragansett and the American South used names to fight their masters’ control through symbolic ties to their African past.

Despite their masters’ attempt to use names to control them, Narragansett’s slaves gave these names different meanings to undermine the planters’ domination. Sometimes this was done openly, but often this form of cultural resistance was only used among the slaves....

page 195
...this chapter examines four ways Narragansett slaves may have used their names as a form of resistance against their masters’ symbolic control.

Symbolic Appropriation
....Cheryl Cody’s studies of the Ball (1987) and Gaillard (1982) plantations shows that once slaves began naming their own children, they used names of kin. In this way names forced upon slaves, including degrading names, became family names with positive rather than degrading connotations....

Private Names
A number of slaves undermined the planters’ strategies by having two first names. One name was given and used by whites, but the other was bestowed on the slave by the African American community and used among them in private. Slaves probably saw the latter as their real name; thus, planter imposed degrading names would not have undermined their self-esteem. These private names could either be of African or Anglo origin, or nicknames used among the slaves....

page 196
Similarly, many slaves had family names that were used only among themselves. Even though slaves supposedly took their masters’ last name, in both the North and the South, many slaves rejected these in favor of names of their own choosing.(Gutman 1976: 230-232). Often they took the name of their first master, or an ancestor’s master, or chose an African inspired name. These names were often kept secret from whites, who at least in the nineteenth- century American South, sometimes whipped slaves for using them.(Gutman 1976:236)....

Page 197
Private last names were also an important means of resistance, because they fostered a sense of history by keeping ties alive to past family members and rejected their masters’ ideology of paternalism by symbolically stating that they did not consider themselves to be their masters; children.

African Names
Many scholars have noted the high retention of African names among North American slaves….African names were important symbols in the slaves’ cultural resistance against the masters’ ideologies of alienation and degradation (Genovese 1972; Inscoe 1983; Wood 1974)

Although the Narragansett probably named most of their slaves, ten percentage of slaves still held on to African names. The most common names were Cuff (11 people), Mongo (8), Bina (5), and Cudjo (4). Among the most unusual were Satria and Treedee. The prevalence of African names shows that some masters were not concerned about these retentions…..

Page 200
Table 6.8 Similar English and African names in Narragansett

English -African- Number of Slaves Bearing Name in Narragansett
Abby- Abba-0



Easter- Easter (time name) -2






Total- 55

Ten percent of Narragansett slaves were named one of the ten names shown in Table 6.8. This is consistent with other studies which also find these names to be common…

If slaves interpreted these names as African, then they were symbols of an African past and part of the slaves subordinate culture. Therefore, the number of slaves with these names should be combined with slaves with pure African names to get a true reflection of the extent of African symbolism. In Narragansett, 101 slaves out of the total 532 surveyed, or 19 percent bore names of these types. Once again, these results are similar to John Inscoe’s data from the Carolinas. Inscoe (1983: 535) found that 23 percent of all surveyed slaves bore names of possible African origin. This further supports the possibility

page 201
that Narragansett’s slaves held on to symbols of their African past to resist their masters’ racist ideologies.”....
*Italics were added to highlight these sentences about enslaved and free Black people being prohibited from using the titles of respect(honorifics) "Sir", "Ma'am", "Mr", "Mrs." ("Missus", "Miss"). Those titles were reserved for White people only. As a means of showing respect to older people, Black people began using the titles "Aunt" and "Uncle", and White people also eventually began using those titles for older Black people. Some examples of "Uncle" and "Aunt" used as titles for Black people in popular culture in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries are "Uncle Tom" (as in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel and play Uncle Tom's Cabin), "Uncle Remus", "Uncle Ben", Uncle John Scruggs (African American Old Time music banjo player), and Aunt Jemima.

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  1. It's true that a number of African Americans in the 20th century and 21st century (and probably also during slavery and during post-slavery 19th century) taught/teach our children to refer to adult friends of their parents as "aunt" and "uncle" although there were/are no biological ties. However, that custom is separate from the point that the titles "aunt" and "uncle" were used during slavery because Black people were prohibited from using "Mrs." and "Mister".

    This is contrary to the opinions that were posted on the this redditt comment thread that White people called enslaved older Black people "aunt" and "uncle" because they considered those Black people as "part of their family."

  2. I notice that in early 19th c. Jamaica it was the usual custom for anyone of African descent to choose a new name on baptism. Sometimes the name they abandoned was clearly an imposed one, like Duke, Apollo or Duranto, but also there's a Cuffee, and other names I think may be African - Tosin (there's a modern Nigerian-American called Oluwatosin, but known as Tosin); Kippo, a woman's name; and woman who chooses to be christened Eleanor was formerly known as 'Friday'.

    1. Hi slam2011,

      I don't want to speculate as to whether the Anglican Church in Jamaica required converts to adopt a new name upon their baptism or whether this was the choice of those being baptized. It's a good question, though. If this was a voluntary decision, it would fit with what I've read was the custom in a number of African cultures of people choosing or being given a new or added name/nickname to mark some accomplishment or good or bad incident in the person's life.

      Here's the link to the Jamaican family search site:

      Also, "Olutosin" is a Yoruba (Nigeria) male name meaning "God is worthy of praise" ["Oluwa", the name of the Supreme Deity + tosin, meaning worthy of praise]

      Here's a link to that name meaning =

      I didn't look up Kippo yet, but I agree that this is an African name or a folk processed form of an African name. I plan to spend some time at that family search site. Thanks again!!

  3. On second thoughts I realise it's possible it was the Anglican Church in Jamaica that required converts to adopt a new name. What do you think? After all the church would hardly agree to baptise anyone 'Apollo'.... On the other hand, lots of the abandoned names seem unobjectionable from a church viewpoint - Frederick, Beatrice, Hannah. My guess is that, as a sign they were beginning a new life in Christ, the converts themselves chose to take new names. What do you think?