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How many generations back do we need to go?

If we go back whatever it is, 16 generations or summat, then everyone is an ancestor – the entire species is. Well, close enough.

So, how many do we need to go back that all English are of all English? 5? 10?

The document instructs a ship’s captain to deliver the enslaved Africans to Edward Porteus, a tobacco plantation owner in Virginia, and two other men. Porteus’s son, Robert, inherited his father’s estate before moving his family to England, in 1720. Later a direct descendant, Frances Smith, married the aristocrat Claude Bowes-Lyon. Their granddaughter was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late queen mother.

300 years, perhaps 6 to what, 9 grandfathers? How many aren’t descendants of slave owners – and slaves – at that distance?

35 thoughts on “How many generations back do we need to go?”

  1. “The document instructs a ship’s captain to deliver the enslaved Africans to Edward Porteus, a tobacco plantation owner in Virginia…”

    Did he actually receive them, though? I mean, we were told by Evri that we had a delivery in time for Christmas, but there was no sign of it.

  2. How many generations back do we need to go?

    In the case of those currently demanding SAS-style exits from Sudan, a country they voluntarily entered and stayed in contentedly until the predictable troubles kicked off, I would guess it doesn’t matter how many generations you go back searching for English ancestry. You’re not going to find it.

  3. Ten generations – 2^10 =256 so it’s odd-on that King Charles III has not inherited a single chromosome from that slaveowner in the time of King Charles II.

  4. This is all mathematics nonsense. In the real world, easy travel’s a recent phenomenon. Before that people rarely travelled far from where they were born. Even now, I know people up in the inland towns of this province who’ve never been as far as Malaga. A mere 60km. Given the geography, the town in the next valley would be a mighty endeavour before cars & metalled roads. So people’s breeding pool would be severely limited. Hence “Normal for Norfolk”. For most of history the average speed of transit was around 2 mph.

  5. To answer Tim’s question, it depends on how much mixing of classes there is. Let’s assume that a slaveowner must also be a landowner. If the landowner regularly exercises his droit du seigneur then yes, many ordinary people will have slaveowners as ancestors. But if the upper and lower classes rarely intermingled, then few people would have slaveowner ancestry.

  6. Since in a previous thread, you’ve pointed out that Bill the Bastard abolished slavery in England when he colonised the place in 1066, it would be more to the point to ask how many of those Africans had slave owning ancestors. I’d guess 100%.

    So since they all supported selling their local pests to the whites, I’d argue that they all owe us lots of money for dumping the nuisances they are onto us.

  7. @BIS


    Currently doing some family research and between 1750 and 1900 hardly any of my ancestors moved outside the a radius of ten miles – and they all married within that distance to one of four or five families

    The only exceptions are a handful of mariners or those that joined the Royal Navy or Army

    Interesting how much that changed post 1900 – education, opportunity and two world wars

  8. And railways, Starfish.

    But it is true, even in London my ancestral family hardly married outside their borough.

  9. @starfish
    Indeed. My paternal surname comes from a village close to the Cheshire/Welsh frontier. It took a ‘de’ prefix when French was popular. The site that does the prevalence of surnames has about 300 people in the UK share it. About three-quarters live a bus ride from Liverpool. (G/F was actually a New Zealander came over with the ANZACs for the Gallipoli beach party. GGF – Liverpool, although presumably & hopefully not Scouse. I’ve shown no inherited desire to collect hubcaps)

  10. squawkbox:

    “the bicycle. The best remedy to inbreeding ever.”

    Makes sense. Although the first boneshakers couldn’t get you beyond the horny cousin zone, they crushed your testicles in trying.

  11. “Before that people rarely travelled far from where they were born.” I wonder. I grew up on the edge of a small town with a harbour. Sailors from the town had been to Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore … in the mid 19th century. Maybe you reckon the mid 19th century as recent. Fair enough: for some purposes it is.

    Maybe your rule applies to inland people far from a navigable river. But even then cities were killing grounds until the end of the 19th century and replenished their populations, and grew them, with incomers. So those incomers travelled from their places of birth.

  12. Dearie: My thoughts also. My family is all from a coastal fishing/whaling/trading town, about half of my ancestors were either women who came down on the boats following the fish gutting trade and stayed, or men who came from other ports and hooked up with a local women. There’s a handful from the other side of the North Sea as well, as for coastal towns Bergen and Hamburg are closer in transport terms than Leeds.

  13. Before that people rarely travelled far from where they were born.

    Not entirely true. The village where I was born, in the 1901 census, had a remarkable spread of origins. Sure it was a relatively new village (about 12-15 years old in 1901) established to house workers at the local pit. My maternal grandparents are a case in point. My grandfather was from Wandsworth and my grandmother a Derbyshire lass (but not from that village). They met and married in Dublin, my g/f in the army and my g/m in service, before settling in my village.
    I suspect the late Victorian industrial development, for men, and prevalence of domestic service for women created a lot of geographical spread.

  14. @ Sweet Gene
    That just makes it even more unlikely that Charles has inherited a chromosome from a Charles II-era slaveowner. If you want to argue that he may have inherited one single gene from that slaveowner (not an enslaver) then the probability is still well below “evens”.
    Just because “it is more complicated than that” doesn’t make the simple answer the opposite of the truth: over the last hundred millennia people have used decent approximations as a guide *because they work*

  15. North Korea and the Soviet Union went back fewer generations to hold people responsible for things.

  16. john77: It’s about as likely that he inherited an intact chromosome from a Charles II-era slaveowner as an intact loaf of bread.

    The probability of inheriting one or more genes from a given ancestor n generations back would be very hard to calculate – it depends on the distribution of recombination sites.

    There’s nothing wrong with a decent approximation, if you’d like to suggest one.

  17. @ asiaunseen & dearieme
    You’re both talking not much more than a century ago. 4-5 generations. And it’s really the Industrial Revolution & the increase in internal commerce encourages people to move about. There’s some overlap with the slaving days but not much. And to get a genetic link to a one-time slaver, you need the ones that returned to Britain. That’s only going to be the wealthy. Most of us are descended from the poor & interclass breeding’s remarkably recent.

  18. Putting all this together I’d reckon the proportion of people who have the ancestry of slave holders is insignificant. Although much more prevalent amongst the Guardian classes.

  19. Personally, for reparations I’d put a half a million quid tax on Oxbridge degrees. That’d catch most of the generationally responsible & serve the bastards right for the damage they do the country.

  20. @ Sweet Gene
    The reasonable approximation is zero, just as is the reasonable approximation to the probability that I have inherited anything from a slaveowner.

  21. I typed my grandparents surnames into some website which claimed to show where most people with such names hailed from. Big blob in the Northwest where I grew up.

    It’s hardly a surprise that people from coastal towns and villages got about more. Yokels from Cheshire, Lancashire and Shropshire, not so much.

  22. North Korea and the Soviet Union went back fewer generations to hold people responsible for things.

    Just the examples of societies we want to follow…

  23. @ bis
    Much more prevalent among mixed-race in the southern states of the USA.
    As someone who got to Oxford on a Scholarship as the son of two people who each got to Oxford on scholarships with no family history of anything to do with slavery, I could possibly be biassed; but the massive benefits created for the ignorant by those educated at Oxford and Cambridge outweigh the damage caused by a handful (mostly with PPE degrees or Communist traitors).
    FYI my father, as Chemical Engineer, did more to clean uo the local atmospehere thanthe whole ofthe “Green Partyy” since its formation. Do you include that in your summary of the damage done by Oxbridge-educated?

  24. John. How many mathematicians or physicists would be needed to compensate for just one Matt Hancock or Anthony Blair? The number must run to three figures. We’re well on the losing side of this deal.

  25. “So, how many do we need to go back that all English are of all English?”

    No distance gives you that, unless you have a very strange definition of “English”. There has been no period during which England existed and in which no interbreeding occurred – especially with the Welsh and Scottish, but in smaller numbers from Ireland, France, etc in Europe and further away. That’s assuming you’ll count as English everyone born in England to at least one English parent. For example, Queen Victoria was born in London, had Prince Edward as her father, so would count as English, but her mother was German.

  26. “The probability of inheriting one or more genes from a given ancestor n generations back would be very hard to calculate”

    No it ain’t. For 99.8% of our genome we are essentially the same, and deviation from it …welll… Not Pretty, so the question is moot.

    For the 0,2% that makes up all our differences… That stuff is meant to be highly volatile, to the point of us, as a species, having invented the wheel several times over in at the time entirely separate locations over the last 50k years or so. And Stuff…
    So the question is “Moot”, when n gets that first exponent. Which is roughly 250-300 years. Anything beyond that is sniping with a blindfold.

  27. @ bis
    One mathematician or one physicist has been more than enough to compensate for Matt hancock and Anthony Blair combined.
    In the case of Oxford Christopher Wren, Cambridge Isaac Newton

  28. John. You really don’t get this, do you? The reputable parts of Oxbridge have had ample time to distance themselves from the assorted bunch of grievance grinders, closet & not so closet commies, con-merchants, airheads & the utterly barking make up the rest of them. You are known by the company you keep. In this age of credentialism can you blame people if they look on university degree holders with deep suspicion? Even deeper when they’ve attended those particular establishments. But you lacked to courage to do it, didn’t you? Now you pay the price.

  29. @ bis
    Ironic that you choose to insult me by saying I lack courage while sitting at a desk a thousand miles away…
    It’s not even a credible attempt to save yourself from having to admit that you are wrong after my simple two-line refutation of your previous, ridiculously wrong, insult.

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