Monday, September 17, 2012

How Many Ancestors Were On Those Ships?



African Ancestry’s 2012 Family Reunion, September 15, 2012, Atlanta, Georgia

     I had the pleasure of attending African Ancestry’s 2012 Family Reunion at the Hammonds House Museum. We watched a video of African Ancestry’s recent road tour and enjoyed African dances and beats by the Giwayen Meta Drummers and Dancers who enthusiastically engaged the audience, as seen in the picture above.  Additionally, Atlanta city councilman Kwanza Hall, Ambassador Carlton Masters, KISS 104 radio personality Cynthia Young, Jovita Moore of WSB-TV Atlanta, and DJ Salah Ananse had their DNA results revealed to them.  They were happy to learn their results – Kwanza (Tuareg people of Mali), Cynthia (Balanta people of Guinea Bissau & the Mende people of Sierra Leone), Jovita (Fula people of Guinea Bissau). (I apologize for not remembering everyone’s results; I was too caught up in the moment.)

Jovita Moore learns her DNA results. Also pictured are Gina Paige and Dr. Rick Kittles, founders of African Ancestry, Inc.

     However, the main purpose of this blog post is to touch on the subject of African ancestry, one of my passionate topics, and not on the growing technology of DNA testing. I’ll leave the latter for the geneticists and DNA-technology enthusiasts.  After the reveal ceremony, Gina Paige asked the audience to raise their hands if they represented various African nations like Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cameroon, Guinea Bissau, Angola, and etc. via their DNA results.  Some people in the audience noticed that I raised my hand at least 5 times. How can that be? 

     Well, thanks to my maternal 1st cousin, Charlotte Bandele, our mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) pattern matches the Fulbe (a.k.a. Fulani) people of northern Cameroon (by way of Nigeria). My father’s mtDNA pattern is a 100% match to the Tikar of Cameroon.  My mother’s direct paternal line (via my uncle’s Y-chromosome) matches the Mbundu of Angola.  My mother’s paternal grandmother’s mtDNA pattern (via her 1st cousin’s results) perfectly matches the Akan of Ghana. Interestingly, a number of my mother’s relatives bear striking resemblances to people in Ghana.  Another maternal lineage (via a 3rd cousin’s test) matches the Mandinka & Fula (a.k.a. Fulani) peoples of Senegal and Guinea Bissau, and a fifth maternal lineage (via a distant cousin’s test) matches the Yoruba & Fulani peoples of Nigeria. That’s why I raised my hand numerous times.

A Fulani girl living in Nigeria today (picture by Fulanitude)

     However, I started thinking. When this profound question was asked, “Where Are You From?”, I pondered the following question: How many of my enslaved African ancestors were on those slave ships?  I will never know an exact number, but I performed some calculations or “guesstimations” to satisfy my curiosity.  I plausibly asserted that after nine generations back, I hit the time frames in my family tree when many of my African ancestors were living in Africa; many in that 9th generation endured the horrific Middle Passage, while few in that 9th generation were probably among the first to be born on American soil to African parents.  The 9th generation would be my 7th-great-grandparents. For many African Americans, it could be from the 7th generation and upwards.  It will vary.

     Everyone has 512 7th-great-grandparents.  That’s a lot of people!  To add, I am 89% African, 10% European, and 1% Asian (interpreted as Native American), according to 23andme DNA company.  Therefore, based on these percentages, let’s say hypothetically that 456 of my 512 7th-great-grandparents were Africans (89%). 

     Albeit my DNA-based calculation and its undetermined level of accuracy, this still allows me to proclaim with confidence that I had hundreds of African ancestors who were: (1) marched to the Atlantic shores of Africa from their villages in the interior; (2) chained to the belly of slave ships; (3) survived the gruesome Middle Passage; (4) auctioned in slave markets in Charleston, So. Carolina, Virginia, and other places; and (5) birthed my American-born ancestors.  The number could have been around 200, 300, 456, or greater. Nevertheless, all of them encompass that 89% of my DNA, and they came from many ethnic groups (tribes) and regions of West and West-Central Africa.  Some might have come from Madagascar; a number of Africans from that southeastern African nation were transported to Virginia ports during the early part of the slave trade in America. Miraculously, DNA testing from African Ancestry provided specificity and scientific clues on six of my many lineages. More family lines will be tested in the future.  So when I am asked, “Where Are You From?”, in all likelihood I can credibly claim most, if not all, of the present-day nations of West Africa, from Senegal to Angola.

I am standing on the shore of Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, South Carolina.  This was where enslaved Africans were first disembarked to be quarantined before they were placed on the slave markets in Charleston.  Many of my ancestors from various African ethnic groups (tribes) and regions touched American soil for the first time here. Read more about Sullivan’s Island.

12 comments:

  1. In 1974 and 1975 when we lived in Mt. Pleasant SC, we often went to Sullivan's Island to swim and see the ocean. At that time I didn't know that was where my ancestors most likely came ashore. We talk about going back with this knowledge and it's time to plan.

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    1. When you visit, you will be disappointed to see that there's only a sign there to tell the significance of the island. As Angela stated, that is hallowed ground!

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  2. Today, there are millions of us who have ancestors who stood on that beach.

    Sullivan's Island should be considered hallowed ground. How many thousands of our ancestors stood there wondering and wishing they knew which way was home?

    Great article, Melvin!

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    1. Thanks! It was so disheartening to see that the only thing there is a sign with a few sentences about the island's history in the slave trade.

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  3. I truly enjoyed reading this. It was an eye opener.

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  4. I'm wondering if there are ship records or information I can find about my ancestors from Belize. Some of my ancestors came from Barbados and St. Vincent and the Grenadines before they came to Belize. Some settled in Honduras. We also descended from the Mayans. Anyway, is it possible that my ancestors were transported from Africa to those islands in West Indies and the countries in Central America?

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    1. Hi Mrs. Gentry, yes many of your enslaved African ancestors were likely disembarked in the Caribbean. In fact, many Africans were temporarily housed in the West Indies for "seasoning" before they were transported to different parts of the Americas. Check out this article to read about the availability of records in the Caribbean for countries like Barbados, Virgin Islands, etc. See http://www.familytreemagazine.com/article/Ancestorsof-the-Caribbean/ Much success with your search!

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  5. Your calculations are amazing. And they make perfect sense. Hundreds of ancestors who survived the horrific middle passage--my God--and were auctioned in Charleston. You and others who could make similar "guesstimations" descend from those who survived the slavery holocaust, and are a tribute to humanity over unthinkable inhumanity. It's just hard to get my mind around it all. Thank you for this post.

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  6. Thank you for your commitment to re-writing the African diaspora experience. As for me I learned my Fulani heritage of Nigeria and Niger and plan to track my roots by visiting the region this fall. I have interest in the foodways, history, religion, language and culture which I have been researching. Do you know of any female narratives of tracing African roots? Or any history on the slave trade in northern Nigeria with Fulanis? One expert disputes it in the The Root: http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2013/07/fulani_ancestry_in_african_americans_how_to_trace_it.2.html. Hope to hear your thoughts.

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    1. Thanks Tambra and thanks for sharing the link! I hadn't seen this article and didn't know that my blog was mentioned. I read their assessment that anyone matching the Fulani/Fulbe of northern Cameroon likely do not have origins in Nigeria but the Senegambia region. I've read several sources that state that the Fulani of northern Cameroon, whom I match, and the Fulani of northern Nigeria are essentially the same people. During the transatlantic slave trade, the ancestors of many of the Fulani residing in northern Cameroon today inhabited northern Nigeria since the sixteenth century. They began to penetrate the Adamawa hills of northern Cameroon mainly in the eighteenth century. Until the end of that century, their migration into northern Cameroon had been slow and peaceful and in small groups. As a result of holy wars against non-Fulbe people of the area, heavier migrations into northern Cameroon occurred during the early part of the nineteenth century. If the Fulani/Fulbe from Northern Nigeria didn't really enter the slave trade until the jihad of Usuman dan Fodio, which began in 1804, then I don't quite understand why would my mtDNA be a perfect match to them?

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    2. Oh, I forgot to mention that one source you can look for is the following: Victor Azarya, "Aristocrats Facing Change: The Fulbe in Guinea, Nigeria, and Cameroon" (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)

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