Monday, 19 February 2018

My enslaved ancestor

EDIT 9 May 2018: My theory of Haitian ancestry - including my descent from Jeanne Galbo - is proven wrong. Our African DNA comes from a different line!

You read correctly. Although I was born in Northern Europe with dark blonde hair, blue eyes and skin type 2, the fact is that my family does have a little bit of African DNA, and I have - with good help! - quite recently worked out a likely ancestral line leading back to documented ancestors who, sadly, were victims (and indeed also perpetrators) of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. I repeat, the myth of "racial purity" is just that: A myth. And I am extremely proud to be descended from people who survived some of the worst atrocities ever committed by human beings against other human beings. These people deserve to be lovingly and respectfully remembered by their "white" descendants as well as their Black ones.

My family's connection to slavery is, not surprisingly, my Haitian (likely) 5th great-grandfather Pierre Dérival Lévêque (1788-1852). His ancestral background is being researched by a genealogist, C.L. (who has approved this blog post), and since I am not sure how much of it is still work in progress, I choose to leave out the details regarding the connection between Dérival and his likely grandmother, who is my closest known ancestor to have been enslaved during her lifetime.

Her name was Jeanne Galbo, and she is my likely 7th great-grandmother.

Colonial records in Saint-Domingue (which I have seen and read, courtesy of C.L.) describe Jeanne as a nègresse, i.e. a woman of fully African ancestry. She must have been born around 1730-1732, most likely in Saint-Domingue (the French colony which was the precursor of Haiti) and not in Africa. The reason why I believe this is because both her parents are recorded with French names: François Galbo and Jeanne Galbo, which indicates that they both must have lived in a French colony. Galbo might have been the surname of their original slave-master, or perhaps they worked at the sugar plantation Galbaud du Fort, which opened in 1690.

A sugar mill in Saint-Domingue. Source (public domain).

Since it is very unlikely that the whole family was brought from Africa together, I think it was François and Jeanne senior who would have been born in Africa, probably West Africa (see final "PS" paragraph for my thoughts about this); that they were brought separately to the Caribbean in the 1720s, and that they met in Saint-Domingue. It is also possible, though less likely, that the families of François and Jeanne had been living in Saint-Domingue for several generations already.

Jeanne Galbo's life is mysterious in many ways. In an early record (the baptism of a son born in 1747) she is called nègresse libre, while in a seemingly later record (the 1751 baptism of a daughter) she is called nègresse esclave. What does this mean? Could Jeanne have been born free? Was she free for a while and then re-enslaved? Or is this a case of sloppy record-keeping? It's very difficult to say. The only thing we know for sure is that she was enslaved during part of her life, including the year 1751. The genealogist C.L. believes Jeanne started out as a slave and was later freed. It might be possible that the son was actually baptized later than his sister; his baptism record is difficult to read and I can't make out the actual year of the baptism.

Jeanne gave birth to her first child in 1744. Between 1744 and 1753 she had four children in total, all fathered by her owner and master, a man named Louis Lévêque (1709-1763). In 1744, Louis would have been 35 years old, and Jeanne would have been no older than 14, perhaps as young as 12. There would have been nothing truly consensual about their relationship. It might well have been violent.

Interestingly, Louis was himself of mixed descent, described as a quarteron libre, which means that he had an African grandparent who was undoubtedly brought to Saint-Domingue as a slave. This fact obviously did not deter Louis from owning slaves himself.

We do not know what kind of slave Jeanne was. Louis lived in Boucassin in Arcahaie (kreyol: Lakayè) in the modern-day Ouest department of Haiti, and I assume he must have been some kind of plantation owner, but this is really just a guess on my part. Jeanne might have toiled in sugar or coffee fields or she might have been a domestic slave in Louis' household. Either way, her life would have been indescribably hard. I find it impossible to imagine what it would have been like to be the legal possession of another human being, and to be deprived of all freedom. And in Saint-Domingue, slaves were treated notoriously bad and often given inhumane punishments for slight misdemeanors. These conditions were the main reason behind the slave revolts that marked the beginning of the Haitian Revolution.

As Henri Christophe's personal secretary, who himself lived more than half his life as a slave, describes:

"Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to consume faeces? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man eating-dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?" (Source)

Did my ancestor Jeanne witness things like this? It's not just possible, but likely. The Encyclopedia of Political Revolutions, by Jack A. Goldstone, describes slavery in Saint-Domingue as a literal use-and-discard cycle:

"The slave-labor system of Saint-Domingue was particularly harsh. Slaves were overexploited to the point of exhaustion. Extreme labor practices, combined with an inadequate diet and health care, resulted in a higher death rate than birth rate among slaves. Had it not been for the constant supply of new slaves from the African slave trade, the slave population of Saint-Domingue would have died out. Thus, when the slave revolt began in 1791, the majority of the slave population had been recently imported from Africa."

In such conditions, the fact that Jeanne herself survived is a miracle in itself, but who knows what psychological and emotional trauma she must have endured? Who knows if she had siblings or friends who underwent abuse, torture and/or murder at the hands of their masters? Who knows what happened to her parents, François and Jeanne senior?

For more information about slavery in Saint-Domingue and elsewhere in the Caribbean, see Anna Bayala's well-referenced blog post on the topic.

As we know, Jeanne was eventually freed, and in 1763, her master Louis died. I expect Jeanne was forced to manage on her own. As a nègresse, Jeanne would have been at the very bottom of the social ladder, whether slave or free. We know that she and her descendants continued to live in Arcahaie, perhaps to stay close to their existing social and kinship networks, or perhaps because they didn't have the means to travel.

Jeanne gave birth to her last known child in 1779, by which time she would have been in her late 40s. The child was a girl, and the father is unknown. After this, Jeanne disappears from the records, and we do not know what happened to her, or where and when she died. She was probably alive when the Haitian Revolution began in 1791, she probably lived through the abolition of slavery in 1793, and it is absolutely possible that she lived to see the Black army's victory and Haitian independence in 1804. She would have been in her early 70s by then.

I wonder what her thoughts were.

PS: Africa, obviously, is an enormous continent. I wish I knew where in Africa Jeanne's ancestors came from; however, the records don't say. My family's African DNA seems to point towards the Senegal area as well as Madagascar, but this could be connected to any side of Dérival Lévêque's ancestry and not necessarily Jeanne Galbo. Most slaves were captured in Western areas of Africa, which makes it likely that Jeanne's ancestors came from that part of the continent.


  1. Very interesting and informative post. It's amazing what terrors we humans are capable of perpetrating on our fellow men/women.

    Thanks for the skin type chart. I'm somewhere between type 2 and 3: brown hair, brown/green eyes, yellow undertones to my skin. I get very dark in the summer, especially when I've been swimming outdoors a few times a week. My son is like me but my daughter has a more ivory skin tone.

  2. It's interesting how skin tone can be different just from one generation to another, and between siblings. It really illustrates how arbitrary and imaginary "racial" classifications are!