Cape Slave Naming Patterns by Robert Shell

When Robert Semple visited Cape Town in 1804 he correctly noted the significance of the naming pattern for Cape Slave owners:

It may here be observed that the whole heathen mythology is ransacked to find the names which are generally bestowed in a manner not the most honourable to those deities at whose alters one half of the human race formerly bowed down.

Thus Jupiter cleans the shoes, Hercules rubs down the horses, and Juno lights the fire. Yet [this] is it not done through any disrespect towards these once remarkable names, as those in Scripture are applied with as little ceremony, and in as unappropriate a manner, Sampson being daily sent for water and Solomon up to Table Mountain for firewood.

One might think that naming slaves might have reflected conscious – if the jocular and harmless – references to be patriarchal or imperial patrician life-styles, which the slaves made possible, but there was actually a more sinister logic to the choice of Cape slave names. Naming slaves was a domestic ruse to diminish the dignity of the slaves in daily life and to establish differences among slave groups. There were six distinctive types of first names for slaves. These types represented a spectrum.

Day 0.8%

Protestant 31%

Catholic 0.4%

Old Testament 12.6%

Indigenous 10.1%

Muslim 0.5%

Classical 24.8%

Month 4.3%

Facetious 5.9%

Toponyms 0.3%

Unknown 9.25%

Facetious Names

The settlers’ facetious spirit found its fullest expression in ridiculous or pejorative nicknames given to slaves, faithfully copied in the transfers. The most common name was Fortune (Fortuijn), presumably an ironical reminder of where household wealth lay. Pickle Herring was the nickname of one slave; Winter Butter was another, a racial joke referring to the slave’s pale skin colour. The list is endless as it is demeaning. Thickleg (Dikbeen), Long-time-coming (Lang onderweg) Watch-out (Pasop), Sweet Potato, (Pattat), Teawater (Theewater), Blixem, (Buckslam – an expletive), Welcome (Wellekom), Sabbath Ape-child (Domingo Aapkind), or simply Ape (Aap), Evil (Slegt), Clever (Slim), and Servidor and Shitato, which require as little translation as they require imagination.

Presumably thigh-slapping humor was explained, or perhaps the joke grew old, but the names stuck. When the slave was sold again the name reappeared in the records.

Calendar Names

In between the facetious and classical or biblical names were calendar names, unlike West African day names, were at least partly facetious. Friday was most common day name, perhaps because the person on whom Daniel Defoe based his famous character – the real Robinson Crusoe – had convalesced at the Cape . But month names were the most popular calendar names, especially for enslaved persons from the Indian subcontinent. One oceanic slave trader, after selling a particularly large lot of slaves from the quayside in Cape Town, and having exhausted his imagination and classical learning, reeled off, as their own, the names of the months, in order of the slaves’ appearance on the auction block. This month-naming practice, repeated quite often in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, may explain the haunting yet quite maddening lyrics of an old Cape dirge, or Moppie- “January, February, April, …” – which the slaves sang to help themselves get through the quotidian ordeals of Cape slavery. Possibly, the moppie had an educational purpose too.

Classical Names

One scholar of the American South has argued that the slave owners’ use of classical and historical names for their slaves was evidence that the slaves stood in the relation to their owner as did the owner’s dogs, at that time also commonly named for classical figures.

In this way, too, the slave owner invited the slave-owning into a cultural “joke,” (supposedly) hidden from the slave. That the Cape owners considered this joke to be a good one is attested to by the 81 Titus’s, Cupido’s, 50 Coridons, 35 Hannibal’s, and 39 Scipios in sale transfers from the period. In the 4,076 slave transfers used in this study, only one Cromwell and Diogenes testified to a different level of education among the masters. Most n were at the firmament level of Mars and Venus. To name a slave after a god or emperor was a common household device; the joke would be revealed when slave came upon livestock or pets that had his or her own name.

Old Testament Names

It was also a custom in the early Cape to name slaves after Old Testament figures. The Old Testament provided many important precedents for the Dutch Reformed tradition, so it is difficult to separate sacred from profane naming practices. However, certain names such as Solomon and Moses were never used by the settlers for naming their own children.

Indigenous Names

Some slaves were allowed to keep their given, indigenous names. This was true for all imported Lodge slaves, but a few private owners also allowed their slaves to keep their given names. Since the Lodge was internally run (except for baptisms) one assumes that allowing the slaves to keep their names was a form of Lodge autonomy. Among private owners this practice was rare and did not extend to the second, creole generation. Such names as Affans, Assar, Caftiaan, Chachista, Cosambij, Doole, Galba, Jo-ombie, Jofta, Moensat, Nalk, Origo, Orsous, Pagolet, Pantsiko, Pasi, Soutanij, Thijmon, Towaijo, and Trimmatas all fell out of use.

Inclusion and the Owners’ Pool of Names

Only a tiny minority of urban patrician owners baptized their slaves and used the same name pool as they did for their own natural children. But some owners used names from their own pool and did not baptize their slaves. Aside from baptizing slaves, using family names for slaves represents the highest level of inclusion into the owners’ domestic circle. These naming patterns, when cross-tabulated with the sex and age of the slave, provide several statistically significant and revealing patterns.

What is most surprising is that the big variation is by sex, when one might reasonably have expected to find creole status and age the determinants. Female slaves, whether young or old, had the highest percentage of owners’ names. Young were named, like men, with names drawn from outside the owners’ pool. But here one is also seeing up the “capon” effect, because young male slaves were more often targeted in the oceanic slave trade. The socialization of male slaves as outsiders, at least so far as the names reveal, started early.

Slave women born in the colony were much more likely to have names from owners’ pool. Imported African slaves, male and female, were the next most likely to have owners’ names, but it must be remembered that the African slaves early in the colony’s history – in the first two decades – when there was a strong idealistic and inclusive Reformed tradition. African slaves also had the biggest proportion of facetious names.

Creole slaves, some of whom were born in the owner’s house, are a special group as they were rarely sold. Their naming patterns are also revealing. Girls were named most closely in accordance with their owners’ naming patterns, then women. Creole boy slaves had fewer owners’ names the men, but all male slaves were obviously scheduled for the periphery of the household. The socialization of creole slaves was fierce, the patterns stark. Young creole boys had the highest percentage of facetious names of all groups apart from imported African slaves.

Some slaves did see through the naming schemes and rejected the facetious names – usually reserved for imported slaves – in favor of names of their own choosing. For example, in the more detailed crime records a slave might identified by a formal and a self-chosen name, as “Scipio of Bengal, known round about as Kees.”. Such a name was called a skuilnaam (literally, “a hiding name”). Over time, more and more slaves rejected their slavish names, and by the nine­teenth century, slave aliases and Muslim names were common, for example, Dort van de Kaap, Achmat van Bengal, Abdul Malik van Batavia, and so on. These illustrate the growth of an alternative culture, but the three-level naming pattern nevertheless remained constant.

Slaves were named, for ease of identification, by origin, and if this conflicted with a similar name, as noted earlier, a physical identification was added and finally, if there was still some repetition of names, yet another name. The three-level naming system for full-breed slaves at the Cape, similar to the European system, differed in the frequency and geographical range of the use of toponyms: slaves invariably had a broad toponym; Europeans usually had a narrow toponym. Creole slaves’ naming pattern followed the system of the contemporary dominant European order, but still disclosed the slave’s descent status. Mulatto slaves’ names were almost indistinguishable from owners’ names. Once manumitted, there was no change in their names and they smoothly entered the ranks of the free – and sometimes became slave owners themselves.

These points go some way toward explaining the plethora of racial and ethnic stereotyping found scattered throughout the later eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources on the Cape . The early practice of systematically recording in the region of origin suggests that this was considered the single most useful bit of information about a slave, even when the age was sometimes left out of the transfer. As the slave population became increasingly creolized, the system was modified, but by then some identities had become established. For instance, favoured, locally born slaves were still considered “Malay” in the nineteenth

Like the European Christian master class, they too, forged an identity on descent.

The slave names at the Cape were descriptive tags that constantly reminded householders of their slaves’ racial descent, origin, language, sometimes parenthood, but always their slave status. The more facetious names were often reserved for male imported slaves, young and old, but even creole children were often named in this way. Based on the evidence of naming, slave women were on the inside track in Cape household slavery. Their total incorporation into the household as nannies, concubines, or wives prompts comparison with other lineage slavery systems on the African continent. The slave naming system was certainly only a minor part of the hegemonic apparatus the owners had constructed, but it was an aspect adumbrated, meticulously recorded, deeply imbedded, and universal. Relics of the system still survive, as any telephone directory in the Cape Province will bear.

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