We recently posted an article on how many slaves there were in Anglo-Saxon Torbay. A couple of posters asked how we would feel if we found out that we had an ancestor who was a slave-owner.
The answer is that we all have slave-owner ancestors; alongside being descended from slaves ourselves.
Let’s begin with Danny Dyer.
In the BBC series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Danny was astonished to find out that he was descended from the fourteenth century King Edward III.
What wasn’t discussed, however, is that if you go back far enough, everyone within a certain group of people will have a shared ancestor.
Geneticist Adam Rutherford points out that almost everyone born in the 1970s is a descendant of the same king. The 13 monarchs who reigned between 1066 and 1485 fathered at least 40 illegitimate children between them, so just about everyone alive with British ancestry will have a connection with this king- though only a very small proportion of people can back up their royal claims with evidence.
The maths goes like this.
You had two parents. Each of your parents has two parents too, meaning in just two generations you have a total of 6 ancestors. A generation further, and you have 14 ancestors.
For ten generations, you have 2,046 ancestors. For twenty generations, that’s 2,097,150 million direct ancestors. Thirty generations back is around the time of the Domesday Book and our snapshot of Anglo-Norman Torbay. In theory, that’s 1.073 billion ancestors.
It isn’t as straightforward as that, of course.
Nowhere near that many people were alive back then. Also, not everyone who lived a thousand years ago has descendants today. Our ancestors are duplicated numerous times on our family tree – something known as pedigree collapse.
There’s childhood mortality, people could be killed by disease, war and starvation, or they didn’t have any children, or they may have even entered the priesthood. Accordingly, the number of ancestors someone has doesn’t necessarily grow evenly with each generation. A thousand years of population movement has also complicated the picture.
Nevertheless, this general rule about shared ancestors applies across English society.
In Torbay, we’re not talking about a named individual but a whole community. And so, as the slave population of Torbay was anything up to 30%, many of the remainder being slave owners, we’re all descended from both groups. Since the same applies to the whole nation, it doesn’t matter if you don’t originally have Torbay links.
Geneticists have further discovered that everyone of European descent alive today shares enough DNA to suggest they all have the same set of ancestors from as recently as a thousand years ago. They argue that all modern Europeans can therefore claim to be descended from the famous Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742-814). You can choose anyone else from the elite of around a thousand years ago- William the Conqueror, perhaps.
So, if you’re of English ancestry, you will have had both slave and slave-owner ancestors… and a King and a Queen… and anyone else you want to claim. You can even say that you’re distantly related to Danny Dyer.
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