Eliza Kewark

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Katherine Scott Forbes or Kitty, the daughter of Theodore Forbes and Eliza Kewark; Picture courtesy: The Telegraph, June 21, 2013

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A summary

Eliza Kewark was an Armenian woman who lived in India during the late 18th and early 19th century. She was the housekeeper to Theodore Forbes, a Scottish merchant who worked for the East India Company in Surat, a port north of Bombay. Eliza Kewark is believed to have had Armenian blood due to her surname and the presence of Armenian script in letters from her to Forbes.

She was the great-great-great-great-great grandmother of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. DNA analysis conducted by BritainsDNA, a genetic ancestry testing company, revealed that Prince William is a direct descendant of Kewark through his maternal line. Specifically, Prince William carries Kewark’s mitochondrial DNA, which was passed on by her daughters and granddaughters in an unbroken line to Princess Diana, then to Prince William and Prince Harry.

It is "very likely" that Prince William's heirs will also carry a small proportion of Indian DNA from Kewark. Eliza Kewark is listed as Elizabeth Farbessian in a document written in 1937 by Mesrovb Jacob Seth, a Calcutta-based Armenian historian. This document suggests that Eliza was one of the last seven Armenians in Surat after Forbes’s death in 1820. However, it is unclear whether she died in Surat or migrated to Bombay.

DNA analysis

HILARY DUNCANSON /Prince William descended from a Scot and Indian maid / Saturday, 15th June 2013 / The Scotsman

PRINCE William is a direct ­descendant of an Indian housekeeper and a Scottish merchant, according to DNA analysis.

Scientists testing saliva samples from the Duke of Cambridge’s relatives discovered the link between the future king and a woman who was part-Indian.

The connection traces back just eight generations, with the woman, Eliza Kewark, being the duke’s great, great, great, great, great grandmother.

She was housekeeper to his fifth great-grandfather Theodore Forbes, born in 1788, a Scottish merchant who worked for the East India Company in Surat, a port north of Bombay.

The research was carried out by BritainsDNA, a genetic ancestry testing company, which found that the Duke’s genetic connection to the populous Commonwealth nation runs through the maternal line.

The firm used a mixture of traditional genealogy and cutting-edge science to come up with the findings.

The research shows that the second in line to the throne carries Ms Kewark’s mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Mitochondrial DNA is a small piece of DNA inherited mostly unchanged from a mother to her children.

In this instance, the mtDNA was passed on by Eliza’s daughters and granddaughters directly in an unbroken line to Princess Diana, then on to Prince William and Prince Harry, researchers found.

Scientists said it is “very likely” that Prince William’s heirs will also carry a small proportion of Indian DNA from Ms Kewark, whose father may have been of Armenian descent.

Dr Jim Wilson, a genetics expert at the University of ­Edinburgh and chief scientist at BritainsDNA, who carried out the research, said: “This is a great example of how genetics can be used to answer specific historical questions and uncover fascinating facts about ancestry.”

Ms Kewark, who was born in about 1790 and lived in India when it was governed by the East India Company, is thought to have had Armenian blood because of her surname and the presence of Armenian script in letters from her to Mr Forbes.

Dr Wilson said: “I’ve been intrigued by genealogy all my life and I am a geneticist. I ­became aware of Eliza a couple of years ago. She was reported to be ­Armenian but she was living in Bombay, apparently. This ­intrigued me.

“I was wondering if it was possible she was Indian. What was an Armenian doing in Bombay? That’s what got me interested.”

Using birth, marriage and death records, he said researchers traced two of Ms Kewark’s living direct descendants, who are both third cousins of Princess Diana’s mother, Frances Shand Kydd.

Because of the way mtDNA is inherited, he said it was possible to carry out a simple test centred around this small piece of DNA.

Those behind the project believe all the evidence they have gathered shows that Ms Kewark’s genetic heritage through her motherline was Indian.

Using other genetic tests to corroborate the findings, they also discovered that the two direct descendants were around 0.3 per cent and 0.8 per cent South Asian. The rest of their DNA was of European origin.

Elenza Kewark in Surat

The Telegraph, June 21, 2013

In a document written in 1937 and acquired by The Telegraph from St Andrews Library in Surat, eminent Calcutta-based Armenian historian Mesrovb Jacob Seth writes that Eliza, listed as Elizabeth Farbessian, was one of the last seven Armenians in the city after Forbes’s death in 1820. “Farbessian” was possibly an Armenian-style derivative of “Forbes”, a historian suggested.

It’s unclear whether Eliza died in Surat — there are no graves in her name in the city’s only Armenian cemetery in the Katargam Gate area.

Nor, if she migrated to Bombay where Forbes once worked, whether she did so with their son Alexander, who stayed on in India after Forbes sent Kitty away to Scotland in 1818.


The Telegraph, June 21, 2013

The last name is that of Eliza’s brother-in-law and Forbes’s Armenian agent, also known as Arrathoon Baldassarian.

“If he (Arrathoon) was married to her (Eliza’s) sister and they had a daughter, Prince William may find some cousins in India,” said Meghani.

Eliza’s last name has so far been mentioned as Kewark by British researchers based on her letters available with them.

“Kewark is a variation of Kevork after her Armenian father Hakob Kevorkian. He seems to have died in 1811. His tomb, in which he is called Gevorg — another variation of Kevork — was found in Surat’s Armenian cemetery and is now in the city museum cellar,” said Bhamini A. Mahida, chief curator of Surat’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Museum.

Eliza largely used Kewark as her surname in her communications with her husband or, later, his family.

“That she did not sign her name as Forbes or Farbessian indicates she did not have the legal sanction of a wife to use her husband’s name. But after Theodore’s death in 1820, she might have felt emboldened to use it in an Armenian way and call herself Elizabeth Farbessian.”

It may have helped that Forbes left her a tiny annuity in his will. He left substantial allowances for his children, with his daughter Kitty —Prince William’s ancestor — receiving the lion’s share.

“The allowance must have given Elizabeth some sort of social recognition, and she may have started using Forbes’s name,” Meghani said.

In perhaps an unwitting but cruel reminder of her status, Theodore referred to her as his “housekeeper” in his will. “It could be his way of avoiding public stigma for his family as Elizabeth had an Indian mother,” Meghani said.

The mother

British researchers say some of Eliza’s earlier letters to Forbes were written in Gujarati. Elizabeth’s Indian mother was likely to have been Muslim.

“Because of the Armenians’ closeness to the Mughals, it’s a possibility that she (Eliza’s mother) was a Muslim. Hindus would have been more unlikely to marry outside their caste,” Mahida, the archaeologist and museum curator, said.

The tombstone of another Elizabeth in Surat’s Armenian cemetery appears to bear this out. Her name is spelt “Eligabeth” in the epitaph — a typical Indian phonetic variation of the “z” sound, explained Mahida.

This Elizabeth died in 1784, at least six-seven years before Eliza Kewark would have been born. Her burial in the Armenian cemetery suggests her father or husband was an Armenian, given the strong patriarchal traditions of the community. Yet the name of neither is mentioned in the epitaph, written in the classical Armenian script.

“The inscription on the tomb names her as Eligabeth and mentions her as the daughter of Nazar Tilan, which is a Muslim woman’s name,” said Mahida. The tombstone with the epitaph is in the cellar of the museum.

British researchers say that Eliza Kewark and Forbes married in an Armenian church in Surat. Of the two churches the city once had, the one in the cemetery survives but the one in the old city, used mostly for weddings, does not.

Standing in its place are rows of ugly, four or five-storey buildings owned by local traders who run establishments on the road level and live and store their wares on the remaining floors.

The Bombay Armenian Cemetery has the tombstone of a Kevorg, a derivative of Kevork. He was buried in 1927, according to the church register. (Eliza’s father was Hakob Kevork or Kevorkian.)

“But no historian can say right now whether (Kevorg) was connected to Elizabeth or Alexander. The links, if any, are buried in the sands of time,” said Surat historian Mohan Meghani who has done extensive research on the city’s Armenians.


The Guardian, 15th Jun 2013


In 1809, a young Scotsman, Theodore Forbes, arrived in Surat in pursuit of wealth and adventure. He found both; the one through trading, the other through a tragic love affair. The 21-year-old East India Company employee soon met Eliza Kewark, who was described as being Armenian, and when he was posted to Yemen in 1812, Eliza accompanied him. There, she had two children, their daughter, Kitty and their son, Alexander.

In his diary, Forbes refers to Eliza as "the very pattern of what a wife ought to be". But he appears never to have legally married her. In 1915, Forbes sent the family back to Surat. Forbes returned to India in 1817 where he worked in Mumbai. But Eliza and their children remained in Surat. Why didn't Forbes marry Eliza? Why didn't he ask her and his children to live with him in Mumbai? Nearly 200 years later, we may have the answer. Because Eliza was at least half Indian. In the early years of the East India Company, inter racial marriage was perfectly acceptable. But, as more British women began coming to India, social attitudes hardened. British men who married, even cohabited with Indian women were shunned by their peers. What may have passed in Surat would have been condemned in Mumbai.

A heartbroken Eliza begged Forbes for even a glimpse of him. In October 1817, she wrote of her hope that "Our Almighty may do so the lucky day as connect our eyes to eyes ... I entreat you my dear sir you may call from hence as soon as possible. Then will be happy and save my life." The letter was written by a scribe as Eliza was ignorant of English. Next year, she wrote for money and in hope of the "lucky day as we can meet to each another". Forbes didn't reply.

Connection to Prince William's ancestry

The Guardian, 15th Jun 2013

Eliza, and Prince William’s, ethnic origins were proved by a genetic marker that is only found among people of South Asian blood and which is inherited in only the female line, from mother to daughter. Prince William inherited the gene from his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. In 1818, a friend of Forbes' visited the family in Surat and wrote to him that "Kitty retains her good looks but the sooner you give the order about her departure to England the better as her complexion will soil in this detestable climate". And so Forbes ordered that his six-year old daughter be dispatched to Scotland. He refused to allow Eliza and Alexander to accompany them. Did Forbes ever meet Eliza or Alexander again? We shall never know, because the trail ends here. Forbes decided to return to Britain in 1820, but died aboard the ship home. Even in death, he maintained the new, implacable social mores. His will refer to Eliza as being his "housekeeper" and he left her a monthly allowance of only 100 rupees a month. Kitty did better. Forbes semi-acknowledged her as his child; his "reputed natural daughter", bequeathing her 50,000 rupees. His "reputed son" Alexander fared worse. He received 20,000 rupees. And the injunction to remain in India.

Eliza died impoverished and abandoned in Surat. But her tragic story has an ironic ending. DNA tests have revealed that her great-great-great-great-great grandson through Kitty will inherit the British throne. DNA tests on Prince William's relations have provided "unassailable" evidence that the future monarch is of Indian descent.

Eliza, and Prince William's, ethnic origins were proved by a genetic marker that is only found among people of South Asian blood and which is inherited in only the female line, from mother to daughter. Prince William inherited the gene from his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. And showing how social attitudes have turned full circle,

See also

Armenians in India

Armenians in India, 1895

Eliza Kewark

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