A Royal Revelation
How BritainsDNA discovered Prince William's unknown genetic inheritance
Recent research has produced surprising connections between Britain's Royal family, Scotland, India and a long lost family. In the case of Prince William, DNA testing has uncovered a startling new element in the royal lineages of Britain.
The East India Company was a phenomenon, a huge business enterprise that in effect ruled a subcontinent from the 17th to the 19th centuries. It raised private armies, employed generals, fought pitched battles against other European colonists, founded towns and made vast fortunes for those involved. For young men hoping to make their way in the world of the burgeoning British Empire, it was one of the most exciting, dynamic and promising avenues to success. The Company traded in silk, cotton, opium, indigo dye, saltpetre and tea, and after its famous general, Robert Clive, defeated the French at Plassey in 1757, it ran India as a virtual monopoly. When Henry Dundas became President of the Board of Control in 1784, he began to appoint Scotsmen to key positions, so much so that by the end of the 18th century, they dominated the activities of the East India Company, their connections reaching back to Scotland.
The estate of Boyndlie lies about five miles south-west of Fraserburgh in the north-east corner of Aberdeenshire. As the third son of John Forbes, Theodore will have known from boyhood that his future probably did not lie in farming. Some time in the early 19th century, he found himself in the Port of Leith working in a merchant company. Trade with India was brisk and Scottish entrepreneurs had invested so heavily in the tea industry that production outstripped that of China. No doubt through contacts made in Leith, Theodore was promised a position with the East India Company and he boarded a ship bound for the Bombay Presidency. India had been divided into three presidencies or provinces and the others were centred on Calcutta and Madras.
In his early twenties, Theodore set up house, probably in Surat, a major port north of Bombay itself, and he employed a housekeeper. She was Eliza Kewark, an Indian woman probably only two years younger. Her Christian name was almost certainly an anglicised version of Aleeza or Aliza. Not uncommon in the north-west of the subcontinent, it can mean ‘Precious’, or more prosaically, ‘the daughter of Ali’. In 1812 Eliza and the 24 year-old Scotsman had a child, a girl named Katharine Scott Forbes after Theodore’s mother. The baby’s birth was registered at Surat. It seems that the couple’s relationship was stable and settled, a genuine marriage, for they went on to have more children and make a family. Two years after Katharine’s birth, Alexander Scott Forbes was born and given another family Christian name. And there appears to have been a third child although no details have been thus far unearthed. But it is believed that Eliza gave birth to another daughter.
Through their early childhood, Katharine, Alexander and their sibling were raised in the bustling port of Surat and almost certainly their mother taught them to speak and read Gujerati or another native language. There exists no record that Theodore and Eliza ever married. However, such liaisons were not unusual; one in three British men working in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries married Indian women.
Boyndlie House, c1910
When Katharine was eight years old and Alexander six, their father boarded the SS Blenden Hall, a merchant ship bound for Britain. The reason for his voyage remains unknown but perhaps he planned to bring his family back to Scotland. But on 24th September 1820, Theodore Forbes died on board and was buried at sea. He was only 32 years old. Some time after news of this calamity reached both Scotland and Surat, a decision was made to bring Katharine and Alexander back to Aberdeenshire and the estate at Boyndlie. There must have been communication between the Forbes family and Eliza Kewark, for there exists no record of her third child going to Scotland. Only Katharine and Alexander made the long journey to Boyndlie, the home of grandparents and uncles and aunts they had never met. Their mother must have stayed behind in India and nothing more is known of Eliza Kewark – except for two details that brings alive the agonies of a mother being parted from her children, of seeing them board a ship to travel half a world away, probably never to be seen again.
Alexander became so homesick for Surat, his mother and his little sister that the Forbes family allowed and no doubt paid for him to return to India. Apparently this happened only a short time after the six year-old’s arrival in Aberdeenshire. The contrast between Surat and Boyndlie can only be imagined. Many years later a bundle of letters was found. Written not in English but probably in Gujerati, they had been sent by Eliza to the daughter she was destined never to see again. Perhaps they carried news to Scotland of Katharine’s brother and little sister. They also inherited the DNA of their mother, and if the third child was indeed a daughter, then it may have been passed down the generations in India. And in Britain, there is no doubt that shared mtDNA lived on in Katharine Forbes and her descendants.
In the early 19th century and on into the Victorian age, illegitimacy was perhaps less of a stigma in the fermtouns of Scotland than it might have been in the genteel drawing rooms of the cities. Much more of a problem would have been the taint of ‘coloured blood’. But since Katharine’s father had died and her mother remained thousands of miles away in India, it may be that Eliza Kewark’s ethnicity was not an immediate difficulty. Later, she was said to have been an Armenian, perhaps because Kewark could be parlayed into Kevork, an Armenian surname. Nevertheless, Eliza’s existence was not forgotten or expunged from the family tree. Perhaps that was Katharine’s doing, a stubborn unwillingness to deny her mother, the woman who had born and raised her for eight years in Surat. It is impossible to do more than guess at what was said and what was not.
In any event, Theodore and Eliza’s daughter, by this time known as Kitty, married James Crombie in Aberdeen. She was 25 years old. Her family may have remained pillars of the Scottish middle classes had Katharine’s great-granddaughter, Ruth, not married into the aristocracy. Her husband was Maurice Burke Roche, 4th Baron Fermoy, an Irish peer. Ruth became a longstanding member of the household of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. In 1954 her daughter, Frances, married Edward, Viscount Althorp (later Earl Spencer) and in 1961 gave birth to a daughter, Diana Spencer. A year after her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981, she in turn gave birth to a son, Prince William. In the direct female line, Eliza Kewark’s mitochondrial DNA had been passed down to the heir second in line to the throne of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
How is it possible to be certain of this? Mitochondrial DNA is passed down the motherline to all children. Two living direct descendants of Eliza Kewark have been found and by reading the sequence of their mtDNA, our geneticists discovered not only that it matched but that it also belonged to a haplogroup called R30b. Further research confirmed unequivocally that this is Eliza Kewark’s haplogroup. A comparison run through databases of the DNA of more than 65,000 individuals from around the world showed that R30b is very rare and very Indian. Only 14 examples have been reported and 13 of these were Indian, with one in Nepal. To add to this research, it is important to note that the other related branches of R30b, that is R30a and R30, are also entirely South Asian in origin. This confirms beyond doubt that the mtDNA of Eliza Kewark was of Indian heritage.
R30b is rare even in India where only approximately 0.3% of people carry the lineage. And what Eliza passed down to Princess Diana, her other living descendants and to Prince William is even rarer. Within the haplogroup of R30b, an exact match to her sequence has yet to be found outside of her descendants. But Prince William, and Prince Harry, who also carries it, will not be able to pass on their extremely rare Indian mtDNA to their children. They will in turn inherit whatever their mothers’ mtDNA happens to be.
For yet more corroboration, scientists used an independent type of genetic evidence. By reading over 700,000 markers scattered across the genome of Princess Diana’s matrilineal cousins, and comparing findings to a global database of samples, it is possible to estimate the proportions of continental-level ancestry for an individual. For example, someone with a father from Ireland and a mother from Nigeria would be 50% sub-Saharan African and 50% European, or someone with three English grandparents and one from China would be approximately 20% to 30% East Asian. The proportions inherited from ancestors who lived longer ago are lower and also variable. Eliza Kewark’s two descendants are estimated to be about 0.3% and 0.8% South Asian, with three blocks of South Asian DNA in each of their genomes. All of the rest is of European origin.
It is therefore very likely that in addition to his mtDNA, Prince William has not only inherited a small proportion of Indian DNA from Eliza Kewark but that his heirs will also carry it.