In my quest to wrap my head around the “name game”, as I call it, I searched online for information on naming practices in my heritage islands and the Caribbean in general. I came across a few articles, but none excited me more than “Naming Customs in St. Lucia” by Daniel J. Crowley. The article was short but still very helpful because it spoke directly to quite a few questions, both old and new, that have been rolling around in my head. Here’s what I learned, Q&A style.
Q: First of all, if my great-grandmother’s name was Catherine “Edelanise” Mondesi Joseph, why did people call her Ma Bernard?
A: Much to my delight, the author provided an example of how the “Ma” title was used in St. Lucia.
The wife of a man named Phillip St. Omer would be known as Ma (Madame in Creole) Phillip to her close friends and servants. Her children would be called Iona Ma Phillip, Neville Ma Phillip, etc., or simply Neville Phillip.
Following this formula, we can deduce that my great-grandmother’s husband’s first name was Bernard – not his surname as I had speculated previously. Now it makes sense why great-aunt Clemina listed her father as “Bernard Joseph” rather than “Joseph Bernard” on her Social Security application. This may also explain why my grandmother and her sisters were sometimes referred to as “the Bernard Girls.” Of course, the challenge of determining whether Bernard Joseph and Louis Joseph Colomb are in fact the same person still remains.
Q: If my great-grandfather’s name is Louis Joseph Colomb, how does the name Bernard fit in?
A: Both my maternal grandmother’s birth affidavit and her Catholic baptism record state she is the natural daughter of one Louis Joseph Colomb. The name Bernard does not appear anywhere. However, based on the somewhat dizzying explanation of St. Lucian naming customs given in the article, it is not unreasonable to at least consider they may still be the same person. I will have to re-read the article a few more times in order to understand the nuances of these naming customs, but it all added up to the following:
A St. Lucian child then has three first names at birth, and a choice of any one of four last names. It is common for him to use each of his three first names indiscriminately, so that one day he is John and the next day Joseph, or John at home and Joseph at primary school, but Frank when he goes to secondary school.
This is just at birth! The author goes on to explain that as “a child grows up, he gets still more names” and in “later life a child may get still another name.” See why I got dizzy?
Q: Why did my grandmother Nana Tere and her siblings use Joseph as a surname?
A: In a recent post I talked about the fact my grandmother and her siblings used the last name Joseph, even though by the end of their lives it seemed to be agreed that their correct surname should be Colomb Mondesi. Crawley explains:
Legitimate children often use their mother’s, rather than their father’s title, particularly if their mother’s family is well-known, and/or they dislike their father or his family.
Whatever the reason was in my family’s case, this makes it a little more understandable why they would think nothing of using their mother’s maternal maiden name where we would expect them to use their father’s father’s surname…right?
Q: What can the surnames tell us about who my ancestors were and where they came from?
A: The article made specific references to a couple of the very surnames that appear in the St. Lucian branch of my family tree. Crawley states that after emancipation some freed slaves chose as surnames “the aristocratic French names of former owners, such as La Corbiniere; others came from the name of estates, such as Mondesir or Monplaisir; others were adapted from the first name of one’s father, such as Jean-Pierre or Mathurin…” [emphasis mine]. Later he writes that “by far the greatest number of last names in St. Lucia were originally first names, such as Auguste, Augustin, Francois, Francis, Charles, Henry, Joseph, George, William, Peter, Paul, James, and John” [emphasis mine].
If our “Mondesi” surname originated from the Mondesir estate mentioned above, which is not hard to imagine, this could be a pretty significant revelation. This means my ancestors may have lived and toiled on the Mondesir estate. I could not find much about the Mondesir estate online but a quick search did turn up something in Google Maps. The red area in the maps to the right is called Mondesir. Though this area lies on the border of Choiseul and Laborie it is still very close to Soufriere (see red arrow below), where we know my ancestors lived post-emancipation. I suspect when I make the time to comb through a French-language search I will find much more about the Mondesir estate.
A Final Note: Consider the Source
I have degrees in ethnic studies and sociology, so I cannot close out here without a word about the source of this information. Who was Daniel J. Crawley and where did he get this detailed information from? There are few (precious few) citations and no word on methodology to help us understand how he obtained this information. His obituary reports that he was an art historian and anthropologist who taught at UC Davis and “developed the field of African Studies,” traveling all over the continent, the Caribbean, and South America for his fieldwork. Though he hailed from Illinois, the fact that he worked with two native St. Lucians, writer Harold Simmons and photographer Leo “Spar” St. Helene, to record and describe St. Lucia’s culture and history at least assures me that his reported observations were facilitated by and reviewed with cultural insiders. That, and the way that the content of this article provides context for what we know about my St. Lucian family, leads me to believe we can take his observations pretty much at face value.