Prince William will be the first British king with proven ancestry from India, a DNA test has revealed. His rare mitochondrial DNA comes from his 5 x great-grandmother, a ‘dark-skinned native of Bombay’.
William’s genetic link to India was proven by saliva samples from relatives who share his direct maternal lineage to Eliza Kewark. She lived at the start of the 19th century in western India, “without benefit of matrimony”, with his Scottish ancestor Theodore Forbes, an East India Company merchant.
The UK government, desperate to encourage trade links with India, will no doubt be keen to play up the ancestral link between the second in line to the throne and the most populous nation in the Commonwealth, and his first official tour there is sure to follow shortly. However, in the days of the British Raj, his lineage would have been a source of shame to an aristocracy obsessed with ‘good breeding’.
Theodore Forbes, the younger son of the laird of Boyndlie, arrived in the port city of Surat, in western India in 1809. He employed local girl Eliza Kewark as a housekeeper and, as was common for British men at the time, had 2 children with her. Although they lived as man and wife, the conventions of the time ruled marriage out.
Theodore left Eliza and their children in Surat so he could start a new job in Bombay with the Forbes & Co trading company. In 1819 he decided to relocate the children – son Alexander and daughter Katherine [Kitty] – from India to Scotland to be educated and raised as Scottish gentry with the Forbes family at Boyndlie. Theodore was on his way home to join them the following year when he died on board the SS Blendon Hall. His will referred to Eliza as his “housekeeper” and the mother of his “purported daughter” Katherine.
When news of their father’s death at sea reached Scotland, the homesick Alexander returned to his mother in India, but Kitty remained and went on to make a ‘good marriage’ which, after 5 generations, produced Lady Diana Spencer – Prince William’s mother.
Years after Theodore’s death, a packet of letters written in a non-European script was unearthed at Boyndlie. They were heartfelt missives written by Eliza from India, pleading to be allowed to see the daughter in Scotland she was destined never to see again.
While illegitimacy carried a social stigma amongst the upper classes of 19th century, it was nothing compared to the stigma of what was then known as “coloured blood”. Had it been generally known that Kitty and her descendants were part-Indian, they might never have made good marriages. Eliza Kewark’s Indian heritage was therefore expunged from the family tree and she became Armenian, even being referred to as “Mrs. Forbesian” (a suffix characteristic of Armenian surnames). Armenia was possibly a place of origin for her father’s ancestors, and was certainly more socially acceptable as home to the world’s oldest Christian community. The denial of Eliza’s Indian heritage, however, was maintained by the family even when Lady Diana married Prince Charles in 1981.
But DNA, as we know, never lies. Geneticist Dr Jim Wilson of BritainsDNA, who carried out the tests, found that Eliza’s descendants had an incredibly rare type of mtDNA (haplogroup R30b), so far recorded in only 14 other people – 13 from India and one from Nepal. Dr Wilson said that the mtDNA results, combined with the findings of South Asian DNA in the rest of the genome, meant that the evidence of Prince William’s Indian heritage was “unassailable”.
While neither William, nor his brother Harry, have yet commented on their new found heritage, Mary Roach, Princess Diana’s maternal aunt, said: “I always assumed that I was part-Armenian so I am delighted that I also have an Indian background.”
Source: The Times