What’s in a name?

Have we given a thought to how Creoles of African origin were named during slavery? The naming of slaves in the various French colonies followed the same pattern. Obviously, the French colonists and the slaves from Africa could not communicate. It must have been a terrible first experience for the Africans to swallow up their language, keep mum and gradually start mumbling a few words from the language of those strange white people who considered them as part of their property.

It was a real cultural suicidal act of ‘avaler leur langue’ in both the literal and figurative sense. Unlike the case of slaves in American colonies who were simply given English names, the French colonists in the French West Indian Islands and Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, former Ile de France, Réunion known then as Ile Bourbon after the reigning royal family in France, and the Seychelles proceeded in a peculiar way.

The French names were never those of the ‘masters’, but invented randomly by the colonists and the Civil Servant officer in charge of registering the slaves. In France, there are rare occurrences of first names such as ‘Pierre’ or ‘Olivier’ used as surnames, but they are very common in the colonies.

The point here is to remind one and all how the colonists made fun of the slaves by giving them ridiculous names.

Besides being held as prisoners in small islands surrounded by the deep blue sea from which there was no escape, the poor souls were named according to the whims and fancies of the ‘masters’. At best, the choice of names was based on the personality or qualities of the slaves. Thus, there were names such as ‘Gentil’, ‘Labonté’, ‘Tranquille’, ‘Serviable’, ‘Constant’. Some names were less flattering, e.g. ‘Gourde’, meaning stupid, or ‘Laboudeuse’ (the one who sulks) while others were mockingly named after famous people and rulers, Socrates, Aristotle, Bonaparte, Cleopâtre, César and so on.

Greek mythology inspired the Civil Service officer and the colonists, and we can imagine them having a good laugh at the expense of slaves lining up for a name in a register: How should we call this one? And that one? ‘Et celui-là ?’, in a typical French habit of considering mockery of people as humorous. Apollon, Artémis ; Agamemnon from the Iliad, Ulysses and Penelope from the Odyssée, Cupidon from Roman mythology, etc.

It would just be fair to have big companies belonging to the richest Franco-Mauritians, and the commercial bank which was set up with funds obtained as compensation after abolition of slavery pay for the fees which legal procedures will require if any member of the African-Creole community wishes to change his or her name.

Changing names of a specific group of people equates to a denial of their identity. A denial which descendants of Creoles internalised in their refusal of their African origin and their preference for fanciful European roots. Raising awareness on this aspect of sociological impact is equally important. One solution to re-appropriate one’s identity is by refusing imposed names. However, it can be noticed that the combination of more than two first names in French and English given to their children has a specific Creole charm.

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Religion has never been a binding factor between white members of colonial society and the African slaves who were made to embrace Christianism even after abolition. As an African-American leader put it at the end of the 19th century: ‘We speak their language, we dress like them, we take up their religion, and they still hate us.’ The same segregation prevailed in other colonies and small islands in the form of back benches in churches, separate housing estates, and non-existent social interaction.

In Madagascar, Arab merchants sold African origin people whom they disdainfully called ‘kaffirs’ to the French. As a result, African-Creoles in Réunion are still called ‘Cafres’. The role of Arab merchants in the slave trade should be highlighted all the more as the trade is still going on. People from Sudan, Somalia and other places are kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured if they attempt to escape, and their price bargained with potential buyers. Old habits never die in the Arab world. Running short of a ground army on account of its small population, Saudi Arabia offered to hire Africans to fight its war against the Houti tribe in Yemen.

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In a speech he made on 1 Feb 16, the Prime Minister warned against other forms of slavery. One of the subtlest forms of modern slavery is engendered by wild capitalism which exploits resources and people’s work for the benefit of a few, which widens the gap between the North and the South, makes lands inaccessible to the majority of people, and views people as consumers with endless needs.

Slaves were given enough food to survive and use their muscles to prop up the economy for the benefit of a few. While big local hotel companies keep expanding beyond the frontiers of Mauritius as far as China, most of their employees are paid Rs 8 000 or so to survive and keep working for peanuts. Same phenomenon in factories. The difference is that elected governments of all hues have no issue with the exploitation of workers.

Nita Chicooree-Mercier

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