Caryl Phillips' "Cambridge" - The Ambiguity of a Slave’s Identity through (Re)Naming

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

11 Pages, Grade: 13


The Ambiguity of a Slave’s Identity through (Re)Naming, especially in Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge

by Marylise Thill

In our postcolonial time, many novels have tackled and still tackle issues such as slavery, racism, belonging and identity. In this essay, we will mainly focus on one author that belongs to this wave, namely Caryl Phillips. He was born in St. Kitts, a Caribbean island, in 1958.1 He “came to Britain at the age of four months [...] and studied English Literature at Oxford University”.2He is currently a well-known postcolonial writer whose works largely focus “on the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences for the African Diaspora”.1 In this essay, we will analyze Phillips’ fourth novel, Cambridge3, which won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.1 We will deal with the issue of the identity of the slaves, especially with regards to naming. In fact, slaves were always given a new name by their owners. Thus, we will analyze the impact of this naming on the slaves’ identity and the ambiguity to which it can lead. However, we will first provide a definition of the concept of “identity”. Then, we will go through how naming was applied in the history of the slaves and what was its significance. Finally, we will undertake an analysis of two characters of Cambridge and focus on their identity with regards to their different names. In addition, we will refer to another recent postcolonial novel, namely The Long Song 4 by Andrea Levy.

First of all, let us define the concept of identity. According to the Routledge encyclopedia of narrative theory, this notion “has puzzled philosophers for a long time” 5 and yet, it is still extremely difficult to define. In fact, as Wolfreys argues, an identity is “a figure for a complex gathering of personal and impersonal histories, texts, discourses, beliefs, cultural assumptions, and ideological interpellations”. 6 In other words, the difficulty in defining this term is that it includes a wide range of features. The Macmillan Dictionary provides the following definition of the word identity: “who you are, or what your name is” and “the qualities that make someone or something what they are and different from other people”.7Thus, someone’s identity is composed by distinct characteristics that make him/her unique. Alex Mucchielli’s contention is that “qu’il s’agisse d’une société, d’un groupe ou d’un individu, la définition de leur identité fait toujours appel à un ensemble d’éléments pris dans [plusieurs] catégories”. 8 One of these categories consists of “material and physical referents” and comprises several subcategories such as “possessions” (name, territory, people, machines, objects, money, dwelling...).8 However, in this essay, we will restrict this broad term of identity and only consider it from the point of view of naming. Besides, we will also take into account the context as it is closely linked to naming.

Then, what about the names of slaves during colonization? When slaves were bought during the slave trade, their European owners gave them new names. The main reason why slave owners renamed the slaves was to assert their superiority over them. In fact, as stated by Burnard, “[w]hites fostered such distinctions [naming] in order to further their belief that blacks were inferior – more like animals than Anglo-Europeans”.9Moreover, Burnard’s view is that renaming the slaves was a “process whereby Africans became their property”.10 But how were the slaves named? Burnard explains that the Europeans “named slaves using naming practices that were noticeably more distinctive and imaginative than their own”.11 Slave names were indeed greater in number and more varied given that they had African, classical, biblical or geographical origins.11If slaves acquired European names, “they were usually in the diminutive form”.12 There exist many examples: John was changed to Johnie, James to Jimmie or Jemmie, Richard to Dick, Elizabeth to Betty or Betsey, etc.13In addition, slaves were only known by their forname or by the forname and a modifier; they did not have any surname.14

Finally, which names were the slaves given to? Burnard points out that many slaves “had classical names that whites never had”.15 Cato and Caesar, for instance, were “the eighth and eleventh most popular male names” and Venus was “the fifteenth most popular female name”.15Besides classical literature references, slave owners also named slaves after “English towns and counties [such] as London, York, Leicester, Bristol, Cambridge, and Oxford”.16 Some names were used as a commemoration of a special event (Easter, Christmas) and others were used to describe an aspect of their personality (Love, Bravehood, Patient, Hopeful).17 However, as Burnard argues, “[s]ome names were obviously intended to demean”. Monkey, Villain and Strumpet are only a few examples. Nonetheless, giving demeaning or satirical names was an unusual practice.


1 Contemporary writers, “Caryl Phillips”. Retrieved May 7, 2011 from

2 Caryl Phillips Official Web Site, “Biography”. Retrieved May 7, 2011 from

3 PHILLIPS C., Cambridge, London: Vintage, (first published in 1991) 2008.

4 LEVY A., The Long Song, London: Headline Review, 2010.

5 HERMAN D., JAHN M. & RYAN M.-L. (Eds.), Routledge encyclopedia of narrative theory, London/New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 231.

6 WOLFREYS J., Critical Keywords in Literary and Cultural Theory, Hampshire/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 95.

7 Macmillan Dictionary, “Identity”, Retrieved May 9, 2011, from

8 MUCCHIELLI A., L’identité, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1986, p. 8.

9 BURNARD T., “Slave Naming Patterns: Onomastics and the Taxonomy of Race in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica” [Electronic version], Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XXXI: 3 (Winter 2001), p. 328.

10 Ibid., p. 329.

11 Ibid., p. 334.

12 Ibid., pp. 334-335.

13 Ibid., p. 335.

14 Ibid., p. 326.

15 Ibid., p. 335.

16 Ibid., pp. 335-336.

17 Ibid., p. 336.

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Caryl Phillips' "Cambridge" - The Ambiguity of a Slave’s Identity through (Re)Naming
University of Louvain
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Cambridge, identity, name, slave
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Marylise Thill (Author), 2011, Caryl Phillips' "Cambridge" - The Ambiguity of a Slave’s Identity through (Re)Naming, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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