This is the second post in my blogseries about a Dutch woman (Annemieke van der Vegt) who is in an ongoing search for her West African forefather (named Christiaan van der Vegt after his baptization in 1777). In the first post i discussed how AncestryDNA can be very helpful when trying to trace African ancestry. It provided Annemieke with conclusive evidence of her African genetic inheritance. Furthermore i gave an overview of Annemiekes astonishing archival research findings sofar. Follow these links for more details:
Many fascinating details about Christiaan’s life have been uncovered by Annemieke already. The one thing she is still very eager to discover though is his original name given to him by his parents. And also his ethnic identity before getting caught up in the slave trade as a child and being forcibly relocated to the Netherlands. This blog post will therefore be centered around the question facing not only Annemieke but many Afro-descendants in the Diaspora: Is it possible to pinpoint a plausible ethnic origin for one’s African bloodline?
***Map 1 (click to enlarge)
Exploring 1 plausible ethnic possibility: the “Sokko” from Nsoko
“the town was also known as ‘Nsoko’ from an old Akan term for the Malinke speaking population in general” (Wilks, 1982, p. 345)
“The quarter occupied by the immigrant Mande was known to the Akan-speaking people to the south as Nsoko, and through Akan informants it was by this name that the European merchants on the Gold Coast, some 200 miles to the south, came to know Begho. The name Nsoko survived into the nineteenth century as that of the region around the former Begho, and Namasa, on the edge of the ruined township, was considered its capital” (Wilks, 1961, p.26)
“By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the people of the Gold Coast were connected through the intricacies of trade and the political structure of Asante. The only area free of Asante suzerainty was the Fante region, but this changed in 1807, when Asante conquered the area. The major areas under Asante rule in the north included Banda, Bron, Dagomba, Gonja, Guasso, Gyaman, Nkoransa, Nsoko, and Takyiman; in the southeast there were the Ga and Adanme, and in the eastern region were the Assin, Sehwi, Denkyera, Wassaw, and Nzima.”. (Shillington, K. (2005, p.565).
“On the seventeenth century Dutch map of the Gold Coast published in 1629; the name of the town is spelt Nsoko or Bego and that there is another Soko inhabited by the pagan Hwela across Cote d’Ivoire on the road of Bonduku. […]“ (source: The story of Nsoko)
Dutch Map of the Gold Coast from 1629, showing location of Nsoko (1=’Insoco’)
***Map 2 (click to enlarge)
Ethnolinguistic map of Ghana showing the small area where presentday Mande speakers reside
***Map 3 (click to enlarge)
The main idea behind this blogpost is to illustrate some of the possibilities as well as difficulties or even pitfalls when wanting to trace back the historical ethnic identities of enslaved African ancestors. I will be exploring in particular one single ethnic possibility (out of many others!): the socalled “Sokko” (also spelled Socco/Succo or Soco/Suco). Sokko was an ethnonym which has appeared in several European historical accounts to describe enslaved Africans across the West Indies as well as in Surinam. It was presumably used for Mande speaking captives who were shipped from Ghana, formerly known as the Gold Coast.
By choosing to zoom into just one ethnic possibility i am naturally not wanting to rule out the plausibility of any other ancestral scenario! Nor do i wish to steer Annemieke’s research on any predetermined course. Many other ethnic possibilities will remain unexplored! Although i will mention some of them in the last section of this blog post. The principal reasons i picked out the Sokko are as follows:
- Nsoko’s location within presentday Ghana. As already announced in the first part of this blog series (ROOTS S1E1) i am departing from the premise that Christiaan was shipped to the Netherlands from Elmina, a fortress on the Dutch Gold Coast. Shipment from other places such as Senegambia, Sierra Leone or Liberia is not taken into further consideration.
- The 3% “Mali” and 1% “Ivory Coast/Ghana” scores reported for Annemiekes father on AncestryDNA. These admixture results are reported as Trace Regions which are being assigned with low confidence by AncestryDNA. Nonetheless i am regarding them as valuable clues into Christiaan’s African origins. Especially Mande speaking origins being made more plausible. Even when in fact socalled “Mali” scores might imply a vast array of other possible ancestral scenario’s as well (see this overview as well as these individual scores).
- The Sokko ethnonym provides a fitting example of how a close study of Afro-Diasporan history combined with (pre-)colonial African history as well as genetics & ethnolinguistics can potentially be very insightful. However it also demonstrates the remaining contradictions and uncertainties when wanting to zoom into ethnic identities which are usually fluid and context-dependent rather than fixated in time.
- Annemieke has already blogged herself about a similar hypothesis involving Mande speaking origins from either Mali itself or within presentday Ghana. My blog post is meant as a further elaboration of this idea.
The origins of socalled Sokko captives are rather obscure and often not well known or agreed upon among historians. But quite likely their ethnic designation in the Americas was referring to a Dyula trading city called Nsoko (formerly also spelled Insocco and nowadays Nsawkaw) located in the border area between Ivory Coast and Ghana (see map 1). This town was also known as Begho (see Wilks 1961 & 1982). Its role in the medieval Trans-Saharan gold trade is well known and also confirmed by spectacular archeological findings. During later timeperiods it seems more conflict arose, in particular caused by the expansion of the Ashanti empire. See this map which mentions Nsoko being conquered around 1722. This may have been the reason “Sokko” became attached as a label to describe captives who either originated directly from this town and its surrounding area or were collected from this town to march to the Gold Coast a.k.a. the Coast of Guinea.
The Mande presence within Ghana has been described by both Portuguese and Dutch sources (see Wilks 1961 & 1982 and Map 2). However nowadays only a very tiny minority of Mande speaking people still live in Ghana. They are no longer known as Sokko but rather as Ligbi-speakers, who are estimated to number only around 10,000 people (see map 3). So the chances of this ancestral scenario being valid for Christiaan may not be deemed very high. Still several aspects about Christiaan’s life story; the historical context of Dutch slave trading in that particular timeperiod; as well as the AncestryDNA results of Annemiekes father (incl. 3% socalled “Mali) do seem to be in line.
I would like to stress from the outset that given the lack of historical documentation this blog post is merely intended to be indicative and in no way conclusive! Much of it will be speculative by necessity. I will often be relying on at best circumstantial evidence as well as my personal interpretation and personal selection of relevant sources. As a layman and given the complexity of this topic i naturally cannot be expected to have a complete overview nor perfect grasp of all the existant literature/knowledge. Any final confirmation is hopefully to be provided by combining future DNA test results (African DNA matches for either Annemiekes father or any of the other known descendants of Christiaan) with future new findings in Annemieke’s archival research.
For more details on Nsoko and the Mande presence in Ghana see:
- Akan Brass Casting (photo essay of archeological findings in Nsoko)
- Clarke, D. (2008). “The Cloth from Bondoukou: textiles of the Ghana/ Ivory Coast border”
- “History of the Muslim Mande in the Cercle de Bondoukoou and west central Ghana“. Chapter 4 from Bravmann, R. (1974), Islam and tribal art in West Africa.
- “Le royaume de Nsawko (Nsawkaw)” (pp. 112-118 from Les Akan: peuples et civilisations).
- Wilks, I. (1961). The Northern Factor in Ashanti History: Begho and the Mande. The Journal of African History, 2, (1), 25-34.
- Wilks, I. (1982). Wangara, Akan and Portuguese in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. 1. The Matter of Bitu. The Journal of African History, 23, (3), 333-349.
“Sokko” references from the West Indies
“We have from Oldendorp some accounts of the Sokko or Asokko, a nation bordering on the Amina, in the country near that coast. Oldendorp was acquainted with three individuals of the tribe, who stated that their country was a seven-weeks’ journey distant from the sea-shore. Their sovereign, who had many subordinate kings under him, was termed Mansa. They carry on defensive wars against the Amina, who make kidnapping incursions into their territory.
The language of the Asokko, as far as we can judge from a vocabulary of it given by Oldendorp, compared with another specimen of the idiom of the Jallunkan, or Jallonka, bears to the latter a close affinity, as do both of them to the Mandingo“. (Cowles Prichard, 1837, p.75).
““With regard to the relative strength of the nations on the Danish islands Oldendorp writes (p. 486): After the Creioles the Amina are the most numerous, followed by the Karabari and Ibo, then the Sokko, Watje, Kassenti and Congo, and after these the Kanga, Papaa and Loango. The others are less numerous, there are very few Angola, and the Fula are the fewest.” (Jones, 2010)
“Captives from the Sokko people incorporated Christian and Muslim fasting, prayer rituals, and the use of a holy book into their religious observances.” (Catron, 2008, p.103)
As can be seen in the quotes above “Sokko” (also spelled as Asokko, Succo/Socco, Suco/Soco) was used as an ethnonym by Europeans to refer to enslaved Africans living in the West Indies with a presumed origin from the Nsoko city/region situated in presentday Ghana but near the border with presentday Ivory Coast. Especially the 18th century testimony of Oldendorp is priceless. Oldendorp was a Moravian missionary who was stationed in the Virgin Islands in 1767-1768. During his stay there he interviewed dozens of slaves about their beliefs, history, ethnicity etc. The Sokko were one among the many socalled “nations” he encountered and described. The neighbours of the Sokko, the Amina, are also described by him and are a known reference to Akan speaking captives shipped from the Dutch Elmina castle. Aside from providing confirmation on Sokko’s location (interior of Gold Coast); as well as their Mande language (related to Mandingo), intriguingly he might also have described some of the (syncretized?) Islamic beliefs they still retained.
Another fascinating aspect is that he came across a heavy Dutch influence in the Virgin Islands despite it being under Danish rule while he was there. Many of the slave-owning planters were Dutchmen. And as a linguistic legacy they left a now regrettably extinct Dutch-based Creole language: socalled “NegerHollands“. This might be especially relevant for Annemiekes case as it may be suggestive in some way that Dutch slave trading patterns involved a considerable number of Sokko captives, atleast in that time period (mid 1700’s).
For more details follow these links:
- The Danish West Indies (short info on Oldendorp & the Virgin Islands)
- Overview of African nations (incl. Sokko) identified by Oldendorp (Jones, 2010)
- Virgin Islands Roots (part 2) (Tracing African Roots)
- Language and history in the former Danish Antilles: non-linguistic data for a diachronic description of Negro-Dutch (Stolz, 1986)
- Die Creol taal – 250 years of Negerhollands texts (van Rossem & van der Voort, 1996)
- De werkzaamheid van Christian G.A. Oldendorp (article in Dutch, van der Voort, 2001)
Misidentification of Sokko’s origins by some modern-day historians?
“30 November 1779 Jamaica Mercury
Black River Run away, from the Subscriber the latter end of August last, a Negro MAN of the Succo country. He talks Coromantee, stout made, about 5 ft. 4 or 5 in. high, with a blemish on one of his eyes, tending to a philm ; marked M H in one on his shoulder. Whoever takes up the said Negro, and delivers him to the Subscriber at Black River, shall receive a Pistole reward, and all reasonable charges. MATTHEW HINEGAN. (D.B. Chambers, 2013, Runaway Slaves in Jamaica: Eighteenth Century)
“In his groundbreaking work on the transmission of African folkways and culture to the West Indies, eighteenth-century Moravian ethnographer C.G.A. Oldendorp observed what he believed was the practice of Christian ritual by Africans in Africa. In the religious services by which the West Central African Sokko people celebrated the seventh month of the year, […]” (Catron, 2008, p.28)
Ethnic origins of enslaved Africans in the West Indies
Chart 1 ***(click to enlarge)
Chart 2***(click to enlarge)
Chart 3***(click to enlarge)
There has been a great deal of discussion among historians about the validity of the ethnonyms used for and by African captives in the Americas, the socalled “nations”. Some arguing that the usefulness of these often obscure or confusing ethnic labels is limited. Merely representing blanket categories invented by Europeans who were prone to misidentify or underestimate African ethnic diversity beyond the slave trade ports/regions of embarkation. Other historians however regard them as authentic expressions of (clustered) identity created by Africans themselves. Even if adapted to their new surroundings. Personally i would say instead of overhasty dismissal many valuable insights can be derived after proper analysis/interpretation on a case-by-case basis and keeping in mind the relevant context.
As we have already seen Oldendorp has been rather clear about the origins of the Sokko people: they are to be situated somewhere in the interior of the Gold Coast. His testimony is also confirmed by Dutch maps of that era (see map 2 or this one) as well as other contemporary reports of Europeans such as the Frenchman Jean Barbot (Lier, 2013, p. 123). However it seems that there is still some confusion about this ethnonym among modern-day historians. Instead of a Gold Coast assignment the Sokko are sometimes mistakingly (?) categorized as a Central African people. Possibly because of the modernday Soko people living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This could then be merely the result of coincidental similarity in names. And at any rate the Congolese Soko are very much a marginal and rather remote population!
This confusion seems to mostly stem from Higman’s “Slave populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834″. Higman (1984) provides an extremely valuable overview of the various slave registers which were kept in the British West Indies during the early 1800’s. For several islands not only the birth locations but also the ethnic backgrounds of West Indian slaves were meticulously being recorded right before Abolition. Higman in turn has diligently summarized this priceless data (see charts 1 & 2). However it should be kept in mind that the broader geographical divisions (such as Senegambia, Gold Coast, Central Africa etc.) are of Higman’s own design! Given that many of the names used by the slaves for self-identification were rather obscure and no longer current (see also the “unidentified” category) it is perhaps no surprise that in a few cases a mistaken broader geographical categorization might have been chosen by Higman.
Catron’s (2008) overview for Antigua (see chart 3) is very remarkable because it includes a relatively large number of people who identified as “Sokko”. Especially when compared with the slave registers summarized by Higman (1984). This probably has to do with Catron’s data partially also including an earlier timeperiod (1757-1833). Despite plentiful referral to Oldendorp’s work Catron however considers the Sokko to be Central African. It seems likely that Catron has followed Higman’s format while summarizing the documented ethnic origins of Antigua’s Afro-Moravians. Although I have not come across any specific reasoning for his decision to label the Sokko as “West Central African”. It is perhaps noteworthy in this regard that – as far i know – in Brazil no similar Sokko ethnonyms have been recorded (only “Songo” it seems). Inspite of the huge documented Central African presence within Brazil (see for example Mattos (2006) and Gomes (2012)).
It should be pointed out that other modern-day historians have instead opted for the Gold Coast categorization for the Sokko, as also described by Oldendorp in the 1700’s. See for example Chambers (2007) for an overview of ethnic origins of Jamaican Runaway Slaves. Several Jamaican runaway slave advertisements mention people from the “Succo country” (also spelled Socco/Soco). In the quotation above from 1779 it seems very telling that knowledge of the Coromantee language is being mentioned for a Succo runaway slave. Coromantee can be nothing else than a direct reference to the Gold Coast! Quite likely this Sokko person might have been multilingual as many Africans still are. Speaking not only their own native language but also those of neighbouring people.
For more detailed discussion follow these links:
- Ethnicity in the Diaspora: The Slave-Trade and the Creation of African ‘Nations’ in the Americas (D.B. Chambers, 2001)
- Ethnic identities of African-born slaves: valid or imposed? (Tracing African Roots)
- Ethnic Origins of Jamaican Runaway Slaves (Tracing African Roots)
- Antigua’s African Origins According To Moravian Church Records (Tracing African Roots)
- Ethnic & Regional African Origins documented for the Anglo-Caribbean (Tracing African Roots)
“Sokko” references from Surinam
“Stedman [1772-1777] furnishes the first summary of tribes which indicates the tribal origins of the negroes in Surinam. He observed that the negroes belonged to “different nations and castes”, such as the Äbo, Conia, Blitay, Coromantin, Kongo, Gango, Konare, Riemba, Loango, N.Zoko, Nago, Papa, Pombo, Wanway, etc”.
More than 60 years later Teenstra listed the following tribes: Loango negroes, Damakuku negroes, Mendees, Coromantin or Cromantins, Sokko, Pombo, Abo, Gola or Angola negroes, Gango, Tiamba, Prenegroes, Papa or Dahomey negroes, Wanway and Temne.
Hostman in 1850 listed: Sokko, Mandingo, Abo, Fula, Mende, Tiamba, Loango, Ibo or Hibu and the Coromantin negroes.” (Lier, R., 2013, p.120).
“Stedman also documented and illustrated the “Creole-Bania” as No. 15 in a group of eighteen different “instruments of sound” played by the “African Negroes” of Suriname in his book, Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, from 1772 to 1777 […] Curiously enough, in addition to the “Creole-Bania” (No. 15) Stedman also reports the designation bania as being used by Surinam’s blacks to describe two other unrelated instruments. One was the “Ansokko-Bania” [..], an unusual xylophone-like instrument comprised of “a hard board, supported on both sides like a low seat, on which are placed small blocks of different sizes… struck with two small sticks like a dulcimer.” (Banjo Roots, 2011)
“De door Teenstra genoemde stammen zijn: Loango-Negers, Damakoekoes, Mendées, Cormantijns, Sokko’s (onder wie eenige Mohammedanen zouden geweest zijn), Pomboe’s, Abo’s, Gola’s of Angola-Negers, Gangoe’s, Tiamba’s, Pré’s, Papa’s of Dahomansche Negers, Wan-Wie’s en Temné’s.” (Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch West-Indië, 1917, p.157)
[translation bolded part: “Sokko’s, among whom a few Muslims are said to have been found”]
“Sokopsalms zijn door voorouders overgeleverde religieuze Afrikaans-Surinaamse gezangen. Er worden geen nieuwe gemaakt, zoals dat bij winti- en volksliederen gebeurt. Ze zijn de enige religieuze liederen in de Afro-Surinaamse geloofstraditie die niet begeleid worden door drums. Slechts de tyapu, sek’seki of een bel worden bespeeld. De troki en piki (solo-voorzang en groepsnazang) zijn langzaam. sacraal, rustig en voornamelijk in de talen Sranan, Kromanti en Luangu.” (Parbode, 2016, (8), 74-75)
[translation bolded part: ” Soko psalms are religious Afro-Surinamese songs passed on by the ancestors”]
“De betekenis van ‘soko’ kent volgens de literatuur en de kenners vele interpretaties.
“Een van de belangrijkste is dat het afgeleid is van de etnische groep van moslimnegers, de soko nengre.” (Parbode, 2016, (8), 74-75)
[translation bolded part: ” derived from the ethnic group of muslim negroes, the soko nengre”]
“We collected African rice from a Maroon market in Paramaribo, Suriname, propagated it, sequenced its genome and compared it with genomes of 109 accessions representing O. glaberrima diversity across West Africa. By analysing 1,649,769 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in clustering analyses, the Suriname sample appears sister to an Ivory Coast landrace“.
“Even though the Surinamese accession is sister to an accession from Ivory Coast, it does not mean that the O. glaberrima landrace originated there. More likely, the ancestor of the Surinamese sample came with the people who now inhabit this particular region. Accession IRRI 104034 was collected in 1980 in a Dan-speaking area. Dan is part of the Mande language family, spoken in the north-western Ivory Coast“. (van Andel et al., 2016)
For Surinam an even wider array of Sokko references exists than for the West Indies. Including possibly some cultural retentions. Given that Surinam is a former Dutch colony these references might be even more relevant for Annemieke! Dutch slave trading can after all be assumed to have brought over the overwhelming majority of Surinam’s African descended population. Safe for slave importations during brief periods of British rule over Surinam in the 1600’s and 1800’s. Culturally speaking Surinam arguably has retained more of its African legacy than most other countries in the Americas. Especially the socalled Maroons are well noted in this regard. However i would like to stress again that much more research is needed as many of these Surinamese connections to the Sokko are preliminary or only suggestive.
It is certainly remarkable that various authors from the 1700’s and 1800’s have consistently listed the Sokko among the ethnic groups to be found among enslaved Africans in Surinam. It might perhaps be that later authors have simply copied their listings from earlier authors. However also the mentioning of Muslim Sokko’s in Surinam is in line with the testimony from Oldendorp in the West Indies. Due to identity politics or just mere fascination for the “exotic” the existence of enslaved Muslims within the Americas is nowadays often exaggerated. However going by this historical evidence it’s undeniable that Muslim Africans have indeed been present also in Surinam. It goes well in line with the historically known role of Mande speaking people in spreading Islam in West Africa, incl. Ghana & the Ivory Coast.
It is also amazing to see how Stedman has preserved the seemingly older pronounciation of the city called Nsoko in Ghana by referring to the Sokko in Surinam as “N’ Zoko”! Stedman was a British–Dutch soldier who was stationed in Surinam during the Maroon wars in the period of 1772-1777. Stedman has written a very precious and influential book about Surinam based on his observations during that period. He deals with a great range of topics. He also describes in great detail the music instruments played by the Surinamese slaves. Interestingly in several cases he mentions which particular ethnic group was associated with the instrument. One of them happened to be named the “Ansokko Bania”. This term is very likely to refer to Nsoko in Ghana! The circumstance that this instrument looks to have been some kind of xylophone seems in alignment with Sokko’s Mande speaking origins. Afterall one of their well known instruments is the balafon, an African type of xylophone, which spread throughout the region where Mande traders have been influential. It is unfortunate that apparently this instrument is no longer being played in Surinam and also no longer known with this name (van Stipriaan, 1993, p.153). But it makes Stedman’s work all the more valuable when trying to learn about Surinam’s African roots!
Another cultural legacy possibly to be connected with the Sokko in Surinam are the socalled Soko Psalms. These are traditional songs invoking the ancestors. Sometimes compared to American spirituals. Very appropriate in this context therefore! However regrettably it seems these Soko Psalms have not been studied in full depth yet. Despite its high degree of African retention, Afro-Surinamese culture (incl. the Maroons) is at its core characterized by creolization and a fusion of various West & Central African strands. In this complex process the exact attribution to specific ethnic groups is often made blurry. It pays to be extra careful to avoid any further confusion. For example in this otherwise very useful text (“achtergronden van de Sokopsalm“) about the Soko psalms an incorrect connection is made between the Sokko from Ghana and the Susu from Guinea Conakry & Sierra Leone. Even if also Mande speaking, the Susu people are still a distinctive and separate ethnic group. Going by historical plausibility the Sokko are rather to be placed in the border area of Ghana and Ivory Coast (see maps 1, 2 and 3).
The last reference i included in my overview above (Surinamese rice) is obviously most speculative. Many other ancestral scenario’s besides the Sokko might be implied. In particular by way of both Liberia and the Ivory Coast, a.k.a. the Windward Coast (see this page for several maps). The genetic connection between Surinamese rice as being grown by the Maroons and rice varieties found in the Mande speaking parts of Ivory Coast is however very evocative! It provides a highly original yet also historically relevant perspective on tracing African roots. But it does also bring to mind how cultural traditions unlike genetics can also be transmitted by unrelated persons. In this regard it’s useful to know that the Mande speaking people of West Africa have been one of the most culturally influential people throughout the region. Historically speaking their expansion in countries surrounding Mali, the Mande heartland, was also made possible by absorbing and assimilating native populations rather than purely by an increase of their own numbers.
Links for more details & relevant context:
- Stedman’s Narrative of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted negroes of Surinam, vol 1 & vol. 2 (full text, 1806)
- Stedman’s Narrative of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted negroes of Surinam (Buku – Bibliotheca Surinamica)
- ‘Exploring The Banjo’s Early History, Its Origins In The African Diaspora Of The New World & Its Roots In West Africa. (Banjo Roots, 2011)
- Slave trade and rice crop moved together (Sciencenode, 2016)
- Achtergrond van de Soko psalmen (Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren, 2017)
- Cultuurelementen Afro-Surinaamse muziek moeten behouden blijven (Parbode, 2016)
- “Een verre verwijderd trommelen…”Ontwikkeling van Afro-Surinaamse muziek en dans in de slavernij’ (van Stipriaan, 1993)
- Surinaamse zwarte rijst komt uit Ivoorkust (Wageningen University & Research, 2016)
Finding plausible ethnic roots from Africa: illusion or attainable?
“In an era in which human identities are widely acknowledged to be fluid, multifaceted, and rooted more in social context and experience than in biology (to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, upon what we become rather than what we are), the idea of appealing to genetic techniques as a source of “ethnic” knowledge with regards to living and historic Middle Passage survivors can, on the surface, seem paradoxical – if not retrograde.” (Abel & Sandoval-Velasco, 2016, p.3)
“highlight a selection of possible countries and groups of origin, rather than arbitrarily picking one “ethnic” group and portraying it as a definite and unique match.” (Abel & Sandoval-Velasco, 2016, p.18)
“This raises another issue with regards to the historic authenticity of genetic “ancestry” results: namely, whether the territorial distribution and demographic constitution of “ethnic” groups today can be considered to be reflective of the form and boundaries of African societies between two and four centuries ago.” (Abel & Sandoval-Velasco, 2016, p.18)
“testtakers tend to interpret, negotiate, adopt, and reject the “ethnic” and “ancestral” categories indicated in their genetic results, depending on the extent to which the outcomes reinforce or diverge from their desired identity.” (Abel & Sandoval-Velasco, 2016, p.22)
“neither genetic nor historical approaches alone can provide a definitive account of the identities and lived experiences of individuals displaced by the slave trade; however, through sustained interdisciplinary discussions and careful methodological planning, the combined analysis of historical, archaeological, anthropological, and molecular data can offer promise in terms of piecing together a more complete and multifaceted picture of the past.” (Abel & Sandoval-Velasco, 2016, p.24)
Annemieke’s research has revealed many insightful details about the life of her West African forefather baptized as Christiaan in the Netherlands. Her quest may also prove to be educational for others because she has only one direct enslaved African ancestor to trace back. Combined with the fortunate circumstance of plentiful documentation regarding her African ancestor this has increased chances of succesful identification. But as the title of her blog already indicates (“What was Christiaan’s name?”) it’s still her dream to one day “know the name given to him by his parents.” The importance of knowing the original name for one’s African ancestor is also a major theme in the highly influential TV-series Roots with its main character Kunta Kinte. In itself the act of name giving is already very symbolic and emotionally highly charged. But in addition of course also the broader topic of (ethnic) identity looms large.
As showcased in the quotations above ethnic identity is complex because it’s often fluid, context-dependent and without any 100% accurate genetic underpinnings (when comparing closely related neighbouring populations). This complexity is easy to be underestimated when in search for quick answers. One might wonder for example how Christiaan saw himself after having started a family with a Dutch woman. And given that he was probably separated from his parents at a very young age. Would Christiaan still have any recollection of the specific language his African parents spoke or any of their ancestral traditions? Aside from forced historical erasure is it possible that also a process of “natural” assimilation may have been at work? Similar to creolization processes in the Afro-Diaspora. It’s intriguing to compare the degree of cultural isolation Christiaan must have felt with Kunta Kinte who was seen as a “Guinea man” by his American-born fellows in bondage. Kunta Kinte himself however always proudly proclaimed his distinctive Mandenka lineage, atleast in the book.
Follow these links for similar discussion:
- Crossing disciplinary lines: reconciling social and genomic perspectives on the histories and legacies of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans (S. Abel & M. Sandoval-Velasco, 2016)
- From ‘Roots’ to DNA kits: the quest for African-American identity (Alondra Nelson)
- Identity 2016: Why I stopped mispronouncing my Igbo name (BBC)
- Fictional Family Tree incl. African Born Ancestors (Tracing African Roots)
- “What tribe am I?” (Tracing African Roots)
Other ethnic possibilities
***click to enlarge
In this blog post i have zoomed into one particular ethnic possibility regarding Christiaan’s original background. My intention was not to arrive at any solid identification but rather to tease out some assumptions. Mainly for illustrational purposes but also because i feel that the Nsoko/Sokko history in both Ghana and the Afro-Diaspora deserves to be more widely published. Although i have not provided any conclusive evidence i do believe that the Sokko hypothesis can be made plausible for the following reasons:
- Geographical proximity & historically verifiable connections with Christiaan’s presumed port of embarkation: Elmina on the Gold Coast.
- Mande-speakers might be compatible with 3% “Mali” score on AncestryDNA.
- Historically documented presence in the West Indies and in particular Surinam which reinforces connections with Dutch slave trade patterns.
- not adding to plausibility but still noteworthy and possibly ironic: Sokko’s reportedly Muslim identity vs. Christiaan being called a little “African Moor” as a child as well as performing as a “Moorish king” during travelling fairs in his old age. Obviously this “Moorish” label must be understood in its proper context as the catch-all phrase for black people during that time period 😉
Nonetheless my Sokko hypothesis does not rule out in any way that also other ancestral scenarios involving different ethnic groups might be just as plausible or even more so! Just to point out an obvious but perhaps not always fully comprehended fact: a multitude of many different ethnic groups are known to have become victimized by the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade! Depending on definition possibly involving hundreds of distinctive ethnicities! Limiting ourselves to Ghana as a likely ancestral country for Christiaan, there may still be dozens of separate ethnic possibilities. Going more so by broader (clustered) ethno-linguistic groupings we may however obtain a more focused and condensed perspective. For example see map 3 or also the following links:
- Ethnic and/or Regional Origins for different parts of the Afro-Diaspora (Tracing African Roots)
- Ethnolinguistic maps for Lower Guinea (incl. Ghana & Ivory Coast) (Tracing African Roots)
- Languages spoken in Ghana (Ethnologue)
Gradually unraveling the assumptions which lead to the Sokko hypothesis we might take into consideration that Christiaan could still have a Mande speaking origin. However he might not have been taken from the rather obscure Nsoko area in Ghana but instead from further inland. Across Ghana’s borders into the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Mali or Guinea even (see this map for distribution of Mande speakers)! We might also imagine that instead of an overland route bringing Christiaan to Elmina it could have been a coastal transfer instead. It is known that Elmina, serving as the Dutch headquarters, not only collected African captives from the interior of the Gold Coast but also from other coastal areas such as the Bight of Benin and the Windward Coast. These captives were brought over by ships making several stops along the West African coast.
As demonstrated by the screenshot directly above the socalled “Mali” region is not exclusive to Mande speakers but could also be indicative of Gur and Senoufo origins! Both the Gur language group as well as the smaller Senoufo language group (which used to be classified under the Gur grouping untill recently) are to be found in the northern parts of Ghana, Ivory Coast as well as Burkina Faso and Mali. The ethnic groups living in this area are not as well known as the Mande speaking groups (perhaps because of prestige reasons). However their presence among the Afro-Diaspora has been clearly suggested by the frequent historical documentation of the “Chamba” ethnonym (known as “Tiamba” by the Dutch?). This ethnic label is assumed to refer to people from the interior of the Gold Coast as well as the Slave Coast (Bight of Benin). Regrettably they are still very much an understudied group of people. However this doesn’t invalidate any plausibility of Christiaan possibly being descended from any of these groups.
To revisit the Sokko hypothesis it is perhaps noteworthy to mention that a Senoufo speaking population, the Nafana people, is living right next to the Mande speaking population of the Ligbi. Both populations being considered “isolates” in the historical area of Nsoko east of Bondoukou. Furthermore also Akan & Gur speaking populations are present at this intersection between Ghana and the Ivory Coast. As we have seen the historically documented evidence regarding the Sokko in the West Indies as well as in Surinam seems to suggest they were quite distinctive and culturally influential. However this does not rule out that before being transferred to the Americas the Sokko people might have been already ethnically mixed! Given local polygamy traditions as well as long-distance Dyula traders often taking wives of various background this is in fact very likely. Furthermore captives being exported from Sokko may have been labeled as such merely because of their adopted cultural identity but could sometimes actually have non-Mande backgrounds.
The quite likely extensive ethnic intermarriage within the broader region of Ghana/Ivory Coast also creates pitfalls when wanting to interpret any future African DNA matches being reported for Annemieke’s father or other DNA tested descendants of Christiaan. Afterall let’s say a DNA match with a Mande background will be found. How sure can we be that this person does not actually have non-Mande lineage further down the line (beyond family recollection)? Possibly including either Gur-, Senoufo- or Akan speaking ancestors who would be the actual MRCA (most recent common ancestor) shared between this match and Annemieke? In turn the African DNA match might also happen to be from a Gur-speaking background but again with mixed ancestry whereby the MRCA could actually be a Mande- or Akan speaking person and so on and so forth. We can’t be sure that Christiaan’s parents might not have been ethnically mixed themselves. But also any of Christiaan’s relatives who remained in Africa in later generations could have intermarried with other ethnic groups. Again ethnic identity can be fluid and will not remain fixated in time if you take a multi-generational perspective.
As already discussed in the first part of this blogseries we should perhaps also be more cautious in assuming that the 3% “Mali” score can be seen as a leading clue. Afterall for other DNA tested descendants of Christiaan a much more varied and inconsistent African breakdown has been reported (see this screenshot). It could very well be that if hypothetically speaking Christiaan had been tested by AncestryDNA his own “Mali” score would turn out to be subdued. With perhaps “Ivory Coast/Ghana” being predominant instead. Only randomized recombination leading to the 3% “Mali” being inherited by Annemiekes father.
Despite all these other remaining ethnic possibilities and the (inherent) limitations of not only admixture analysis but in fact also DNA matches as well as historical research & genealogy i do strongly believe that correct interpretation as well as combining insights from various complementary fields of knowledge may eventually produce more solid results and hopefully also one day a final confirmation for Annemieke’s quest to learn more about Christiaan’s original identity in Africa.
Follow these links for more details & context:
- Detailed report on Dutch Slave Voyage to Windward Coast & Gold Coast, c. 1761 (MCC – The Unity)
- Dutch involvement in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and Abolition (University of Leiden)
- Ethnic origins of Jamaican Runaway Slaves incl. proportion of Chamba’s (Chambers, 2007)
- Ghana and the Netherlands – Historical Notes (Michel Doortmond)
- Gold Coast DataBase (Michel Doortmond)
- Presto returns to Ghana (Michel Doortmond)
- African AncestryDNA results (Tracing African Roots)
- African breakdown on AncestryDNA for Africans (group averages) (Tracing African Roots)
- West African AncestryDNA results (Tracing African Roots)
Keep going for gold!
The last two sections may have conveyed an impression that tracing one’s African roots can be daunting. To some it may even seem that obtaining the ultimate price for root-seeking Afro-descendants is to be likened to chasing the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow 😉 And to be frank in most cases it will indeed take lots of hard work, dilligent research, perseverance, patience and a good dose of luck! However this should not be seen as discouraging! You will need to hang in there for the whole ride and don’t get sidetracked. Eventually at the end of the road you will indeed have been rewarded with valuable insight about your ancestors. As another saying goes it’s not only about the destination but also the journey itself which can already be enriching!
The Sokko hypothesis i explored in this blog post is evocative in this sense as well. Afterall Nsoko was once a famous city for gold traders. Even if it may turn out that Christiaan is not to be connected with the Sokko at all i do believe there will still be added value in learning about these kind of ancestral scenarios. After receiving their DNA test results many people tend to be either confused or disappointed because they are not being told in more unambiguous language where their ancestors are from. Regrettably due to neglect from formal schooling there is still a great deal of ignorance about both African as well as Afro-Diasporan history. Many people are also not very knowledgeable about African geography and its ethnic diversity. Tracing African Roots should therefore also be seen as an opportunity to learn more about Africa and the Afro-Diaspora. Even if not directly pertaining to your own African-born ancestors. It will still be enriching and transform your outlook on not only Africa but also on your own identity and how you fit in the greater scheme of things.
As mentioned already my personal research strategy consists of combining insights from various disciplines. Always looking for correct interpretation & plausibility. Critical but also staying open-minded and careful not to be dismissive when informational value can still be obtained. Traditional genealogy based on paper trails will often lead to brick walls, especially when wanting to trace back to Africa. However precious information about your ancestors or atleast relevant to them might still be hidden somewhere in the archives. One single historical clue might not tell you exactly what you want to hear however by educating yourself about the broader historical context the pieces of the puzzle may appear to be less juggled. One single DNA admixture result might not be conclusive yet however by also testing your relatives and by comparing with other admixture results for people of confirmed background you will gain more clarity and may be able to at least rule out certain regional origins. One single DNA match from Africa may not prove to be conclusive yet however after eventually receiving dozens of African DNA matches the patterns will become ever more revealing and apparent. Immediate results may not be around the corner but eventually it will be worth the effort!
I find it encouraging to know that researchers are still uncovering new details about African & Afro-Diasporan history which might be relevant to one’s own quest. Archives are continuously being digitalized which should facilitate genealogical research. Future improvements in DNA testing as well as expansion of sample databases are inevitable. Especially when Big Data also becomes available for African genetics. An ever increasing number of Africans or African migrants and their offspring are being DNA tested. Improving the odds of getting connected to them as a DNA match! All of these developments will eventually result in bringing us closer to knowing where our African ancestors were from. Make no mistake about it: these times are truly revolutionary when it comes to Tracing African Roots! It is crucial to keep aiming for gold, even when it’s really also about staying in the game and not just the prize. Nevertheless success stories can be very inspirational and motivating to stay focused! There are many such stories to pick from and Annemieke’s research certainly belongs among them!
Follow these links for a small selection of inspirational rootseeking stories:
- Annemiekes blogseries about her journey to Ghana in 2016: “Voetsporenreis naar Ghana” (Hoe heette Christiaan, 2016)
- Joergen Raymann, Dutch entertainer in search of Surinamese roots (TV series: Verborgen Verleden, 2017)
- Katibo Ye Ye, Surinamese man travelling to Ghana to learn more about shared history (documentary by Frank Zichem, 2003)
- Part I: The DNA Trail from Madagascar to Manhattan (Radiant Roots & Boricua Branches)
- Part II: The DNA Trail from Madagascar to Manhattan & Our Family’s Malagasy Roots (Radiant Roots & Boricua Branches)
- Part III: The DNA Trail from Madagascar to Virginia (Radiant Roots & Boricua Branches)
- The Miracles of DNA: Our Family Reunion in Ghana, Africa (Roots Revealed)
- My “Kunta Kinte”: Part 2 of “The Search for Our African Ancestor’s Birthplace” (Roots Revealed)
- African DNA Cousins reported for people across the Diaspora (Tracing African Roots)
- How to find those elusive African DNA matches on Ancestry (Tracing African Roots)
Abel, S. & Sandoval-Velasco, M. (2016). Crossing disciplinary lines: reconciling social and genomic perspectives on the histories and legacies of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. New Genetics and Society, 35, (2), 149-185. (available online)
Andel, T.R. van et al. (2016). Tracing ancestor rice of Suriname Maroons back to its African origin. Nature Plants, (2), 16149. (available online)
Catron, J.W. (2008). Across the great water: Religion and diaspora in the black Atlantic. (available online)
Chambers, D. (2007). “The Links of a Legacy: Figuring the Slave Trade to Jamaica.” . In Annie Paul, ed., Caribbean Culture: Soundings on Kamau Brathwaite. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2007, pp.287-312.
Cowles Prichard, J. (1851). Researches Into the Physical History of Mankind. (available online)
Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch West-Indië (1917). (available online).
Higman, B. W. (1984). Slave populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834.
Jones, A. (2010). Oldendorp’s Contribution to the Study of Africa. , translation of “Oldendorps Beitrag zur Afrikaforschung” in Gudrun Meier et al. (eds.), Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, Historie der Caraibischen Inseln Sanct Thomas, Sanct Crux und Sanct Jan: Kommentarband. = Unitas Fratrum, Beiheft 19 (2010), 181-190.
Lier, R.A.J. (2013) (translated by M.J.L. van Yperen). Frontier society. A social analysis of the history of Surinam.
Parbode (aug, 2016) (Anoushka Blanca). Cultuurelementen Afro-Surinaamse muziek moeten behouden blijven. (available online)
Shillington, K. (2005). Encyclopedia of African History. (available online)
Wilks, I. (1961). The Northern Factor in Ashanti History: Begho and the Mande. The Journal of African History, 2, (1), 25-34. (available online)
Wilks, I. (1982). Wangara, Akan and Portuguese in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. 1. The Matter of Bitu. The Journal of African History, 23, (3), 333-349.