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From Enslavement to Emancipation: Naming Practices in the Danish West Indies

  • Sarah Abel (a1), George F. Tyson (a2) and Gisli Palsson (a1)

In most contexts, personal names function as identifiers and as a locus for identity. Therefore, names can be used to trace patterns of kinship, ancestry, and belonging. The social power of naming, however, and its capacity to shape the life course of the person named, becomes most evident when it has the opposite intent: to sever connections and injure. Naming in slave society was primarily practical, an essential first step in commodifying human beings so they could be removed from their roots and social networks, bought, sold, mortgaged, and adjudicated. Such practices have long been integral to processes of colonization and enslavement. This paper discusses the implications of naming practices in the context of slavery, focusing on the names given to enslaved Africans and their descendants through baptism in the Lutheran and Moravian churches in the Danish West Indies. Drawing on historiographical accounts and a detailed analysis of plantation and parish records from the island of St. Croix, we outline and contextualize these patterns and practices of naming. We examine the extent to which the adoption of European and Christian names can be read as an effort toward resistance and self-determination on the part of the enslaved. Our account is illuminated by details from the lives of three former slaves from the Danish West Indies.

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