Toussaint Louverture's signature and photograph of a rare coin from Gerald Lherisson's Collection
As a modern country with international influences, Haitian surnames are derived from languages scattered around the globe. Nonetheless, most Haitian last names were acquired after the Haitian Revolution and those names were influenced by the era when the territory had a majority African population living under French rule. Considering that Creole was the term used to describe cultural practices having African and European influences, Haitian names are best described as Creole names. In fact, they are most commonly pronounced in Creole even when written in French on official documents.
In general, Haitian names, particularly last names, are written in French on birth certificates because French was, at one time, the single official language. This practice allowed numerous Haitian surnames to hide their Creole character even though they were largely created on the island after France´s departure. Although written in French, numerous Haitian surnames follow African naming conventions. For example, among the Nanchon Anminan people, one was commonly named for the day of one’s birth. Boys born on Fridays were called Kofi and girls were called Fiba. When born on a Wednesday, boys were called Quakou and girls were called Cuba. This African practice was preserved in Haiti, giving rise to surnames that reflect days of the week: Lendi, Madi, Mèkredi, Jedi, Vandredi, Samdi, Dimanch. This practice explains how the priest Pè Samdi inherited his name Samdi.
Another West African naming practice translated into the local French and Creole are names based on months. This practice can be seen in the name of one recent Haitian ruler called Prosper Avril. Other Haitian names like August, Ausgustin and D´august are all derived from the month of August. Other common last names include Janvier, Fevrier, Mars, Seizemay, Juin, Juillet, Septimus, Octavius, Novembre. We have not encountered December as a last name. It is possible that Noel was substituted for it. Another holiday name that might have replaced a calendar month as a last name is Toussaint for a child born on all saints or all spirits day. Zetrenne is also a Haitian surname likely derived from the name for a child born on New Year´s Day.
Africans also named their children depending on their birth order. The first born could be called Lainé. The second born could be called Cadet. A younger male could be called Petit-Frere meaning little brother. A child born after twin births could be called Dosou.Nowadays, Lainé, Cadet, PetitFrere and Dosou are all common surnames in Haiti. In addition, Ti Frè and Titsè, meaning little brother and little sister, are also frequently used as nicknames.
The reason why the most common last names in Haiti are not French is because between 1697 and 1791, when France controlled the territory, French colonists did not assign last names to the people they enslaved. Just like their pets, slavers considered blacks under their legal control as sub-human and only called them by a first name. Surnames were viewed as dignifying and fitting of people who are full adult citizens with the right to be called mister or misses. Such titles were not used for enslaved people, giving rise to the common practice in the US of calling black men, boy. Reviewing advertisements for escaped maroons, all the names were written as first names only, and often with Creole or their African ethnicity following their single first name.
Like children, people of African ancestry were referred to by a first name only. Unlike children of European descent who would eventually grow to be referred to by their last names, the enslaved people were never assigned such a name and could only acquire a surname if they became a free citizen. It is uncertain how many free blacks continued to use a first name alone versus how many finally obtained a surname. The name of all free non-Europeans appearing in the territory’s newspaper, had to be preceded with “le nomme or la nommee” meaning “the one called such and such”. Only the names of people of European ancestry could be preceded by mister or misses. At every interaction, one’s social status had to be revealed.
The lack of a surname in people who were formerly enslaved is made evident by Toussaint Louverture who used his first name alone in baptismal certificates signed before the Haitian Revolution. During the Haitian Revolution, he won the right to assign himself a last name, Louverture. Although written in French, this last name was self assigned and not inherited from France.
Before 1773, the free children of colonists and enslaved mothers could bear the name of their fathers when freed. Slavery was matrimonial, a child was born free or enslaved depending on the status of his or her mother. In 1773, the law changed and mulattos and free blacks could no longer bear the name of a person of European descent alone. This led to the creation of many Haitian names with unorthodox French spellings. To comply with the new law, Julien Raimond, a famous Haitian writer from Aquin Haiti, changed the spelling of his father’s name from Raymond to Raimond, making Raimond a new Haitian surname. Such changes in spelling would have been even more widespread had it not been for the Haitian Revolution which allowed people of African descent to have whatever name they wanted.
During the era of slavery, one’s name reflected one’s social standing. In this system, the owners of the plantations had the most prestige and bore French last names. In general, Creoles and Africans had the least prestige and bore no surname. Within the enslaved population, one’s social standing was reflected in the type of first name one had. The first names used for the enslaved population were primarily derived from four sources: 1. The Bible and Chritian traditions 2. Greco- Roman history and legends, 3. Ginen, West Coast Africa, 4. names of various places. The list of enslaved people from the Breda plantation in Haut-du-Cap where Toussaint Louverture was once enslaved, as well as the names of runaways advertised in the newspaper the Gazette of St Domingue reflect this distribution of the most common names. It is only after the Haitian Revolution that the vast majority of the Haitian people acquired surnames. In other words, the Haitian Revolution made adults of the Haitian population, allowing them to take on the title Mr, Miss, Mrs.
Following the Haitian Revolution, the formerly enslaved population fled to the countryside and settled in the mountains for protection from the French who could more easily conquer the coastal lowland areas, the site of the major cities. The first names originally used for the plantation field workers have become the most common surnames present in the countryside. It is largely because of this widespread adoption of the first names of the generation who fought the Haitian Revolution as the last names of their descendants that most Haitian last names are not French surnames.
In fact, it is not even clear who primarily assigned the enslaved population their first names. It may have been the plantation owner, the overseer, the slave driver or the enslaved people themselves. Some enslaved people born on the island were given African names suggesting that they may have been named by their enslaved parents and not by the plantation owner. In addition, some enslaved Africans arriving from other islands continued to be called by their British or Spanish names. This might account for such British first names like Othello and Plymouth now used as surnames in Haiti. Some Africans continued to be called by their African names despite their assigned European names. This is evident in runaway advertisements.
In general, the names used on the plantation became the names used after the Haitian Revolution to preserve ties between numerous people who knew each other by those names. Those who were known by their African names likely kept their names and passed it on as their new surname. For example a person called Lindor had a child, the child would be given a first name along with Lindor as the last name. From that point on, the name Lindor would remain a family last name until intentionally or accidentally changed on a birth certificate through misspells by a government worker or changed by a priest on a baptismal record to reflect a more European Christian name. Today, common African last names in Haiti include Lindor, Azor, Toni, Thony, Senegal, Seneca, Quoiquou, Bossou, Dosou, Bagidi, Ade, Obas, Mede, Mande, and Kanga.
The more common Christian and Biblical first names used for the enslaved population became the most popular surnames in Haiti today. Using a government database of 3129 surnames for 67,447 past and present registered teachers in Haiti, the top 4 last names were Joseph, Pierre, Jean and Louis. These four last names alone, accounted for 11% of the total. Other common Christian and Biblical first names that are now common surnames in Haiti include Paul, Jacques, Toussaint, Abraham, Antoine, and Moise.
Greco-Roman first names with the suffix us are also common in Haiti as last names. Examples of this include Metellus, Montilus, Romelus, Selicus, Filius, Lektayus. Additional Greco-Roman names include such names as Cesar and Jules, named for rulers of Ancient Rome. There are a few place names that were used as first names and they also became surnames in Haiti. Examples of this include Pari, Toulouse, D´Haiti, Israel, and Africcot. Some names like St Louis and Jeremie double as place names and as Christian names. Francois Capois (Capois Lamò) is one famous person bearing the name of the city of Cap-Haitian.
Certainly, the first names of people on the slave plantations are not the sole last names used in Haiti. It appears that some last names were created in Haiti. A great example of this is the last name D’Haiti that highlights the rights to full citizenship offered by the Haitian Government, a privilege that people of African descent had never gotten under the French government on the island. Other last names that may have been composed in Haiti include Dieudonne (God Given), Dieuseul (God alone), and Saint Fort (Powerful Saint). Although written in French, these names follow a common African practice of using descriptive terms as names. Writing the names in French may have helped some Africans avoid discrimination among people in Haiti who highly value French.
A similar situation occurred in the US. After emancipation, one African American reported that he chose the last name Jackson because his grandfather in Africa was called Jeaco. Other African Americans created such new names as Freeman and Newman. These names are in English to allow the name bearer to assimilate more readily into the prevailing English culture. Many European-Americans including German and Italian-Americans Anglicized their names for similar reasons.
Nowadays, some Haitian first names continue to follow the African structure for names. This is evident in names like Asefi (enough girls), Apali (there he is), Jezila (Jesus is here). The structure is African but the writing is usually French. An example of an African descriptive name is the Nanchon Ibo name, Afamefuna which means “may my name never be lost”. This name was probably given by a parent to a child, hoping that child would never be enslaved and taken across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, numerous people did lose their names. Christian baptism was a method used to remove African names from the society. Toussaint Louverture’s father’s first wife was called Afiba. Upon baptism, her Alada Dahomean name was changed to the European name, Catherine.
Some Haitian names like Bernard, Bazin, Blot, Darbouze, Dessources, to site but a few, are French. However, the majority of these names were acquired by Haitian people as a result of the Haitian Revolution. Prior to the Haitian Revolution, it had become illegal for people with African blood to have French names. Ironically, French surnames are even less common in Martinique and Guadeloupe which never became independent from France. After the French government ended slavery in Martinique, it urged these newly freed citizens to go register a last name. To avoid assigning French names, many were given permutations of their first names as their new last names. For example, a woman called Rose-Marie could be given Marie-Rose as her last name. Anyone of African descent who wanted a French name had to obtain permission from all members of the French family bearing that name. As a result, 150,000 people of African descent were assigned last names and virtually none were given French names. This made original French last names more common in Haiti where French rule ended than in Martinique where it persisted.
In the absence of French laws prohibiting it, it is possible that people who had been freed by their fathers prior to the Revolution chose to carry their fathers’ name because those names helped to justify their rights to inherit certain properties. In addition, there was always the threat that their fathers could return to Haiti and keeping those names showed loyalty. Others may have acquired the French names in deference to the plantation owner who emancipated them. It remained possible that they would need those same people to guarantee their freedom should the French return. The early state of Haiti lived in constant fear of the return of French rule. That fear may have influenced the names that some people chose even as the Revolution allowed people the liberty to take on any name they wished.
Considering that people of African descent in Haiti acquired their last names as a right won from ending slavery, Haitian surnames are indeed Haitian and not French. These names are best described as Creole names. In fact the very reason why Haitians have last names at all is because the country divorced itself from French rule. Today when calling a Haitian man or woman, one can now legally put a Mr, Ms, or Mrs in front of a surname, thanks be to the Haitian Revolution.