African DNA in the British Isles

While the Slave Owner registers from 1834 in England and the recent project to index and study their contents has raised consciousness about slavery and how intertwined slavery was through Caribbean sugar production to all of the British Isles – DNA is telling a story too.  While the slave owner registers speak to the ownership of slaves in the Caribbean by Britains, those weren’t the only slaves.

I have done several DNA Reports in past decade for people who received unexpected results.  By unexpected results, I’m referring to clearly African haplogroups in Europe, primarily the British Isles, found in people who are just as clearly “white” today – and whose ancestors have been considered as such for generations.  Furthermore,  their autosomal DNA generally shows no trace or occasionally shows minute amounts of their African heritage, yet it is clearly there as proven by Y and mitochondrial DNA.

When these people are found in the US and their ancestors have been here for generations, especially in a slave-owning area, my first thought is always that perhaps the genealogy is in error – or that there was an undocumented adoption that would never show in genealogical records.  But when the people are not in the US and their ancestors have never lived outside of Europe and are well-documented, the results are impossible to explain away or rationalize in that fashion.

blacks in london

I’m also not referring to haplogroup E-M215, old E1b1b or E-M35, old E1b1b1, which is known to be North African, or Berber, found in the Mediterranean basin.  This haplogroup is found sparsely in England, likely due to the Roman legions who arrived and stayed or at least left some of their Y DNA behind.  Steven Bird wrote the paper about this titled “Haplogroup E3b1a2 as a Possible Indicator of Settlement of Roman Britain by Soldiers of Balkan Origin.”

I’m talking about haplogroups that are unquestionably sub-Saharan African in origin, such as Y DNA E-M2, old E1b1a now E-V38, and often, mitochondrial haplogroups such as L1, L2 and L3  – meaning that they originated with women, not men.

This begs the question of how those haplogroups came to be embedded in the British population long enough ago that there is no record that the people who carried them were not white.  In other words, the person who brought that haplogroup to the British Isles arrived long ago, many generations.

I have always found this a bit confounding, because while England was indeed heavily intertwined in the slave trade, England never had the space or need to employ slaves in the way that they were engaged on large plantations in the Caribbean or in the Southern US.  Furthermore, England had its own surplus of people they were trying to send elsewhere, which was one of the benefits of colonization.  You could send your undesirables to populate your colonies.  For example, those pesky recusant Catholics who refused to convert settled in Maryland.  Many people convicted of small crimes, such as my Joseph Rash for stealing 2 bags of malt, were transported to the colonies, in his case, Virginia.

We know that there were some Africans in Elizabethan England, although those records are almost incidental, few and far between.  Africans have been in England since the 12th century, but it wasn’t until slaving began in earnest that their numbers increased.  At this point, blacks in England were mostly novelties and were often owned by captains of slave ships and occasionally sold on the quay of coastal cities like Bristol.

Although not widespread, slavery was practiced in England until 1772, when the Somerset case effectively determined that chattel slavery was not supported by English law.  This legally freed all slaves in England, if not in actual practice.  Slaves in England at that time were mostly domestic servants and flocked to be baptized in the hope it would ensure their freedom.  The good news is that those baptisms created records.

Buried in the details of the Somerset case and arguments are an important tidbits.

James Somerset, a slave, was purchased in Massachusetts and brought to England by his master, Charles Stewart.  James escaped, was captured and was going to be shipped to the Caribbean by Stewart and sold as a plantation slave.  However, while in England, James had been converted to Christianity and his three god-parents upon his baptism filed suit claiming that while he may have been a slave when brought to England, that English law did not support slavery and he was therefore not a slave in England and could not be shipped against his will to the Caribbean to be sold.  This was not a humanitarian case, per se, but a case about law and legal details.

Somerset’s advocates argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any law made by Parliament recognized the existence of slavery and slavery was therefore unlawful. The advocates also argued that English contract law did not allow for any person to enslave himself, nor could any contract be binding without the person’s consent. When the two lawyers for Charles Stewart, the owner, put forth their case, they argued that property was paramount and that it would be dangerous to free all the black people in England, who numbered at the time approximately 15,000.

That’s the information I was looking for.  There were 15,000 African or African descended slaves in England in 1772.  Given that most were domestic servants, the females would have been subject to whatever their owner wanted to impose upon them, including sexual advances.  Let’s face it, there were a lot more English men available in England than African men, so it’s very likely that the children of enslaved women would have been fathered by white men whether by consensual or nonconsensual means.

Their half white children would also have been enslaved, at least until 1772, and if they also bore children from an English male, their offspring would have been 25% African and 75% English.  Within another generation, they would have looked “white” and their African heritage would have been forgotten – at least until their descendants eight or ten generations later took a mitochondrial or Y DNA test and turned up with confusing African results.



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31 thoughts on “African DNA in the British Isles

  1. There is a really wonderful book of historical fiction written by Jane Stevenson (prof of history at, I think, the University of Aberdeen, Scotland) entitled, The Winter Queen. It is set in 17th Century Holland with characters who are British royals and a slave who arrives from the Spice Islands. Two books follow this first of a trilogy and I found them all historically intriguing.
    Thanks, Roberta for your wonderful blog. Ginny Robertson

  2. I am a bit puzzled by your last sentence. Most of your argument and likely scenario is a white father and a black servant mother. In that case the Y-DNA would remain of European, not of African descent, would it not?
    It is a similar situation of Native American who have so often a European haplogroup, because there the European men fathering the children of Native women is by far the most likely.

    • Yes, the point meant was that if the black man fathered children with white women – which may also have been the only females available, they would carry his Y in the same scenario generations later.

      • My daughter-in-law’s brother took the Y-DNA test to find his Haplogroup was A. This has been a blonde, blue-eyed, very fair family for generations – with British Isle roots. She has had autosomal DNA and shows not a trace of any possible Sub-African heritage.

        • Autosomal DNA us different from yDNA. Additionally, it could be present in such a small amount that it is not detectable any longer since she is farther down the line. DNA is randomly distributed; thus, her father might show African DNA but she doesn’t because she did not get that part of the DNA that is African. For example, my dad shows no Finnish, but his full brother does.

  3. I am 99% Franco/American, the genealogies I have support 100% but I will hedge my bets on that. There could be some native way back, not supported by mtDNA, and not sure with the Y. Both tests were done a while back and things may be different now. However, I was contacted by an African American man on the merits of the Y test my brother took and I was told by that man that some slaves escaped to Canada via the underground railroad and married into some french families. I have not and probably will not pursue that, but I do remember my father being very relieved when a baby in the extended family was born with fair skin. his insult of insults to my mother was “you and your dark skinned relatives”. this article was very interesting to me for those reasons.

    • Jeanne
      The presence of slaves in Nouvelle-France starts with the colony itself, in spite of a traditional song claiming otherwise.
      This brief article describes the situation :
      It is in French and for some reason clicking on English does not bring you to the same article, but to the root. But in summary, the first noted black slave was apparently brought by the Kirk brothers when they conquered the Quebec Post in 1628 (I do not use the word City although this was where the city lies now, because the total French population was about 50 people). There was a lot of trade with places such as La Martinique, also a French colony.

      The first time I saw evidence was when I read the list of patients at l’Hotel Dieu, where there were some with only first names, residing with so and so.
      Therefore, mixed African genes are very much a possibility in North American of French Ancestry. The article says total 1500. It is a small number, but considering that the total population was about 60,000 in 1763…

  4. Fascinating as always Bobbi. I write to just elaborate on the reference “in service” and it’s inference to slavery. By the Victorian period of English history, the Industrial revolution had created some very wealthy families (and some very poor ones too). As such, if someone from a poor family didn’t want to work in a grotty cotton mill or worse, down a coal mine, one of the few alternative options was to become a servant to the wealthy families. In some rural areas, with the demise of traditional farming methods there was little or nothing else that you could do for work. It is therefore extremely common to find Victorian ancestors who appear on genealogical records of the period as simply being referred to as “in service”, meaning of course that they were house servants. My GGGrandmother on my maternal side was “in service” for example. Even as recently as just before WWII the term was in common use. My maternal Grandfather was a Gamekeeper and hence “in service”. My point being that “in service” changed from being a statutory enslaving to being one of simple ‘voluntary’ need, thus those seeking their ancestors should not necessarily interpret that if they were ‘in service’, they were slaves in that sense.

      • I’ve seen the word “inmate” following a name of a person residing with a small family of farmers in the 1850 U.S. Census. It certainly wasn’t a prison nor an asylum. The same person may be the same as the head of household on another page. “Inmate” was not under occupation, but was immediately following the person’s name. Do you know if this is the same as “in service” or have you seen it elsewhere?

  5. I find it interesting there is no mention of the English forcing white Irish women to have sex with black slaves because black slaves brought in about four times the amount of money than Irish slaves in the slave trading market. It get’s very annoying when I see people continuing the English propaganda to bury their sordid past they forced upon the Irish population on the whole. This article didn’t even hint upon this very realistic explanation of how black DNA entered the white population of the British Isles.

    • Michael, I decided to research your claim because, admittedly, I was in ignorance.

      There seems to be one source for it: the book “White Cargo” (Walsh and Jordan). There’s also an article written by John Martin that uses “White Cargo” as its source. In fact, every blog or newspaper article that I can find that even discusses the forced breeding of Irish women with African male slaves references one or the other. Another book – “To Hell or Barbados” – may make mention of it, too, but I’m not certain.

      The problem is that “White Cargo” is poorly sourced and considered by most historians to be lacking in credibility. Many of the claims within the book have already been clarified and even debunked by historians.

      If you can find an independent source for it, I am very much interested. I haven’t been able to so far, but you very well may know of a reputable source that I do not.

  6. Pingback: DNAeXplain Archives – Basic Education Articles | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  7. Some of them may be a remnant of the Jews who emigrated from the Middle East to iberia across North Africa in the Roman era and later to the British Isles.

  8. For reasons that would take me afield of my question, I totally believe you about the presence of E1b1a in England from possibly an earlier date than one might expect. I really need to see the studies you reference, even better if any studies resulted in the development of a modal haplotype by region, and I *cannot* find anything about it online. Lots of E1b1b, but no E1b1a. Can you direct me? Thank you. Of course, my contact information is in the required spaces.

  9. I have also the y haplogroup A. I consider myself black but when I discovered that only .3% of carribean slaves have the Y haplogroup A I became curious as to where it came from. My 5th great grandfather was born a slave in 1818. I had always assumed his father must have come from East africa in order for me to obtain that haplogroup, when I found out haplogroup A also runs in a small group of men in the UK I began to wonder if that was how it was passed down to me. To this day I am still wondering. But evidently it eventually goes back to Africa

  10. I’m a fully white (red hair and freckles) male with an E-M2 haplotype. Almost all of my ancestors go back to colonial America and were also white europeans (England, Ireland, Germany). My autosomal DNA shows little to no trace of an African heritage. I’ve traced my paternal line back to an Alexander Fuller, who was identified as a mulatto carpenter in Onslow County, NC in 1763, but was passing as white in censuses of the period. My closest Y match is also E-M2 and we share an MRCA of his son. Our next closest Y match (E-M2 with 33/37 markers) probably is predicted to be 8-12 generations back and is also white. We believe our pure African ancestor may have fathered a child with a white women in early colonial Virginia in the latter part of the 1600s, or perhaps even in Barbados. I have yet to find any close matches who are not white. An intriguing possibility is that this line goes back even further into England. I’m hoping that some day DNA testing may help unravel this.

    • According to the results of the Family Tree DNA Y37 testing, my Y-DNA haplotype is also E-M2, which came as a surprise for me as there is no apparent evidence of sub-Saharan heritage in my Autosomal results, much less in the appearance of myself, my father, or any of my grandfather’s many siblings or descendants.

We have not been able to trace reliable records of my paternal line back any farther than my great-grandfather (born 1887), but my hope is that some additional digging (in the form of Y111 testing, along with genealogical study) can help us to unravel a bit more of the mystery.

      • The Big Y test will also help you. You may match people there you don’t on 111, and their locations may help you. You’ll receive a much more refined haplogroup with that test.

      • Hi , My family have been living in the Manchester , Liverpool area for centuries and are all white. I did a DNA test through AncestryDna and I come up as English, Irish , Welsh and up to 1 percent Senegalese in West Africa.
        Is there further tests I can do to confirm?

        • You can test your Y DNA at Family Tree DNA. If it’s your direct paternal kind, it will show there. The same for mtDNA and your direct maternal line. You can also transfer your Ancestry results there and see if you also have African there.

  11. One of my 3rd great grandfather Berry H Williams’s descendant’s yDNA haplogroup is E1b1a. I still haven’t figured out who his African ancestors were. It might be that he wa snot a Williams but a Sweat as he shares the almost exact same markers but one with an Ephraim Sweat. The Sweat line goes back to Robert Sweat and Margaret Cornish; she was from Angola. In her first marriage she was married to John Gowen who was African. There are no birth records for Berry. He was married to a Martha Sweat It has been a mystery that my cousins and I have been trying to solve for years to no avail since there are no birth, marriage or death records. The Sweat were from Cheraw and Robeson County in NC, and prior to that in VA.

  12. “When these people are found in the US and their ancestors have been here for generations, especially in a slave-owning area, my first thought is always that perhaps the genealogy is in error – or that there was an undocumented adoption that would never show in genealogical records.” People in the US often ‘failed’ to note a person’s African ancestry when it was convenient for the family. In addition, despite the persistent rumor that the US adhered to the One-Drop Rule (one drop of African ancestry made a person black) some states had percentages up to 25% (one grandparent) in certain circumstances where the person was seen to have ‘lived as white’. Even today there are a number of white people from southern US states who have 1-5% African ancestry – the legacy of miscegenation coupled with either acceptance or simply moving away and making a new life.

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