So what's in a name?


Saturday, August 30, 2014

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Family names in Jamaica are linked to a crossword puzzle of English, European, Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern origins. African to a lesser extent, as our slave ancestors were given English names by their owners after purchase, or simply inherited the names of the plantations on which they slaved.

In fact, there was hardly any consideration given by the owners to attach a surname to their slaves, it was simply easy to give a name which demanded the shortest possible pronunciation: John, Blackie, Bull, Bob, Nancy. In most instances, the original African names were discarded as the owners refused to acknowledge any trace of ancestry beyond the slave ship that brought their cargo to Jamaica.

It is said that Africans did not use surnames and so, for example, when a bookkeeper or some other itinerant estate English overseer fathered a child from a slave, he would give his first name to the child for keeps. And if the child was adopted by the plantation owner (and there were such cases), the child would be given the name of the owner, although certainly not the inheritance.

But the naming of babies was not always the automatic prerogative of the slave owners. The parents of black children of pure negro blood born in the barracks or on the cane field had the choice of names, especially if the child was being baptised. In many cases, however, they would give the name of the property owner -- watch out for the suspicious wife -- or the overseer, or someone they liked of whatever race, or someone who had treated them kindly. But they still reserved the African choice of name. Indeed, in the early days of slavery, the single African name was used along with, or alternately, the English or European name.

Very old baptismal books record both the African slave name as well as the estate-given name. The most popular African names related to the day of the week that the child was born. So we had Quashie (boy) or Quasheba (girl), born on a Monday; Cudjoe (boy) or Jube (girl), born on a Tuesday; Quaco or Cubba, Wednesday; and on Saturday, the very pleasant-sounding name of Quanamin (boy) or Mimba (girl). Although not in popular use today, those names still survive as nicknames or family names.

But, as the traditional African names became obsolete, so did also the English/Jamaican names; from the very staid Elizabeth, Joan, Mary, Ann, Susan, to a host of new Jamaican names. Consider these modern names: Ajay, Aldane, Jaheem, Rojay, Kimani, D'Angelo, Demario, and on the female side Alesha, Beyonce, LaTanya, Shakera, Yanika, Amoya, some of which suggest a pull back to African origins.

Some of the most popular family names in Jamaica today are Allen, Anderson, Bailey, Higgins, Jones, Powell, Brown, Smith, Williams, and Clarke. My name is not there, but just as well, the Neita name has its own peculiar family history. In fact, whenever I meet a Neita from whatever part of the island, I ask the magic question, "Do you know about the two brothers who came here from Cuba?" If the answer is yes, then we are related. And further, if he or she is from Glengoffe, St Catherine, or Ulster Spring, Trelawny, then we both know where the brothers settled and the family chain started.

Another interesting point about family names and connections is that sometimes an entire village is populated by relatives of the same family, no matter what the difference might be in names. So you have to be careful how you call names when you are in strange territory, for the person you are speaking about may very well be the first cousin of the person you are speaking to, and you get into trouble saying the wrong thing.

Nowhere is the family clan relationship tighter and more widespread than in South

St Elizabeth where I spent a number of enjoyable years. From Junction to Bull Savannah to Ballards Valley to Southfield they not only share family names, but they bear a strong resemblance to each other as cousins or relatives twice or thrice removed. I have reached the point where I can attach a name and profile to a district and with quick thinking can identify an Elliott from Junction, a Nembhard from Stephen Run, a Blake from Lititz, a Powell and a Stephenson from deep south, and a Barnes from Lucky Valley.

Speaking of the Barnes name, I recently came across the fantastic life story published in the Institute of Jamaica's Jamaica Journal Vol 32 of one Isaac Barnes, who was born in 1857 out of the long line of the Barnes family around Nain, Stephen Run and Lucky Valley in South St Elizabeth.

This outstanding Jamaican had a colourful career as mineralogist, estate owner, writer, orator, multinational diamond and gold executive, missionary, anti-apartheid activist, and international surveyor for Liberia, Brazil, Venezuela, Russia, Austria-Hungary, South Africa, and other governments.

So influential was he that he was appointed a government diplomat to settle the

Liberia-Sierra Leone boundary dispute, and the surveyor to settle the Venezuela/Guyana boundary dispute -- which I believe still remains unsettled. Of international fame at the heights of his career, he was a brilliant linguist, was a recognised authority in Europe on biblical Hebrew and Greek, and spoke German, Yiddish, Spanish, Russian, Afrikaans, and some Arabic.

Now here comes the Jamaican punch, as he did extensive work for Marcus Garvey's UNIA in Washington and Liberia. He was disappointed when apartheid was enacted into law in South Africa, and in 1909 he addressed a rally of over 10,000 Africans from the steps of the Cape Town hall on the evils of the system -- the only black man to do so until Mandela on his release nearly 100 years after.

Barnes attended Jamaica College and the prestigious German University of Leipzig. Of historical interest, Jamaica College was first founded in 1789 as the Drax Hall Free School in St Ann. In 1807, it was moved to Walton Pen, now the site of the Jamaica Defence Force station at Moneague. and renamed the Jamaica Free School. It was then moved to Barbican in 1883, and in 1890, a college known as the University College was opened in connection with the school.

In 1902, the Jamaica Free School and the University College were amalgamated as Jamaica College -- an interesting historical sidelight that gives JC old boys the boast that their University College existed before the University of the West Indies. I am sure they also know about their distinguished alumnus, Isaac Barnes, who in 1919 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society of London, the second black Jamaican to be so honoured.

Over in St Elizabeth, there are still some members of the Barnes clan that are aware of the international fame achieved by Isaac. Others may be surprised when they read this article. What is certain is that we have many Jamaicans, then and now, who have made their name abroad but about whom little is known at home.

Geoff Smith, educated at Munro College, rose through the bauxite industry ranks in Jamaica and in the USA to become president of the great Kaiser Aluminium and Chemical Corporation when it was in its heyday. Another Jamaican, Horace Love, from Aboukir in St, Ann, was transferred from Jamaica and appointed general manager of one of the Kaiser entities overseas.

I'll bet many of us do not know about Sir Geoffrey Palmer, born in St Elizabeth, who is professor emeritus at the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. His extensive experience in grain science has had a worldwide impact and has played a major role in tackling poverty in parts of Africa.

In 2011 he became the first and only black professor in Scotland. An avid anti-racism campaigner, he was knighted by The Queen this year for services to human rights, sciences, and charity.

The list goes on. What is certain is that we have reason to celebrate the Jamaican name beyond athletics, music, and entertainment. George Headley is still arguably the greatest batsman the world has ever seen. Sir Geoffrey is a household name in academic circles, and may yet be put up for a Nobel science prize. John Barnes is still rated as one of England's most accomplished footballers.

From Quashie to Demario, from Mimba to LaTanya, and from Cudjoe to Kimani, we are a hard act to follow.

Lance Neita is a public relations and communications specialist. Comments to the Observer or to


The character African slave of Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton in the miniseries Roots, suffered a beating by his master when he rejected being renamed Toby.

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