“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”William Shakespeare
The famous lines written by William Shakespeare challenge the importance of a name. The quote is shared between the lovers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, saying that either would be the same person even if they renounced their names and eloped together. Romeo is willing to no longer be a Montague if it allows him to be with his Juliet. It is some comfort to each of them that no matter what they call themselves, they can still love each other as the whole people that they have always been.
But what power is in a name? What power can be stolen when a name is taken from someone, and what can be taken back from the oppressors when the name is likewise reclaimed?
In Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave by Aphra Behn we see the titular Prince Oroonako lead powerful armies in the country of Coramantien. There he fell into star-crossed love (not unlike a certain Shakespearean tragedy) with the beautiful Imoinda. Each was willing to risk life and limb to be with the other despite the King: Oroonoko’s own grandfather. To punish them both, the King sold Imoinda into slavery, and later Oroonoko was tricked into bondage as well.
When Oroonoko arrived in Surinam he immediately lost his name upon sale to his slave owners. His wife, Imoinda, was also stripped of her name. Both were given names that their slaveowners felt fit them but lacked any ties to their African heritage as their old names were “likely very barbarous, and hard to pronounce” (Behn). Oroonoko (as I will continue to refer to him) was given the name Caesar by Mr. Trefry. Trefry saw that Oroonoko was very powerful, regal, and of strong mind, and therefore he still chose to give his slave the name of a Roman emperor. Later, Imoinda is given the name Clemene when she arrived.
Quick aside: according to this one source, not only is Caesar an Italian name, but Clemene is also an Italian name. but I don’t know if that’s correct or even particularly significant. Tuscan’s name, however, is also Tuscan, so maybe these Englishmen really like Italian stuff.
Regardless, each slave arriving in Parham was given a new name, and it seems that this was a common practice during much of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In this scene from the 2016 miniseries, Roots, we see the character Kunta Kinte struggle against his slave driver. He wants nothing more than to hold onto his name, but through brutal torture, he is beaten to submission. Content warning for below video: blood, violence, torture, slavery.
We see Oroonoko suffer a similar fate at the hands of his oppressors after he and the slaves run from the plantation. Any form of revolt was subject to brutal punishment, even trying to uphold one’s identity in the new world.
It might seem to be such a small sin amongst the other violent horrors of slavery to take a person’s name, but dehumanization and destroying people’s past and culture is common in many of the world’s most horrific moments. It is seen in war, genocide, and in slavery. In Surinam, Oroonoko struggled to find his liberty and self. It likely made it all the harder by taking away the identity that he had had in Coramantien. If he had revolted in the way Kunta Kinte had, perhaps he would have been beaten, or perhaps he could have held onto that piece of himself up into his final moments at the fire.
Names are important. Respect them.