Category Archives: History

A footnote to the British Empire

In his 2002 review of The Mystic Masseur, Roger Ebert wrote

The West Indies were a footnote to the British Empire, and the Indian community of Trinidad was a footnote to the footnote.

Even intelligent, educated people tend to make the mistake of assuming that, to some extent, things have always been the way they are today. What’s left of the British West Indies is, indeed, collected leftovers of Empire, too small to stand on their own, and the English-speaking Caribbean is little more than a footnote in geopolitics. But that wasn’t always the case. Both Cadogan Estates, one of the largest landowners in London, and the British Museum have their origins in the acquisitions (of property and objects, respectively) of Sir Hans Sloane in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sloane estimated that he spent ₤50,000 putting together the collections that were the foundation of the British Museum. While Sloane’s prosperity came in part from his successful medical practice, a major income stream was his wife’s share of a Jamaican sugar plantation that she inherited from her first husband.

In the eighteenth century the West Indies weren’t a footnote in the British Empire – they were the heart of the Empire. The loss of the American colonies may have been a blow to the prestige of the Empire, but they were far less important than Jamaica or Barbados. And while the importance of some of these islands faded in the nineteenth century, especially after the abolition of slavery, others did not. At the very time The Mystic Masseur begins, Trinidad is anything but a footnote. It is, in fact, a key source of oil for the Empire at war, an important link in the Atlantic U-boat war, and the site of major American military and naval bases.

Untangling my genetic heritage, part II: the West Slavs

Magna Germania and the Roman Empire. From Wikimedia Commons

For a long time, my perception of the origins of the Germanic people looked something like this map – prior to the Migration period, the Germanic people inhabited an area that stretched east from the Rhine into modern Belarus. The ‘barbarian invasions’ relocated many of the Germanic tribes into the lands of the Roman Empire, and the ancestors of the West Slavs and Balts expanded into the lands that had been vacated. Over the next 1000 years the Germans expanded back into these lands, displacing or absorbing many of these Slavic and Baltic people, before being expelled from these lands after World War II. Fairly simple, fairly straightforward, leaving lots of room for both sides to claim ‘ancestral’ rights to a vast swath of lands.

From Wikimedia Commons.

In my early teens, some of my most pried possessions were my historical atlases. It was there that I first learned about what one of them called the “ElbeOder Slavs”, the now-vanished West Slavic people who lived in the area that, at the time, was known as East Germany. In Wikipedia they are identified as Polabians and Sorbs, but German sources tended to refer to them as Wends. In my atlases, the swath of green between the Elbe and Oder ended up as tributaries of the Carolingian empire under Charlemagne, and was later organised into a series of Marches under the control of Saxon dukes and princes under the auspices of the East Frankish and Holy Roman empires.

The problem with atlases is that they tend to only show political boundaries. When the Slavic political entities came under German control, the people didn’t cease to exist. Ruled by German (or Germanised) markgrafs, and embedded in a matrix of German colonisation, the West Slavic population gradually subsumed into the broader German identity. But (if Wikipedia is to be trusted) populations retained their ‘Wendisch’ character for much of the next millennium. The Polabian language, for example, apparently survived in the Lower Saxon ‘Wendland’ well into the 18th century.

So what, pray tell, does this all have to do with me? Großörner, the town my grandmother came from, lay within what appears to have been the Sorb area of settlement. As the area Germanised, it’s reasonable to assume that the Sorbs didn’t just die out (in fact, they persist as a distinct group just a little further to the east). They would have intermarried, and formed part of the substratum of the region. The fact that I have a mitochondrial DNA haplogroup that probably entered Central Europe with steppe nomads points to Slavic ancestry. As I mentioned previously, the U2d haplogroup occurs in a relatively high frequency in western Bohemia, where it is though to be a marker of assimilated Asian nomadic tribes…my best guess would be Avars, but Huns or Magyars are also likely to be viable candidates, as are, probably, some smaller groups. The Sorbs and Czechs were neighbours, and assuming (as I have read somewhere) that modern Slavic nations originated through the coalescence of various tribes and clans, it seems reasonable the ‘Asian’ signal that was present in western Bohemia could easily have also been present in the Slavic tribes further to the west. And somewhere in all that, an assimilated Slavic lineage with its roots in the Russian steppe gave rise to my grandmother’s family, and ultimately to me.

I may be entirely wrong, of course. But even if the U2d haplogroup turns out to be less common than was originally though in eastern Germany, it still seems reasonable that people with deep roots in eastern Germany have at least some Slavic ancestry. I think it’s at the very least an interesting idea…