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According to research by the BBC, approximately 1.6 million African slaves were transported to the Caribbean between 1640 and 1807, with emancipation in the British islands not coming until 1838. While many of the plantations have disappeared completely or lie in ruins, one of the most enduring legacies from this era is the surname.
Stripped of their given names, most slaves and their descendants took the title of their plantation owner, thus the abundance of old British names across the region. Scour the phonebook in any of the former British islands, from Jamaica and Barbados to Nevis and Anguilla, and the eye will be drawn to column upon column of Brookses, Browns, Smiths, Clarkes, Flemings, Smiths and Williams, among others.
In some smaller islands, the phenomenon is taken to extremes. Visit Saba and the island seems to be divided equally between the Johnson and Hassell lineage, descended from a handful of Scottish, Irish and Dutch settlers. Alternatively, head to Great Exuma in the Bahamas and discover an island where over half the population carries the surname Rolle, inherited from Lord Rolle, an 18th century cotton planter, and possibly lives in the island’s largest town of Rolleville. In St. Barths, it is hard to escape the hegemony of the Greaux clan, who first arrived in the 17th century from Normandy and Brittany to eke a living out of the arid, rocky outcrop as shepherds and farmers, and now enjoys a rather more sybaritic lifestyle tending to megayachts.
Nicknames and Slang
If the Caribbean had little choice when it came to surnames, the region has excelled in coming up with nicknames, even if the vast majority are far too salacious to include [Hint: browse any list of Caribbean slang and there are almost more ways to insult a person’s preferences and parentage than there are people to insult]. Some, however, are heard repeatedly and are worth knowing:
In the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, the term “Béké” refers to a white person of French metropolitan ancestry. The term can be used affectionately, but takes on more incendiary connotations when discussions turn to the overwhelming dominance of the economy by the handful of Béké families.
The Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and St. Maarten use the Papiamentu word “Makamba” to the same effect, this time referring to European Dutch. Again, the tag can be light-hearted or venomous depending on context.
The epithet “Yankee” or “Yank” crops up occasionally from Jamaica to Trinidad, and the islands in between. While it might be used as a short-cut word to describe Americans or (sin of all sins) Canadians, it also serves as an ironic, light-hearted insult to describe a Caribbean person who is thought to be affecting American mannerisms, particularly in speech or dress.
The Dominican Republic employs some deliciously curious expressions to describe relevant phenomena. The word “cocolo” refers to English-speaking immigrants or workers from the other Caribbean islands, who originally came to cities such as San Pedro de Macoris to work on the docks. The word is thought to be a corruption of “Tortola”, one of the islands in the British Virgin Islands from which sailors came. Bear in mind that in modern Dominicano and Puerto Rican slang, the word has a more robust, offensive meaning. The Dominican Republic also employs the phrase “Sanky Panky” to describe the young men who persistently solicit the attentions of older female tourists visiting the island. While hardly a badge of honor, the phrase gave its name to a popular 2007 Dominican comedy on the subject.
Finally, to finish on a rather more cheerful or upbeat note, there are two phrases that are prevalent in certain islands whose only intention is to brighten up the day. Whatever the context, if someone calls you “Doudou” in the French islands, Haiti or Trinidad, or ”Dushi” in the Dutch islands, they are simply calling you “dear” or “my love”.
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