I have a slightly unusual surname, and while I’m not an expert on my family’s history by any means, everything seems to point back to somewhere in the north east of Scotland as a point of origin, and in the main they seem to have been farmers, never rich, but never poor either.
How they ended up with a surname derived from middle French is a different story, and one I won’t go into here. But this post is about surnames.
If I google myself I find most of the usual – blog posts, tweets, a physiology paper I co-authored thirty plus years ago when I was trying to be a scientist, embarrassing posts to mailing lists when I couldn’t get something to work. But if I click past the obvious I start getting other Moncurs, including quite a few in the Bahamas.
Now, the key point about these Bahamian Moncurs is that they’re all black, which means that in common with most black people in in Caribbean their ancestors didn’t travel there by choice – they went in slave ships from West Africa, and they certainly didn’t have middle French surnames.
How people in the Bahamas acquired surnames is something I don’t know. I’m guessing that slaves didn’t have surnames to start with but when they became free they acquired a surname, but of course it’s a little more complicated than that.
In Jamaica at least, children born to a slave mother and a white father (not necessarily the owner, most of the ‘professional’ staff – overseers, bookkeepers and the like were single men and like single men anywhere formed informal unions, some of which were long lasting and some less so) usually took his surname, and quite often would be mentioned in his will.
Others acquired surnames when they were baptised, and the name chosen could be someone they liked, the name of a pastor, or even a bookkeeper or the manager or owner of the estate.
Others acquired them when slavery was finally abolished, and again quite often just chose a name they liked. I’m guessing that what happened in Jamaica also happened in other British controlled islands in the Caribbean.
But what it does mean is that someone with the same surname as me was in the Bahamas and had some contact with enslaved people. I’d like it to be that the name was taken on because it was the name of a pastor who was well liked but I realise that the story might be considerably less pleasant, and if it was as a result of an informal union hopefully it was a loving a respectful one.
Just how less pleasant is something I only just came to realise. Yes, I knew about the slave trade and its cruelty, and I did wonder about how my surname ended up in the Bahamas. And then I came across a story that sent a tingle down my spine, and not in a nice way.
As I’ve said, my family seem to have originated from the North East of Scotland, most probably from somewhere round the Montrose area. While few of the landowners owned slaves and properties in the West Indies, a lot of them were investors, or shareholders in sugar estates.
When I say landowners, it includes the very rich but it also means people who we’d now call middle class, the minister, the dominie, the doctor, and small landowners.
Some time in the 1730’s some of these investors got together, and hired a slave ship to go and acquire slaves directly from the slave markets in West Africa and take the to plantations in the Caribbean – cutting out the middlemen.
Not a pleasant story, but one that suggests that one of my ancestors could well have been involved in the enslavement of other human beings.
Now I need to research further to try and find out just what exactly that involvement was …
[update 17 January]
Well, a couple of hours with Google and Wikipedia have convinced me that the story is more complicated than I first thought.
The Bahamas was never a sugar plantation colony – instead it was cotton, often cultivated by slaves brought by crown loyalists who relocated to the Bahamas after 1783. The Gullah slaves brought from the southern states of the newly minted USA were added to by other slaves bought through the usual slave trading channels from west Africa.
The complication comes from there having been Moncurs in South Carolina since 1685. South Carolina was of course a cotton growing slave state.
A further complication comes from the fact that the Bahamas were used by the Royal Navy after 1807 as a place to put ashore freed slaves after the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire.
(Post 1807, while slavery per se was not illegal, the taking and selling of slaves was, and the British navy sent ships to West Africa and the Caribbean to intercept slave ships and free the people imprisoned on them. This of course gave the navy the problem of what to do with the freed slaves.
To add to the fun, a John Moncur is listed in the 1801 Jamaica Almanac as the master of a Royal Navy ship. That in itself is not terribly significant, but the same John Moncur is listed in the Gentleman’s magazine as having died at the age of 71 in April 1814 at Greenwich while still on active service, which means it is not impossible that he commanded an antislavery patrol vessel and that some freed slaves took his surname as a mark of respect. Pure supposition, but one that might bear checking out …