The Coloured White Woman from China

The Coloured ‘White’ Woman from China

For coloured South Africans, identity is something of a misnomer, and this couldn’t be more true for my family. My genealogy has always been of interest to me, particularly because people assume I am white.

Over the past few years, my eldest brother and I have been trying to trace our ancestry. We have made some progress in terms of our paternal ancestry, tracing our bloodline to a white Englishman and a Zulu woman. On my mother’s side, progress has been slow.

So, when I had the chance to have DNA tested by the Wits Origin Centre, I knew it was my chance to find out more. I knew that on my mother’s side we had links with the island of St Helena and that my great-grandmother was an “islander”.

My results have left me with more questions than answers: “Mitochondrial DNA matches: Identical matches to two individuals from China” – huh?

After being assured that the results were correct, I turned my attention to finding out how this was possible. This was no easy task and any conclusions I come to are based on assumption and supposition.

St Helena has its origins in the Dutch East India Company’s settlement there in 1659. Other inhabitants were the increasing number of slaves, initially from West Africa but primarily from the Indian subcontinent and Madagascar. In 1810, a severe labour shortage saw the introduction of Chinese contract workers.

Given that my great-grandmother, Ellen Johnson, was born in St Helena (year unknown) – and there is information on Johnsons on the island since the early 1900s – it could be that a Chinese labourer fell in love with a young islander.

Then again, my ancestors could have been explorers visiting new places, including China, and those individuals who have matches to me should be trying to figure out how they are connected to South Africa.

What I do know is that, no matter what my DNA says, I am an African. And, as my mother puts it: “All I know is that I am a coloured, I will always be a coloured. The only possible thing I could link to China is perhaps my stick-straight black hair.

By Jillian Green