Saturday, 16 June 2018

West Africa Update 3 - A possible connection?

One of the extremely few documented Black people in Norway in early modern times is a man known as Christian Hansen Ernst (c. 1660-1694). He is somewhat famous in Norway for being the country's first Black civil servant.

His original name is said to have been Christian Henry Ernest. He is assumed to have been born into slavery around 1660, probably in England, and was later brought from London to Norway around 1670 by Ulrik Frederik Gyldenløve (viceroy of Norway and later Count of Jarlsberg). In Norway, Christian Henry Ernest became known as Christian Hansen Ernst. For the next ten years or so, Ernst worked as a page or lackey - he might even have been a house slave - at Gyldenløve’s courts in Copenhagen and Christiania (Oslo), where he went by the nickname “Sorte Henrik” (“Black Henry”).

According to local tradition, Ernst started working as postmaster in the town of Kragerø in southeastern Norway in the year 1681 (however, according to documentary sources, he might not actually have been postmaster, but an employee at the customs office). Tragically, Ernst was stabbed to death in 1694, allegedly in a brawl over a woman (though this is also disputed). The street where this happened is known today as "Stabber's Alley". It is said that in Kragerø, Ernst "charmed women to such a degree that he fathered several children". In other words, there might be a large number of Norwegians out there who unknowingly descend from illegitimate children of Christian Hansen Ernst.

Could my family be among them?

As described in Scenario 2 in my last blog post on this topic, it is possible that “Our West African ancestor came to Europe early on (e.g. in the 1600s), either from the Caribbean or directly from Africa. [And that h]e or she had at least one child with a white person, and descendants of this child later settled in Denmark and Norway. [And that o]ne of these descendants - who might have passed for white and might well have been unaware of his own African ancestry - sailed to the Caribbean (not necessarily Haiti; descendants may have moved there later on) and fathered a child there, a child who became an ancestor of Robert Stark. This scenario fits with all the known facts.”

In Christian Hansen Ernst, we have a candidate for a (wholly or partly) West African ancestor who was in "Europe early on [and] had at least one child with a white person". In fact, Ernst might very well be the only documented candidate living in Norway in the 1600s. The fact that he is rumoured to have fathered a number of illegitimate children makes him not only a possible candidate, but a likely one.

Ernst lived in Larvik and, from 1681, in Kragerø where he worked in the customs office under the supervision of another Englishman, James Wicker. Kragerø is not too far away from the Agder counties, where Daniel Davidsen’s ancestors lived (cf. map at the end of this blog post). There are many ways in which he could have met one of Daniel’s female ancestors and impregnated her.

Is there any particular branch of Daniel’s ancestors that is more likely than others to have come into contact with customs authorities (and, by extension, with Ernst)? I have looked through all the ancestors of Daniel Davidsen who were born between 1671 and 1695 (i.e. the ones who were conceived while Ernst was living in Norway). Almost all of them were children of farmers with strong roots in their local communities, and none of them are known to have travelled much. However, there is one who is different. That person is Daniel’s direct paternal great-great-grandfather, Søren Sørensson Neseim, born in 1691 or 1695. He was the son of Søren Jensen Floss, a Danish-born tailor, and his wife Marthe Cornelisdatter, whose patronymic might indicate a Dutch origin. The couple had at least two children who emigrated abroad – a son who went to the Netherlands and another son who went to Copenhagen. It does not seem unreasonable that Søren Jensen Floss and Marthe Cornelisdatter would have had contact with Norwegian customs officials at various points in their lives, for various reasons.

Could Søren Sørensson Neseim (1691/95-1770) have been one of the illegitimate children of Christian Hansen Ernst?

This question could have been answered quickly and precisely by performing a Y-DNA test on a documented male-line descendant of Ernst. However, I am not aware of any documented living descendant of Ernst, male-line or otherwise. I'm not even aware of any rumoured living descendant of Ernst. This makes it extremely difficult for anyone to prove descent from him.

What little we know of the circumstances surrounding Søren Sørensson Neseim's birth is that he was the youngest known child of Søren Davidsen Floss and Marthe Cornelisdatter, and that he was born in either 1691 or 1695. In my opinion, 1691 is more likely because his parents would both have been 46 years old at that time (in 1695 his mother would have been 50, an unlikely age for giving birth). Søren's known siblings were supposedly born in 1671, 1680 and 1685 respectively. We do not know where Søren was born. It might have been in Vanse, but he might also have been born before his parents moved there.

The English connection

One fact that points towards Søren Sørensson Neseim being a possible connection to Ernst is the fact that his Y-DNA (tested by my grandmother’s brother, his direct male descendant) seems to originate in England. The haplogroup is R1b-U106, and since my grandmother’s brother matches two persons with the ancestral surnames Kellam and Kallam, I contacted the administrator of the Kellam Y-DNA project at FTDNA. (The match list is short; the only Norwegian match is a known, rather close cousin, and the only other Scandinavian is a man with a Danish surname. One is an adoptee. The other seven all seem to be of English or Scottish descent on the paternal line). The project administrator is of the opinion that my grandmother’s brother’s Y-DNA lineage originated in England in relatively recent times. Christian Hansen Ernst did come from London, and it is not unlikely that he might have had a white English father or grandfather.

There is, of course, also the family story that my great-great-grandfather Nils Lister had English ancestors. The story that my grandmother and her sister had heard was that Nils himself was the illegitimate son of an Englishman, but this has been shown to be incorrect. However, might there not still be a kernel of truth to the family rumour? Perhaps the story originally referred to an older connection to England, as far back as the 1600s? It certainly fits very well with the Y-DNA findings. Søren Sørensson Neseim is Nils Lister’s direct paternal ancestor.

If Søren was an illegitimate son of Christian Hansen Ernst, it would explain both the English Y-DNA and the West African autosomal admixture, as well as the family story.

The Haitian connection

If our West African DNA does come from Ernst, and not from a more recent mixed-race ancestor from the Caribbean (as in Scenario 1), then we have to account for our family's Haitian-descended matches. How did we come to be related to them?

One of our more recent ancestors (on the line descended from Ernst) must have travelled to the Caribbean and had a child there, bringing West African admixture from Norway to the Caribbean. Such a voyage is very possible, since we know that there was trade between Vanse and Haiti, at least in the mid-1800s. Our genetic match to the Haitians suggests that it might have been one of my 3rd great-grandfather Daniel Davidsen's grandfathers who was the common ancestor. If it is Søren Sørensson Neseim who is our connection to Ernst, then the sailor who went to Haiti cannot have been Daniel's maternal grandfather Tønnes Salvesson Sveiga, since he is not a descendant of Søren. It must have been his paternal grandfather, Søren Davidsson Neseim (1751-1831), the direct paternal grandson of Søren Sørensson Neseim. Søren Davidsson is listed as a los, a pilot, in the census of 1801; in other words, he was a seafarer by profession, and might very well have sailed with the merchant fleet in his younger days, in the 1760s, the 1770s and even the early 1780s. By the time Søren Davidsson Neseim married his wife in 1784, he was already 33 years old.

The fact that Christian Hansen Ernst is rumoured to have fathered several illegitimate children during his time in Denmark-Norway could explain why we have several matches on the African segment who are of Danish descent, with no known Norwegian ancestors. Admittedly, these matches can be explained in other ways too - they might be descendants of Black or mixed-race people emigrating from the Caribbean to Scandinavia in earlier times. However, hypothesizing common descent from a prolific Black man known to have lived in Denmark/Norway in the 1600s is perhaps more prudent than assuming several undocumented migrations of Black or mixed-race individuals from the West Indies to Scandinavia in the 1600s and 1700s. Or is it?

One friend of mine, an experienced genealogist, believes it is more likely that we descend from a more recent Haitian ancestor than from Christian Hansen Ernst.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

Map showing the locations of Vanse and Kragerø. Source (Creative Commons 2.5). Place indicators added; otherwise unchanged from original.

Read more about Christian Hansen Ernst here (unfortunately, most of the web pages about him are in Norwegian): (telling the story in English)

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