Monday, 19 February 2018

My enslaved ancestor

You read correctly. Although I was born in Northern Europe with dark blonde hair, blue eyes and skin type 2, the fact is that my family does have a little bit of African DNA, and I have - with good help! - quite recently worked out a likely ancestral line leading back to documented ancestors who, sadly, were victims (and indeed also perpetrators) of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. I repeat, the myth of "racial purity" is just that: A myth. And I am extremely proud to be descended from people who survived some of the worst atrocities ever committed by human beings against other human beings. These people deserve to be lovingly and respectfully remembered by their "white" descendants as well as their Black ones.

My family's connection to slavery is, not surprisingly, my Haitian (likely) 5th great-grandfather Pierre Dérival Lévêque (1788-1852). His ancestral background is being researched by a genealogist, C.L., and since I am not sure how much of it is still work in progress (I can't reach C.L. at the moment), I choose to leave out the details regarding the connection between Dérival and his likely grandmother, who is my closest known ancestor to have been enslaved during her lifetime.

Her name was Jeanne Galbo, and she is my likely 7th great-grandmother.

Colonial records in Saint-Domingue (which I have seen and read, courtesy of C.L.) describe Jeanne as a nègresse, i.e. a woman of fully African ancestry. She must have been born around 1730-1732, most likely in Saint-Domingue (the French colony which was the precursor of Haiti) and not in Africa. The reason why I believe this is because both her parents are recorded with French names: François Galbo and Jeanne Galbo, which indicates that they both must have lived in a French colony. Galbo might have been the surname of their original slave-master, or perhaps they worked at the sugar plantation Galbaud du Fort, which opened in 1690.

Since it is very unlikely that the whole family was brought from Africa together, I think it was François and Jeanne senior who would have been born in Africa, probably West Africa (see final "PS" paragraph for my thoughts about this); that they were brought separately to the Caribbean in the 1720s, and that they met in Saint-Domingue. It is also possible, though less likely, that the families of François and Jeanne had been living in Saint-Domingue for several generations already.

Jeanne Galbo's life is mysterious in many ways. In an early record (the baptism of a son born in 1747) she is called nègresse libre, while in a seemingly later record (the 1751 baptism of a daughter) she is called nègresse esclave. What does this mean? Could Jeanne have been born free? Was she free for a while and then re-enslaved? Or is this a case of sloppy record-keeping? It's very difficult to say. The only thing we know for sure is that she was enslaved during part of her life, including the year 1751. The genealogist C.L. believes Jeanne started out as a slave and was later freed. It might be possible that the son was actually baptized later than his sister; his baptism record is difficult to read and I can't make out the actual year of the baptism.

Jeanne gave birth to her first child in 1744. Between 1744 and 1753 she had four children in total, all fathered by her owner and master, a man named Louis Lévêque (1709-1763). In 1744, Louis would have been 35 years old, and Jeanne would have been no older than 14, perhaps as young as 12. There would have been nothing truly consensual about their relationship. It might well have been violent.

Interestingly, Louis was himself of mixed descent, described as a quarteron libre, which means that he had an African grandparent who was undoubtedly brought to Saint-Domingue as a slave. This fact obviously did not deter Louis from owning slaves himself.

We do not know what kind of slave Jeanne was. Louis lived in Boucassin in Arcahaie (kreyol: Lakayè) in the modern-day Ouest department of Haiti, and I assume he must have been some kind of plantation owner, but this is really just a guess on my part. Jeanne might have toiled in sugar or coffee fields or she might have been a domestic slave in Louis' household. Either way, her life would have been indescribably hard. I find it impossible to imagine what it would have been like to be the legal possession of another human being, and to be deprived of all freedom. And in Saint-Domingue, slaves were treated notoriously bad and often given inhumane punishments for slight misdemeanors. These conditions were the main reason behind the slave revolts that marked the beginning of the Haitian Revolution.

As Henri Christophe's personal secretary, who himself lived more than half his life as a slave, describes:

"Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to consume faeces? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man eating-dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?" (Source)

Did my ancestor Jeanne witness things like this? It's not just possible, but likely. The Encyclopedia of Political Revolutions, by Jack A. Goldstone, describes slavery in Saint-Domingue as a literal use-and-discard cycle:

"The slave-labor system of Saint-Domingue was particularly harsh. Slaves were overexploited to the point of exhaustion. Extreme labor practices, combined with an inadequate diet and health care, resulted in a higher death rate than birth rate among slaves. Had it not been for the constant supply of new slaves from the African slave trade, the slave population of Saint-Domingue would have died out. Thus, when the slave revolt began in 1791, the majority of the slave population had been recently imported from Africa."

In such conditions, the fact that Jeanne herself survived is a miracle in itself, but who knows what psychological and emotional trauma she must have endured? Who knows if she had siblings or friends who underwent abuse, torture and/or murder at the hands of their masters? Who knows what happened to her parents, François and Jeanne senior?

As we know, Jeanne was eventually freed, and in 1763, her master Louis died. I expect Jeanne was forced to manage on her own. As a nègresse, Jeanne would have been at the very bottom of the social ladder, whether slave or free. We know that she and her descendants continued to live in Arcahaie, perhaps to stay close to their existing social and kinship networks, or perhaps because they didn't have the means to travel.

Jeanne gave birth to her last known child in 1779, by which time she would have been in her late 40s. The child was a girl, and the father is unknown. After this, Jeanne disappears from the records, and we do not know what happened to her, or where and when she died. She was probably alive when the Haitian Revolution began in 1791, she probably lived through the abolition of slavery in 1793, and it is absolutely possible that she lived to see the Black army's victory and Haitian independence in 1804. She would have been in her early 70s by then.

I wonder what her thoughts were.

PS: Africa, obviously, is an enormous continent. I wish I knew where in Africa Jeanne's ancestors came from; however, the records don't say. My family's African DNA seems to point towards the Senegal area as well as Madagascar, but this could be connected to any side of Dérival Lévêque's ancestry and not necessarily Jeanne Galbo. Most slaves were captured in Western areas of Africa, which makes it likely that Jeanne's ancestors came from that part of the continent.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Our Romani heritage

For as long as I can remember, my mother's family has had a strong oral tradition of being of Romani descent (more specifically, in Norwegian, we were said to be "av taterslekt"). The connection was supposed to go through my maternal grandmother's paternal side. The Romani story fascinated me from a very young age (I remember being interested in it at the age of 12 when I lived in the USA), and indeed it was one of the reasons why I originally became interested in genealogy.

It has been difficult to find evidence to support our oral tradition. This is not really that strange, because the Romani have been persecuted and looked down upon by majority populations for as long as they have been living in Europe, and it is likely that our family would have avoided mentioning their Romani ancestry to outsiders unless they had to. However, through more than ten years of research (and with the help of many good friends and fellow genealogists), I've managed to gather together a number of enlightening facts that, when pieced together, make it clear that our family tradition of Romani heritage is true.

The Romani flag, used by all subgroups. By AdiJapan (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Romani people - often called "Gypsies", although this is considered by many Romani to be a racial slur - is an extremely large, widespread and diverse ethnic group (or ethnic category), divided into many subgroups and sub-subgroups. The Romani originated in India, from which they started to emigrate around the year 1000 AD, and they are first recorded in Europe (Greece) in the early 1200s. As time went by, they moved north- and westwards, bringing with them their culture and their Indo-Aryan language. With their dark Asian features, the Romani were seen as strange and foreign - and threatening - by the people they met on their way. The Romani have a long history as outcasts in Europe, and were one of the groups targeted for extinction by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. The nomadic lifestyle characteristic of many Romani groups is, at least in part, a result of persecution.

This post will deal specifically with families belonging to the Scandinavian Romani subgroup (often referred to as Tater people or reisende, "travelling people", and also Romanisæl), who descend from the first Romani migration wave into Central and Western Europe in the 1300s and 1400s. Other well-known Romani subgroups who share the same origin are the Sinti and Romanichal.

The first Romanies arrived in Scandinavia in the early 1500s; some were deportees from Britain, while others came from Germany via Denmark. Many Romani families in Sweden and Norway still carry German surnames (such as Rosenberg, a name that is also famously used among the Sinti), and some old families can even be traced back to documented ancestors from France and Germany. There has also been considerable interaction and intermarriage between Norwegian/Swedish Romanies and the Finnish Romani group known as the Kalé. Today, the Scandinavian Romani are highly mixed both in terms of genetics, culture and language, probably one of the most mixed of all the Romani subgroups.

There are several dead ends in our Romani ancestral tree, some of them as late as the mid-1700s. In other words, it's impossible to tell exactly which Romani subgroups and other ethnic groups our family descends from. It might well be a mix of many. What we do know is that the most well-documented of our Romani ancestral lines can be traced back to the late 1600s in Sweden, which means that some of our ancestors might have been among the very earliest Romanies to arrive in Scandinavia.

Doing the genealogical detective work

The story that I heard as a child was that my grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a Romani man. After having done some DNA research, I came to the conclusion that this story must be untrue, and that my grandmother's father could not have been fully Romani. Why? Simply because a rather large number of Norwegian Romanies have taken DNA tests at FTDNA, and if my mother's grandfather was fully Romani, she would have had close genetic cousins among the Romani testers. She doesn't. My mother's Romani DNA matches are distant.

However, the fact that my mother does have distant Romani matches is significant, especially because two of these matches form a more or less exclusive triangulating group together with my mother. The two Romanies share known common ancestors, and this was the first clue to identifying our own Romani ancestors by name. (One of my mother's Romani matches is also an above-threshold match to me, on the same segment, which verifies it as real and not a false positive. For those who might wonder, the segment is not read as South Asian; however, considering the Scandinavian Romanies' long history of mixedness, this does not really mean much one way or the other. Even a Northern European segment might well come from an ancestor who identified culturally as Romani.)

At the same time as I was working on the DNA matches, I found out that my grandmother's father, my great-grandfather Torbjørn (an extremely interesting person and a war hero who deserves a full blog post of his own), was the grandson of a woman, Mina, who was born in 1865 and spent much of her childhood at a croft called Tatermyr, "Gypsy Swamp" (image here). This place is recognized as a Romani heritage site by at least one Norwegian Romani organization, LOR. Our family did not establish "Gypsy Swamp" - it was already there - but the name would have carried stigma and I find it unlikely that someone would have moved there unless they had some connection with the Romani people.

Mina's parents, Anders Andersson and Anna Johannesdotter, both immigrated from Värmland county in Sweden to Østfold county in Norway in the 1850s. Anna's father, Johannes Nilsson, was born in 1780 but is not listed in the birth records - or any records pre-1800 - in Svanskog parish where he claimed to have been born. In fact, nothing whatsoever is known of his life before 1806. I started suspecting that Johannes might be our link to the Romani people.

Through the kind assistance of a very experienced and knowledgeable Romani genealogist who is also a friend of mine, Kai-Samuel Vigardt, I found out that my mother's Romani matches' common ancestors were a certain Swedish Romani family called Lund. Kai-Samuel told me that in his opinion, based on the known facts (as well as painstaking elimination of various alternatives on both sides), it was very likely that my ancestor Anna descended from this family.

As I have already mentioned, Anna's father was Johannes Nilsson, meaning his father's first name was Nils. In the Lund family, there is only one couple who are the right age to be Johannes' parents and where the husband is named Nils. They lived in Värmland county, just like Johannes, but somewhat further east, in the Karlstad area.

The theory

My theory is that Johannes Nilsson was the son of this couple, the glass salesman Nils Lundgren and Elisabet "Lisa" Lund (born c. 1752). Kai-Samuel agrees with me. Another prominent and very capable Romani genealogist, who doesn't really like to use DNA as evidence, grudgingly agrees that there's really no alternative connection, if Johannes truly is Romani and a descendant of the Lunds.

The first time Johannes shows up in the records is in 1806 when he moves into Sillerud parish. I later found out that there was a major Romani migration into Sillerud in the 1700s, at least according to Swedish Wikipedia. In Sillerud, it is said, they found sanctuary against persecution and harassment. Johannes' move could easily have been part of this migration, even though it happened in the early 1800s.

In other words, all the known facts support the theory that Johannes was Romani and the son of Nils Lundgren and Elisabet Lund. Here is a list of all the facts:
  • Johannes' birth is not registered, which is unusual (and probably means that his parents were passing through as travellers, and/or had a strained relationship with local authorities);
  • Johannes moves to Sillerud in 1806, seemingly out of nowhere;
  • My mother is a triangulated DNA match to two known descendants of Elisabet Lund's brother;
  • The Lund connection is the only one that would connect any of my mother's lines with any of her Romani matches' lines in time and place (in Värmland, Sweden in the 1700s);
  • Johannes Nilsson is the only close-ish brick wall among my mother's Värmland ancestors;
  • There is no other Nils connected to the Lund family who could have been Johannes' father;
  • Johannes' wife Margreta - a non-Romani as far as we know - had an uncle who married a woman of Romani descent (which means that her family was open to intermarriage);
  • Johannes' daughter Anna lived at "Gypsy Swamp" in Norway for several years with her husband and children;
  • Our family tradition says that it was my maternal grandmother's father who had Romani heritage.
All things considered, I believe that my theory is true, and that our family tradition is correct. Our Romani heritage is a bit distant, but it's there.

We might say that my 5th great-grandfather Johannes Nilsson (1780-1852) is our closest "100% Romani" ancestor, since both his parents were part of the Romani culture and community. My 3rd great-grandmother Mina who grew up in "Gypsy Marsh" would then be "only" 1/4 Romani, but may well have self-identified as ethnically/culturally Romani. My great-grandfather Torbjørn would be 1/16 Romani (possibly 1/4 in cultural terms) and my grandmother would be 1/32 (possibly 1/8 in cultural terms). It's difficult to try to quantify "how much" Romani our family is, and the effort inevitably ends up looking a bit comical. The most important thing in my opinion is that the heritage is still remembered in our family, and as such, it is a part of who we are. I believe it should be enough to say "we are part Romani" or "we are of Romani descent".

Just like with my Sámi heritage on my father's side, I find it problematic to say "I am Romani", since I haven't grown up in the community.

Telling the story

The story of our Romani heritage has somehow been passed down all the way from Johannes Nilsson to myself and my cousins; in other words, 200 years of unbroken oral transmission, which is impressive, but not unheard-of. Johannes' granddaughter Mina might have been a key part of the transmission. She was born in 1865, and it's very possible that Mina's great-granddaughter, my grandmother (who was born in 1946), actually met her in person. I do not know when Mina died, but she was alive in 1927. Even if my grandmother didn't hear the stories from Mina herself, she could have heard it from Mina's son, her grandfather Thorleif, who lived from 1899 to 1970, or from her father Torbjørn, who lived from 1923 to 1985.

Note the fact that the generations are quite short (my grandmother, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather all had children in their late teens or early 20s), which would make it easier for old stories to get passed down, since people would actually have had the opportunity to talk to their grandparents and great-grandparents directly. My great-great-grandfather Thorleif was 14 years old when his grandmother, Anna, Johannes Nilsson's daughter, died in Oslo in 1913 at the age of 83. Thorleif might well have heard the Romani stories directly from Anna, since he was also living in Oslo at the time.

Further reflections

My great-great-grandfather Thorleif being part Romani (1/8 if we go by the strict definition) actually provides an interesting addition to Norwegian sports history. Thorleif, who went by the nickname Lillebunny ("Little Bunny") because of his small size and great strength, was a professional wrestler who won two Norwegian championships (1925 and 1926) in the bantamweight class. In other words, the Romani people can claim this national wrestling champion as their own, if they want to.

I wonder when the Romani language (which would have been Scandoromani in this case) was forgotten in our family? Who was the last person who could speak it properly, and who was the last person who remembered any Romani words or phrases? Nobody in living memory could speak Romani, as far as my family members know.

Although the language disappeared early on, certain other cultural practices seem to have survived much longer. When my mother was pregnant with me, my father's grandmother died, and my parents were going to the funeral. My grandmother warned my mother not to go, since being at a funeral could harm the baby (me). This superstition is very similar to the belief of Romanian Roma (a Romani subgroup very different from ours, but a Romani subgroup nonetheless), described by Norwegian anthropologist Ada Engebrigtsen:

Pregnant women do generally not attend funerals, as the dead body is surrounded by evil spirits that try to take up a position over it, and these evil spirits may attack the foetus as well. (Engebrigtsen 1997: 92)

In other words, this particular superstition might be something inherited from our Romani ancestors. And if it is so, it means that there might be more Romani-ness in us today than we probably realize!


As a lover of Romani music, I find great joy in the fact that through our Lund ancestors, we are in fact distant relatives of the great and famous singer Elias Akselsen and his equally talented daughter Veronica Akselsen. We are also distantly related to other Romani musicians such as Jim Karlsen and Fredrik Fredriksson.

Our connection is Lena Ulrika Karlsdotter Stålberg (known as "Ulla", 1850-1912), who was the life partner of the famous Norwegian Romani leader Karl Johan Algodt Fredriksen (known as Stor-Johan, "Big Johan", 1851-1946). If my Lund theory is correct, Ulla was the second cousin of Anna Johannesdotter, my 4th great-grandmother. Anna and Ulla lived in the same part of Norway, and must have known about their familial connection.

Stor-Johan's family were, and are, a very large and prominent Romani family in Norway. One of his daughters, Marie Lovinie, went by the nickname Taterdronningen, "the Gypsy Queen". A book has been written about her, and another book has been written about her sister Jenny Emilie ("Tater-Milla"). I've read them both, and they provide insight into the lives and doings of some very fascinating people. The sisters, both born in the late 1800s, were third cousins of my 3rd great-grandmother Mina.

I have great respect for Stor-Johan and his family. I've had the pleasure to meet several of Stor-Johan's descendants, as well as several descendants of his stepson, Karl Johan Fredrik Fredriksen (known as "Little Fredrik" or "Fredrik with the Wooden Hat"), Ulla's firstborn. Being their relative - however distant - is an honour.

One of the forest roads of Eastern Norway, not too far from the Swedish border.
Romani people have travelled these roads for centuries.

My Romani line: An overview

The numbering follows the standard ahnentafel (Sosa-Stradonitz) system. All place-names are in Norway unless otherwise specified.

1. Miriam, born 1990 in Oslo.
3. My mother, born 1965 in Lørenskog, Akershus.
7. Kari Johansen. Born 7 Jul 1946 in Oslo. Died 17 Nov 2003 in Fredrikstad, Østfold.
14. Torbjørn Johansen. Born 23 Sep 1923 in Oslo. Died 23 Dec 1985 in Askim, Østfold.
28. Thorleif Alexander Johansen. Born 22 Jul 1899 in Oslo. Died 9 Jan 1970 in Oslo.
57. Mina Augusta Andersdatter. Born 11 Aug 1865 in Svinndal, Østfold. Died after 1927.
115. Anna Johannesdotter. Born 4 Mar 1830 in Sillerud, Värmland, Sweden. Died 14 Sep 1913 in Oslo, Norway.
230. Johannes Nilsson. Born 11 May 1780 in Svanskog, Värmland, Sweden (?). Died 11 Mar 1852 in Sillerud, Värmland, Sweden.
460. Nils Lundgren, travelling glass salesman.
461. Elisabet "Lisa" Lund. Born 1752 or 1755, probably in Karlstad, Värmland, Sweden. (Ulla was the granddaughter of Elisabet's brother Lars Lund, born 1753.)
922. Lars Andersson Lund; "the boy from Borås". Born 1726. Died 21 May 1758 in Karlstad, Värmland, Sweden.
923. Brita Greta Nilsdotter Skragge. Born 1728.
1846. Nils Danielsson Skragge; burgher in Karlstad. Possibly of non-Romani origin. Born c. 1704. Died 1772.
1847. Elisabet "Lisken" Ludvigsdotter. Born 1690. Died 1753.
3694. Ludvig Nilsson; hook-and-eye-maker, travelling peddler and burgher in Örebro, Sweden. Born 1663. Died 1735. Brother of Gabriel Nilsson, hook-and-eye-maker and travelling peddler in Askersund, Sweden.
3695. Ingeborg Johansdotter. Died 1735.

Ludvig and Ingeborg are my earliest known Romani ancestors, and the ancestors of a large number of modern-day Romani people in Sweden and Norway. Note the fact that Ludvig was a burgher and an established craftsman and trader in the town of Örebro. This was not uncommon for early Romanies in Sweden, and suggests that Romani people may have been more integrated into mainstream Swedish society than many realize, in certain places during certain periods. I wonder what Ludvig and Ingeborg's lives were like. Their situation must have been very complex.

Generation lengths

Generation lenghts - the number of years between a person's birth and the birth of their child - have always fascinated me. The fact that some people have very old parents and, by extension, very old grandparents and great-grandparents (or, by contrast, extremely young ones), is something I find extremely interesting.

In my families, generations have been rather short, especially on my mother's side, where they are in fact unconventionally short.

Between myself and my oldest great-grandparent (Fredrik M. Pedersen born 1904), the distance is 86 years.
Between myself and my youngest great-grandparent (Gerd O. Hansen born 1924), the distance is 66 years.

Between myself and my oldest great-great-grandparent (Nils E. D. Lister, born 1857), the distance is 133 years.
Between myself and my youngest great-great-grandparent (Dagny G. A. Hellerud, born 1901), the distance is 89 years. Note that we are five generations born within the same century.

Here are some of the "longest" lines I've found in my tree so far:

Gunvor Cederholm, born 1915 (my great-grandmother)
Sven Mikal Cederholm, born 1872
Sven Hansson Cederholm, born 1824
Hans Svensson Sandberg, born 1781
Sven Hansson, born 1750

Gunvor to her great-grandfather: 134 years.
Gunvor to her great-great-grandfather: 165 years.

JP, born 1987
BP, born 1946
Ingrid Gunhild Olsen, born 1905 (my great-grandmother)
Gunerius Olsen, born 1864
Ole Sivertsen Svegjerdet Okkelberg, born 1826
Sivert Olsen Fordal, born 1781
Ola Gunnarsen Fordal, born 1723

Gunerius to his great-grandfather: 141 years.
Ingrid to her great-great-grandfather: 182 years.
BP to his great-great-grandfather: 165 years.
JP to his great-great-grandfather: 161 years.

Here's another "long" line, from my stepfather's tree:

Jenny Andrea Hammerås, born 1909 (my stepfather's grandmother)
Emma Janette Pedersen, born 1872
Edvard Pedersen Orvik, born 1826
Peder Eriksson Orvik, born 1776
Erik Hansen Harbaken, born 1737

Jenny to her great-grandfather: 133 years.
Emma to her great-grandfather: 135 years.
Jenny to her great-great-grandfather: 172 years.

In contrast, here is a "short" line from my own tree:

MH, born 1988 (my first cousin)
My aunt
Kari Johansen, born 1946 (my grandmother)
Gerd Ovidia Hansen, born 1924
Dagny G. A. Hellerud, born 1901

MH to her great-grandmother: 64 years.
MH to her great-great-grandmother: 87 years.

Both these numbers are less than half of the longest distances given in the lines above!

This shows that:

(A) There really is extreme variation in generation lengths;
(B) That this variation accumulates over the course of several generations, becoming more and more extreme.

This is especially important to take into consideration when working with autosomal DNA matches. It is possible that your match's great-grandparents were born twice as long ago as your own, and that your match could be, say, a second cousin of your great-great-grandmother. The opposite is also possible: Your (seemingly distant) match may be a descendant of your own great-great-grandparents, but that couple may be your match's 6th great-grandparents!

The last example is taken from real life. I myself have a 6th great-grandmother who was born in 1792, while I know several living people whose great-great-grandparents were born in that year or even earlier.

A map of China

My family has a tiny bit of East Asian DNA, inherited from my paternal grandfather (who is about 2% Asian, most of which is East Asian). The maps below are the FTDNA myOrigins results of my grandfather (top), my father (middle), and myself (bottom). You can see the regional consistency, and you can see the non-European DNA getting thinned out with each consecutive generation. The Northeast Asian has been passed all the way down to me, but the Southeast Asian, Oceanian and West Middle East has been "washed out" on the way.

23andMe also picks up my East Asian DNA, although it's unable to classify it further. The "Broadly East Asian and Native American" could be a remnant of my father's and grandfather's Southeast Asian; it is also possible that at least some of my East Asian comes from my mother's side.

I got an extremely fascinating analysis result yesterday. This new tool at WeGene called Ancestry Similarity Map shows you what provinces and cities in China you are most genetically similar to. I assumed I was going to be most similar to the far western provinces, or that I might have no match to any province. However, I am in fact most genetically similar to places in Eastern and Central China, especially the provinces of Hubei, Shanghai and Anhui. It seems that our East Asian ancestors might - at some point in history - have emigrated from one of these areas of modern-day China.

In fact, the highlighted (blue) portion of my map correlates almost perfectly with the ethnolinguistic homeland of the Han people. In other words, we might actually descend from a Han Chinese person, or we might share ancient ancestry with modern-day Han Chinese people. I think the latter is the more likely scenario, since I currently believe that our East Asian DNA came to Norway long ago via ancient migrations through Siberia.

It could be that our ancestors were Huaxia, or predecessors to the Huaxia, who lived in the Guanzhong Plain and along the Yellow River in neolithic times.

WeGene only picks up an extremely small amount of East Asian DNA from my raw data, which it classifies as broadly Chinese. The percentage, 0.01%, is lower than expected, but still not inconsistent with my result at 23andMe.
Even if I wanted to (and I am very hesitant to even ask permission to do it), I'm unable to upload my father's and grandfather's raw data to WeGene, since they don't accept FTDNA files as of yet.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Old things! Material legacies on my father's side

I've always loved to rummage through attics, basements and cupboards and look at old things, especially when they have a story behind them.

In our family - as in most families, I guess - we have a lot of old things with stories behind them. Many objects from our ancestors have been passed down and are still in existence, owned by various members of the family. I find comfort in the fact that these objects are kept and maintained by people who value their history. They provide real, tangible connections to our ancestors and their daily lives. They are, in a sense, "genealogy in solid form".

Here are some of the things that have been passed down on my father's side of the family.

This is my grandfather's workbench. It originally belonged to his grandfather, my great-great-grandfather Gunerius Olsen (1864-1949).

This furniture set - the chairs, the table and the sofa - belonged to my great-great-grandparents Gunerius Olsen (1864-1949) and Oline Margrethe Forseth (1864-1913), also pictured above. They got married in 1891, so the furniture is probably from around that time or maybe a few years later.

This rocking chair belonged to my great-great-grandmother Alfhild Knoff (1881-1969), also pictured above. When the original cover began to wear out, my great-grandmother Gunvor embroidered a new one, as identical to the original one as possible. I have many nice childhood memories from this chair!

This serviette holder belonged to my great-great-great-grandfather Sven Hansson Cederholm (1824-1912). It is decorated with Sven's monogram (SHC) circled by a stylized representation of the Midgard Serpent biting its own tail. This is interesting, because it shows that Sven was acquainted with, and interested in, Norse mythology. The serviette holder now belongs to my father, and is in frequent use.

Lastly, these wooden boxes - a food container and a postage stamp organizer - were actually carved by one of our ancestors, "Mammatina", who is almost certainly identical with my 4th great-grandmother Marie Katrine Knoff (1820-1894). Marie Katrine is pictured above. The boxes were probably made sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s, and we know that the stamp organizer must have been made after 1855, since that was the year when the first postage stamp was issued in Norway. The decorations on the boxes are in a traditional Norwegian style that almost has a national romantic feel to it.

The food container is currently in my safekeeping, and I am very proud to have been entrusted with it by my grandparents. Hopefully it will be passed down another six generations!

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The concept of "sang-mêlé" and the lie of racial purity

In certain places, at certain points in history, governments have been obsessed with race.

For example, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, there was an extremely detailed system for classifying people according to their ancestral background. The Saint-Domingue system was similar to the Spanish casta system, but even more detailed. The categories ranged from nègre/nègresse (a person assumed to be of fully African ancestry), to sang-mêlé (a person with distant African ancestry) to blanc (a person assumed to be of unmixed European ancestry):

1/1 (fully African ancestry): nègre/nègresse
1/2 (one parent of fully African ancestry): mulâtre/mulâtresse
1/4 (one grandparent): quarteron
1/8 (one great-grandparent): métis
1/16 (one great-great-grandparent): mamelouc
1/32 (one 3rd great-grandparent): quarteronné
1/64 (one 4th great-grandparent) to 1/∞: sang-mêlé
0 (no African ancestry): blanc

According to the Saint-Domingue system, any person who had any known African blood could never be fully white: "D'un blanc et d'une sang mêlé, vient un sang mêlé qui approche du blanc." In other words, through an extreme application of the one-drop rule, these people would be categorized as sang-mêlé ("mixed-blood") no matter how distant their African ancestry. Even a person of 1/128 or 1/256 African ancestry would be sang-mêlé and therefore of lower status than a person of ostensibly pure European descent. In fact, some people, such as the colonist and slave-owner Moreau de Saint-Méry (1750-1819), claimed to be able to tell if a person was 1/512 African! (Joan Dayan: Haiti, History, and the Gods, pp. 234-235).

The question is: In a society that took racial classifications to this extreme level of detail, what person could claim, in good faith, that he or she was 100% anything? 1/512 means one out of 512 seventh-great-grandparents. Moreau de Saint-Méry was born in 1750, and given an average generation length of between 20 and 30 years, his 7th-great-grandparents would have been born between 1450 and 1550. I'm absolutely sure that Moreau would not have known the identity of every single one of them (this is extremely rare even today, even among nobility and royalty), and there is a very real statistical possibility that one of them might not have been European. In other words, the French colonial practice of assigning other people an inferior status on the basis of their distant ancestry was not only repulsive and inhumane; it was also obviously hypocritical and arbitrary.

Also, if someone of 1/512 African ancestry was considered Black, then why should not someone of 1/512 European ancestry be given the opportunity to define themselves as white? Why should not someone of 1/512 indigenous Taíno ancestry be defined as Taíno? Hypodescent, the practice of assigning people of mixed ancestry to the group with the lowest status, is yet another illustration of the arbitrary nature of "racial" classifications.

Genetic and genealogical evidence strongly point towards a certain 4th great-grandfather of mine being the illegitimate son of Pierre Dérival Lévêque (1788-1852) from Haiti. Dérival was born while Haiti was still the colony of Saint-Domingue, and his parents seem to have been a man of 5/8 African descent (the documented son of a Black enslaved woman and her mixed-race owner) and a woman reportedly of 1/2 African descent. In other words, Dérival would have been 9/16 African (thereby classified as a mulâtre), and I would be 9/2048 through him (9/2048 is slightly more than 1/256). Even though there is still some uncertainty as to whether our Haitian ancestor was in fact Dérival, it seems quite clear that we do descend from a Haitian man of mixed African and European descent. In other words, according to the old racial classification system in Saint-Domingue, my paternal grandmother's whole family are certainly sang-mêlés.

I don't think anyone would be able to tell by looking at us. I don't think anyone would even have imagined it to be possible. Aren't Norwegians supposed to be the whitest of the white?

The racial ideology of Saint-Domingue was, in its essence, no more than a tool of economic repression and exploitation, a way of safeguarding a highly stratified social system which benefited some people at the cost of others. This was the heart of the colonial enterprise. Why should I concern myself with the French colonial racial classification system now, and make it the basis of a blog post? Why should any of this matter in 2018? It matters because my own ancestors suffered under this system. To them, it was real. To them, it meant a life of slavery or, at the very best, as a second-class citizen. More importantly, however, these things matter because racism is still real.

In order to combat racism, we must combat the very idea of "racial purity". We must fight the notion that groups of people are inherently different from one another. We must fight the notion that the colour of your skin is a marker of your personality, your intellect, your capabilities. And in order to do so, those of us who are "white" (i.e. look and act they way a "white" person is expected to look and act) must stop being emotionally invested in our own whiteness.

This does not imply a naïve "colour-blindness". White privilege (indeed, white supremacy) exists, and we need to acknowledge that and to continue working to dismantle it. However, at the same time, we must stop reenacting Moreau de Saint-Méry's pretense of ancestral purity. I see this pretense, or at least this assumption, over and over again in the genealogical community, and perhaps especially in genetic genealogy forums where notions of race are constantly challenged by often surprising DNA evidence.

It is perfectly possible to acknowledge your whiteness on the outside while also acknowledging your mixedness on the inside (or potential mixedness, which in this case means the same thing in terms of one's attitude). Or, put differently: It is perfectly possible to acknowledge that you are seen and treated as white within the current configurations of society, while still acknowledging that on the inside, you are just another human being, and that there are no races in any objective biological sense, only fellow human beings. Only if we start thinking like this can we truly begin to feel a sense of community encompassing all of humanity and blurring the boundary between "us" and "them". This is true for everyone, not just whites, but we must begin with ourselves.

White as my skin may be; as a homage to my ancestors, and as a political stand against racism, I proudly embrace the label sang-mêlée. Although originally intended as a tool of division and oppression, this label can be turned on its head to express an essential unifying fact of human life: The fact that none of us have ever been, or can ever be, "racially pure".

Indeed, we are all sang-mêlés.

Monday, 12 February 2018

15 generations in a wordcloud

I made a wordcloud for my whole pedigree going back 15 generations (back to the late 1400s/early 1500s). This is what it looks like. Unfortunately it is in Norwegian, but I think that even English speakers might understand much of it, especially since it includes many names.

As you can see, the most important word in my ancestral tree is gårdbruker = farmer!

I also made a similar wordcloud for my brother (15 generations):