African clans descended from European men

The story of how shipwrecked sailors joined local clans and communities in Southern Africa...
16 October 2018


Nomlinganiso Smayile of the abeLungu clan in Bomvanaland


By the end of the fifteenth century, trade was already well-established between Europe and India, but transporting goods overland was expensive and laborious. The discovery of a sea-route from Europe to India by the Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama in 1498 provided a safer and cheaper way of transportation. The sea-route skirted the eastern coast of Africa, but the inaccuracy of maps and nautical instruments meant that many ships never reached their destinations...

The coast of the former Transkei in South Africa, still known as the “wild coast,” was particularly hazardous, resulting in numerous shipwrecks. Many of these have been documented by historians, who have also recounted stories of surviving passengers and crew who washed ashore and in some cases were incorporated into local Cape Nguni communities. Subsequently other white men also entered these communities out of choice rather than circumstance.


South African Clans

In the South African context of centuries of racial disharmony, it is important that rare examples of alternative histories such as these are also recalled. The aim of this study was to engage in a multi-disciplinary investigation into the histories of clans founded by foreign entrants and the contemporary relevance of such ancestry. Primarily it drew on the oral accounts of my research participants, the descendants of foreign entrants into Mpondo and Bomvana communities living along the south-eastern coast of South Africa, who were traced for the purposes of the study. Older men are generally considered to be the custodians of this knowledge but I found that elderly women and, in some cases, younger men were sometimes equally interested and knowledgeable about their histories and genealogies.

In these communities, personal and social identity as well as religious belief and ritual practice centre around clan membership. Therefore, in addition to the linguistic and economic challenges undoubtedly faced by shipwreck survivors incorporated into Cape Nguni communities, they would have experienced a kind of social and spiritual vacuum by virtue of not belonging to a clan, and full incorporation would have required the assumption of clan names. Some would have been taken as honorary members of existing clans, but others established new ones. It is with the latter, namely clans founded by foreign entrants into Cape Nguni society, that this research was concerned.

A Cape Nguni clan is a kinship group in which membership, which is expressed by means of a clan name, is conferred according to the laws of patrilineal descent, in other words from father to son. The clan name, a social indicator, has a biological counterpart in Y chromosome DNA. Maternal and paternal nuclear DNA recombines at conception so that all individuals have a unique genome, unless they are identical twins. Y-chromosome DNA is only found in males because women do not have Y-chromosomes, and so with no maternal counterpart with which to recombine, it passes intact across the generations, from father to son, exactly like the clan name. Only a few mutations occur in Y-chromosome DNA at relatively regular intervals, so by comparing the Y-chromosome DNA mutations of people from different parts of the world, it is possible to trace the migration of humans out of Africa and across the world, and consequently to pinpoint the geographical origins of a man’s patrilineal ancestors.

The research included collection of buccal cells from male research participants and analysis of their Y chromosome DNA, providing an additional, independent source of information relating to ancestry that can confirm or challenge claims made based on oral history. Ethnographic research into the performance of distinctive ancestor rituals by clan members explored the continuing relevance of foreign ancestry in the contemporary context of rural communities in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Clan membership fulfils important ritual functions because according to the tenets of the traditional ancestor religion, which is still widely practiced, deceased ancestors retain an interest in their living descendants. If they are satisfactorily commemorated, they will send blessings, but if neglected, they will cause misfortune and ill-health to afflict their descendants or their descendants’ children. Ancestors are venerated through the performance of rituals which involve the sacrifice of an animal, the brewing of traditional beer, and the recitation of clan praises. These comprise a list of ancestral names interspersed with metaphorical allusions to some of their attributes and achievements. Oral histories of clans descended from foreigners and the biographies of such clan founders are therefore recalled, not only out of interest, but because the traditional ancestor religion requires that such knowledge is preserved.

The amaMolo and abeLungu clans from Pondoland and Bomvanaland respectively for example, were said to have descended from Asian and European shipwreck survivors, and have been described by historians such as Soga (1930), Kirby (1954), Crampton (2004) and Taylor (2005). Contemporary groupings of both were located for this study. Other clans originated more recently, four of which were identified for purposes of this study: amaCaine, amaOgle, amaFrance and amaIrish.

The foreign ancestry of these clans is expressed in multiple ways, one of which is the clan names themselves. AbeLungu for example, translates as “the whites” and was probably conferred upon the clan founders by their host community. The word “molo” translates as “hello” and amaMolo oral tradition explains their clan name by referring to their clan founders’ inability to speak isiXhosa. Having learned the greeting however, they then repeated it frequently, to the extent that they became associated with it. Both these clan names deviate from local convention in which a clan is most commonly named after its founder. AmaCaine and amaOgle on the other hand follow convention, these having been the surnames of their clan founders, John Cane and Henry Ogle respectively. In the case of amaFrance and amaIrish, the names of their forebears have not survived oral recall, but their presumed nationalities are preserved in their clan names.


Velani Dukuza and her mother of the amaFrance clan in Pondoland

In some cases, the ancestor rituals themselves are another means by which foreign ancestry is expressed. At amaMolo ritual ceremonies for example, bread is cut into small pieces and shared among participants in much the way of Holy Communion, something which is not practiced among local clans descended from amaMpondo or amaBomvana forebears. AmaMolo clan members also tie strings of white beads around their wrists after life cycle rituals performed in their honour, whereas clans of African descent use thongs made from the skin of the sacrificed animal. Although for the most part identical to rituals performed by other Cape Nguni clans, some of those performed by members of clans descended from foreign entrants into the culture exert subtle changes or additions to conventional practice by incorporating aspects associated with European culture. Thus the ancestry of their clan founders is commemorated not only in clan names and clan praises, but also in elements of the ancestor rituals themselves.

More than 80% of the Y-chromosome DNA collected from clan members indicated haplogroups of European or Asian origin, thereby confirming claims of foreign ancestry in oral traditions. Only in the case of one clan was an African Y-chromosome DNA haplogroup found across all agnates. This can be explained by the social convention in which the children of unmarried women are accepted as honorary offspring of their maternal grandfathers, and belong to his clan. Hence in the case of illegitimacy, clan membership is assigned through the mother, meaning that men and their descendants whose membership was constituted in this way would not belong to Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups denoting European ancestry. Their claims of foreign descent would not however be unfounded, simply not visible biologically.

Long before beginning this study, I was in Mpondoland conducting other research when I was approached by a man living in the community in which I was working. He informed me that I was his cousin! I was intrigued as to what he could possibly mean by this. He went on to explain that he was the great-great-great grandson of an Englishman. His claimed kinship with me, a white woman, was based on our presumed shared race. His ancestor was John Cane, founder of the amaCaine clan, and I subsequently re-established contact with my putative kinsman and his agnates for the purposes of this research.

The assumption of kinship stemming from shared race was also evident in some of the clans that participated in this research. In the case of amaFrance, for example, although Y-chromosome DNA analysis confirmed that all clan members were descended from European forebears, some belonged to one European haplogroup, others to a different one. The same was true in the case of descendants of a more recent entrant into the abeLungu clan, a man by the name of Alfred Horner. The oral traditions of each of these clans claimed descent from single European forebears, yet Y-chromosome DNA analysis indicated two unrelated forebears in each clan. Conceptions of kinship must therefore have derived from common European ancestry and a shared history of clan founders being incorporated into Cape Nguni society. Kinship stemming from perceived brotherhood based on shared race and history cannot of course be verified by DNA, but as in the case of the conferral of clan membership through the maternal line in the case of illegitimacy, social norms ultimately outweigh biological facts.

Like many anthropological studies, this work starts with an interesting story, in this case one that has the potential to reconfigure commonplace notions concerning national, racial and cultural boundaries. Instead of relying entirely on the western academic tradition, it takes account of other modes of knowledge production. In rejection of the notion that only one side of history is true, it records multiple voices – those of the powerful and also the ordinary. The study deals with race and racial identification, but confirms the superficiality of these constructed differences by offering evidence of their submergence in the unifying power of kinship and descent. By offering different potentials for the complexities of integration across these artificial divisions, it shows that nationalism, racism and ethnocentrism need not be the default positions they appear to be.



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