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Post John Ashby, Ancestor, Slave Trader
Created by John Eipper on 04/07/17 3:00 AM

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John Ashby, Ancestor, Slave Trader (Timothy Ashby, -Spain, 04/07/17 3:00 am)

On the subject of the slave trade, I previously posted about my 8th great-grandfather John Ashby (1633-1699), who was an investor in and board member of the Royal African Company (as were Lord Shaftesbury, the philosopher John Locke, and later even the composer George Friedrich Handel).

One of the first English joint stock companies, the RAC had a royal charter to set up forts and factories, raise private armies, and exercise martial law in West Africa, in pursuit of trade in gold, silver and slaves. In the 1680s it was transporting about 5,000 slaves per year. Many were branded with the letters "DY," after the company's nominal "chairman," the Duke of York, who succeeded his brother Charles II as King of England in 1685, becoming James II. Other slaves were branded with the company's initials, RAC, on their chests. Between 1672 and 1689 the RAC transported around 90,000-100,000 slaves.

I know quite a lot about John Ashby's life and times, including his active participation in the colonization of (South) Carolina (I have documented twelve trans-Atlantic voyages he made), and I even have a copy of a letter written by his wife, Elizabeth Thoroughgood Ashby, to John's nephew complaining that her husband was always away, that she could "barely make two ends meet" because rents in London were so low, and that her mother "grew like a child" (a poignant description of senility). On a social history note, in the 17th century there seems to have been no stigma about Englishmen being "in trade," which was the case in the later 18th and 19th centuries. Because John and his younger brother William were ineligible to inherit the family estate in Leicestershire, they became successful merchants in London: John was involved in American colonial trade, while William was a "Turkey merchant," trading with the Levant.

I am currently working on a book (for Oxford University Press) about John Ashby's great uncle, William Ashby of Loseby, who was Queen Elizabeth I's ambassador to Scotland from 1588-1590. William Ashby was an early secret agent for Sir Francis Walsingham, QE I's Secretary of State and spymaster, and operated on the Continent before being sent to Edinburgh. Fellow WAISers familiar with the history of British intelligence services may be amused to know that William Ashby matriculated at Cambridge University (Peterhouse College), from which budding spies (e.g. Philby, Burgess and Blunt) have been recruited over the centuries.

William Ashby took his nephew, Robert Naunton (another early "MI-6" recruit), to Edinburgh with him to serve as his secretary and courier to Walsingham. Later, Sir Robert Naunton became Secretary of State to King James I after he ascended to the English throne following a diplomatic deal which William Ashby helped to broker.

JE comments:  Tim Ashby may be able to trace his lineage farther back than anyone in WAISworld.  Certainly more than Yours Truly, who loses the genealogical trail in the late 1800s.  A few years ago Tim told us about his kinship on his mother's side with the brilliant Panzer tactician, Heinz Guderian.  Tim's Uncle/Cousin Heinz is one of the characters in his excellent historical novel, In Shadowland. If you haven't read it yet, do so.


Tim also has an ancestor who served on General Washington's staff.  Regarding John Ashby, it must be equally troubling and fascinating to research an ancestor who practiced the most reprehensible trade of all--human beings.  Tim, can you speculate on why a fairly respectable business in 17th-century England became shameful by the 18th?  My thought, perhaps, is the rise of the "dissenting" religions, such as the Quakers, who condemned slavery.  Or was it simply because someone turned on the lux (Enlightenment)?

On a famous slave trader of the 19th century, Nathan Bedford Forrest, see Gary Moore, next.

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  • My Ancestors--and a Word on Genealogy (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 04/08/17 4:20 AM)

    John E commented on April 7th: "Tim Ashby may be able to trace his lineage farther back than anyone in WAISworld."

    I'll bet that a few WAISers can trace their lineage into the 17th century and beyond. Surely more than a few of us have an elderly aunt who spends most of her time on this.

    I am directly descended from Oliver Cromwell, through his son Richard Cromwell, the second Lord Protector, and thus through that one's daughter Edith, who had to flee to the colonies after the Restoration.

    I am also a direct descendant of the First Earl of Winchester, who was the main author of the Magna Carta.

    And also of the brother of the chap who did in Saint Thomas Becket in a grisly manner, thus infamously ridding Hank II of that turbulent priest. That was one Fitz Urs, whose family had to change their name to Barham due to the great shame, and my grandmother was a Barham (actually Magee, but it was a single kinship group with the Barhams).

    George Washington and Robert E. Lee were my second and third cousins, respectively (through our common Towneley and Randolph ancestors), and FDR was a fifth cousin through our common Delano ancestors, obviously a jillion times removed.

    However, all of this is quite meaningless, as the dilution of blood is an exponential thing through the generations. Perhaps slightly meaningful as far back as Cromwell, because of the small numbers of English immigrants to the US at that time. But much further back than that, and we are all descended from everyone. It's said, for example, that every living European of European ethnicity, is directly descended from Charlemagne. I just happen to know how and through whom--that's really the only difference.

    JE comments:  I was trying to wrap my mind around the Charlemagne claim, and found this piece by Adam Rutherford in The Guardian:


    Briefly put, if we do the math back to the 8th century, every European would have more than a billion direct ancestors, which is more people than existed in Charlemagne's day.  So there was a great deal of overlapping and inbreeding.  Add to this Chuck the Great's impressive issue of 18 children, and voilà.

    Now the story of Noah's three sons (and their unnamed wives) seems less preposterous.  However, I'm still star-struck by Cameron Sawyer's illustrious ancestry.

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    • My Ancestry; on Surnames (Martin Storey, Australia 04/09/17 5:10 AM)
      I don't normally play one-upmanship games, but the following may amuse.

      My grandfather had an interest in genealogy and a long ancestry of people having served in the army, hence being listed on records. He had his family researched and in 1911 a book was published with the findings. It is an A3-sized book of more than 400 pages.

      One of the early sentences in the book (which can be consulted online) is: "Of Jordanis le Stori, living in 1274, little is known."

      740 years ago is 24 generations ago if a generation is 30 years on average, so to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, I would have had nearly 17 million ancestors living at the time, mainly in Western Europe

      In lieu of an apology for not going back further in time or not knowing more about Jordanis le Stori, the author mentions points of the history of family naming (the rest of this message is from the book):

      It was uncommon for purposes of preserving racial alliances, heraldic and military, symbolisms, and above all for personal security, to find liege-lords members of the same family, having distinct names. "The Annual Reports--Public Records," "Campbell's Materials, Rolls, &c.," prove the correctness of this statement. A father might have one name and his son another, both being careless of the confusion such a method was likely to create in future ages since there was more fighting than writing, and consequently few family records. The thought was more for present-tense welfare and security than for posterity, in this respect at any rate, though the hereditary desire to found families was by no means lost sight of. Again, a name was preserved, but the orthography changed in accordance with the custom appertaining to the locality, and frequently it was based upon the orthoepy incident to the part of the country where the chief dwelt.

      The Greeks often used nicknames; the Romans were more ingenious, they had the prænomen or forename, the nomen and the cognomen. The forename belonged to the individual personally, and corresponded to our Christian name; of this class there were never more than about thirty. The middle name denoted the gens (kin), or clan to which a man belonged, and was socially of great importance. Every Roman belonged to some clan whose members all bore the same name. The Julian clan, for instance, all had Julius for their second name. Mark Antony Lower's "Patronymica Britannica," Bardsley's "History of Surnames," and kindred works, throw much light on the origin of surnames. It is impossible to assign any definite date to the introduction of surnames. In the reign of Henry I (1100-1135), it had already become indispensable in persons of rank to have two names; for when that monarch wished to marry his natural son, Robert, to Mabel, one of the heiresses of Fitz-Hamon, the lady demurred. Said she:

      "It were to me a great shame,

      To have a lord withouten his twa name."

      The Scottish approximate most to the Romans in their clan system. Suffice it to say that not until the end of the thirteenth century did surnames become general all over the land, and many of these were derived from locality, prowess calling, caste and colour, and from nicknames such as Mawleverer and Campbeul.

      JE comments:  Poor Jordanis, lost to history!  Here's the link to "Storeys of Old."  Congratulations to Martin and Storeys everywhere!  Who did the website, Martin?  It looks like a treasure trove of great Storeys...


      The fluidity of surnames makes genealogical research that much more difficult.  Moreover, surnames themselves were a new invention for some cultures.  Ashkenazi Jews, for example, didn't have surnames in some cases until the 19th century.

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      • Storeys of Old (Martin Storey, Australia 04/10/17 2:00 PM)
        In response to John's comments on Storey genealogy (9 April), I don't know about great Storeys, but there sure are many in that book!

        The answer to John's question is--I'm not sure, but I should find out who "Brad Storey" is who does the website, and try to help him, as I have an original copy of the book. As my family motto says: Deficiam aut efficiam ("I shall perish or accomplish"). I presume that the good mottos were already taken.

        JE comments: Sounds like publish or perish to me! Anyone else in WAISworld have a family motto? A Latin one is especially impressive.  

        I don't know if it sums up our entire family's philosophy, but Mom was always keen on us not ruining our dinner:  Non vestram profligare prandium.

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        • A Regimental Motto (Robert Gibbs, USA 04/11/17 1:45 PM)
          My Regiment's motto is Primus aut nullus.

          My personal motto has been ...I need more coffee and a good cigar.

          JE comments: I Googled Primus aut nullus (First or not at all) and found this insignia for the US First Field Artillery Regiment, of which Bob Gibbs is a retired Lt Colonel.  Now all we need is an insignia for Coffee and a Good Cigar.

          Send more mottos!  I've always been intrigued by Stanford's German motto (Die Luft der Freiheit weht).  Here's a question nobody will know without Googling.  What other US university has a German motto?  I would have guessed Johns Hopkins, which was founded on the German educational model, but I would have been wrong.  The JH motto is mundanely Latinate:  Veritas vos liberabit.

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          • More Mottos (John Heelan, -UK 04/13/17 4:04 AM)
            RAF: "Per Ardua ad Astra" (sometime changed by RAF conscripts versed in Classics (like me) to "Ad culus per asbestos" (or "Fireproof your ass!").

            Royal Artillery (formal): "Ubique Quo Fas Et Gloria Ducunt."

            RA (informal) according to my father--a long term professional RA soldier: "llegitimi non carborundum" (Don't let the bastards grind you down!").

            Isle of Wight motto ""All this beauty is of God."

            JE comments:  Ad culus per asbestos should be the motto of modern workplaces everywhere:  CYA.  I always assumed that "asbestos" was an Arabic word, but its origins are Greek:  unquenchable.

            John, if I may ask:  did your father sacrifice his hearing to the Royal Artillery?  This was the fate of most artillerymen.

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            • Deafness: Fate of the Artilleryman (John Heelan, -UK 04/14/17 6:52 AM)
              John E asked me, "Did your father sacrifice his hearing to the Royal Artillery? This was the fate of most artillerymen."

              No--his hearing was probably saved by his being seconded to Infantry units at various stages in WWII to act as "spotters" for artillery bombardments. However, one of my university friends was an ex-Lt Commander (Guns) Royal Navy, whose inevitable deafness forced him to sit in the front row for all lectures.

              He put me in my place once when we were travelling by coach somewhere and the coach door kept springing open. I ribbed him, saying that he should fix it as I thought all sailors automatically carried a knife and a piece of string in their pockets at all times. Upon which, he produced a piece of string and a penknife and secured the coach door. As Punch punchlines at the end of its jokes often commented, "Collapse of stout party!" It was true in this case!

              JE comments: Col. Robert Gibbs of the US First Field Artillery wrote that he has a hearing aid to prove it. The artilleryman's disease, Bob quips, is known as "gunnereia."

              I would think a Navy gunner would be at an even greater risk of hearing loss, with the enclosed spaces and all that metal for the sound to bounce around.

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  • John Ashby, London Merchant; on Historical Presentism (Timothy Ashby, -Spain 04/08/17 4:58 AM)
    John E asked if I found it equally troubling and fascinating to research my direct ancestor who was an investor in the Royal African Company. While in a modern context I consider slavery and the slave trade reprehensible, I believe that it is wrong for modern historians to try to interpret motivations and judge people who lived in the more distant past through the prism of our contemporary morality. (I say "more distant past" because there are people alive today who were members of the SS.)

    John Ashby considered himself a businessman (in his 1699 Will he refers to himself as "Merchant of London"). If asked, he probably would have been gravely insulted to be called a slave trader. The RAC dealt in a variety of "commodities," and sadly, black slaves would have been thought of as such. He was a shareholder in the RAC but had no management role. He exported deer skins, furs and indigo from Carolina to England, and bought slaves to work on his Quenby Plantation on the Yadhoo River near Charleston.

    John raised an excellent questions out what prompted the rise of the Abolitionist Movement which I am unable to answer. Perhaps fellow WAISers can provide some insight?

    JE comments:  "Presentism," the judging of the past by the standards of the present, is a double-edged sword.  Of course it is anachronistic to pronounce judgment on a bygone era, but only by judging the past can we avoid Santayana's trap of repeating it.  And without presentism, one might argue, history itself becomes a bland exercise of royal succession, wars, and sundry dates.

    Regarding slavery, we've pointed out that even the Peculiar Institution's defenders knew it was unsavory--note the sordid reputation of slave traders, and the plantation mistress's dismay at her husband's dalliances with the young house servants.

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    • Thoughts on Historical "Presentism" (Tor Guimaraes, USA 04/09/17 6:30 PM)
      Timothy Ashby's post of April 8th provides much food for thought. I understand and to some extent agree with Tim that it might be wrong to "judge people [like slave holders, traders, and members of the Nazi SS] through the prism of our contemporary morality." I see an important difference between these groups.

      The Nazi SS monsters committed crimes against humanity but they followed Nazi morality, if one defines morals as the science of the local social customs. They were trained and sworn to do their nasty deeds by their beloved Nazi nation. To non-Nazis they must be condemned as criminals against humanity.

      In contrast, to the slave holders (demand) and traders (supply), Africans should have been viewed as assets, not candidates for extermination. Nevertheless, the crimes against humanity in this case were justified by world history, and business necessity. The thing that boggles my mind is how can a nation that supposedly follows and fervently preaches Christianity allow slavery in its midst for so many years?

      This obvious contradiction is very likely the primary answer to John Eipper's question about "what prompted the rise of the Abolitionist Movement." After all slavery should be unthinkable for decent nations like England and America, and anathema to any real Christian.

      Last we have the widespread phenomenon where humans, after committing horrendous crimes, tend to reject criticism based on their contemporary morality and other excuses. Thus, we still have proud Nazis who "just followed orders," proud Confederates who think slavery was OK because it is actually an ancient custom, etc. By such logic, mass murder by terrorism or by drones can be merely advancing a deliberate agenda of one sort or another, justified as being in defense of freedom, noble private interests, or plainly just the will of God. Truthfully, no matter how heinous or expensive the deed, it can always be explained by a combination of perpetrator's convenience, insanity, religious fervor, and/or continuous thirst for power or money.

      JE comments:  I'm quite sure that Tim Ashby has no problem with applying "presentist" morality to the SS.  Regarding slavery and Christians, there was many a passionate defense of the institution based precisely on Biblical scripture.  Look no further than the speeches of South Carolina fire-belly John C. Calhoun.

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