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.
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.