The DNA Ethnicity Estimate that I received recently calls in to question much of what I thought I knew about my ancestry. I have always wondered about my origins and ancestry with little means to determine it, until I found MyHeritage.com.
Unlike the Ancestry and 23andMe sites, My Heritage does testing for people all over the world. Those who have already done a DNA test at another site are also able to upload their results to check for any matches.
My results were surprising and in some ways very unexpected.
Why take a DNA Ethnicity test?
The idea to take a DNA test to determine my ethnicity took root in Singapore a few years ago. The locals automatically assumed I was Malay when I travelled in Malaysia and Singapore with my parents in the past. I was often offered that last seat on the bus because my father looked South Asian and my mother mixed race, and they were generally ignored.
On my solo trip to Singapore I went to Kampong Glam in search of the Poppy Fabric Shop. My father and I found it when we searched for my cousin’s wedding lace on our trip in 1994. I was close to the end of Arab Street and had given up finding the shop when a Malay shop assistant started talking to me.
I stepped into the shop to tell her I could not hear her and do not speak Malay. She laughed and said in perfect English ‘I’m sorry, I thought you were Malay’. I laughed and said ‘I guess I am but not from here.’ She was so excited to finally meet a Cape Malay and called her boss. At that moment I looked up at the silk rolls behind her and realised that the price tag said ‘Poppy Fabric’!
Our paternal and maternal family names give an indication of our ancestry but with the complex social and political systems it was difficult to separate fact from fiction and myth from reality. I don’t have any children and the closest DNA descendants are my brother’s children.
Race classification and ethnicity in South Africa
In Cape Town people like us with the same religion, cultural identity and similar coloring and features were classified as Cape Malay, a sub-group of the Coloured race classification. The term coloured was used to refer to the varied ethnic group of mixed race peoples.
I was very aware of the fact that our ethnicity and identity made us different; made us less; in Apartheid South Africa. We were not as restricted as blacks nor as entitled as whites, but in a wasteland somewhere in between.
I learned that although we were not required to carry the hated ‘dompas’, we also could not enter any establishment or leisure facility that was for ‘Whites Only’; except as cleaners or through a back entrance reserved for non-whites.
I learned that although our Cape Flats suburb was not surrounded by 10 foot high fences or controlled by curfews; we could not stay in the city of Bloemfontein after dark because my father could be mistaken for an Indian.
My late father abhorred the term Cape Malay for most of his life because it was used as a negative classification of race and ethnicity. Those who considered themselves to be superior to us employed it as a derogatory term. They meant to further demean us with terms like ‘Kuli’ / ‘Coolie’, a reference to an unskilled Asian labourer.
Who are the Cape Malays?
We are considered to be the descendants of mostly Muslim Malay slaves, political exiles or political prisoners (and their slave owners) from the Dutch East Indies. Our ancestors (Islamic scholars, nobility, artisans) were exiled from their homelands by colonial masters of the VOC ( Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) aka United East Indies Company because they opposed the occupation and colonisation of their lands and peoples. They were the violently abused, neglected and mistreated souls on whose backs the early Cape Colony was built.
Where did the Cape Malay people come from?
My recent online reading indicates that in reality, for more than 200 years the Dutch East India Company brought slaves from many of their South East Asian directorates, protectorates and colonies. This included not only modern day Indonesia and Malacca but also Dutch India (Coromandel Coast, Malabar Coast, Surat and Bengal) and Dutch Ceylon (Sri Lanka). There were also slaves from West and East Africa and Madagascar. It appears that all these immigrant populations were absorbed into the early Cape Malay identity, if they were adherents of Islam.
Like many non-white ethnically diverse populations, the characteristics that were most prized amongst the Cape Malays were fair skins, light eyes and straight hair that didn’t frizz up in the early morning mist that often covers the City Bowl and Cape Flats.
Read more: Cape Malay Recipes
My DNA Ethnicity according to family sources
Paternal ancestry anecdotal evidence
On my father’s side of the family the anecdotal evidence is very slim. Both he and his older sister were very young when their parents died. All we have is a German surname and the stories that my father had heard as a child.
My father’s brother in law once told me that I looked more like his wife and my maternal grandmother, than any of the other cousins. I always assumed this meant that I had a leaning towards my Malay ancestry.
- My grandparents lived at 251 Hanover, District Six until their deaths but their origins before their marriage are not known.
- According to the family oral tradition, when my grandparents registered their first child the government official refused to register them with my grandfather’s actual surname Schröder. Apparently the official insisted that any child from a Malay woman should be registered as Schroeder. A google search of the family name Schroeder brought up many similar spellings and confirmed that it is an ancient German surname from the North East regions.
- My grandfather’s entire family, except for his sister Edith, rejected his marriage to my Cape Malay grandmother and broke all family ties with him. My father remembered a man who passed by their house in District Six when he was a child and would toss him a Half Crown without saying a word. My father learned that it was my grandfather’s brother long after the man stopped passing by.
- My grandmother’s surname was Akiemdien and a google search did not reveal much except that the surname only seems to be found in South Africa and two other places. Phonetically similar names are found in India and Philippines.
- My brother recently found copies of the death certificates of both my grandparents via an online registry of historical records.
- My grandfather’s cause of death on 20th March 1943 was listed as Pulmonary Tuberculosis, which is consistent with the family oral tradition.
- My grandmother died on 2nd June 1949, three years after my grandfather. Her cause of death was listed as Chronic Nephritis, High blood pressure and Cardiac failure. The family oral tradition held that she died from cardiac arrest during an asthma attack.
- I didn’t realise until I viewed my grandfather’s death certificate that he was only 40 years old at the time of his death, a month before my father’s 3rd birthday.
- His birth name had supposedly been Frederick Schröder so not only did they strip his children of our original family name but it appears that my grandfather was also re-classified as Cape Malay after his marriage to my grandmother. His Muslim name was recorded on the death certificate and he was buried Ismail Schroeder.
Maternal ancestry anecdotal evidence
On my mother’s side of the family the anecdotal evidence is all from my mother’s only surviving sister, who was born when my great-grandparents were still alive. She had seen many of the older generation during her childhood and teens.
For more than forty years I listened to Aunty Doreen and her recollections of our family origins and ancestry. About how a few of my cousins and I share the almond eye trait from our Japanese great great-grandfather.
- My grandmother’s father was a German immigrant referred to as Papi and his surname was Heugh. Their family moved to Cape Town from a German mission station at Saron. A google search of the family name Heugh reveals that it was from Scotland and Wales and my aunt has some Irish, Scottish and Welsh DNA ancestry.
- My grandfather’s grandfather was a Japanese merchant sea man and the supposed source of our almond shaped eyes.
- The Arendse family moved to the Gleemor area of Athlone from Malmesbury long before my grandparents were married. A google search of the family name Arendse reveals that it originates from Bavaria, Germany.
- My grandparents eventually settled in Harfield village, where they lived for most of their marriage until the Group Areas Act came into force and the family was relocated to Grassy Park.
My Aunts’s DNA Ethnicity Estimates
Both my surviving aunts were generous enough to allow me to take cheek swabs from them for a DNA ethnicity estimate. My own parents have passed and it was the only way to get a broader idea of our DNA ethnicity.
I realised that their test results were already available when I received a notification of DNA matches for both of them. I expected to see German ancestry on both sides; Malay ancestry on the paternal side and Japanese ancestry on the maternal side.
Their results were unexpected:
- There is no German DNA ethnicity to be found in either of the ethnicity estimates.
- There is no Japanese DNA ethnicity to be found in the maternal side.
- South Asian DNA ethnicity features in both maternal and paternal ethnicity estimates.
- Filipino / Malay / Indonesian DNA ethnicity features in both maternal and paternal ethnicity estimates, being higher on the maternal side (just look at Papi Heugh’s eyes).
- Scandinavian ethnicity is prevalent on the paternal side with 27.3% Scandinavian (Norway / Sweden / Denmark) and 4.2% Finnish ancestry estimated. There is also 5.3% Baltic ancestry estimate on my maternal side.
- Central and West African ethnicity features on both sides.
- Various Southern European ethnicities make up the difference.
My DNA Ethnicity Estimate
One day, shortly after I moved to Dubai one of my colleagues asked me where in India I am from. I smiled and said ‘I’m South African, born and bred’. He asked ‘but where are your parents from?’. I said ‘They were born and bred in Cape Town too, and as far as I know we don’t have a drop of Indian blood’. Little did I know how wrong I was!
Growing up I often heard the term ‘Afrikaner’, ‘Hotnot’ (abbreviation of Hottentot) or ‘Boesman’ (Bushman). These offensive terms were used by persons of recent immigrant Indian descent (first or second generation) to refer to members of the Cape Malay and Coloured communities. We were often considered lower class by the second generation Indian immigrants in Cape Town, and if any of their children deigned to marry a Cape Malay girl or boy it was usually a scandal of epic proportions. So how surprised was I to see that both my aunts have a very heavy dose of South Asian ancestry, one estimated at 33.8% and the other at 26.5%.
My own DNA Ethnicity Estimate in summary:
- Asia – 49%
- Europe – 33.1%
- Africa – 17.9%
I have been trying to understand our DNA Ethnicity Estimates but without any further documentary evidence of births and marriages it is practically impossible to trace back either my maternal or paternal lines. The DNA Explained website is useful to understand the concept of calculating ethnicity percentages. It also reveals how differently the results can be interpreted by the various testing companies.
Who am I??
There are a few things that stand out to me after reviewing our results and I have given my thumbsucked interpretation and thoughts, after reading as much as I could about it in the past few weeks. Bear in mind that it should be taken with more than a grain or two of salt as there is very little documentary evidence.
- My paternal grandfather may have been descendant from Germans but according to these results his true ancient ethnicity was Scandinavian. Many of the DNA matches for my paternal aunt and myself on the website, including the Germans, seem to have the Scandinavian DNA in common. Scandinavia does seem heavily represented in the DNA of South African users of the site. Does this mean that the Vikings lived on in the raped and pillaged villagers and their descendants long after they disappeared?
- My Coloured Christian maternal grandparents possibly had more South Asian and Filipino / Malay / Indonesian DNA ethnicity than my Muslim Cape Malay grandparent. I see the evidence of this every day when I look in the mirror and now realise that it was not Japanese but much more likely to be Malay / Indonesian slave ancestry. Looking at photos of my mother’s sisters I can see it in them too, especially Aunty Betty and Aunty Iris who in the wedding photo on the left below reminds me of the photos I’ve seen of aristocratic Malay women.
- Many of the older generations would question the idea that they had any African DNA. I suspect that over the generations we developed an unconscious racial bias and the ingrained notion that being African somehow made one inferior, would rear it’s head. In the old days of the Group Areas Act, being the same as the darker skinned citizens whom the colonisers and apartheid era governments referred to by the offensive racial slur, ‘Kaffirs’, could result in the loss of home and income. Today many would be surprised to know quite how much African DNA is present in the Colored and Cape Malay communities.
- We come in many shades of brown yet even today many in our community proclaim our white European ancestry while failing to acknowledge and embrace our black African ancestry.
I am a Cape Malay woman with all the historical, cultural and social baggage that comes with it. I am the original mixed breed with a little bit of South Asian, a little bit of Malay / Indonesian, a little bit of European and a little bit of African. Our ancestry is as diverse as our Cape Malay cuisine, the original fusion cuisine that has a little bit of South Asian, a little bit of Malay / Indonesian, a little bit of European and a little bit of African.
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