When David Met Edith: did they know they were half cousins?

David Vincent Hassett and Edith Aileen Wharton provided an interesting discovery early in the family research. They shared the same grandfather, John Pereira.

Their respective grandmother’s, however, were different (David’s: Regina Pereira, Edith’s: Mary Ann Pereira), which means they were half cousins:

First cousins are the children of siblings; therefore, half first cousins would be the children of half siblings. Half-cousins would have one common grandparent instead of two common grandparents.

In this case the half siblings are David’s mother, Martha Pereira (Hassett), and Edith’s mother, Sophia Charlotte Pereira (Wharton).

Previously I had stated that they were step-cousins but this would mean they were the step-children of a shared an uncle or aunt, which they were not (step-cousins are either stepchildren of an individual’s aunt or uncle or nieces and nephews of one’s step-parent).

There are many questions which spring to mind from this, such as:

  • Did David and Edith know they were half cousins?
  • What were the circumstances of David and Edith meeting and eventually marrying?
  • Was consanguinity* – people descended from the same ancestor – common in India at this time (late 19th century – early 20th century)?

* from Latin consanguineus ‘of the same blood’

Here’s my take on it all, in reverse order:

1. Was consanguinity common in India at this time (late 19th century – early 20th century)?

This has proved difficult to firmly establish, however, research and analyses on this indicate variation in India between (1) the configuration of the linguistic regions, (2) the institution of caste** and (3) the family organization. In other words, it depends on (1) where, geographically, you lived in India, (2) what ‘rank’ of the caste system you were, and (3) the family structure – in India the joint family is the bedrock on which Hindu social organization is built. The joint family has been defined as:

a group of people who generally live under one roof, who eat food cooked at one hearth, who hold property in common and who participate in common family worship and are related to each other as some particular type of kindred.

In addition, it appears the inbreeding*** of half cousins was rare (less than 1% of the population of Bombay at this time).****

In summary, it is apparent from research and analyses that consanguinity varied throughout India, geographically and culturally, although, it was typically four times more likely that first cousins would marry than ‘others’ (i.e. half cousins). Some analyses also show that first cousin marriages were more common in South India than in the North.

There are a number of complications when assuming the above to be true – it is indicative, at best. There are methodological issues – the quality of the data and research, the lack of data and research. More importantly in the case of David and Edith, we are concerned with information of Anglo Indian communities – which these research and analyses do not appear to include. Anglo Indian communities were geographically spread in India, however, very much ‘contained’ within their own communities – more so, as time went on. Anglo Indians were also typically viewed as half-caste members and inferior to both their Indian and British counterparts.

That said, it is presumed – pending further exploration – that consanguinity between half cousins in India, including Anglo Indian communities, in the late-19th and early-20th centuries was most likely a very rare occurrence. Which leads into the next questions.

** The Hindu ideal of a model society as developed by Brahmanic scholars and authorities, divided the population into a hierarchy of castes (varnas) each of which was associated with certain occupations.

*** Biologically speaking, inbreeding refers to the mating of individuals with one or more common biological ancestors. Inbred individuals are offspring of genetic relatives and inbreeding is the mating of genetically related individuals.

**** Half cousins are commonly referred to as ‘others’ in the literature – typically (1) first cousins, (2) first cousins once removed, and (3) second cousins are analysed, with all other categorisations of cousins grouped as ‘other’.

2 & 3. Did David and Edith know they were half cousins? What were the circumstances of David and Edith meeting and eventually marrying?

These two questions neatly go together.

Consanguinity between first cousins appeared high in India. Simplifying this logically, makes sense:

  • First cousins are the children of siblings: generally, first cousins are likely to know each other and have contact with each other, which increases the likelihood of a deeper relationship developing and potentially marriage.
  • Half cousins are the children of half siblings: half siblings are less likely to have a close relationship as full siblings. Hence, the likelihood of their children (the half cousins) having any sort of relationship decreases further still.

Unless, your primary caregiver’s are your grandparents, more specifically, the grandparent of the half siblings.

What we know is that Edith Wharton shared a grandfather (John Pereira) with David Hassett. We also know that Edith was orphaned by the age of 11.

We can reasonably assume that Edith was cared for at this time by her grandparent(s). Of course there were two sets of grandparents: The Whartons (William Hastings Wharton and unknown grandmother) and The Pereira’s (John and Mary Ann Pereira). Perhaps Edith spent time between the grandparents. We cannot be sure of this at the moment.

Let’s assume Edith spent the majority of her time with John and Mary Ann Pereira. Their grandson, David Vincent Hassett, would presumably have spent time with his grandparents, and hence, time with Edith.

In this hypothetical scenario, the likelihood of the half cousins developing a relationship leading to marriage increases. It also answers the question: did they know they were half cousins? yes – if they were with their shared grandparent they would, presumably, have been aware of their familial relationship.

There are other explanations. For example, they may not have known each other through family (their grandparents), and their paths may have crossed through work (David was a Preventative Officer of Customs in Bombay – perhaps Edith worked in the same locale – although I have found no information of Edith being employed, yet). All things considered so far, the former scenario seems most likely.

There are many other unanswered questions from this, such as:

  1. What were the laws pertaining to ‘(half-)cousin marriage’ governing Anglo Indian communities at this time?
  2. What were the cultural attitudes of Anglo Indians to ‘(half-)cousin marriage’?
  3. What were the consequences, socially, culturally and biologically, of ‘(half-)cousin marriage’?
  4. Were there other (half-)siblings of David and Edith? What were their views? Were there other examples of half cousin marriages in the lineage?

These questions, to name but a few, will be explored in further detail. For now, this sheds some further light on the marriage of David and Edith Hassett. But what about the rest of the Hassett / Wharton lineage?

Cover picture credit: David Wheeler

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